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Problem Finding, Department of

There have been so many books and things about problem-solving that we figure most problems are already solved. So we need more problems to keep all those expert problem solvers busy.

Thursday, November 18, 2004


RSS overloads and the shush index.

A recent podcast at ITconversations.com was concerned about the large amount of information people can get when you cross weblogs with RSS. The discussion was mostly G2G (Geek to Geek), But technicals aside, the main issue was how to filter the results to keep what you want and discard the rest. I don’t make heavy use of RSS, so I am not overloaded yet. But I am getting a lot of my news from Pluck and the Beta RSS from Yahoo. And I have noticed that I would like to be able to filter out a lot of news feeds.

Here are some of my favorite candidates for the discard pile: wardrobe malfunction; flu vaccine; wearable computer; Vioxx; global warming; gay marriage; stem-cell research.; mad cow disease.

I don't want to read any more news items about these things. I think some of them are hypernews (more hype than news). Some are important, but I think all the useful news has been covered. Anything more and my cat will want to cover it. Some of topics will have significant news once in a while, but I want to hear it from better qualified sources.

The technology for this kind of filtering is already available. It is routinely used to exclude items in search. Yahoo, for example, could easily offer this exclusion as a feature on MyYahoo! pages. No just for RSS, but also for their regular news. A little more personalization. And Yahoo could use these lists in a feedback report. It already reports on search terms (Buzz index) and the most read items. Maybe people would be interested in a weekly list of the shush index: the items that people least want to hear about. I'm guessing that the news media would be interested. Editors might benefit. They might even use it.


Monday, November 15, 2004


Is book publishing caught in the web?

Somebody asked how the future of book publishing looks in the shadow of the web. Here is how it looks to me.

The web makes a nearly perfect market from the view of economists. Perfect price information obtained at almost no cost. That makes the perfect storm from the standpoint of retailers. Anything that can be a commodity becomes a commodity. What makes a commodity is perfect product information. If all products with same identifiers are interchangeable, they become commodities. The market settles into price competition. Cue the Wal-Mart.

As I started thinking through the implications of this for the publishing industry, I first thought in terms of the standard parts (Author, agent, publisher, retail, customer). How will retail change, for example. That, I eventually realized, was my usual horseless carriage thinking. ("Put them new gasoline engines in carriages and all you have is a horseless carriage. A few minor changes, that's all.")

So now I'm thinking a gedanken redesign. What are the essential elements of what we now call the book publishing industry? How were those elements provided in the past? How could they be provided in the world of the web? Assume self-published e-books as a low cost starter.

What functions have books served in the past? I wish I had an exit poll from Barnes & Noble with percentage breakdowns: Why did you buy this book? Publishers probably have some information on this.

What book functions require a physical book? I have not subscribed to a newspaper in years. They used to provide me with news. Yahoo now does that better. Books provide information. Is that function challenged by web resources? A book is a tangible gift. How strong is that function now that people use gift certificates from Amazon?

What processes will be available for delivery of a physical book? Local retailer, remote shipping, print-on-demand service, or print my own copy from an Adobe download. Note that the last two allow great possibilities in personalizing. For example, as a gift.

What technology will be available to replace a physical book? I am in the process of replacing all the physical magazines that I read for information. I have an online subscription to Consumer's Reports. I use KeepMedia.com as my main window to the general magazines. I still want paper for content I read while relaxing. I haven't seen any suitable technology to replace that yet, but it might come soon. Google just gave me 17M returns from: digital screen, including an item: Next digital screen could fold like paper. Connect a digital screen to my Wi-Fi net or to a 20G audio player. Maybe you get technology for lounging around.

What might replace the specialized help you get from specialized retailers? Here (drumroll, please) I have an actual idea: Specialized websites that give the same kind of help. They sell links and clicks. They leave to retailing to Amazon and Wal-Mart. For self-published e-books, they may offer the download, handle the transaction, and take a part of the payment . That’s just like publishers. Yeah, publishers are the middle-men in this story. Think of them as a new version of Willy Loman.

What might replace the editorial, filtering, and credentialing functions of publishers? Aside from printing books, a known publisher represents a brand. They are not going to put "Woman Gives Birth to Space Alien" on their non-fiction list. At least not yet. Here, I have an idea again. That's two in a row, although it is the same idea. If anybody can publish, people will want a responsible (branded) website that gives some assurance of qualifications and quality.

Who will provide the marketing and promotion? Is this going to be three in a row? And how often can I reuse the same idea? Those specialized websites can do only part of the job here. I used to hear book reviews on NPR (ATC). Now I listen to KenRadio, WebTalk Guys, IT conversations, and Adam Curry. I never hear book reviews. A specialized website could probably get access to NPR archives and organize playlists to produce a 20 minute podcast on, for example, recent (nontechincal) books about cancer research. (Note the importance of credentialing here. NPR will probably pick qualified reviewers.) If there aren't enough reviews, the website could ask for reviews from university faculty. One in the technical field and one in the English department. Or put them together and let them argue like Siskel and Ebert.

Well, that's the best I can do for now. One of the great things about being alive is that next week I'll know more. I’ll even think of things I left out. Some of them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Picks in a Pod

One important thing about the web. Low barriers to entry, as the economists would say. Or in the words of the sage, when everyone talks, no one listens. Take music for example. Those record labels, Wolfman Jack, and even payola did serve a filtering function. Now anyone can get their music out there. But few will get noticed.

Somebody suggested the concept of stock in artists with potential. (Potential means you ain't done it yet.) Somebody suggested perks that might go to fans who are early adopters. I prefer to the Hollywood motto: "Ask not what you can do for your fans. Ask what your fans can do for you."

So imagine this new band, the Turtles in the Garage. Set up in their garage under a bare light bulb. Burlap on concrete floor. Plastic foam stapled to the wall to cut the bounce. Known for their ability to blend Texas Swing with Memphis Blues. And for their occasional venture into swallowing live frogs. (What do you expect of turtles?)

If you ever get to hear them play, you may think they are going somewhere. This is the earnest prayer of the neighbors.

If you believe in them, you can invest in them by working as a free publicist. They want to make that easy for you. They want to offer you perks that make you glad and will help you to publicize them. The first (cheap) level is web-distributed materials. Pictures on a web site for downloading. The band set up in that garage. Or individual photos. They carry the current date and "---- we love you." You get to choose from a set of common names. Including pet names like Honey, Babe, and Beauttiful. (These pet names work well with young males, who can send them to all the girls they know.)

Yes, there are music downloads, too. Some of their best work, with the reminder that you can pass the file on to your friends. But not too much of that. Instead, they post practice sessions and out-takes (clearly identified). Gives it a personal feel to hear performers make mistakes. And if they ever break out on American Idol, that clip may be worth money.

Next level: Sell a little. Maybe enough to finance a little studio time. What they sell is dedicated pieces. You pick the piece and get a personalized file that starts: "We want to dedicate this song to ....." You select from a list of common names. Your own name or someone you want to impress. You can also get personalized practice sessions in which the name is mentioned in several breaks, along with pseudo-personalized comments (using the established tricks of astrology). Maybe for a high enough price, you get a genuinely personalized session. That file could make you money some day. Anyway, you'll send it out to everyone you know.

For a tangible equivalent of a stock certificate, they will send really active fans genuinely autographed memorabilia, along with certificate of authenticity. Twenty years from now it may be as valuable as those old Superman comics my mother threw out.

But the Turtles still need visibility. So maybe there is the "DeeJays in a Pod" site. Aspiring deejays make podcasts (delivered through Rob Greenlee's downloadmedia.org, of course). Visitors can pick any of them and listen to the product. At the site, registered members can comment and vote on the deejays, on the artists, and on each piece of music. They can sign up as fans of particular deejays and artists. That takes them to a page where they can find products and memorabilia. (Note that the podcasts are designed to drive traffic to the site. This may help in working with advertisers.)

When you sign up as a fan, you get a question: "Who first recommended this artist to you?" There will be some arrangement like Ryze that lets you identify and contact your friends on the site. You will probably identify another site member in response to this question. Of course, the personal network feature will also help to build fan clubs.

Later you want to recruit other fans. You get a FanDangle point for each new fan you recruit. You may get various perks for being a productive fan. If one of your choices gets big enough to be in a concert, you may get a free ticket. If one goes Platinum, you get a Colonel Parker award. That will probably get you a walk on the stage at some concert.

Meanwhile, of course, all this rating helps people pick their pods. I'm still wondering who is going to do this. Maybe somebody already is. If not, this looks like a promising ecological niche. Who wants to be a JayPod?

Monday, November 08, 2004


Wherable Computing

This began in stealth mode. Normal people never noticed. Even the Geek squad didn’t see what was happening. The people who write about wearable computers probably noticed. But they didn’t say a lot about it.

The first hint came with the cell phones. The ones that clip on your belt or fit in your purse. Wearable cell phones. But not computers.

Then came the PDA. Maybe a little big to be called wearable. But certainly carry-aroundable. This should have been the tip-off. The PDA is a computer. And you can wear it if you really want to.

Then the iPod. Looks like just a replacement for the Sony Walkman. A wearable music player. Things like this have been around for years, along with wearable radios. Nobody would notice anything new here. But is this the beginning of the slippery slope that leads us into the depths of wearable computers?

Now we reach the Smart Phone maneuver. Put the capabilities of the PDA into a portable phone. The Smart Phone becomes the PDA-killer. But you can wear it. Doesn’t that make it a wearable computer. Nah. It’s just a smart phone.

Meanwhile, the wearable music player mutates. It develops a 20 gigabyte disk, the kind that goes in computers. It also grows a USB port, suspiciously like those things on computers. It becomes able to gather, store, and deliver files just like a computer. And it is wearable. But nobody would call it a computer.

Now there are two digital wearable devices, a smart phone and an audio player. They both handle audio. They both manage files. They both have batteries to charge. They both clip on the belt or fit in the purse. Plenty of opportunity for crossbreeding.

They also have differences. The audio player has an ear bud, depriving people of the opportunity to hold the device to the ear. The smart phone has a speaker to remind people that the purpose of the hand is to hold a phone to your ear. A hybrid device could offer both methods and the convenient service of pausing the audio play when you get a phone call. It would also help the phone service to sell audio downloads. Local weather and targeted traffic reports would be of particular interest to commuters. But it could carry podcasts or music. It could draw on the web. Much like a computer.

Of course the hybrid would just be a smarter phone. Nobody would call it a wearable computer. Not even if it Dell fixed it to make recordings. Not even if Apple made it show pictures and videos. Not even if everybody made it connect to Wi-Fi nets, just like a notebook computer. Not even if it has a cute little keyboard designed for elfin fingers.

Will there ever be wearable computer? Of course not. Just a Personal Communicator (PC). Handles all your audio traffic (direct, voice mail, voice IM, news casts, podcasts, music). Handles all your text traffic (email, IM, SMS, web pages, web interaction). Can voice your text traffic to you if you want. Handles your contact list and your calendar. May uses your glasses as a virtual monitor. Can send orders to your home computer/entertaiment center. So it may replace that remote that is somewhere in the living room furniture. A wearable remote.

But it will remain in the stealth mode. You won’t really know (or care) where the computing is done. You will just communicate your orders from where you are. Wherable computing. You get on with what you want to do. And the people who write news items about wearable computers can keep on writing. Or maybe write off into the sunset, off to that Great Where in the sky.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


The Future of IM

Somebody asked about the future of IM. That suggested my next item on “You know you’re in Geeksville when:”

You have to run three programs to get a two letter service.

Actually, I don’t see a big future for text IM. I don’t people will type when they can talk. I have used and liked Microsoft IM for voice conferencing. I never use it for text messaging. I think IM will morph into VIM. Voice IM. Here’s my scenario:

You handle all contacts through your WA (Web Assistant). This is probably part of your extended ISP service, taking advantage of the immediate and trusted connection with your ISP. Your WA has a list of your contacts and the ways you can reach them. That means phone, voice mail, e-mail, IM, VIM, and conferencing (at least). When you select my name, your WA updates the display to show my current contact status. It just checks with my WA. (I’ll have my secretary call your secretary.) That part of my WA is running at my ISP, so nothing comes to my computer. My WA knows my status because my computer sends it private messages as needed.

My status includes what contacts I am currently accepting. You are on my contact list, with IM and VIM authorized and prioritized. I also told my WA my current status (I am offline except to top priority). So your WA shows VIM (Offline). You can send me a VIM, but don’t expect a quick response from me.
Now a slight change. Current IM providers see a proprietary advantage in not connecting to other services. So your WA packages your VIM as e-mail. My WA is working at my ISP and reads my e- mail as soon as it comes in. My ISP is SBC, which is in a position to expedite communications. So, even though it is e-mail, the delivery is probably instant in a human time frame.

My WA notes that there is a VIM for me and that I have just indicated I am back online to everyone. Part of my WA is on my computer and that part will take IM from the other part. So I get a text message saying I have a VIM from you. IM works the same way: It is wrapped in an e-mail, with an IM marker on it. If I am accepting IM, I get the message from you. The difference is that it is not handled by MS or AOL for their proprietary advantage. It is handled by my WA, which works for me and does what I want.

If I am not accepting IM, the WA will have other instructions. Default: email. If I am actually away, I may have set messages from you at top priority. My WA will know how to reach me (private cell phone number, for example). It will call me and offer to deliver the message; Play a VIM file or read (text-to-speech) a text IM.

You will, of course, get an immediate response from my WA. It will say essentially the same things a secretary would say if you called to leave a message.

Results: I have a port open for my WA, but nobody else can reach it because my ISP is blocking it. My WA screens for SPIM, viruses, and other unwanted items. It also uses the priorities I put in my contacts file.

My WA can file all my IM messages along with my e-mail. It can use the same folder rules and it can search both at the same time. That cures the archiving problems unless you get a subpoena. I will have suggestions on this. Partly because I used my Vulcan rule (Seek the superset.) Here, the superset is the set of all services like IM. The WA would handle many of these services, so I’ll probably comment on some of them. Then, too, I am sure some people will explain to me why this can’t be done. It is always interesting to keep track of the reasons why something can’t be done. Good reading after the thing is done.


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