Archive for category Technology and Innovation

High speed Internet? Are you high?

I got a call over the weekend from a telemarketer that wanted me to switch to their “high-speed Internet” service.  He said he could save me a ton of money if I’d just sign up with him.

“How fast is high-speed?” I asked. 

“Up to 3 Mbps,” he replied, smugly. 

Let’s leave aside the hilarity of the “up to” part of his answer and focus instead on the raw speed.  Is 3Mbps fast?  Well sure, compared to dial-up; but seriously, is any serious Internet user still comparing their experience to dial-up?   What can you do with 3Mbps?  And I wonder why he didn’t mention upload speed?

I can’t imagine trying to squeeze all the things I need to do through a soda straw like 3Mbs.  Between the video conferencing, Slingbox media stream, surveillance webcam traffic, ftp uploads, RSS downloads, media downloads, email, messaging, gaming, not to mention the Internet habits of the rest of the folks in the house, it seems to me that the link to my house would be bulging like a worn out garden hose on a hot summer afternoon.

Which brings me to the next bit of gristle in the sandwich – fair access policy (FAP) enforcement.  You see, I’ve played this game a time or two.  I sign up with a service that promises “up to” a certain speed only to find out that they cap the usage of folks who actually need the speed the most.  And the company that called is one of the best at playing Whack-A-Mole with their most demanding users.

So I passed.

Just curious; what kind of broadband speed do you get?  What speed do you need?

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Going old school for valuable lessons

At the risk of betraying my age, I confess that I started shaving with an injector razor.  One of the simple handles into which you jacked a new blade every week or so.  After a brief learning curve, during which time my face sprouted small white squares of toilet paper anchored to various nicks and cuts, I settled into a more or less daily routine that satisfactorily denuded my face.

For decades thereafter I was a willing victim of the personal grooming marketing machine.  I was convinced time and again to upgrade my technology and adopt new standards.  I embraced the convenience of the first cartridge razors, fell for the double bladed “first blade tugs the whisker up while the second one lops it off” animation, and even toyed with triple blade razors for a time.

However, when the 5 bladed razor (6 if you count the obverse-mounted sideburn harvester) came out I finally called BS.  In a fit of nostalgic rebellion I scooped up an old 2-sided safety razor and bought a $2 pack of double edged razor blades at the store.

Do you know what?  It works.  It doesn’t just do a passable job; with a bit of preparation and a appropriate attention to detail the old fashioned razor gives me as good a shave as the flashiest multi-bladed, feature-laden razor at the store.  Maybe better.  And at less than 1/10 the price for refills.  In retrospect, I’ve been a willing victim of technological feature creep.

A multi-bladed razor is just one example of an over the top solution to a simple problem.  We run into this all the time when it comes to computers and technology.  Sometimes we get carried away and do things just because we can.  Feature lists and data sheets are full of “enhancements” that nobody but the most hardened technophile will ever implement.

Don’t be led down the garden path.  Be a technical realist.  Take a look at your daily routine and see if there is a way to simplify.  My guess is that that you’ll find more than one.  You might even think of one while you’re shaving.

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It’s all in the demo

Seriously.  It’s all in the demo.  As in, there’s nothing but the demo.  As in, this demo is as close as the customer will ever get to this technology.

A lot of companies put a huge amount of effort into their technology demos.  You know the demos I mean.  The keynote that turns into a Broadway production as the wraps are taken off the latest technology is one.  Another will show up at the product theater on the show floor and relies on Radio Shack power amps overdriving tinny speakers in a futile attempt to drown out the techno music pounding from the surrounding booths.

They feature towering racks of blinking lights, flashy graphics and summer stock graphics beamed to huge theater screens and rely on scripted exhortations of such breathless, pure adrenalised bitwhacking that their promises that “this technology will change everything by redefining some critical part of the business to unlock amazing potential!” seem almost believable.  I saw a presenter a couple of weeks ago that made Vince the ShamWOW guy look like he’s on tranquilizers.

These demos seem to sprout like weeds in the spring when trade show season rolls around.  It behooves all of us to bring a pair of reality goggles when attending these shows in order to see through the glossy epidemic of Power Point driven optimism.

Here’s a helpful tip to technology vendors.  While people will be suitably amazed by demonstrations of what you can do, they will be more impressed if you can also show them why and how they should do it.  Demonstrations that incorporate utility as well as technology are much more valuable as influencers.  You must close the loop between the possible and the potential; you can’t rely on the prospect to make that leap.  And unless you do, staring at you from the show floor is as close as they are going to get to being a customer.

By the way, automakers, I’m still waiting for my personal rocket car.

What’s the silliest or flashiest demo you’ve seen this season?

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It’s too bad my friends have jobs

A not-so-subtle and disturbing trend is accelerating in social networking.  The circle of friends with which I surrounded myself is going corporate.  Probably because of my 20 years in marketing, my social network is weighted heavily in that dimension.  Still, it seems that lately four out of five Facebook updates are suddenly pimping work related projects, and the other one is a “What famous 19th century impressionist painter are you?” worm.  The personal contact that I sought when I signed up for the services has been shoved from the stage.  I can’t really blame my friends, they are, after all, marketers and it’s easy to get drunk on the possibilities of social buzz.

Here’s what I predict will happen.  First, more and more of my contacts will be tipped into the ignore bin as they continue to abuse our relationship by foisting their marketing pitches on me using clever URL truncators.  The sphere of personal contacts I maintain will slowly return to the more normal sustainable levels that existed before the wonder of MySpace and Facebook artificially inflated it.  The social landscape will soon look like that kaleidoscopic stretch of endless, rarely clever billboards along Highway 101 in Sunnyvale that no one pays attention to. And finally, a new, personal social networking platform will emerge and all the cool folks will rush in to take advantage of the new clean environment before the corporate drones pollute it again.

Note to marketers:  You’re right, it is important to fish where the fish are;  but it’s not a good idea to dump all your trash in the lake, blast loud music, bang on the side of you boat and scare the fish off.  They might just grow legs and walk away.  Evolution happens faster in the digital age.

How’s your social network treating you?

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Smarting off

Another day of “smart” announcements.  Major industry players announce smart grid technology to manage energy more effectively.  Other IT companies boast of work they are doing on smart cars to ease transportation worries.  Still others are focused on smart manufacturing systems.

Did none of these marketing geniuses see The Terminator?  Hello, McFly?  Skynet?

I like the idea of smarter people being provided with more flexible solutions, but I’m a bit leery of devices determining what I need.   How can a machine or a network decide what I want?

I don’t want a smarter car.  I have enough problems with backseat drivers.

Now we have smart green technology.  How long before the smart green network figures out that humans are the problem and flips the off switch on us?

What do you think?  Good marketing or scary technology?

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Second Life midlife crisis? Details at 11 – or not

I find it kind of surprising there isn’t more discussion about Linden Labs’ decision to create an adults only section in Second Life, as reported last week in Information Week.  After a couple of years of struggling with the issues of adult content, the team is working with users to move beyond self-policing to establish more formal guidelines and boundaries.

Then again, we haven’t heard that much about Second Life lately.  After a year of intense hype, the alternate universe has slowly melted from the public eye.  No longer growing at astronomical rates, Second Life has settled into a sort of middle-aged comfort zone.  Ariane Barnes, a metaverse fixture, talked about the dwindling media coverage in a blog entry this week entitled Is the Party Over in SL?.  (Caution, the cover image of a g-string-and stockings-clad female avatar passed out in the gutter clutching an empty whiskey bottle may be misunderstood by coworkers.)

A comment to Ariane’s blog suggests that people may be having so many issues in their real life that they just don’t have time any more for a second existence, but that’s unlikely.  Escape and avoidance is a normal coping mechanism during periods of extreme stress, and what could be more escapey than running off to cavort in a fictional universe?  Still, the old Get a First Life satire page never fails to make me smile.

I think it’s more likely that the whole concept of metaverse technology has become sort of, well, boring.  It didn’t really change the existing world, businesses played with it and moved on and the graphics technology just doesn’t have the sizzle to make people go wow any more.  Maybe we need Pixar to jump in and create avatar as a service offerings.

What do you think?  Do you still have a Second Life?  Will the new red light district policies affect how you live it?

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Betting on the data center

Looking at the coverage of the Cisco unified computing announcement this week, I can’t help but smile.  The lead stories are almost all about the controversy this is creating.  To hear the press talk, the world’s IT superpowers are marching, in lockstep, towards an inevitable bloody trench war which will be fought squarely in the data center.

The drama will unfold before an hysterical crowd as industry titans oil up and wrestle until one or more of them squeals uncle.  Cue the theme from Rocky.

But all of this is based on the assumption that the information technology market is a zero-sum game.  It’s not.

The market forces that are flexing as information technology morphs beyond its traditional boundaries have yet to be charted, but one thing to recognise is that a platform transformation is well underway.  Virtualisation is another way of saying that the network is becoming the platform.   Unlike a technology shift, where established players hack away at each other for crumbs of an already baked pie, the opportunity presented by a platform transformation is amorphous and initially limited only by imagination.

Think about this for a second.  When the freeway system was being built, a lot of investment attention was focused on the obvious profit makers – the road contractors, the asphalt manufacturers, auto makers and tire companies – but the real road to riches was in market adjacencies.  Howard Johnson, who saw that lodging and hospitality had a place outside of the city, Stuckey’s with their deliciously gooey and ubiquitous Pecan Log, and the rest of the visionaries that looked not at the physical roads but at the opportunity they represented were cumulatively the real beneficiaries of the shift.

So try not to fixate too closely on the battle for rack space, and instead think about the tsunami of opportunity that the virtualisation phenomenon represents as it washes over the vulnerable lowland of market assumptions that have heretofore appeared so safe.  The processors themselves are but a ripple in this particular blue ocean.

Although, if you’re dead set on wagering, here are the hot tips:

  • Pick Dell to get knocked out in the 2nd round
  • Take IBM -7 and the over
  • Box the HP and Fusion-IO exacta in the 3rd race

Let me know what you win.

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In cloud we trust

I switched mobile phone numbers after a recent interstate move.  It was supposed to be simple.  I didn’t change providers or devices and used the same name and credit card.  Easy, right?  Of course you know what happened.  Exactly.  Three different errors in billing, each of which resulted in hundreds of dollars in erroneous charges and each one of which required a lot of my time on the phone to correct.  And, to my amazement, each of the folks that helped me correct the issues on the phone told me, “Oh, this happens all the time.”

So I’m thinking to myself, hey, this is their core business.  Service providers are completely structured around provisioning, usage and billing.  If they can’t get the holy trinity right, what hope do they have with the value add?

I ordered a set of crystal martini glasses from a famous online merchant and a week later was delivered a lovely box of rattling glass shards.  Are you serious?  These can’t be the first glasses they’ve shipped – they must have figured out you can’t just toss them in a carton by now.  On the bright side, they quickly shipped a replacement set and less than half of those broke.  Again with the breakdown in the core business practice.

In case you’re not paying attention to the IT world, these are the same folks that want to run your mission-critical business functions: service providers and application hosting companies.  There’s a new Internet gold rush, and everyone’s head is in the clouds.  Clearly the worlds of virtualised computing and application as a service have compelling business potential, but where do we look for partners we can trust and how do we make sure they are taking better care of our business than they are their own?

The shift is on.  What do you think of that?

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Picking up the slack

Erik Brynjolfsson, a knowledge economist at The Center for Digital Business at MIT, studies the ways that information technology changes knowledge worker productivity. Erik and his team used new processes to measure the impact of technology on task work in an information-centric  workplace, and they tore the productivity engine down to its nuts and bolts.

One of the things they found was that new technologies tend to create what they call “IT-enabled slack” as processes are improved.

As IT improvements were introduced in the study environments, they were able to measure small performance gains in the minutae of workers’ tasks. Cumulatively, these small gains created “slack” which allowed workers more time to communicate with each other.  This not only resulted in productivity and performance improvements, but also gave them more personal time for relaxing or working on personal projects.

Sounds like a win-win to me.

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What’s your social score?

Late last year, Business Week talked about an experiment at Google to rank users of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter based on connectedness, frequency of communication and influence.  In the article, the value of influence-ranking using Google’s patent-pending technology is examined in the context of advertising, but such a system has other potential applications in business.

As I previously mentioned, maintaining a large number of healthy, diverse relationships is one way to improve the collaborative quotient of an organisation.  Companies are looking  to innovative ways to measure the effectiveness of collaboration and its impact on success.  Some companies are finding value in charting the relationships between individuals and creating maps that help to visualise the density and relative value of social ties within the sphere of business.  In a conversation at Knowledge Infusion, Jason Corsello recently talked about the potential for adding a “social index” to employees’ performance appraisals as a way to track and presumably stimulate collaborative behavior.

In Forbes this week, Joshua-Michele Ross muses on the rise of the social nervous system and gives a number of examples of how a massively connected society could improve such things as EMS, political effectiveness and virus (disease) forecasting.  All of these examples show the potential for technology to increase visibility into communication and presumably improve effectiveness, but towards the end of Ross’ article, the privacy alarm begins to sound.

As Ross puts it, “In a social nervous system there will be increasing pressure to be connected 24/7 to the hive mind that is Facebook, Twitter and so on. Those who do not connect, share and collaborate will have a hard time in business and in social life.”

We’re already seeing some employers using credit reports to evaluate potential employees.  Do you suppose that in the not too distant future companies will be calling a network reporting bureau to obtain your social score as well?

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