Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Blogging as a Disruptive Innovation

The Instapundit linked to an article by Daniel Harrison over at discussing blogging as a disruptive innovation. I'm a big fan of Clayton Christensen's theories, and if you haven't read The Innovator's Solution, I would highly, highly recommend it.

I agree with Mr. Harrison that blogging is a disruptive innovation impacting traditional journalism, but not in the way he suggests. In order for something to qualify as a disruptive innovation in Christensen's sense, it must satisfy at least one of two conditions:

  1. It must be a lower-cost alternative for a group of customers who are overserved by the current solution, or
  2. It must create a new value chain by introducing new consumers who did not have the means or the expertise to use the current solution.
Neither one of these conditions applies to people who read blogs. Blog readers are almost always news junkies- it's not that they are overserved by traditional media, they're underserved by it. They want more opinions and perspectives than they can get via traditional means. They are the most demanding news consumers, and the current solution is not good enough for them.

However, blogs are disruptive for another important category of consumers: advertisers. Advertisers are the true customers for media organizations- it's their advertising that pays the bills. I believe that advertising on blogs satisfies both criteria for a disruptive innovation. Advertising on a blog is a cheaper way to get a highly targeted audience of informed, passionate media consumers. As blogging/podcasting/etc. expand to cover every aspect of the media universe, they will continue to lure advertising dollars away from traditional outlets.

The only thing I wonder about is whether bloggers are motivated to do what it takes to go after higher margin, more demanding advertisers. The best blogs I read are written by experts who are passionate and knowledgable about their subject areas for their own sake, and I don't feel the profit motive drives them the way it drives a normal businessperson. Would a blogger be willing to go after higher margin ad dollars by incorporating popups or streaming video to their blog? That seems like the sort of thing that drives people away from traditional media sites in the first place, and could place a cap on blogging's disruptive growth- at least as far as advertising goes.

On the other hand, if the money is there, I expect there will be someone who figures out a way to take advantage of it.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

My First Flock Post

I just downloaded a preview of Flock- color me impressed, right off the bat. The UI is intuitive, the integrated support for tagging/blogging is dead-on. If the RSS stuff is good, this might just get me off bloglines. Interesting that Yahoo is the default search engine- I didn't know there was any kind of relationship there. Maybe a coincidence, but I doubt it.

Yahoo has been really impressive of late in terms of how open they've been and plugged into the innovative stuff going on with lots of little companies, compared to Google's more walled-off, go-it-alone style. MSN also seems walled off, they're just not as good at it as Google is. One of these days, Microsoft will learn that they can't out-Google Google- but I think Yahoo may be on top by then.

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Saturday, September 24, 2005

Serenity Synopsis

Part of the blood oath I agreed to with Universal is that I include a this movie synopsis on my blog, so here you go.

Universal Synopsis
"Joss Whedon, the Oscar® - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE, ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family –squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal."

Josh's Commentary on the Universal Synopsis
Joss Whedon is frickin' brilliant. The fact that he has not yet won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Nobel Prize and a MacArthur genius grant is one of the great injustices of the 21st century. I don't know why Universal always pitches Joss as the creator of "BUFFY" and "ANGEL". Something along the lines of "Serenity, from the Mind of Joss Whedon, Future Saviour of the Human Race" would be more appropo.

I also don't know if it's fair to say that the story centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds. I can see why they would want to pitch it that way, because he's got that whole Han Solo thing going on, but Firefly worked because of the strength of the ensembled cast, not because of any one character. I think studios tend to be afraid of the ensemble cast, but if you look at the success that ABC has had with two shows that are undeniably ensemble drama/comedies- Desperate Housewives and Lost- it's time for the studios to embrace the ensemble and stop shying away from it. When you get the right people together, the stuff just works. It's magic. We've all felt it in our lives, though we often can't explain why it's there, and we know it when we see it in a production. Serenity just has that Thing that brings the story to life. Oh, and Inara is really, really hot.


So, a couple of updates. First, my wife and I have moved back to Austin, and we're very happy to be back here. Second, we've taken advantage of Austin's ludicrously underpriced (at least when compared to Raleigh-Durham) housing market to purchase a house, which we're moving into in 10 days. And third, I'm one of the lucky bloggers who gets to go see Serenity a few days early for free, all in exchange for blogging about it.

First, a little bit of my history with the Firefly franchise. The one upside of moving to Durham was getting to hang out with my good friends Jim and Jimmy Jo (hereafter referred to as J&JJ) from college. And I'm not entirely sure, but I think it was the first time that we hung out at Jimmy Jo's place, we watched a couple of episodes of Firefly on DVD. J&JJ were completely obsessed with the show, extolling the genius of Joss Whedon and the foolishness of the Fox executives who bungled the show before cancelling it. So I decided to find out what all the fuss was about, and I rented the entire season on Netflix, as JJ had a waiting list of people he was loaning the show to.

Before I get to into this, I wanted to say that I am not much of a sci-fi geek. I'm a geek for many things, but the whole Star Wars/Star Trek/BG/etc. thing has never really been my scene. By and large (and I'm sure I'm inviting all sorts of flames by saying it), I feel like sci-fi writers use the technology as a crutch to avoid any sort of challenging or interesting character development. Give me Wonderfalls, Arrested Development, the West Wing (seasons 1, 2, and 3), Lost, The Office- give me humor, complexity, and a touch of weird shit, and I'm good to go. And I have to say that Firefly is one of the best artistic creations I have ever experienced, right up there with OK Computer.

Anyway, I have to shower and get going with my day. I'm really excited to see this movie and write it up. If you are too, check out all the info you could possibly want right here- Serenity the Movie.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

VE Day

The current pastime in the tech blogosphere is comparing-and-contrasting Microsoft's Virtual Earth and Google Maps.

First, I just wanted to say that I find it interesting that this topic is so hot in the blogosphere, but it hasn't really come up yet in any of my regular conversations with the folks I talk to every day. I don't know if other people have this sort of experience or not, I'm sure it depends on the circle of people you run with. But I just wanted to take a moment and comment on how blogs allow us to toss out some thoughts and be part of a global conversation even when no one around us- in our physical or traditional social spaces- is interested. It's a whole new kind of geekdom that even puts Dungeons and Dragons to shame.

Well, maybe not.

I've been thinking about Google alot lately, especially vis-a-vis Microsoft. I think everyone is seeing VE vs. GM as the opening salvo between these two, followed quickly (and inevitably) by a legal battle over a senior VP who left Microsoft for Google. So I want to break this battle down and discuss how I see it playing out over the next couple of years.

Most of the comparisons thus far have been between the main sites themselves- and, in terms of performance, resolution, and (to a lesser extent) features. There are places where Google is better, there are places where MS is better, but I don't think there's any doubt that this is the first time that MS has launched something that was comparable to Google, right off the bat. Hats off to Microsoft- they did a great implementation of Google's idea. For me, as a user, I don't think it makes much difference which of the two services I use, though I tend to use Google out of habit.

So let's move on to what really matters- the battle over developers. The real buzz over mapping has been caused by clever developers who used Google Maps to create cool applications like Craigslist+Maps and ChicagoCrime. Most observers think that this will be a traditional standards war- the company that gets the most developers to build web apps around their mapping API wins.

At least that's the conventional wisdom. And in so far as you believe the CW, you have to give the edge to Microsoft. It was notable that they launched their developer API at the same time they launched their site, whereas Google waited and didn't launch an official API until after some ambitious developers hacked up an unofficial one. Microsoft also has its own programming language and a huge developer network it can leverage to get its APIs in wide use. Google has to rely on sample code snippets in languages (Java, PHP, Perl, and even .NET languages) that it does not control. Simply put, this is what Microsoft does, and they do it better than anyone else.

But I don't think all is lost for Google, not by a longshot. Because I don't think that the Map Wars will turn out to be an API war in the traditional sense, and that has everything to do with the way web-based business models work- namely, by advertising- and targeted advertising is what Google does better than anyone else.

Let's stipulate that there is some percentage of all map API developers who are rabidly for or against Microsoft, and assume that these people will make their choice accordingly. But for a hypothetical developer who is creating a mapping application and is hoping to make some money off of it, what's the better choice? Assuming that this developer doesn't want to go through the time and expense of getting his own advertisers, he probably wants to take advantage of the best ad network he can get- and that means Google. Contrast this with the API battles for shrinkwrapped software that Microsoft has won in the past- developer pays (cheaply) for tools, writes an application, sells it, and the user chooses the platform with the best applications. In so far as that model still works for web, I believe Microsoft succeeds. In so far as there will be a free, ad-supported competitor for every subscription-only web application, Google will do very, very well. The overall winner will be the company that can do a better job of co-opting their competitor's core competency, and I don't think that's clear at this point.

As a final note, something about Virtual Earth bugs me a little bit- the fact that it works on Firefox, as well as Internet Explorer. This strikes me as a very un-Microsoft sort of thing to do. Of course, they still prevent Linux or OS X support for their (still pretty cool) Locate Me feature by requiring ActiveX controls, but the fact that they support any other browser at all still bugs me. I suspect that this is a temporary thing, in the way that Microsoft wrote IE for the Mac back when they were competing heavily with Netscape and didn't neglect a single opportunity to pick up browser share. The longer Google lasts, the more it will force Microsoft to stray from it's Windows-is-everything strategy, with the potential for hugely significant impact on the company and the industry.

Why People Switch

My wife was just checking her Yahoo email account, and the banner at the top of the screen was a picture of a toe with some sort of foot fungus.

Because that's the sort of thing you like to see when you get out of bed in the morning.

Anyway, she's now making the switch over to Gmail full-time. This is just another example of the difference in user experience we see in the profit-per-page-view versus profit-per-byte business models.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

In praise of MS and Yahoo

Longtime readers of this blog (which, as you all know, consists of pretty much no one) know that I have an affinity for Google and Apple above Yahoo and Microsoft. It isn't just the obvious stuff, like the fact that I have great taste and an arrogant intellectual elitism. It's just that A&G get me as a user at a really deep, emotional level, and Y&M don't. I don't know how to explain it any better than that. No kidding, I really don't. That's why I'd never make it as a writer.

Today, though, Y&M did some stuff that tickled my fancy in a way that I didn't expect, and I wanted to signal my surprise that they did something right.

Yahoo first. Yahoo announced MyWeb 2.0, a "social search engine." (More coverage over at John Battelle's place.) Now personally, I love this idea. I love it, in large part, because I had it a couple of months ago. I don't have any excuse for not doing it myself, actually. Well, I have several excuses, none of them particularly good. But they're doing a good job of propping up my fragile sense of self right now.

Here's the idea- you go around tagging webpages, just like you do with You combine these tags with a social networking setup, and what you end up with is a personalized, bottom-up version of, which is pretty cool. I like it. I like Yahoo showing up with something really cool and innovative, and, dare I say, genius. So, that being said, let's try to tear them down a bit.

I think the obvious concern has to be whether the social search engine can overcome that great deterent: human laziness. There are just not enough natural-born librarians in the world. The really good natural-born librarians are well paid for it, and the ones who aren't natural-born librarians (but really wish they were) are kind of scary and don't have many friends, which is antithecal to the concept of a social network.

The problem with social networks that require some work by the individual users is that many more people are consumers than producers- see, for instance, Gnutella. I would solve this problem by offering people an incentive to build out an index- give them a cut of the text ad revenue that gets generated whenever someone does a search on their engine, or an ad is generated off of a link that is incorporated into results because of an entry in their index. This has the downside of increasing the likelihood of click fraud (not to mention having to share the profits- oh my!), so I don't know if it's worth doing if the network can grow on its own, without the incentives. But it might be something for Yahoo to keep in mind, should MyWeb 2.0 stall.

Personally, I think they have a great shot, and this could be a hugely useful thing. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Google buy in the next few weeks and make a similar move into social search. This will really be fun to watch.

As for Microsoft, they didn't actually do anything of note today. They had some little thing with an extension to RSS that was generally considered to suck, but at least they're making an effort. Instead, my props to MS is based on a blog entry by our old friend Scobles. This is going to be a bit of a thing in the tech blogosphere over the next couple of days- in fact, it's already started. I generally read Scobleizer to check out what the most delusional (and therefore interesting) employee at Microsoft is currently thinking. This particular post is Scobles' plea to BillG to kick out another note about collaborative and social software on the Internet, along the lines of the famous 'Tidal Wave' memo.

Scobles' post is primarily about an "Internet Content Sharing Suite," a unified set of applications with a common interface for blogs, podcasts, photo sharing, wikis, etc. I think Scobles was foolish to present the approach this way, since it's just guaranteed to set off alarm bells in people's minds about MS taking over the Internet or whatever, and I think you see that in some of the early reactions he's getting. But once you get past that, it's clear that Scobles gets what's going to happen in this space over the next year or so, and that really makes me believe that there are at least a few other people at Microsoft who get it, too. I could be wrong about this, it might just be Scobles screaming in the dark over there (this really compelling blog makes me wonder), but if I'm not, I think the world of collaborative software is about to get much more...evil, for lack of a better word.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Profit per Byte

I have this thing for Jim Collins- the guy who co-authored Built to Last and Good to Great. It's a little unusual, and I don't like to talk about it- my fellow engineers sort of look at me funny when I talk about business stuff, but I can't help it. I find it all really fascinating. We have all of these buzzwords and frameworks and processes for people who want to make business seem more interesting than it really is, but I've never felt like that stuff was required to make business interesting. That's not to say that Collins' isn't guilty of this sometimes, but he's better than most.

One of the things he talks about in Good to Great is the "Hedgehog Concept", which is modeled after some fable about a fox and a hedgehog, or some such thing. The real idea underneath the packaging is a focused understanding of what drives a company's bottom line, and how that understanding drives everything a company does. Collins argues in G2G that one way to really get at this core concept is to think about a core profitability metric- something like profit per x. For some businesses, this is profit per widget, and for other (more service-oriented) businesses, it is profit per employee. Walgreen's is a neat example, it's metric is profit per customer visit. The book goes into all of this stuff in more detail, but I wanted to focus on the web, and compare two different profitability metrics that I think are in play: profit per pageview, and profit per byte.

The profit per pageview model is what drives the vast majority of websites today. The basic logic seems to be that whenever a user should chance upon a page within your site, you should throw as many ads at them as you can possibly squeeze onto the page, in the hopes that something might get a click from the user. It is, with differing degrees of subtlety, the model that drives Yahoo!, eBay, Amazon, and most of the other old-school Internet properties.

Google, on the other hand, has to be the prime example of the profit per byte (PPB) model. Maximizing PPB has a number of implications, which can be seen throughout the Google empire:
  • Lightweight webpages that avoid big graphics and complex HTML,
  • Text ads that take up only a few bytes, as opposed to animated banner ads,
  • AJAX-based websites (like Gmail, Google Maps) that don't require the user to download the same bytes over and over again- only the information that changes
It's interesting to me that while so many companies have started copying Google's look and feel, their computing infrastructure, their work practices, etc., there hasn't been much discussion of copying the business model that drives so many of these decisions.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

Today was a good day, and I just wanted to blog it a bit before I talk about some other stuff that's been on my mind lately. First, you probably noticed (and by you, I mean the one person who reads this thing, other than me) that I haven't posted in awhile. There's been a few reasons for this, most of them having to do with me being really busy on this project at work. But it's sort of winding down now, and I have some time (before the next project begins) to step back and reflect on the technology industry as a whole. Someday, I hope to have enough time to sit back and reflect on my life as a whole, and the way things are going right now, that should probably be soon.
So, you know, that's why I haven't been writing. Spending most of my time listening and thinking. A couple of recent events spurred me to try a little writing again, and here they are, in no particular order:

  • The death of Neal Pollack: In case you didn't see it (and unless you read Eschaton pretty frequently, you probably didn't), Neal Pollack died ** the other day. I remember getting Neal's Anthology of American Literature back in my senior year of college. I read it when I was on the plane out to Austin for a job interview, and man, I laughed my ass off. His death reminded me of the incredible joy I used to find in the written word, and its power to make a grown man wet his pants in row 24, seat F.
  • The web became really interesting again. I use the web every frickin' day. It is a struggle to tear myself away from my laptop. It's probably unhealthy. And so on and so forth. But because it is so ubiquitous, I don't really think about it as something that is interesting in and of itself anymore. But that's changed lately, and it's primarily due to a new online crowd I've been hanging out with. Less of the political stuff, more techie. Back to the roots.
So that's my story. On to the substantive things.

** Neal didn't really die.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Why Blogs Matter-- at least for Search

It occured to me, while I was writing my inaugural post, that for most of the links in my post, I would do a Google search to find a good link for whatever concept I wanted to reference, like the power-law distribution of blog readerships that I got from (I'm going to continue to help Jason out by linking to him as often as possible. And who knows? Maybe someday I'll actually start reading his blog.) The link I chose was always in the top 10 sites that Google returned. I imagine that I'm not the only blogger who does this, so my including links in my posts is actually refining and reinforcing the placement of sites that get returned by Google. I see a few different implications of this:

  • Helping search engines determine that different phrasings are refering to the same thing. The text I linked in my post was actually slightly different that my search phrases (the fear of plagarizing that is drilled in during school is still strong) so it improves the coverage of the search engine, tying slightly different phrases to the same concept.
  • Cleaning and pruning the sites returned. It so happened that Jason's site on the power law distribution was actually the third site returned, but it gave the sort of discussion that I was after. In linking to it, I'm making my own subjective statement that Jason's site is actually a little bit better than the first two sites returned. Bloggers serve as subject-matter experts on everything under the sun, constantly refining the quality of the index.
  • Rapidly indexing the new. Bloggers penchant for commenting on current events gives Google a direct index into sites that become especially relevant with the changing current events. I imagine they've even thought about optimizing their setup so that"crawling" the sites of Blogspot is near real-time.
Though I know that Google has the do-no-evil credo, and I myself am a long-time fan, I wonder if it's a good thing for a single company to have that kind of power. It seems like it would tempt Google to block other search engines (like MSN, Yahoo, etc.) from indexing Blogspot, so that they could use their advantage in indexing the information therein and the other major engines couldn't- in much the same way that AOL desperately tried (tries?) to prevent interoperability with its IM client, clinging to the one network-advantage they still have left.

Along those lines, I wouldn't mind seeing a blog-only search page that was akin to Google News- a rapidly updated, completely automated site with the latest and greatest blog posts from all of Blogspot. Perhaps some Googler is spending 20% of his/her time doing that right now.

The Inagural Post

About once every six months, I'll spend a few hours browsing the Internet of old via the Wayback Machine. Seeing how some of the really big sites have evolved gives you a really neat feeling of history happening in real time- like when you would watch those National Geographic slow-frame videos of a flower or a beehive evolving over months and years, all in a few seconds.

More than anything else, I marvel at how many of those people had no idea what they were starting. You can't blame them, obviously- there are those charts that show the power-law distribution of blog readership, for instance. (Note that I am helping to perpetuate that distribution by linking to Jason Kottke's blog. Since he's started blogging full-time, I figure it's the least I can do to help a brother earn a living.) Most things that start small, stay small. I haven't done an analysis of why this distribution arises in practice, but there are some people who have some very interesting ideas.

Anyways, I wanted to kick off this blog with some meta-thoughts on the history and practice of, well, kicking things off. Starting a blog looks (and I guess now, feels) alot like a first date, or meeting a friend of a friend- which is to say, often awkward and unintentionally amusing. I find that these experiences are helped if you have some sort of ideology (or better yet, a life-changing experience, like visiting Budapest) to discuss and get you through the occasional lulls in conversation. This blog will fill those lulls with thoughts on the current state of software for the quantitatively inclined- particularly statistical packages like SAS and R, since I'm a statistical software developer- but including Matlab, Mathematica, and whatever other obscure package that I come across. Like many blogs, this will no doubt include several rants, since I find all of these packages lacking in some way or another, and critiquing their shortcomings is much more fun than creating something of my own.

In between the rants, you'll find my thoughts on the business of software, politics and the state of the nation, what I've been reading and listening to lately, and the fortunes of my beloved Duke Blue Devils (who took a beating at the hands of Michigan State last night that I will spend several weeks recovering from.) I hope you enjoy and that you'll come back to visit often.