Might Have Been Facebooks

Facebook and Twitter are omnipresent platforms that emerged almost out of nowhere to attain their current positions. Five years from now, they may be gone or in decline, but they seem to be going from strength to strength at the moment. So how is it that tech giants like Microsoft, Google and (back then) AOL and Yahoo failed to create Facebook, Twitter or something akin to them?

Consider Flicker, owned by Yahoo. It had a dedicated set of users who loved to share pictures, something that Facebook now dominates in a less aesthetically pleasing way. Instead of charging people for more storage, what if it had made unlimited storage free and done some advertising? Add in a chat capability and you have a proto-Facebook. It wouldn’t have taken many more steps to roll in micro-blogging or what we now know as status updates, presto – Facebook!

Or what about AOL chat? From 2000-2005 or so, it was *the* thing, almost what Twitter is now. How hard would it have been for AOL to give users the ability to publish their IM’s to the wider world if they wanted to, and to follow the updates of other users?  Technically, it seems like it would have been a trivial effort. How did Microsoft, with its vast sums of money, not foresee the coming move to social in the early Oughts?

I  don’t know, but it does show that large companies have a terribly hard time in forecasting the future. Indeed, we all do. Maybe some people out there saw what was coming, but my guess is that it was mostly just time and chance that led to the explosion of Facebook and Twitter. AOL and Yahoo were sitting on potential gold mines, and all the while wondering how to get back their pre dot-com mojo. Maybe it is due to the difficulty of executing on new ideas in a big company. Say I am a software engineer at AOL in 2002 and I have this bright idea to turn AIM into what Twitter is, who do I tell? How do I convince the powers in the company that the future isn’t buying Time Warner and creating portals and front pages, but instead is connecting people to each other via a public AIM with status updates? I probably either get shot down or ignored, and the enterprise certainly isn’t going to do a massive implementation on my idea on its beloved core software.

So innovation like that has to come from somewhere else, probably the proverbial college dorm room or Cupertino garage. The same thing is true in a lot of industries. Big companies simply cannot foster the kind of out of the box thinking that produces a Facebook, instead they have to acquire other companies who do their R&D for them. No matter how much they spend and how hard they try, something about the large organization works against real breakthroughs.

LibreOffice and SkyDrive/Google Docs

I believe that there is an extension for LibreOffice Writer to allow integration with Google Docs. I need to try it again to see how well [or unwell] it works. What I would like to see in LibreOffice is the ability to save directly to SkyDrive, DropBox or Amazon’s Cloud Drive.

I know the chances of LibreOffice making some sort of lightweight, online editor in the cloud are remote (although they should seeing as Chromebooks and iPads may be the future), but extensions like I mention would help bridge the gap. While I’m at it, I wish LibreOffice allowed one to download only Writer or the other apps. I never use anything but Writer and don’t want all the other stuff.

Information Overload

Nicholas Carr has an excellent insight into the information tsunami problem that we are in the middle of in this post:

When we complain about information overload, what we’re usually complaining about is ambient overload. This is an altogether different beast. Ambient overload doesn’t involve needles in haystacks. It involves haystack-sized piles of needles. We experience ambient overload when we’re surrounded by so much informationthat is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the neverending pressure of trying to keep up with it all. We keep clicking links, keep hitting the refresh key, keep opening new tabs, keep checking email in-boxes and RSS feeds, keep scanning Amazon and Netflix recommendations – and yet the pile of interesting information never shrinks.

The cause of situational overload is too much noise. The cause of ambient overload is too much signal.

A commenter to the post writes:

Eventually, you just have to recognize limits. You have to get rid of a lot of good stuff. It’s hard.

Another says:

Worse, however, is ‘conversation overload.’ I can walk away from information but walking away from conversations is far more difficult and our technologies make conversation/communication so much easier and that produces more of it.

I think these are apropos sentiments with the thoughts I have had recently about eliminating news (“the junk food of the mind”) from my reading diet. I would also like to weed some more blogs and things like that out of my consumption. Replacing all of that with more solid reading sounds like a good plan.

My iPad Review

Yes, I am one of the fanatics that stood in line on day one of the iPad release to get one. The line was short and it only took about thirty minutes. Here are my disjointed thoughts on ten days with the iPad:
* Heat dissipation. I don’t know where heat from the iPad goes, but there is none to the touch on the unit. You know how when you use a laptop on your lap for any length of time, how the heat is billowing out and you start sweating? The iPad seems to emit no heat and is much easier to cradle when you are reading, surfing, etc.
* The keyboard. It’s still not ideal. Obviously it is far superior to the iPhone, and when you just want to fire off a quick email or something, it works fine. But when it comes to writing stuff like this, or working on documents, it is less than ideal. I bought the keyboard docking station [which I’m typing on right now] and it make life much easier. Personally, I’d be happy with a tablet that assumes the size of a small keyboard [such as this] as a starting point and built the form-factor of the tablet based on that size, but maybe that’s just me.
* Apps. There are some great apps already, and I can only imagine what is to come. I have been drawn into the ABC app in particular, watching Flash Forward and Lost episodes in really nice resolution. I’m a little baffled as to why Safari still doesn’t tab browse on iPad, but I bet that will change. The main thing I want to see is a better reading experience for Google Books. I have lots of old books on Google Books that I plan on reading, and I don’t want to have to reload them every time I come back to the Safari session. Come on Google, [or someone]. The ESV Bible App is slick and it is the first electronic Bible that I can actually enjoy reading due to the portability of the device.
* iBooks. Yes, it is a great reader. Reading anything on the iPad is nice. Web pages are easy to read, zoom in on, and read like a book. They scroll very fast. Mail is clean and nice to read. Books on iBooks are nice as we’ve all seen. The downside for me to date is that the books *I* want are all somewhat esoteric and are not available on iBooks, or Kindle for that matter. The religious section of the bookstore isn’t too impressive right now, but I expect that to get way better too. I like reading plain old PDFs on the iPad, and that may be the primary route I go as time goes on.
The reading experience is better than any other computer platform. You can carry it anywhere and read in any position. On the floor, upside down, in a chair, the usual convoluted ways that I sit when reading a book I can duplicate whilst reading on the iPad. Not being captive to a monitor, not having to worry about heat, and having an immense battery life all make this possible. The battery goes on and on compared to a laptop – it is as good as advertised.

That’s the brief rundown. I look forward to future versions of the device, and for Google to enter the market in the future. I think we’ll see all kinds of innovation in this market, and the need for laptops and even desktops may fade away for many home users. The world is shifting around us again.

What’s Wrong with SkyDrive?

So here we are in 2010 and Microsoft SkyDrive is still sitting around not doing much. Yes, you can now edit Excel and PowerPoint files online, but Word, the tool that most of the world still has to use, is still unavailable for editing. Also, when you view your Documents folder, you have no option to select multiple files at the same time and perform an action to all of the files at once….in 2010…from the biggest software company ever.

They must be devoting a paltry amount of money and time to this service. Then, there is Office Live Workspace, which offers a better view of files, albeit one that looks like SharePoint in the cloud. Still, there is no ability to edit the document outside of Word on your local PC. What is the deal? Google Docs, which does not have as good an interface as Word, is still able to do all these things and has been for some time.

The issue can’t be ability, because Microsoft has to have the capabilities to do these seemingly simple tasks. Is Microsoft undergoing internal debates about how user-friendly to make these services and thereby taking forever to improve them? After all, who would really want to pay for Office anymore if we have the ability to do everything on SkyDrive, Office Live or some future combination of all these weird services in combination with free stuff like OpenOffice, Adobe Acrobat.com and Google Apps? But that is the future, whether Microsoft fights it or plays along. If they don’t want to make it available, Google will just keep cleaning their clock, even though Google’s interface and icons are corny and cartoonish at this point.

Either way, looking at SkyDrive and all of Windows Live you get the feel of 2004 or so. It looks like no one has thought about it much, it doesn’t work well, it seems poorly designed and it is ugly. Maybe this will all change. I hope so because I’d like to use it more.

Going Paperless

I bought a new scanner – I really haven’t had a workable one for years and years – so I am now setting out to scan every bit of paper in the house that I can and upload it to the cloud. I want to throw away as many papers, documents and magazines as I can and keep it all electronically. This is a laborious process but I expect it to pay dividends in the end. I hope to eliminate a lot of clutter and searching for things this way.

Future Digital Conundrums

Watching the unveiling of the iPad today spurred me to reflect on some possible problems that may occur in future years of our digital age. For example, movies, books and software that I have purchased do not reside with me physically, but are located in the cloud (on a server somewhere in the ether). Assuming that Apple still exists when I die, can my descendants continue to use my Apple ID and password to access all of the accumulated music, books and software I have purchased? Will the government charge an inheritance tax on all the music I pass down via my Apple account? Can someone keep my Gmail account active so that my lifetime of correspondence can be accessed by a future family historian?

And think of the intense amounts of work that will be required by future historians. We think of the Civil War as the most documented conflict due to thousands of diaries and letters that historians must consult in addition to official accounts and government documents. But can you imagine what a future writer on anything will have to wade through in terms of e-communication to get a complete account of something? Millions of web pages, blog posts, e-mails, documents and videos. It staggers the mind to contemplate it. Perhaps they will simply give up and selectively cull the information to try and stay sane. Or perhaps our records now are less permanent unless they are printed. Take away electricity and all of it vanishes, whereas scrolls and books lasted a few centuries in the past. So maybe the staggering amounts of data generated right now will all be gone. But just think of the future historian trying to write a history of the 2008 Presidential election. How did the people see it? How did the media see it? What did the candidates think? Imagine poring through millions of e-mail with some sort of search algorithm or index. Reading texts from Barrack Obama’s Blackberry, posts from millions of common-man blogs, news articles from sites all over the world and on and on.The task seems daunting.

The cellphone ends gridlock?

Tonight before heading for home I weighed two alternatives – the main roads, possibly clogged with Thanksgiving traffic, or the back roads, slower, but more empty. I fired up the maps app on the iPhone and saw flashing red for the main roads. The iPhone uses the active cell phones on the road to estimate traffic. I happily avoided the mess and took the back roads home.

Could apps like this in people’s hands cut out the heart of congestion? I doubt it in on the macro level, because there just aren’t enough roads in northern Virginia to avoid systemic failure every day. But they may help to begin changing how we navigate, and might be the beginning of a solution to the most dreaded problem in all of Virginia.