Blogging as Disruptive Innovation

Dan Bricklin applies Clay Christensen’s ideas on innovation in his new book “The Innovator’s Solution”…

The theories, backed with many interesting footnotes and references, should be taken to heart by people who put down simple, “not-good-enough” innovations. “Because new-market disruptions compete against nonconsumption, the incumbent leaders feel no pain and little threat until the disruption is in its final stages. In fact, when the disruptors begin pulling customers out of the low end of the original value network, it actually feels good to the leading firms, because they move up-market in their own world, for a time they are replacing low-margin revenues that disruptors steal, with higher-margin revenues from sustaining innovations…Some people have concluded on occasion that when the incumbent leader doesn’t instantly get killed by a disruption, the forces of disruption somehow have ceased to operate, and that the attackers are being held at bay… These conclusions reflect a shallow understanding of the phenomenon, because disruption is a process and not an event.”

Another theory: “…customers — people and companies — have ‘jobs’ that arise regularly and need to get done. When customers become aware of a job that they need to get done in their lives, they look around for a product or service that they can ‘hire’ to get the job done.”

…to blogging:

There are “jobs” that blogging serves for both the blogger and blog reader. Those jobs are real, and are probably not served well enough by today’s journalism system (nor today’s blogging, yet). Blogging will evolve to eventually “fill” those “jobs” well (though the name we use for personal publishing may change).

These are still early days, but already I have seen how blogs and RSS have changed my reading and writing habits. They’ve enabled me to diffuse my ideas to a wider audience in a way which would have been impossible only a couple years ago. I have made more new contacts via my blog than via any other channel. But I still think we are only seeing the nascent beginning of this revolution – while blogs are important, the real innovation here is RSS, syndication and the emergence of the Publish-Subscribe Web.

Office 11 is here

The new version of Microsoft’s Office suite has arrived. WSJ writes:

Office is a victim of its success. Microsoft has found that many customers don’t use a vast array of features in Office and are satisfied with the features they do use. Customers don’t see a pressing need to change for more.

“The No. 1 competitive challenge for us is the satisfaction that people have in our installed base [of software] — the fact that they feel that what they have is working,” says Jeff Raikes, Microsoft group vice president and head of the Office product.

The new version of Office is designed to work closely with other Microsoft products — such as its server and database software — so it could be a catalyst for driving sales of those other products. What’s more, many of the new features in Office address growing areas of software — such as “document management” and “Web services” based on a standard technology called XML — that Microsoft can’t cede to other software companies.

News.com has more. From a Forrester report:

With Office System 2003, Microsoft is offering a new communications and collaboration platform to host applications that do the following:

  • Wire productivity tools into corporate data. We’ve all loved–or loved to hate–the PC as a “personal” productivity tool. But analyzing data from business applications in Excel is still a hassle for employees. With Office System 2003, a sales manager can get the latest sales pipeline from a Siebel-generated Web service or set up a field service call sheet with the address and service details.

  • Link ad hoc people processes to rigid transaction processes. Corporations still comprise the system of record and the foundation for how businesses are managed. Yet employees have a largely disconnected set of work processes to push decisions forward and complete basic transactions–often by e-mailing around documents. With Office System, companies can couple those separate universes by, for example, using InfoPath as the front end to an Oracle-based service request rather than rekeying a printed business form.

  • Bring live communications to document-based collaboration. Office System 2003 brings instant messaging and “presence awareness”–the magic that can tell when someone is online and available–into its desktop tools. So from within the Excel sales pipeline report, a sales vice president can ping the western sales manager to question the data in that region’s shaky forecast. And the beleaguered manager can then launch a Live Meeting Webcast to offer explanations about the shortfall–with data both can directly view.

  • How will the open-source community respond?

    Intentional Programming

    Technology Review writes about Charles Simonyis solution to the growing complexity of software:

    Simonyi is attempting to solve one of the most fundamental problems of software development, typically expressed as making the code look like the design. If he succeeds, users will be able to create high-level designs of what they want their programs to do, which might resemble flow charts more than lines and lines of code. From these designs, code will be created automatically.

    How do you make the code look like the design? First, Simonyi contends, you have to understand whats wrong with the current practice of programming.

    Programming today is the opposite of diamond mining, he claims. In diamond mining you dig up a lot of dirt to find a small bit of value. With programming you start with the value, the real intention, and bury it in a bunch of dirt.

    In Simonyis view, software developers are doomed to fail because they need to do three jobs at the same timeonly one of which they are well suited for. First, they have to understand the often complex needs of the clientthe insurance specialists or accountants or aircraft designers for whom the software is being built. Programmers must try to soak up knowledge that their clients have spent years accumulating. If not a wholly impossible task, its certainly an inefficient use of their expertise.

    Second, programmers must translate these client needs into algorithms and interfaces that the computer system can understand. Simonyi sees this as the core task of the programmer. But today its done poorly: when the programmer has completed the software, there is no way for clients to modify it or even to understand how it reflects their contributions.

    Third, in order for the computer to execute instructions properly, programmers must write perfect codewith the precision of a machine. Despite constant claims from software companies about the superiority of their development processes to their competitors, the fact is that bug-free programming is impossible, since we are not machines. A study at Carnegie Mellon University recently found that programmers average 100 to 150 mistakes per 1,000 lines of code.

    Simonyi wants to rid the programmer of the burdens of all of the third and a large part of the first and second tasks. He seeks to not only automate the dronelike parts of programming but also make the programming interface so intuitive that the insurance specialists or accountants or aircraft designers can see their contributions and make improvements by bringing their own expertise to bear, without the programmer as intermediary. Once programmers are freed from the inappropriate tasks that now burden them, they will be able to concentrate on the task for which they are uniquely trained: the design of the program itself.

    The real question is, what are we trying to do with this [piece of] software? Simonyi says. Thats what intentional programming will allow us to concentrate on. When you want to create a wonderful system for health care, you should be concerned with the problems of health care and how to solve them. But the way we write software now, the understanding of those problems is lost, because the programmer needs to be concerned instead with how to sort numbers, or how to store data on a disk.

    What, exactly, would a machine for writing software look like? It would itself be software. But its function would not be to solve the end problemto perform some new home or office task. Rather, it would be a software generator, causing a particular piece of software to be written. Telling the generator what program to write would be accomplished through an easy-to-understand interface, sometimes referred to as a modeling language.

    The most widely adopted modeling language today is the Unified Modeling Language…a system for creating diagrams. Its intended to let managers of large software projects visualize their designs and make sure they meet the clients requirements before programmers sit down to write code in programming languages such as Java or C++.

    Simonyis vision, and the reason he started his company, is to take the idea of models and go one step further: to link the model and the programming so tightly that they eventually become the same. Programmers and users will be able to switch between many contrasting views of the model they are creating, and revise programs at will simply by tweaking the models. Its something like an architect being able to draw a blueprint that has the magical property of building the structure it depictsand even, should the blueprint be amended, rebuilding the structure anew.

    This is quite amazing – it will be a major leap in what has become a bottleneck in making the most of computing technology – software development.

    Decentralised Directories

    Decnetralised Directories, built around OPML, can be a good complement to weblogs to harness the collective intelligence of people in organising content around the Web. Think of it as the Memex. Dave Winner suggests an approach:

    1. Decide on a format for a directory. It should be XML-based so people can use any text tool to edit them. I designed OPML for this purpose, but if you want to use another format, I won’t fight you on it. This is too important to have the usual fight over the bits on the wire.

    2. Build software that renders data in this format as if it were a Yahoo or DMOZ directory. All environments should have well-tested efficient renderers, commercial and open source. These inclusions are what determine page rank, just like links in HTML pages.

    3. When this software encounters a node that includes another directory, include its hierarchy in that directory.

    4. If you run a search engine, index these files. Use page rank to determine which is shown first. Don’t segregate these files, include them in the returns for HTML and all other formats you support.

    5. Evangelize. Get academics, librarians, researchers, etc to produce data in this this format. Link and organize.

    I really would like to see us work on putting the infrastructure for this together.

    Theory of the Second-Best

    Atanu Dey elaborates on a fundamental truth we need to understand and never forget:

    The problem with the second-best world is this: policies that are wonderful for first-best systems (systems that have no imperfections) don’t necessarily work in the second-best world. In general, removing less than all the distortions simultaneously in a second-best world may indeed make the system worse off.

    To repeat the argument just once more: first-best systems have no distortions; second-best systems have distortions. Policies that work for first-best systems need not necessarily work in second-best systems. Finally, removing less than all the distortions may make a second-best system worse off.

    Many times, when we think about solving a problem, we forget that we are in a second-bext world. So, we look at solving one problem, not realising that we may actually end up worsening the situation. Taking a wholistic view and focusing on all the key issues is very important.

    I need to apply this thinking to the two worlds that we are involved in: SMEs and Rural India.

    TECH TALK: SMEs and Technology: Systems Software Architecture: Messaging and Security

    As we discussed, the server software stack consists of the operating system, a distributed file system and terminal services. On the applications side, there are three layers of systems applications: messaging and security, identity management, and desktop computing.

    The messaging and security layer consists of a Mail Server, Instant Messaging Server, Proxy Server, Firewall, Anti-Virus, Anti-Spam, VPN Support. The identity management layer provides support for the access control layer for user administration. The desktop computing layer provides support for file and print services, and the various desktop applications that the thin client users need to run. Let us start by looking at the messaging and security applications.

    The Mail Server ensures that emails are available locally via IMAP accounts for users. If the enterprise has dedicated connectivity to the Internet, the same mailbox can also be accessed from the outside, thus providing a single store for mails. The mail server also ensures that users have their own, personalised email IDs of the form name@companyName.com. Every person should be given access to email in the organization email is something that does not work if half the people in the organisation have it, and the other half does not. It is the most basic of applications that needs to be used by everyone in the organization. Over time, email will become the organisations lifeline for conducting business, hence it is a mission critical application and needs to be treated as such.

    The Instant Messaging Server provides a local platform for chat. They are the equivalent of Yahoo and Hotmails Messenger services with the difference being that there is no need to connect to the Internet to chat with others on the same network. Jabber provides an excellent platform for IM services.

    The Proxy Server ensures that multiple users can use the same Internet connection for browsing. A caching capability can speed up browsing by keeping a local copy of frequently accessed content. This is important because bandwidth in most emerging markets is still very expensive. The Firewall secures the enterprise, preventing unauthorised intrusions. It is a mandatory requirement for businesses now, given the automated programs which look for vulnerabilities on machines connected to the Net.

    Viruses and spam are the scourge of todays email communications. The Anti-Virus software scans all incoming and outgoing email for viruses. Since most viruses come via email, this is a significant step in ensuring a virus-free operating environment. The Anti-Spam software marks spam as it comes in, thus ensuring a cleaner mailbox. Together, these two applications ensure that the small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) does not have to worry about viruses destroying critical files and spam reducing productivity.

    VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It provides for a LAN-like single network environment between different offices. This way, users can share files and communicate much more easily with others, even though they may be in different geographical locations.

    Taken together, these applications provide the complete infrastructure for communications and connectivity in a secure environment.

    Tomorrow: Systems Software Architecture (continued)

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