Inventions: Why Not

The Economist discusses a new book – “WHY NOT? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small” – by Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres, and points to their website, which has become “a hotbed of bright ideas.”

From the book’s introduction on the website:

Nalebuff and Ayres offer four distinct problem-solving tools motivated by four questions:

  • What Would Croesus Do? Imagining how a consumer with unlimited resources (a modern-day Croesus) would solve a problem can inspire practical solutions. For example, Donald Trump or Bill Gates dont spend much time waiting on hold. They have an assistant wait on hold and then buzz them when the call goes through. Of course, we cant all afford personal assistants. Is there any way the rest of us could emulate this personal assistant strategy? Instead of waiting on hold to speak with an airline customer representative, why not have the airline call you back (just like Gatess assistant) when the rep is ready to talk to you? With caller ID, you wouldnt even have to enter your number.

  • Why Dont You Feel My Pain? Externalizing internal problems, forcing the cost of inefficient practices to the surface is another way to solve problems. For example, the cost of providing auto-insurance is based on how many miles people drive. But the price doesnt reflect mileage. Why not pay-per-mile auto insurance? Why not have telemarketers pay us to listen to their pitches? While they are trying to sell you a product, you can be selling them your time.

  • Where Else Would It Work? This translation tool starts with a solution from another context and searches for a problem it might solve somewhere else. Why not translate ski area season passes to movie theaters? Why not take the airplane version of R-rated movies and make them available on DVDs? The April 15th deadline for contributions to an IRA is what leads to the idea of extending the tax deadline for charitable contributions.

  • Would Flipping It Work? Looking for potential symmetry and then turning things around offers unexpected solutions. Priceline.com built a business by flipping the way prices are set; they have customers offering prices to airlines. Heinz and Hunts stimulated sales by turning their ketchup bottles upside down. Having customers rewind video tapes at the beginning of the rental prevents people from shirking. Spain eliminated its waiting list for organs by changing the default from opt-in to opt-out. Instead of a boycott against companies that do things wrong, why not a buycott for companies that do things right.

  • Looks like a must-read! Have to think how we can apply these ideas to the problems of SMEs and Rural India.

    Corporate Leadership

    The Economist has a survey of corporate leadership. From the introduction:

    The task of a corporate leader has never been more demanding. This is partly because of changing corporate structures. Big companies often operate in many countries or product markets, and joint ventures, outsourcing and alliances add further complexity. Layers of middle management have gone, so that more divisions report directly to the person at the top. The pace of innovation is quicker, new technologies have to be applied faster and product life-cycles have become shorter.

    Corporate leaders are struggling to keep up momentum in their businesses when economic activity is sluggish. They also need time to spend with the people they lead: for more and more businesses, the abilities of a relatively small number of people are thought to be the key to success, and retaining and developing their talents is vital. Swamped with e-mails (which some of them answer themselves), voicemails and demands for appearances on breakfast television and at grand dinners, many corporate leaders find it harder and harder to make time to think.

    In addition, for anyone in charge of a large quoted company, the level of outside scrutinywhether by government, consumer groups, the press or the financial marketsis far beyond anything a corporate leader would have been subjected to in the past.

    This survey will concentrate mainly on leaders at the top of the corporate tree. It will look at the forces that shape them, at the way they are chosen, and at what happens when they fail. It will argue that having a grand vision is often less important than getting things done. But because these leaders set the ethical tone in their business, they can play a big part in helping to regain the public trust that has been lost in recent years. Capitalism depends on trust, so this is a truly important job.

    From one of the articles comes a list of ten commandments to run a company well (wish it were that simple!):

    1. A sound ethical compass
    2. The ability to take unpleasant decisions
    3. Clarity and focus
    4. Ambition
    5. Effective communications skills
    6. The ability to judge people
    7. A knack for developing talent
    8. Emotional self-confidence
    9. Adaptability
    10. Charm

    Amazon’s New Search

    Search is turning out to be a big focus area for many. Google’s success (it is now considering an online IPO auction that could value the company at more than USD 15 billion) has highlighted the importance of one of the key activities that we do on the Net. expect all kinds of specialised searches to be possible. One such initiative is by Amazon.

    News.com reports on Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature, which “allows you to search millions of pages to find exactly the book you want to buy. Now instead of just displaying books whose title, author, or publisher-provided keywords match your search terms, your search results will surface titles based on every word inside the book.”

    What is interesting about this is that this is opening up the digital content that has remained invisible so far. Wired has more:

    An ingenious attempt to illuminate the dark region of books is under way at Amazon.com. Over the past spring and summer, the company created an unrivaled digital archive of more than 120,000 books. The goal is to quickly add most of Amazon’s multimillion-title catalog. The entire collection is searchable, and every page is viewable.

    The Amazon archive is dizzying not because it unearths books that would necessarily have languished in obscurity, but because it renders their contents instantly visible in response to a search. It allows quick query revisions, backtracking, and exploration. It provides a new form of map.

    Getting to this point represents a significant technological feat. Most of the material in the archive comes from scanned pages of actual books. This may be surprising, given that most books today are written on PCs, e-mailed to publishers, typeset on computers, and printed on digital presses. But many publishers still do not have push-button access to the digital files of the books they put out. Insofar as the files exist, they are often scattered around the desktops of editors, designers, and contract printers. For books more than a few years old, complete digital files may be lost. John Wiley & Sons contributed 5,000 titles to the Amazon project — all of them in physical form.

    Fortunately, mass scanning has grown increasingly feasible, with the cost dropping to as low as $1 each. Amazon sent some of the books to scanning centers in low-wage countries like India and the Philippines; others were run in the United States using specialty machines to ensure accurate color and to handle oversize volumes. Some books can be chopped out of their bindings and fed into scanners, others have to be babied by a human, who turns pages one by one. Remarkably, Amazon was already doing so much data processing in its regular business that the huge task of reading the images of the books and converting them into a plain-text database was handled by idle computers at one of the company’s backup centers.

    The magic of the archive lies in the assumption that physical books are irreplaceable. The electronic text is simply an enhancement of the physical object. The Amazon projectrepresents a bold step toward the dream of a universal library.

    A battle royale may be brewing in times to come between Amazon and Google:

    With retail at the center of the Internet industry, Google is a key competitor because customers begin their online shopping trips at search engines that offer neat algorithms for comparing prices across multiple vendors. Everybody Yahoo!, eBay, AOL, Microsoft, and, of course, Amazon wants to be the site of first resort.

    All the leading retail sites have better knowledge of their customers than Google. But Google is the leading Internet information tool, period. Google is a window onto the entire Web. On the other hand, the contents of books may be the only publicly accessible data set with the potential to match Google’s Web index both for size and utility. Search Inside the Book makes Amazon the sole guide to tens and ultimately hundreds of millions of pages of information. And while Google’s business is vulnerable to any competitor that builds a better search engine, Amazon’s book archive is the product of negotiated contracts with hundreds of publishers. Amazon has cornered the market on information that was once hidden away in books. The burden of the physical the fact that the database Amazon uses is linked into a complex system involving real things gives it a stunning, if perhaps temporary, advantage.

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    Smart Devices Future

    Mike Kuniavsky writes about user expectations in a world of smart devices:

    Because we have no other way to explain how things work, we will see the world as animist. Animism is, in its broadest definition, the belief that all objects have will, intelligence, and memory and that they interact with and affect our lives in a deliberate, intelligent, and (in a sense) conscious way. When this happens, well stop expecting our tools to be mechanical and predictable and will begin to expect more complex, intuitive capabilities from all of them, even the dumb ones.

    This sounds far out and spacey, but I think its right around the corner. This kind of intelligence is already starting to leak into mainstream products, and I bet that designers will have to think about it seriously within the next five years. Perhaps the biggest change for user-experience designers will be a users subsequent disregard for predictability.

    The most basic change that will happen as a result of increasingly animist attitudes, however, is one thats happening already. We used to start by making a new technology and then adjusting it to solve peoples problems. Now were starting with a problem and developing technologies that help address it.

    In the end, once object intelligence is as ubiquitous and expected as electric power, it wont be the limits of technology that drive design, but human needs.

    Darmouth College as Harbinger

    VentureBlog writes about the emerging technology landscape, as seen through the Dartmouth College lens:

    – Instant Messenger for voice will emerge
    – Portable devices completely dominate
    – Voice is just an app
    – Location based services emerge
    – Newspapers have zero value
    – People can multi-task too
    – Bandwidth matters!

    Conclusion: “The wireless revolution is possibly over-hyped, but don’t tell that to the good folks at Dartmouth. They have gained wireless ubiquity, and are completely re-thinking how they use cellphones, PDAs, computers, newspapers, instant messenger, printers, power outlets, and most importantly, their time.”

    We in India have to learn from these experiments and demonstrations, and think about building these into our work and personal environments. Operation Leapfrog!

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    What Software Users Want – and What Programmers Give

    [via Roland Tanglao] Bram Cohen summarises the gap very well:

    The things which will make people love your software, by rapidly plummeting order of importance, are:

    1. ease of use
    2. stability
    3. performance
    4. features

    The order of priority many people use when writing software, and, unfortunately, what users generally say they want when asked, are:

    1. features
    2. performance
    3. stability
    4. ease of use

    This is a siginificant discrepancy.

    Daily Us

    Steven Johnson writes about Technorati’s Breaking News service which tracks weblogs and compares it with the mainstream news sources. Johnson asks: “What happens to the general prioritizing of news when the editorial decisions are being made by the masses, and not editors?”

    Conclusion: “No, Technoratis Breaking News isnt a replacement for the traditional front pages or nightly news broadcasts. But neither does it create the narrowing perspective of the Daily Me. Its more like an ongoing exchange between the top-down approach of traditional journalism and the bottom-up approach of the Web: Professional writers and editors generate the stories, and the Webs vast audience decides which ones deserve our attention. And this approach may well result in the best of all possible journalistic worlds. The last day of my anecdotal survey, the lead story on Technorati wasnt another item on Iraq or an expos on Madonnas new yoga instructor. It was a 3,000-word rumination from the Financial Times on the question of why humans cry, examined both culturally and biologically. It was hands down the most interesting article I had read all week. Somewhere I had an editor and a writer to thank for producing the story, but I also had another group to thank for finding this one among the clutter and sharing it: the distributed eyes of the Daily Us.”

    TECH TALK: SMEs and Technology: Systems Software Architecture: Desktop Computing

    The desktop computing layer provides support for file and print services, and the various desktop applications that the thin client users need to run. Centralising file and print services helps in optimal resource utilization. For example, users no longer have to store files on local hard disks, and worry about how they will be backed up. Printers no longer have to be attached to specific users they become shared resources on the network.

    In the small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME), each user should be given a home area where the user can securely store the documents. No other user should be allowed access to this area. Users should also be allowed to create shared areas, where they can easily share files with others. In addition, the file server (which is likely to be on the Linux OS) should also have compatibility with the Windows environment, thus providing for seamless co-existence.

    The users home area should also be backed up automatically every day to ensure that there is no loss of data. Most SMEs tend to be lax about taking backups, and only realise the folly of their attitude when they lose critical files because of an accidental deletion or disk crash. In fact, SMEs should not even have to worry about taking backups this process needs to be automated. Incremental backups should also be stored offline perhaps, on the Internet.

    Printing, along with email and documentation, is a core function in the organization, and needs to be simplified. The print server allows sharing of printers across users and networks. It also allows users to manage their print jobs. In addition, some organisations may also want a fax server, though the use of fax is reducing with the growing popularity of email. In that event, it should be possible to send faxes from the desktop itself through the use of a fax server.

    On the desktop applications front, there are a set of seven key applications that every user needs: an email client (along with a personal information manager), a web browser, an instant messaging client, a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation application and a PDF reader. On Linux, the combination of Evolution, Mozilla, GAIM, OpenOffice and Adobe Acrobat provide the complete set of applications for most users. OpenOffice offers the ability to read and write MS-Office file formats, which is very critical since inter-operability with the Windows world is a must.

    All of these applications will run on the thick server. This also ensures that the applications need to be updated with the new versions only on the server machines, rather than on every desktop. All user desktops on the thin client can be completely controlled from the server, thus once again simplifying the management of the IT systems.

    All the applications that have been mentioned as part of the systems software architecture are available for free on the Linux platform. Again, they have not been aggregated together as part of a single solution in an easy-to-use manner. When that is done, the base software costs can come down by 90% or more as compared to the Windows-Office combination.

    Thus, the core IT architecture for SMEs comprising of thin clients, thick servers, Linux and a collection of open-source applications can be put together for as little as Rs 12,500 (USD 275) – assuming the software applications with support are offered for Rs 2,500. Now, imagine if the service provider can charge Rs 500 (USD 11) per person per month for the hardware, networking, software and management. Over a 3-year period, the money available is Rs 18,000, versus a cost that will probably not exceed Rs 15,000 (including initial financing costs for the hardware).

    This then is the opportunity for entrepreneurs to create SME Tech Utilities, and foster mass adoption of technology by the 75 million SMEs worldwide, setting the foundation for creating applications for automating the core business processes.

    Next Week: SME IT Reference Architectures (continued)

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