February 28, 2005

Jef Raskin stands atop a cliff holding a remote in one hand and a model plane in another, ready for launch

This is an outline for a computer designed for the Person In The Street (or, to abbreviate: the PITS); one that will be truly pleasant to use, that will require the user to do nothing that will threaten his or her perverse delight in being able to say: "I don't know the first thing about computers," and one which will be profitable to sell, service and provide software for.

You might think that any number of computers have been designed with these criteria in mind, but not so.

Jef Raskin's vision for The Macintosh computer, taken from a memo dated May 1979 when the Macintosh project he was heading was still called Annie. Read the rest of the memo, Design Considerations.

Jef Raskin passed away this Saturday evening at his home with family and friends to his side and favorite music playing. His untimely death comes within a month of having secured $2 million start-up funding for the Aza project, a revolutionary concept involving "unified" computer programs with an interface dramatically different from anything that currently exists. The Raskin Centre was preparing for an initial release of Aza in a years time.

Wired Magazine on Jef Raskin
Demo of Aza, the Zoomable User Interface (jump to the bottom of the page)
Recent photographs and audio interview
Raskin Centre secures funding for Aza
The early years of The Macintosh

February 20, 2005

The India You Never Knew?

The latest issue of New Scientist features a special report on India's rapid rise towards becoming a knowledge superpower, arguing that it is India's intellectual capital that's behind the rise and not its 'cheap labour.' It's an India story that's largely been ignored by mainstream US media. The special issue features stories from India's advances in space programme, in nuclear physics, genetics, pharmaceuticals, mobile phone network distribution and also about expatriate entrepreneurs returning to India, internet connected villagers and innovations in astrophysics.

Much of the recent gains have roots in India's heavy investment in education during Nehru led (socialist flavored) India of the 50s and 60s. The real push however came in early 90s when cash strapped India decided to go the market economy way. In the budget speech to Indian parliament that outlined the economic reforms, India's finance minister famously quoted Victor Hugo -- "No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come".

The Indian economy hasn't looked back ever since. Washington Times recently called India the fourth largest economy in the world and CIA predicts it to be a competitor to the US by 2020. The prediction may well be on its way to realization if Indian leadership is any indication. The finance minister of early 90s, a noted economist and father of Indian economic reforms -- Dr. Manmohan Singh, is now India's Prime Minister. We also have a visionary President who has authored several books and worked as a rocket scientist before his current job.

The excerpt below is from NewScientist.com (my emphasis).
India: The next knowledge superpower

There's a revolution afoot in India. Unlike any other developing nation, India is using brainpower rather than cheap physical labour or natural resources to leapfrog into the league of technologically advanced nations. Every high tech company, from Intel to Google, is coming to India to find innovators. Leading the charge is Infosys, the country's first billion-dollar IT company.

But the revolution is not confined to IT. Crop scientists are passionately pursuing GM crops to help feed India's poor. Some intrepid molecular biologists are pioneering stem-cell cures for blindness, while others have beaten the odds to produce vaccines for pennies.

And the country is getting wired up as never before. Mobile phone networks have nearly blanketed the country and the internet is even reaching remote villages.

Looking skyward, India's unique space programme has fought international sanctions to emerge as key player in India's development. Meanwhile, India's nuclear industry is boldly building cutting-edge fast-breeder reactors.

However, there are dramatic problems of poverty and infrastructure. To transform the nation, Indians will have to change their way of thinking about science and technology, take risks in research, and deal with the issues of education, infrastructure, bureaucracy and corruption.

New Scientist Special Report on India
BBC profile of Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh
BBC profile of Indian President, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam
Books authored by the Indian President
India is the fourth largest economy in the world: Washington Times
India will be Economic Giant predicts CIA
Slideshow of Infosys campus, India's most well known IT company
(The campus facilities put Googleplex to shame. They include swimming pools, Asia's largest video wall, one of Asia's largest gym and three food courts inside a building designed on the lines of Sydney Harbor Opera House. Another Infosys building houses what is world's largest single location training facility.)

February 18, 2005

Jason Fried, on Dyson Vaccuum: "I’m a sucker for a good inventor story. A story about someone seeing a problem, coming up with a killer solution, trying to convince others of its killerness, being rejected time after time and then saying fuck it I’ll build it myself. And then kicking ass." The story is also cited as a model case study on innovation in an Australian university.
Links: Jason's entry on Dyson and how to write cases on innovation.

Seth Godin gets it about state pull down menus on US shopping sites being horrible to use. Exactly an year ago, I pointed out the same on this blog. I don't agree with his reason though... it's not because they're afraid of change, it's because they don't think change is needed. It's such a common, 'standard' element, nobody stops to think about it.
Links: Seth's post, my old post on the topic and my recent, related post.

According to a new Pew study: MP3 players become mainstream media with 11% of US population owning one. Two thoughts: One, this is dramatically transforming the music player industry. As Steve Jobs says in this month's Fortune magazine interview, "Kids aren't getting stereos; they're getting speakers for their iPods. That's become the audio market. People are buying iPods and Bose speakers instead of a JVC or Sony stereo system. And those guys have never come to us and said, "Could we work with you on the iPod?" Some companies are prisoners of their point of view." Second, 11% means only about one in 10, imagine how much growth still remains ahead of the iPod. There's a TV in every one of those homes.
Links: Pew study and Steve Jobs in Fortune interview.

The new Apple-Motorola iTunes phone that's been doing rounds of the rumour circles is now confirmed, it's called the ROKR. The buzz about its design hits the right notes as well -- it's going to be superslim and sport a QWERTY keypad. Perfect. Slim as a form factor is a vastly unexplored area in cellphones, if you ask me (I've always hated Nokia phones for their bulbous shape). Just as a QWERTY keypad was less appreciated about a year or so ago before Treo came and ran with it. Now, only if they find a way to expand the phone lengthwise to make room for that keypad instead of widening it, they'd have a killer phone.
Links: Rumors about the phone, announcement and the bit about its design.

February 17, 2005

"How do you design for stickiness", asked Ziya in a post to the SIGIA discussion list recently. I responded by saying that that's a wrong question. I think aiming for "stickiness" or "lock-in" is a nefarious goal for a business. Here's my complete response as posted on the list:

Can we rephrase the question as: How do you design systems that favor customer loyalty?

By forgetting about stickiness, and delivering such exceptional value over other competitive products/services that customers keep coming back for more.

At least this is one of the lessons I take from the Google vs Yahoo approach. Yahoo's strategy to this day has been to be the only place where customers go for everything. Their search engine in late 90s reflected this approach as it included results from Yahoo's directory and other properties. The idea was to keep the user on their site for as long as possible [it suited their main revenue stream at that time-- banner advertising].

Google took the opposite route. Google came with a singular focus on helping users find the best sources of information as quickly as possible. They want you to leave their site. The value that their search provided [accuracy of results] was so strong that people kept going back to it. As Google founders say in their interviews [1], if people really care about the information they're looking for, they're not going to stick with one service. They will look at a multitude of sources to find the best one.

Stickiness, if it means doing everything you can to ensure users only use your service, is an evil goal ultimately even though it might seem to work well in the short term. Yahoo's strategy is a "push" strategy, supply focussed rather than the pull strategy of Google, demand focussed. We know who's winning.

Of course, it might not work for everyone. What's critical here is to deliver exceptional value to users that they don't find anywhere else.

[1] Interview 1 Sergey Brin:
My personal feeling is that people focus a little too much on these integration questions. I think if you have a subject you really care about, like if you have diabetes and you want to figure out the latest research on something like that, you're going to use the best research tool in terms of the messengering service you use.

Interview 2 Larry Page:
PLAYBOY: Many Internet companies were founded as portals. It was assumed that the more services you provided, the longer people would stay on your website and the more revenue you could generate from advertising and pay services.

PAGE: We built a business on the opposite message. We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we're happy to send you to the other sites. In fact, that's the point. The portal strategy tries to own all of the information.

PLAYBOY: Portals attempt to create what they call sticky content to keep a user as long as possible.

PAGE: That's the problem. Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web. We feel that's a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn't necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal's results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible. It 's a very different model.

February 15, 2005

Some thoughts have a way of making a home inside your mind, refusing to leave. It can be an idea that's keeping you awake, a face or a fleeting expression you caught during a ride, something you read or a movie you recently watched. It reverberates at the back of your mind over and over even when you're not consciously thinking about it. You may be doing the most mundane things when you suddenly become aware of the face or the voice at the back of your mind that's trying to make itself seen or heard.

Three days ago, I watched a few trailers of the documentary, The Corporation. Among them was this little clip [2.67 mb Real Media] in which Noam Chomsky talks about understanding the corporation. His following words have been echoing in my mind ever since.
When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a... slave owner -- you wanna distinguish between the institution and the individual.

So... slavery for example, or... other forms of tyranny are inherently monstrous. But the individuals participating in them may be the nicest guys you can imagine. Benevolent, friendly, nice to the children, even nice to their slaves, caring about other people. As individuals they may be anything. In their institutional rule, they're monstrous because the institution is monstrous.

The conclusiveness of the rejection shook me up a bit because it challenges my world view. Ever since I was a kid I've always refused to believe that one must employ evil ways to earn a lot of money. I believe that businesses can be good and profitable at the same time. This is at the centre of my respect (read awe) for Google because they have shown it to be true in so many ways. One can imagine this to have larger implications on American businesses in the long run but that's another post.

I've never read Chomsky. I did look up his books once after I read Arundhati Roy so strongly recommended him ("read Chomsky, read Chomsky") in one of her essays (I've read almost all of those). Most of Chomsky's work however, is on U.S. foreign policy and media. I don't have more than passing interest in either subject at this time. So, I'm not sure which of his books to pick up to get his extended thoughts on the corporation or capitalism, a term he dislikes.

I did hear his thoughts on media though. A search for Chomsky's videos led me to this wonderful resource where the first documentary is "The Propaganda Model of News." It's eye opening. You can watch CNN all your life and believe it to be the complete picture. But as Chomsky says in the beginning of the film, "If you wanna understand the way some system works, you look at its institutional structure -- how is it organised, how is it controlled, how is it funded and so on." The rest of the documentary erodes the myth of the liberal media.

I'm usually the last person to believe in conspiracy theories but after you sit through the hour long documentary, there remains little scope to deny the vast evidence presented. The popular media, it argues, is greatly influenced by five main filters - ownership, advertising, newsmakers, newsshapers and flak from pressure groups. This led me to think about whether technology such as Google News' algorithms that decide what gets published can solve this problem in the future. Also, whether a more conscientious owner and relevant advertising would make a difference.

I'll be picking up Manufacturing Consent from my library this week. I think I'm ready for Chomsky now.

February 14, 2005

Mark Jen and Scoble That's Mark Jen on left. Mark is the blogger who got in and out of Google in 10 days because he blogged irresponsibly about the company. He's seen here with Scoble, the famed Microsoft blogger who recently met Mark at a San Jose restaurant. Scoble had nice words to say about Mark and so did Jeremy Zadowny, famous Yahoo! blogger who met Mark Jen as well. Mark recently wrote his account on his blog in which he basically blamed himself.

I can't speculate on the reasons why Mark was fired. But two things seem certain to me. One, Mark's a nice, well meaning, intelligent guy (he has to be!) who displayed poor judgement in bad mouthing about Google when actually he liked his job. Second, I can imagine how his co-workers would have rallied against him inside the company for showing Google in such poor light publicly when they all loved it so much. I even hinted at such a possibility before Mark was fired.

If I managed a tech firm in Silicon Valley, I'd have offered Mark a job as soon as I heard the news. Why? An ex-Googler is out of job, does anyone need a better reason? That doesn't happen everyday as Google has remarkably low attrition rates. There is no greater accomplishment for a tech worker in the Silicon Valley today than to be hired by Google.

It's well known that they have an extraordinarily tough recruiting process at Googleplex and they go to great lengths to attract the best talent. Google has contacts in all the major universities in the US, both, to spot emerging technologies and emerging talent before anyone else does. They make regular visits to universities as well, they hold contests, crazy banner ads, publicise the fun and meaningful working at Google -- all so that they maximize their chances of hiring the best people.

As someone said in the Analyst day webcast, Google is even willing to compromise their expansion plans because they can't hire enough people of the exceptional quality they seek. That shows the kind of commitment they have to hiring. I'd be crazy to let go of this opportunity. The kid made a mistake and he's learnt.

ps: I photoshopped that image from two different images taken by Dennis Cheung, another MS blogger present at the meeting.

February 13, 2005

So I was looking for blogs by Apple employees and I found this little gem of a reminder of user experience as a competitive advantage.
"And that's why I work for Apple. Because it enables 80 year old women to do things like take up audio and video chats with her friends around the globe. Anyone can build these things for geeks who like to dink with stuff. With Apple, you plug it in, it works. And it changes the world, one person at a time."

from: Why I work for Apple, part 37
Meet Joe Kraus. Over at Tom Foremski's blog I found this pic of Joe Kraus. I had no idea Joe Kraus would be so young! I'm a big fan of his writings on entrepreneurship. Joe is the former co-founder of Excite and the man behind JotSpot, the Enterprise Wiki company that Tom calls, "one of the hottest Silicon Valley startups."

If you're an entrepreneur or are interested in entrepreneurship and you haven't read Joe Kraus, I highly recommend taking time out to read up everything he's written on his blog. He started only recently and is not very frequent so there isn't a whole lot of it. But there's so much wisdom in each of his posts, it confounds me how he manages to make absolutely brilliant observations every time he writes something.
I'm trying a new experiment here. I'll post everyday and see how long I manage to do that. If you're a regular reader, you know how slow I'm at updating this blog and how frustrating it is to find the same old post on top on every visit. So hopefully this will change that. Most of the posts however will be brief entries of half-baked thoughts, comments on news, links and other stuff I find interesting -- exactly the kind of posts I deliberately avoided in the past.

When I started this blog, I made a promise to myself to only write about stuff I'm passionate about or that gets me excited. The long essay type entries such as the one on Google Vs. Microsoft, also remain a favorite because they force me to think through an argument.

But such posts are extremely demanding of time. So what happens is, I have an exciting exciting idea to talk about that I do not get to talk about because I don't invest time and effort to think through it to create a persuasive argument. It keeps languishing until it's too late to write or until it doesn't excite me anymore. Now, I'll just go ahead and post it before I make complete sense of it. The longer version won't disappear though. I'll still write long thoughtful arguments whenever I get around to make them.

Oh, if you're wondering why I don't link to a feed...well, that's because Blogger's Atom feed sometimes breaks with my HTML and FeedBurner doesn't help either. So until I find a way to fix that, you'll have to visit the blog.

Hope you'll find it useful and interersting. If I begin to get too boring or off topic for you, drop me a line!