Lunchtime Musings: too much bandwidth, or too little imagination?

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BusinessWeek, May 29, 2007

But once you have 100Mbps or more available at home, what the heck are you going to do with all that bandwidth? For the average consumer, 6Mbps should more than suffice for today’s typical needs, whether it’s downloading music, watching the occasional video, or even running a home network that lets two or three computers do the same all at once. Does anyone really care whether that song download from iTunes (AAPL) takes 10 seconds or 2 seconds?

GigaOM, December 20, 2005

“Can a consumer tell any difference between 1.5 megabit per second and four megabit per second service?” asks Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group, Inc. “The answer is no.

And if I had the time, I’m sure I could dig through Usenet archives and find an article from 1995 noting that for most users—other than those W4r3Z guys, of course—the difference between 14.4 and 28.8 really wasn’t noticeable.

Thinking about broadband, in the US at least, is fundamentally warped because we’re stuck in the mental rut of “a fatter pipe means we get things faster,” rather than thinking about the fact that a fatter pipe means that we can move a lot more data around. Both quotes above display the same plodding failure of imagination: they’re thinking about how long it will take to do what we can already do, and largely ignoring the fact that a fatter pipe also opens up new possibilities.

If we stipulate that “more data moving around” is the really interesting part of fatter pipes into the home, that does underline one big issue: we need to correct the current dramatic asymmetry between download speeds and upload speeds. If I’m 30Mbit down but still stuck at an absurd 768k up, very little that’s interesting can happen. Bump the upload speed a bit and things start getting fun.

You’ve got P2P/Bittorrent/change-how-distribution-works scenarios, both commercial and non-commercial. The “local computer becomes dumb local storage, buy bulk storage, processing power, and software as a service” idea starts looking more feasible. You can flip that idea on its head and create a VRM style “I am my own silo of identity, transaction, and attention data stored securely and locally, and I can quickly and at will provide a subset of that data to a vendor when initiating a relationship or transaction” deal.

Sure, the ideas above are varying degrees of half-baked and/or wild-eyed, but if you stop thinking about “fast” broadband and start thinking about “can move a lot of data” broadband, I’ll bet that you’ll all start coming up with better ideas of your own real quick. You’re welcome.

Stupid Ideas have a Halo

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As the operator of 250 Labs, I read Techdirt’s post entitled Internet Economics: Making Stupid Ideas Cheaper To Bring To Market and immediately thought “hey—how did Techdirt get access to my super-secret business plan?”

Alas, the Techdirt post is actually focused on Guy Kawasaki’s Truemors venture as an example of how the ever-decreasing costs of starting up a Web venture mean that people can throw pretty much anything online just to see whether it sticks. If you have an idea and can write a little code (or have a few grand to hire someone to do it), you’ve got yourself a Web Venture. No angels or VC required, no irritating questions about whether the idea is worth the bits and bandwidth it will consume, you just slap it up there and let the Internet decide.

As Techdirt’s Carlo notes, the low cost won’t change a bad idea into a good idea, but (though I may be misreading his tone in the post) I’m less grumpy about that fact than Carlo seems to be. To me the central issue is that people can convert ideas into real, functioning code quickly, easily, and at low cost; sure, that means you get a lot of crap, but it also means that in amongst that crap are a few gems that otherwise would never have seen the light of day.

Matt Terenzio also posted about Truemors recently, at a point when the site was having some WordPress issues, with the lament:

All kidding aside, I wonder if web development is dead. Just hack WordPress.

No. Web development is certainly not dead, but it’s no longer a required skill for those who just want to get a simple service live on the Web. Between the various blogging, content management, forum, and what-have-you packages available (to say nothing of Ning and dozens of APIs for those who know enough about code to start digging holes for themselves), many ideas can be implemented by the semi-technical hoi polloi.

Will they be implemented well in this manner? Sometimes yes, sometimes no…but the same could be said of Web Ventures that are coded from scratch. If I want some specific functionality and can take advantage of the code that the WordPress folks have already written, isn’t it a little silly of me to rewrite that functionality (investing an increased amount of time and/or money) just because it wasn’t invented here in my laptop?

Even if my idea is good, getting a prototype out there fast, so that I can see what really works in the wild and what doesn’t has huge benefits: when and if I write the code from scratch, I’m focusing on the parts that matter to users, rather than the parts that I personally am obsessed with.

My arguments in favor of putting bad ideas on the Web are pretty similar to those that I presented a couple of days ago in Twitter has a Halo:

It’s not just that you get a lot of people working on Twitter-related things, it’s that you get a lot of different people working. The fractional horsepower approach breeds strange and interesting results from its many inputs.

As with Twitter, so with ideas: getting a lot of different people putting their “hey, this could be cool…” ideas out there for evaluation just means that there’s more input to play with. Hell, I never see about five nines worth of the Internet, anyway, so why should I complain about what people are putting up there? If somebody creates something interesting, it’ll bubble up to my attention eventually. If they never create it…?

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes: even with the very low-profile approach to generating revenue that I’ve currently got, 250 Labs is at least breaking even this year. God bless low expectations. God bless the Internet.

VRM and Public Broadcasting

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The wide variety of demands on my time have meant that I haven’t been able to contribute much to Project VRM recently, but VRM is one of those ideas that won’t leave you alone: it makes so much sense and has so much potential that it just keeps popping up.

With the end of WNYC’s latest pledge drive today, I’ve got VRM and NPR on the brain (even more so than usual), so I’m passing along the text of a note that I sent to the Project VRM mailing list a few months ago.

One of the issues that we’re very likely to hit with many VRM initiatives is the chicken/egg problem on adoption: vendors aren’t likely to devote resources to implementation until there’s a clear critical mass of demand, and customers aren’t likely to devote their own resources until they’re getting a clear return on the time and effort required to actively participate in a VRM-style relationship.

This isn’t something that we need to address immediately, and there are a variety of ways to work with the problem, but it got me thinking about the exceptions to this rule…so I’ll toss out the idea that public broadcasting is right now an example of a vendor that’s trying to implement VRM but failing for lack of adequate tools (and probably lack of a clear understanding of the issues involved).

The language and ideology of public broadcasting is already relationship focused. You don’t “buy” or “license” access to public broadcasting, but rather “become a member.” All stations that receive funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are required to (among other things) hold open meetings and maintain a Community Advisory Board, requirements that are intended to keep public broadcasters engaged with (i.e. in a relationship with) their “customer” communities at a level beyond simple, transactional financial support.

The difficulty seems to be determining what the vendor<->customer should be after the pledge drive is over, and—only after that question is answered—figuring out how to facilitate that relationship.

I’ve been a member of WNYC since my return to New York City seven years ago. We don’t necessarily give a huge amount of money, but at least once a year we provide some financial support. But what else? I know that there are other “membership benefits,” and also that I could volunteer to man a table at an event or something, but I’m not sure that cumulative transaction count really ends up making a relationship.

From the VRM perspective, I’d like to know what both WNYC and I can do to build on the specific, unique relationship that we already have. Right now, WNYC knows enough about me to bill my credit card and (I assume) knows my contribution history. Not much to build a relationship on. In my case I’d be happy to provide more information to WNYC if that would help them figure out what else we could do together, and I suspect that there are a fair number of other people who would do the same.

Hence our starting question: beyond listening to things that I enjoy (me) and receiving financial support (WNYC), what do we both want from this relationship?

Microsoft’s Patent Strategy: Now It Can Be Revealed

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From Slashdot:

CptRevelation writes “Microsoft has released more detailed information on the patents supposedly in breach by the open-source community. Despite their accusations of infringement, they state they would rather do licensing deals instead of any legal action. […]”

bzzt…bzzzt…automatic translation system now online…

GraspingTheObvious writes “Microsoft has released more detailed information on the patents supposedly in breach by the open-source community. Despite their accusations of infringement, they state they would rather have companies give them big stacks of money in exchange for vague threats instead of having to spend years and a lot of money in court with no guarantee that (a) the patents will hold up, nor that (b) the potentially infringing code will still be in the software by the time the matter is decided. […]”

Twitter has a Halo

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As a borderline obsessive registrant of odd domains, I am a veritable storehouse of borderline interesting domain registration trivia.

The binary representations of ASCII alpha characters? Already registered in their .com forms, for the most part — particularly those with appealing patterns (i.e. “U” as 01010101.com, or the beautifully symetrical 01011010.com for “Z”).

Clever english wordplay taking advantage of the .us extension? If I tell you that abdomino.us is taken (abdominous, adjective: having a large belly; potbellied) does that give you a sense of what the remaining possibilities are like in our post-del.icio.us world?

So why am I telling you this? Because I read Fred Wilson’s post “The New Journalism?” over the weekend. The post is well worth reading in its entirety, and it closes with an interesting assertion:

Just because it’s said in 140 characters or less doesn’t mean it’s not journalism. To think otherwise is patronizing and wrong.

While I don’t entirely agree with his statement, it has started an interesting discussion. It is, however, a discussion that I’m going to ignore completely. (Those of you who have visited my about page may recall that I dropped out of journalism school, too.)

The thought that immediately popped into my head upon finishing the post was not “this feeds into some interesting discussions on the formal changes in ‘journalism’ that have been occurring in recent years,” nor even “I’m sure Fred knows that we already did New Journalism back in the ’60s, so this would have to be ‘new new journalism’ or ‘neo-journalism’ or something,” but rather “I should totally register 140characters.com and drop a Twitter-related service up there.”

You see where I’m going with this now, right? I couldn’t register 140characters.com — a relatively obscure and tortured geek reference masquerading as a domain name — because it was snatched up on March 14th…smack in the middle of SXSW, otherwise known as TwitterCon 2007.

The same person appears to have gotten 140chars.com a couple of weeks later, too, and both domains are currently showing the default RoR install page. I feel confident in asserting that we’ll either see a twitter+misc. feature X clone or (more likely in my estimation) an add misc. feature X to your twitter experience offering in the near future.

Yesterday GigaOm pointed to Five Twitter Tools We Love (Twitterment, Twittervision, Twitteriffic, Alex King’s WordPress Twitter Tool, and Where.com’s GPS Twitter), and Dave Winer is very clearly and publicly enamored of Twitter’s potential for extension. So Fred Wilson sees the evolving relationship between society and journalism in Twitter, Dave Winer sees a technology “coral reef,” and you can’t swing a cat without hitting somebody’s idea for a twitter-related service.

Does this mean that Twitter is, in fact, the Next Big Thing? God, I hope not — I still can’t really get into it, truth be told. But my liking it isn’t the point here…what’s interesting is not the steep adoption curve, or the blogtwitter on Twitter, but rather the fact that many, many people seem to respond to Twitter by thinking “hey, I can extend Twitter to do X…hmmmm, now what happens if I do Y, as well?”

That halo effect — that people want to build on and around Twitter, and can do so easily — is more interesting than Twitter itself. Sure, part of the effect comes from developers’ mercenary need to self-promote by catching on to the Twitter wave, but what’s wrong with that? It’s not just that you get a lot of people working on Twitter-related things, it’s that you get a lot of different people working. The fractional horsepower approach breeds strange and interesting results from its many inputs.

Of course it also means that there are that many more people competing with me for odd and entertaining domain names, but that’s a sacrifice that I’m willing to make.

Bonus Content
You too can become the life of the party with Web 2.0 domain name trivia: what domain name popped into Jack Dorsey’s head when he first imagined Twitter? Answer here.


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