We need Outliners!

That is the premise of Jeremy Wagstaff’s article in WSJ. Here’s why:

An outliner, to coin a phrase, creates lists of anything — recipes, the U.S. Constitution, your CD collection, all the Loose Wire columns ever written — which are stored in the form of a one-sided tree. It’s easiest to think in terms of cutting your screen in half, and on the left having a list of items. Click on one of the items and more details about that item will appear in the right-hand window.

You get a view of the overall issue/document/list, and then you get a view of the detail, all at the same time. The left side is usually called a tree, because you can add branches and sub-branches to it, all of which can link to chunks of text (or pictures, or tables, or whatever you want) which appear in the right-hand window. Simple. And not that unusual: If you’re a keen word-processing person, you’ll know programs like Word have an “outline” feature, which will nest all your headings and subheadings in a tree, so long as you’ve applied the right styles.

they really are great places to store large amounts of digital data. They’re more flexible for storing your contacts than, say, Outlook, because you don’t have to fill in any fields. Just copy and paste in the person’s contact details from their e-mail and that’s it. They’re more flexible than database programs such as Microsoft Access because they allow you to store data in any size or format. Just add a branch somewhere and throw it all in. It’s flexible.

Jeremy’s recommendation: MyInfo, from Milenix Software (USD 30) – developed by 22-year-old Bulgarian called Petko Georgiev, who has been working on it for the past four years.

Tech Looks Up

If the results of Intel, Yahoo and Apple are any indication, the long-awaited recovery in the technology sector seems well under way. WSJ writes that “All three are riding different currents in a rising tide. Intel, for example, is being carried along by the strength of PC sales; unit sales rose 11.4% in 2003 to top 2000’s all-time peak, market watcher IDC said. Demand for more-profitable notebook machines rose at a faster pace of 23.9%, estimates market watcher iSuppli Corp. Yahoo, rebounding from the extended Web slump, is experiencing a significant recovery in advertising revenue. Apple, meanwhile, is becoming as well-known for its iPod music player as for its Macintosh system.” How widespread and broad the recovery is will only be known as more companies report results. What is also clear, according to the article, is the changing landscape since 2002:

Globalization: Demand from emerging economies — including Eastern Europe as well as Asia — has become a dominant driver for both hardware sales and a source of low-cost manufacturing.

Consumer power: Sales are surging for products such as big-screen TVs, DVD recorders and digital cameras.

Internet: Despite many unfulfilled expectations, companies have found new, efficient ways to make the Web pay off.

Business confidence: Some companies that have held off major projects to upgrade their computing infrastructures have decided they can wait no longer. Among the first signs is purchasing systems to cope with the flood of computerized customer records and other data.

A Question for Entrepreneurs

[via Allan Engelhardt] Tim Oren asks a question which every entrepreneur needs to think hard and answer: “Is it a feature, a product, or a company?”

The ‘it’ can vary, but for the sake of simplicity, in this discussion I’ll assume the innovation is technological. But the issues are similar for others, e.g., a new service idea.

The second assumption I will make is that ‘it’ is in fact novel, feasible, at least modestly defensible, and creates value in the eyes of potential users. If not, this is all a waste of time: deposit the b-plan in the circular file.

Is it a feature, or at least a product? There are a lot of ways to probe this. Here are two of my favorite:

1. Is the function separable? By that I mean, can it be implemented without the necessary existence or cooperation of supporting functions or businesses. For an example: 15 years ago the idea of a ‘public network search engine’ was invalid. The open standards and content base of the Web did not exist. To the extent that consumer online content existed, it was locked up in proprietary online services, each running on a closed network. The idea of a separable search engine product or service was nonsense – the market was not ready. Now we have Google, which might be worth $12b. In many technology ventures, this question is nearly the same as ‘Can I leverage an existing platform and installed base?. In any case, it’s a diagnostic of market readiness for your project.

If the answer to this separability question is ‘no’, then there’s a subsidiary question: Does the necessary supporting infrastructure exist already, as part of an operating business? If not, add the necessary support to your business plan, and reanalyze for value and ROI. If yes, you may be SOL: you are a feature to someone else’s product or service.

2. Will the customer pay for it separately? And not just that, but pay enough to achieve an ROI including reinvestment over time. An historical example is the linkage of achievable software prices to the cost of the underlying hardware. This pattern has eroded, but not disappeared, over time. Another common case is the difficulty in revenue extraction when the supporting functionality is seen as ‘free’ by the customer – either actually or as part of a bundle. Add-ons to MS Outlook could be an example. Again, the Linux movement has eroded this to some extent, but it still exists. Probably the toughest customer in this regard is the enterprise CIO, who wants to know why the company needs yet another three-letter-acronym enterprise package when their existing SFA/SCM/ERP/whatever claims to already have the functions you describe.

Enterprise Portals

InfoWorld writes that “the browser-based portal is fast becoming the enterprise UI and the nexus for a new breed of integration and app dev.”

The enterprise portal has evolved from vague ’90s notions of “empowering” employees with a document library to practical, tailored solutions for departments or jobs hobbled by a lack of integration. According to portal vendors, customers, and consultants, the trick to successful deployment is identifying related business processes, aggregating related apps and data within the portal framework, and establishing individual user identity as the organizing principle — all while avoiding new coding as much as possible.

Features vary widely, but portal offerings tend to have roughly the same objective: serve up composite, user-customizable control panels built from existing apps and data — similar to what Sun once termed the Webtop. Just as the forthcoming Longhorn version of Windows seeks to deepen desktop connections to the enterprise fabric, B2E portals are advancing on the desktop from the opposite direction, pushing thin enterprise clients through the browser and wrapping them around the needs of individual users.

A second article writes that “from integration to identity management, a well-deployed portal requires a carefully crafted technical strategy.”

Edge Laws

The latest issue of Edge asked 164 contributors a single question: “What’s Your Law.” The rationale: “There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you’ve noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you. Gordon Moore has one; Johannes Kepler and Michael Faraday, too. So does Murphy…Since you are so bright, you probably have at least two you can articulate. Send me two laws based on your empirical work and observations you would not mind having tagged with your name. Stick to science and to those scientific areas where you have expertise. Avoid flippancy. Remember, your name will be attached to your law.” A few of them:

Pinker’s First Law: Human intelligence is a product of analogy and combinatorics. Analogy allows the mind to use a few innate ideasspace, force, essence, goalto understand more abstract domains. Combinatorics allows an a finite set of simple ideas to give rise to an infinite set of complex ones.

Barabsi’s Law of Programming: Program development ends when the program does what you expect it to dowhether it is correct or not.

Markoff’s Law of Inversion: Technology once trickled down from supercomputers to PCs. Now new computing technology comes to game machines first.

Rheingold’s Law: Communication media that enable collective action on new scales, at new rates, among new groups of people, multiply the power available to civilizations and enable new forms of social interaction. The alphabet enabled empire and monotheism, the printing press enabled science and revolution, the telephone enabled bureaucracy and globalization, the Internet enabled virtual communities and electronic markets, the mobile telephone enabled smart mobs and tribes of urban info-nomads.

Standalone RSS Autodetective Client

Phil Wolff writes about his wishlist:

As I surf, it will:
– live in the Windows system tray
– parse pages for urls pointing to syndication formats like RSS and Atom
– verify those feeds exist and collect their metadata
– write a log file of the detection and verification info, in OPML
– display the number of new discoveries when hovering over the system tray icon
– push the file to a server, periodically and optionally.

By being a separate application from the RSS newsreader, the autodetective will be:
– Smaller, consuming fewer system resources than a newsreader
– Focused on the craft of detection, becoming smarter about finding things on the pages I read
– Independent of a newsreader, so I can have more than one newsreader (including browser-based ones) without having every page I read parsed for each tool.
– Diverse, detecting tidbits in my emails, chats, IRC sessions, etc.

If we wanted to get fatter about the client, it could spider to discover deeper (crawl this site) or discover wider (crawl the blogrolls you see). Less relevance than pages you’ve actually seen, but more context – especially as you revisit favorite blogs and services.

I’d also like the detective to discover more kinds of things and make sense of them:
– Contact information (emails, phone numbers, postal addresses)
– Physical locations (postal addresses, city names, geocoding)
– Calendar events (dates, times, durations, descriptions)
– Rich media (sound, video, flash files)
so I can review and bring them into other software.

What is interesting is that ideas like this have the potential to create a new environment for creating and consuming content – which is what we need. Very little has changed in the way we interact with content in the past 5-7 years. RSS is the disruptive innovation and we need an ecosystem of tools and services around it to take our content experience to the next level.

Virtual Economies

Game Studies has an article by Edward Castronova on the virtual worlds that have come about in the multi-player games. From the abstract: “Currently, several million people have accounts in massively multiplayer online games. The population of virtual worlds has grown rapidly since 1996; significantly, each world also seems to grow its own economy, with production, assets and trade with Earth economies. This paper explores two questions about these developments. First, will these economies grow in importance? Second, if they do grow, how will that affect real-world economies and governments? To shed light on the first question, the paper presents a simple choice model of the demand for game time. The model reveals a certain puzzle about puzzles and games: in the demand for these kinds of interactive entertainment goods, people reveal that they are willing to pay money to be constrained. Still, the nature of games as a produced good suggests that technological advances, and heavy competition, will drive the future development of virtual worlds. If virtual worlds do become a large part of the daily life of humans, their development may have an impact on the macroeconomies of Earth. It will also raise certain constitutional issues, since it is not clear, today, exactly who has jurisdiction over these new economies.”

TECH TALK: Good Books: The Gifts of Athena

If there is one driving, unifying factor that connects us and what we do, it is the relentless pursuit of knowledge. It is knowledge and its application which has seen us progress, and has now put us on a self-reinforcing circle of technological innovation and economic growth. Much of this transformation has been driven in the past few centuries (at least, that is the part which is documented and is understood). Even as we live through a period of remarkable and accelerating change, it can sometimes become difficult to fathom the important role that knowledge plays in our progress.

What is interesting about our times is that for the first time in our history, knowledge dissemination is happening via an overlay of networks that can connect people the world over nearly instantaneously. The Internet connects individuals, information and computers, Google makes the connection between individuals and web pages, and Amazon connects us to repositories of books that we didnt even know existed. What happens in one part of the world is relayed by television networks, email and cellphone nearly instantaneously across cultures and timezones. Even in enterprises, it is the availability of real-time knowledge that is transforming supply chains.

This is the backdrop for reading Joel Mokyrs The Gifts of Athena: Historical Perspectives of the Knowledge Economy. From the books introduction:

The growth of technological and scientific knowledge in the past two centuries has been the overriding dynamic element in the economic and social history of the world. Its result is now often called the knowledge economy. But what are the historical origins of this revolution and what have been its mechanisms? In [the book] Joel Mokyr constructs an original framework to analyze the concept of “useful” knowledge. He argues that the growth explosion in the modern West in the past two centuries was driven not just by the appearance of new technological ideas but also by the improved access to these ideas in society at large–as made possible by social networks comprising universities, publishers, professional sciences, and kindred institutions. Through a wealth of historical evidence set in clear and lively prose, he shows that changes in the intellectual and social environment and the institutional background in which knowledge was generated and disseminated brought about the Industrial Revolution, followed by sustained economic growth and continuing technological change.

Mokyr draws a link between intellectual forces such as the European enlightenment and subsequent economic changes of the nineteenth century, and follows their development into the twentieth century. He further explores some of the key implications of the knowledge revolution. Among these is the rise and fall of the “factory system” as an organizing principle of modern economic organization. He analyzes the impact of this revolution on information technology and communications as well as on the public’s state of health and the structure of households. By examining the social and political roots of resistance to new knowledge, Mokyr also links growth in knowledge to political economy and connects the economic history of technology to the New Institutional Economics.

The place where knowledge matters most is for the Indians living in rural areas.

Tomorrow: Knowledge and Rural India

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