Information and Knowledge

Atanu Dey writes:

f you come to think about it for a moment, what we really want is knowledge, not information. (Recall what the business school guru said: what people want is not a quarter-inch drill but rather a quarter-inch hole.) The good news is that there is a lot of information out there. The better news is that the cost of accessing that information has been dropping exponentially. But the bad news is that the cost of searching through the vast stock of information to satisfy your knowledge needs is increasing.

First a brief aside on the distinction between knowledge and information. People use the terms interchangeably but they must be distinguished if we wish to reason with some degree of clarity about our information-suffused modern society. A telephone book has information about names and numbers, but it does not know telephone numbers. A human brain knows a phone number, in contrast. Outside the human brain, it is information and organized within the structures of a human mind, it is knowledge. Dr Johnson appreciated the distinction very keenly. Information is what economists call a public good, while knowledge is a private good.

There is a big opportunity managing information overload. Create a filter which will let only the top quality information through and people will beat a path to your door. You may say that it is a Super Filter which filters out not just spam but low quality non-spam content as well. In the past, portals which gave you everything (when there was not very much of anything) were a big hit. Now (when there is much too much of everything) portals which give you access to absolutely selective exclusive stuff will make it big.

Mobile Middleware

Daniel Taylor writes: “The whole idea of mobile middleware is that computing analysts can focus on standardizing a set of applications to work with a middleware platform instead of doing specific function calls within individual device operating systems. This is how an enterprise application can be deployed to both BlackBerry and Treo devices at the same time…Mobile middleware is where the industry is heading.”

Search Tagging

Gene Smith discusses a product idea from the recent past (Shreveport):

Shreveport is basically a search engine with some social software concepts layered on top. Here are some of its core concepts:

* Search terms are tags on an URL. Shreveport associates tags with URLs based on clickthroughs.
* Search history is shared. Search terms and selected results are shared in the same way del.icio.us shares tags and URLs. (Obviously, we’d thought about an opt-out feature for some searches…. you know, “athletes foot remedies” and the like.)
* Search terms and results selection help improve search results. Part of our largely hypothetical algorithmic mojo engine was a way to use improve results by tracking which links were selected for each query. (I wonder if anyone’s doing this now?)
* Exploration and recommendations. Users can explore tags, URLs, users and their visited results. For each search they see weighted recommendations (“People who searched for ‘celiac disease’ also searched for…”) and recommended links based on others’ searches.
* Ad hoc social networks. The community aspects of Shreveport were completely ad hoc, based only on search terms. No adding people as contacts or joining networks. Clearly this feature works better for populations with a strong shared vocabulary. (This is similar to what del.icio.us does with tags, but at the time it seemed much more radical.)
* Presence. The original Shreveport concept incorporated presence to encourage direct interaction between users.

One of the things I like about Shreveport is how it doesn’t require any new information. Not even tags. It leverages data that users already reveal–search terms and results selection.

Collaboration Prediction

Stephen O’Grady writes: “The next 12 months will see more innovation in the collaboration space – particularly calendars – than the past few years combined. The trend is not attributable to any single project or standard, IMO, but rather to a general recognition that there are achieveable improvements in collaboration technologies that dramatically enhance productivity. Software-as-a-Service (Airset, Trumba), open source (Hula), open standards (iCal), and social software (Upcoming.org, iCalShare) all have roles to play. But the technology to do this has been around for a while; what I’ve been seeing more recently is actual demand and interest from a user perspective. With Craigslist driving awareness of RSS, feeds, etc into the mainstream, ordinary non-technical people are beginning to look at their complex schedules and thinking, ‘there has to be a better way to do this.’ Turns out, there might just be.”

Web 2.0 at Home and Work

Peter Yared has an interesting comment about the apps that we use:

One of the big drivers of Internet applications in the corporate world was the stark contrast of what people could do at home and at work:

At Home – Buy books, buy movie tickets, look up the weather, etc.

At Work – Call HR to change health plan, call factory floor to find out what happened to customer’s order, call invoicing to find out what happened to a bill, etc.

Well clearly something at work was wrong, and soon enough everything was online. 🙂

Now look at the difference between home and work today:

At Home: Web applications are using JavaScript and DHTML to enhance the user experience and decrease server interactions. Some random guy can combine Google Maps and Craigslist apartment listings in a useful way without talking to either Google or Craigslist (http://www.paulrademacher.com/housing/).

At Work: Everything has a Netscape 3 level of UI interactivity and nothing works with anything else.

This difference in functionality and the increasing expectations of users will lead to significant change in the enterprise. As more and more Web 2.0 applications deploy, pretty soon even the CEO will be saying “some random guy can get Google to work with Craigslist, and we can’t get CRM to work with ERP?” Web 2.0 = SOA, and an enterprise’s customers, employees and partners are going to expect it to happen ASAP.

TECH TALK: Dotcom Nostalgia: India and China

The Internet industries in India and China grew very differently. Because China had a better telecom infrastructure and a higher per capita income, there were more Internet users there. So, even though the Internet was still somewhat controlled by the government, portals like Sina, Sohu, Netease and China.com managed to raise hundreds of millions from international investors through Nasdaq listings. In comparison, India had only two listings: Sify and Rediff.

The bust hit the Chinese Internet companies hard. But they had the cash and a consumer base to discover a new business opportunity. Mobile users. China’s cellphone user base was very large by then. The portals had the cash to switch track and focus on building services for the cellphone market. India, by contrast, did not have that then.

The mobile market gave the Chinese portals a much-needed shot-in-the-arm, and they thrived. Over time, broadband started picking up and with it came both Internet advertising and online gaming. Also, China had a much larger number of well-capitalised Internet companies which also resulted in a wider range of services. In contrast, the boom-and-bust in India was all too short. There were only a handful of VC investments and the result was that the Internet services growth has remained stunted in India.

The richness of China’s Internet has seen the emergence of Shanda in the online gaming space. Shanda now has a higher market capitalisation and faster growth than the three portals Sina, Sohu and Netease. Shanda is a relatively new company having been launched in 1999. But the fact that it emerged through the bust is a testimonial to the depth of the Chinese Internet.

If I look back, had the governments been smarter about the importance of telecom and broadband in India, we could have had a stronger foundation to sustain multiple entrepreneurs through the dotcom bust. In fact, the bust need not have happened in India valuations would have come down to rational levels, but the opportunities would have stayed. And, regrettably, our continuing short-sighted policies on broadband handicap Indians and the Internet companies. Which in turn cuts off the oxygen of venture capital to aspiring entrepreneurs.

India needs to build the right infrastructure for its entrepreneurs to succeed. Today, product-focused start-ups tend to be back-end operations for US-based front-end ventures. This needs to change. We need to look inward at the market that exists within India. But for that, the infrastructure and user base has to improve dramatically and rapidly. Only then can we dream about creating the next big successes out of India. Else, we will be playing second fiddle to Chinese entrepreneurs and companies because armed with their domestic success, they will be in a good position to target India.

Tomorrow: The Future