Category Archives: Tech

Visual overlay will be very cool

I’m not making any forecasts about when this is going to happen, but visual overlay will be very cool.

We will still see the world as it is, of course.  But we will be able to add layers.  Layers can give us information like the ratings of a restaurant we see or night vision or heat vision, or little flying arrows showing the direction and speed of the wind.  Layers can also give us controls like interacting with vending machines or unlocking your car, or saving a good bottle of wine.

It will be very cool.

Things have changed since I wrote about this in 2002, but I wasn’t completely wrong: The Etherface


Wikipedia anything you see.  Add people you meet to your contact list with context.  Users generate content.  API lets developers add controls.

The future is not here yet (Google)

I love this line from William Gibson:

The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed

To me, it is a reminder that the things we imagine the future to be are already taking shape in the labs and garages around the world.  It’s also a good reminder that we’re creating our future – that it is up to us – and that our work is what gives the future its trajectory and shape.

Then there is Google.  Their incredible position reflects their inspired work, but the next steps seem so obvious and painfully lacking.  Their  future feels so clear, but the present is terribly clunky.

I got a voice mail using Google Voice.  A transcript and link was sent to my e-mail.  I click on the link and listen to the message.  So far, great.  Now I want to save the message, but there are no links.  I click the “Google Voice” logo, but no dice – not even the logo is linked.  The message mentioned a meeting, so I want to add the meeting to my calendar.  No link for that either, of course.  The page doesn’t even have the standard Google header bar.  Failure to integrate.  Failure to provide basic navigation.  Great functionality hidden in a tangle of stand-alone services that make it hard for users.

The internet giant has everything going for it – the important things at least – but regularly delivers a disappointing user experience.  They have sufficient users, capital, and talent to enter and dominate just about any market they want, but many projects fail because of the easy stuff.  Economies of scale in every corner of the business should give Google a powerful advantage as they enter and grow into new markets, but most times Google trips.

Their typical process appears from the outside to follow a pattern like:

  1. Somebody likes a “20% time” project
  2. Project enters “Google Labs”
  3. APIs launch in Google Code and Google Apps
  4. Failure to integrate among related services
  5. New services must survive alone or they are abandoned

This last piece is important.  Just because you build it doesn’t mean people will come.  Integration with existing services is probably the best way to introduce new services to existing users and maximize value to consumers.

Integration and navigation among Google services is terrible.  I hope this will not be mirrored in Chrome OS and Google TV – these are 2 new business lines that will depend critically on good user experiences.

The idea of Google Labs is great on it’s surface: give new services a place to be refined while  gaining traction and validation.  But don’t sacrifice the vision of leadership.  Performance as individual lab experiments ignores the value these services gain when they are integrated.  Google Wave should have been integrated with Docs and Gmail as early as possible;  instead it was not integrated and cancelled.  Also, dropping the real estate layer from Maps instead of integrating with real estate ad sales … so disappointing.

I hope that lack of integration is not an intentional strategy to avoid becoming evil monopolists.  I know the culture of resentment for what Microsoft did in the operating system and browser markets has left Google feeling careful not to unfairly exploit their position of power.  Actually, I respect them a lot for that.  But integrating among services is not evil; instead, it is exactly what you hope for when you offer an API.  Every Google service should have an incentive to integrate other Google services.  They should also be encouraged to integrate non-Google services.  If Buzz played friendlier with Twitter, I think it’s adoption would have been a couple orders of magnitude better, and instead of Twitter growing essentially alone, there could have been a diversity of integrated messaging services.  Maybe next time…

Management:

There is another problem when Google fails to integrate across services:  incentives.  Because newer projects do not add value to existing services, they are perceived as expensive speculation.   Existing business lines only want to subsidize new business lines if they will add value.  Services in Google Labs that work in isolation or require opt-in for integration add little value to existing services.  I attribute many of the failed launches to this problem.

The future is clear.  Google can become a beautifully integrated suite of services that satisfy all the major demands of modern information-age consumers, including business customers and developers.  It can avoid being evil by opening as many APIs as possible to promote competition – enabling other companies to integrate all the services consumers are growing to expect.

But it’s not there yet.  Time to get back on track.

Improving Google’s “20% time” policy

Google’s “20% time” program is not working as well as it should.  I love the idea of giving passionate engineers the opportunity to invent and build, but the policy needs tweaking.  Here is my recommendation:

  1. Engineers can submit projects to the Google management team.
  2. Managers can approve projects.
  3. Approved projects get resources, including engineering time, to achieve their vision.
  4. Google invests 20% of its engineers’ time to these projects.
  5. Managers’ approvals are tracked, plus bonuses for good records.

Why?  Lots of reasons.  Not every engineer should spend 20% of their time on side projects.   Some engineers should be spending 100% of their time on their side projects, others 0%.   Managers who demonstrate years of good decisions form the teams who lead Google into the future.

For Google to maximize the potential of its great teams and ideas, it needs to embrace a more flexible and competitive policy.  This plan turns Google managers into a sort of investment committee, the result will exploit competition and align incentives to optimize performance.

Net Neutrality: No Compromise

To begin talking about Net Neutrality, it helps to clarify what the internet is. It’s simply data sent via TCP/IP (the protocol for sending data through routers). Some people host web sites, others connect to their company e-mail, others do other things – it’s all the internet.

Understanding that the internet is just a connection using TCP/IP, then Net Neutrality is simple, too. Net Neutrality simply means that your ISP may not interfere with the internet. They may not censor your packets (the data that is sent via TCP/IP). This means they can’t censor your news, keep you off of Skype, restrict your sending and receiving, or otherwise interfere with your communications.

Any compromise on this is wrong for two reasons: 1) Your ISP should not have the right to interfere with your free speech, and 2) ISPs should not be able to tax the value creation of the media industry.

ISPs should not be able to interfere with consumer access to media companies, nor tax those companies for access to consumers. ISPs should not be able to interfere with our speech or block our access to the speech of others.

ISPs are in the business of providing internet access, but they don’t own the internet; any attempts to eliminate net neutrality would violate our consumer rights and hurt the economy.

Industrial Logic

The information age has transformed the economy. The financial service industry has been a tremendous beneficiary with huge financial rewards for innovation and engineering. The financial services sector grew to at least 2nd largest in the US on at least 2 occasions, and that’s not counting banking and securities brokerage*.

Financial engineering created such large returns in the investment industry that it absorbed a large number of top talent from the global workforce for a generation. The industrial world, through automation and logistics applications has changed, too, but not like the financial markets.

Financial engineering has matured and the breakthroughs for systemic outperformance and securitization are harder to find. There is still obvious room to improve how to tailor services for individuals, but you know what I’m saying. Rather than choosing to innovate in the financial services, more engineers will see the best opportunities in industry.

And that gets me to the point: As the information age matures, I think we will see that financial engineering will give way to industrial logic as the most powerful force in the economy. Now that capital is being allocated so efficiently, productivity gains will increasingly come from industrial logic: information systems tied to production and services.

APIs** will be a catalyst for industrial communications. Companies can become part of a global network of improving efficiency, production, services, and innovation.

Reading my Clay Shirkey book from Christmas has me all optimistic.

Happy New Year. Get back to work,
– Dan

* based on my recollection of Value Line data from over the years…

** It stands for Application Protocol Interface. Just like consumers have been blessed with this new smartphone app phenomenon, developers have been blessed with APIs. APIs let companies talk to companies over the internet. They can send data and receive responses with other data. It’s great.