Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Update: What with all the political news, there hasn't been a great deal of space devoted to new technology. And, with the continuing economic doldrums, it appears that innovation - for the time being - is slowing down - at least in terms of products coming to market.

One good thing: SEGWAY is now available for consumer sale - place your order now at Amazon! The personal transportation device may well be the most complex and sophisticated consumer device ever sold - it's out of the price range of most - but it certainly sets the mind to wondering. Dean Kamen's DEKA Research is likely also harboring some other ideas that will see light of day soon.

Another good thing: Iomega has introduced yet another improvement in its Zip line of disk cartridges. Causing a huge stir when the first version of 100MB capacity, the Zip drive filled a major gap just before CD-R and CD-RW became inexpensively. Then the 250MB version made data back-up and transfer easy for less-than-CD-sized volumes of data.

Now Iomega has introduced a 750MB drive, with USB 2.0 and Firewire connectivity. Price is about $170 depending on configuration. A 3-pack of 750MB disks goes for $39.99 retail.

Industry shrinking or re-shaping? COMDEX is just not having a good time at all. Less than half the exhibitors, just over half the space of 2 years ago, indicate the less-than-newsworthy state of the industry. There is some concern that COMDEX may not survive. One of the galling aspects of such an attitude is my continuing lack of understanding of why companies build products and services that start small, grow big, but yet cannot reverse the process. Life and economies ebb and flow, grow and shrink over time - business concepts should be able to do the same thing. COMDEX is now about 20 years old. I remember attending the next-to-last National Computer Show in 1981. NCS was one of the largest shows in the country all dedicated to computing - and they had a hard time dealing with the just-exploding personal computer business. It was a huge show, over-running the Anaheim Convention Center - larger than anything the show had seen before. But the next year the first COMDEX happened and vendors abandoned NCS in great numbers. The last NCS was a shadow of its previous year, and that was the last one.

So maybe COMDEX is on its last legs. Maybe its role will be taken over by the already-huge Consumer Electronic Show. But the key point to remember is that this is not the Armageddon of computing - it's part of a cycle, a repeating cycle - and the functionality of COMDEX will be back - in whatever form makes sense in the market - for the time.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Magic: I love good magic acts, especially close-up sleight-of-hand. An equivalent in the larger scale is what happens on stage these days in a modern Broadway theatrical event. A piece called Digital Magic on Broadway provides a fascinating backstage view of the role machine intelligence plays in mounting a production these days, how much is used to tell a story.

Magic plays such an important role in communication. The very thing that makes movies possible is an illusion - still images passing before the eye at a speed that simulates motion. But it's a convention we have come to accept. We have yet to invent the magic that will make the online medium coalesce into its own unique experience. For some reason we accept movies and television with little question - it works, and we sit back and make decisions about which to watch, rather than how to watch.

With a computer-driven medium however, we are still hung up on memory and disk space and myriad other details that create whatever message appears on the screen - but we spend so much time on those details that we lose track of the magic created, the message itself.

Someone out there is about to discover and create that magic - we will see show business delivered via a medium where machine intelligence - decision-making and raw illusion-making power - make the critical distinction from other media magic experiences. AOL and others are about to re-discover "story-telling" on the Web - so the exploration process may begin again. Original Programming Smiles on Dot-Coms Again

Meanwhile, remember that - aside from games - we are currently spending our time mostly watching electronically rendered printed pages, with the occasional animated bit and occasional audio. All this technology must have within it the ability to create something far more exciting than that!

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Random Stuff - Combined today with New Stuff

Mechanical, magnetic hard drives just won't go away!
Hard drives: The new VHS tape a news story at CNET shows that products based in a very old technology (for the computing age, anyway), are only improving and getting stronger, not getting run over by something radically new.

Hard drives, the veteran storage technology, may be about to become the medium of choice for virtually all media products - not to mention other data generators (think personal history, transactions, home and office automation, smart buildings, etc.). After years of trying to invent ways to record data on a fixed medium (e.g., CDROM, remember optical data cards?), it looks like continuing research has made random access writing/reading devices small and light enough - and robust enough - to fill the bill. The possibilities are nearly endless when you think about it. And the story may not go far enough: it mentions 60GB being storage enough for 4.5 hours of uncompressed video - but remember that TiVO gets 30 hours of compressed video in a 40 GB space. The combination of super sturdy and super small hardware - with new and efficient compression schemes - may breathe a whole new life into what many were calling a dying industry a few years ago.

Microsoft caught with its testimonials down
Trying to respond to Apple's popular "Switcher" ads, Microsoft placed an ad on their Web site with a similar story line - about a woman who switched from Mac to PC. Unfortunately, the picture was clip art and the story made up. The writer, though, is real enough - she's a staffer at Microsoft's ad agency. OOps! No "reality" TV here! Not the worst sin in the world (certainly not as bad as Sony Pictures' escapade with the fake reviewer quoted on their movie's ads). But it always fun (tough not exactly challenging any more) to catch Microsoft in a screw-up.

By the way, if you haven't seen it yet, probably the single most popular Apple ad is not seen on TV. It's the testimonial of one Ellen Feiss, who has inspired fan sites and a host of comment. Apple did create the commercial with Ms. Feiss, but - as you might understand when you see it - they pulled it from TV because of its rather - well, ambiguous nature. But it is a great and funny spot - and if you have any teens or college students hanging around, you might very well recognize the prototypical Ms. Feiss among them.

Small change makes a big difference in new batteries:
MIT scientists have discovered that small amount of common materials - much less expensive than the traditional cobalt - mixed with the materials found in the lithium ion matrix. Discovery promises smaller, safer batteries for electric cars. The article also describes how the discovery will enable smaller, lighter batteries for big jobs, like electric cars.

Maybe digital audio ain't all THAT?
If you are impressed by any news about further encroachment of digital technology in traditionally analog application, you will want to check out the Digital Audio Sucks Web site. Marc Ahlfs, a computer consultant, makes a cogent case against the current technology replacing analog applications - notably the commercial advent of digital radio. While technical, the explanation is quite accessible, and may surprise those who have just assumed that "digital" is synonymous with "better."

Cellphone use becomes even riskier
... especially if you are playing around and your spouse works for the government!

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

What Is the Internet Audience Worth These Days?

Advertising remains the perceived savior of the online medium. Whether or not that is so remains to be seen. But it certainly seems obvious that the traditional view and implementation of advertising on the Internet and in leading services - like AOL - have not shown stellar - and in some cases, even mediocre - performance. The time has come for some innovative thinking.

The story published by shows that much of the Internet media market is still focused on ways to cram more advertising down the throats of the Web user. More banners, more animation, more noise. It's everyone's focus, but with ample proof that this approach is simply not enough, it seems pointless.

Late last week, Jonathan Miller - new president of AOL - made similar comments (New AOL Executive Focuses on the Future), including the following:

"JM: Look at InStyle magazine. The thing weighs a ton. People like it because it has the most ads of all the fall fashions.

"People who read those magazines are looking for those ads. The key is how relevant you can make ads.

"Relevant ads can serve members, relevant ads with deals can be a further benefit, relevant ads with deals that members can act on right away become commerce. "

This kind of thinking is a bad habit that needs some kind of chewing gum or patch to break. Magazines don't make a good analogy for online media.

There are a few exceptional examples - in addition to InStyle, think Bride Magazine, Computer Shopper, etc. - where the collection of ads is in fact the point of the publication. This is a very seductive model to someone who has been told he has to sell a lot of ads.

Unfortunately, applying that model to Newsweek - er, sorry, Time Magazine - Sports Illustrated or even Family Circle or Cosmo, simply doesn't work. Imagine a Cosmo with 400 pages of ads - not a pretty picture. You have to look at each of the examples to determine what the customer is paying for.

And then there's the other fatal flaw of comparing an online service to a magazine: When you sell a magazine, you automatically have sold - as far as the advertiser is concerned - some multiple of exposures to the ad. All the ad exposures are bundled together with the sale of the single unit of the bound magazine. Since readership is generally bigger than sales, the total exposure factor can be 2X to 10X actual sales, or more. In fact, however, magazines don't actually deliver anywhere near the exposures publishers claim, but it is very expensive to do recall studies and such, and publishers and advertisers alike go along with the fiction of "bundled exposures" to an amazing degree.

The online medium, on the other hand, is saddled with metrics; great for the advertiser - but a real downer for the online publisher - because now you know with some precision the actual exposure of each ad. Companies like Procter & Gamble have asked for such metrics from all media - much to the horror of the publishing and advertising communities.

--> But this is the View Toward the Edge! We address real problems here! So what needs to happen to improve the revenue picture for an America Online in the advertising arena?

Mr. Miller would do his company a great service if he would start weaning people - analysts and advertisers - away from the magazine model. There needs to be new thinking about what "exposures" mean online. For example, if he started thinking about a "product placement" model - in things like toolbars, icons and other minutiae of the online environment - he might be able to recover some of those big contracts.

Sponsorship is another area where individual page hit count can mean less than overall recall of the advertiser, or the effective association of the advertiser with the area or "show" being sponsored.

In another recent article from the Wall St. Journal - "In Internet Access, AOL Feels
Microsoft's Evergrowing Reach
" - staffers are described considering how to re-design pages and other parts of the service:

"Mr. {VP Jim} Bankoff ordered up a raft of links to be embedded on the page, even though it had been designed to look like a page of a printed book rather than a Web page. "Let's really overdose on the community elements," he told the group. In the past, chats were often an afterthought. When the Harry Potter movie came out last fall, AOL staffers didn't think to build any special chat rooms in their "People Connection" area until they realized the extent of the Harry Potter phenomenon."

And then ...

"Mr. {Jimmy} de Castro {new head of programming for AOL} also has brought in some old-media techniques, such as online "shows" running at certain times. Some of the shows offer interactive live chats with celebrities, others package news, commentary and other information."

None of these are new ideas - they are old ideas with the possibility of being re-formatted, re-purposed. They also represent their own opportunities for sponsors and other advertising opportunities. And there are many more good ideas to pursue.

Advertising in general will likely undergo substantial changes across-the-board over the next few years, just because consumers are simply going to become inured to the advertising messages papering the walls of their consciousness. Something must be done to permit messages to stand out, to be unique.

The Internet today may become the proving ground for a more complete revolution in advertising just around the corner.

Moby Launches Book-Share
Pop star Moby (who really does trace his roots back to Herman Melville) is starting a book club of sorts as part of his current tour: ''When someone finishes a book, they put it in a little box and when someone else wants a new book, they look into the box and find one,'' he said. Plus: "Ozzy Osbourne used to snort ants. Led Zeppelin had sex with hookers on private planes. And I start a book club. Because one can only snort so many ants and have so much sex before one starts to long for the comfort and companionship of a book.'' (Extracted from Publisher's Lunch, a daily newsletter about book deals and the latest in the publishing world. Subscriptions are free.)
New Stuff:

Duct Tape heals! A recent study has suggested that the most effective cure for children's warts is a 6 day application of duct tape, repeated over a couple of months! Suggested by experience at an Air Force base in Tacoma Washington, a new study showed the technique compares very favorably against the standard liquid-nitrogen freezing approach.

Air-Driven car produces clean air output: A French engineer has figured out how to take outside air, compress it, and drive a light automobile - producing cleaner output than the air originally taken in. With a top speed of 55 MPH, and a range (at lower average speed) of about 120 miles, the car is considered to have a consumer future, and a factory is being constructed in France to produce them. Target price is around $10 - $14,000.

Genetic programing evolves a radio circuit: English scientists have used a technique called "genetic programming" - where the program can actually modify its own function and technique - to evolve a design of a radio receiver without direction or instruction from human programmers. Genetic programming has been used to solve many complex problems, but this may be the first time it has been used to develop a working physical design.

Sunday, September 22, 2002

At last! A true American Candidate! Honest to God, this is a dream come true. There _is_ a collective consciousness - a great cloud of ideas floating overhead that we all share! With the recent talk about how to expand the broadband network penetration - through innovative content and programming - Suddenly we have Rupert Murdoch popping up to take the lead on a really radical idea!

The basic concept is to follow the lead of American Idol - the hugely popular show that over a number of weeks whittled a number of talented youngsters down to a winner who was rewarded with fame and a recording contract.

Murdoch plans to use his FX Network to attempt something similar on the political scene - the show is currently named American Candidate. Some 100 candidates will be introduced over time, votes by phone and Internet will be taken, winners continue to compete until finally - sometime around July 4, 2004 - the summer of the next presidential election - a winner of the contest will be announced - and that person will actually run for President of the United States. Only the rough outline of the idea has been released - this weekend in Daily Variety - so expect more info about details to appear over time.

Why is this so exciting? First, regardless of whether you are amused, enthusiastic or outraged about the idea of ...

- Rupert Murdoch invading the "election" process, or
- Joe or Josephine Anybody running for such a high office with no pre-requisite experience or proven abilities -

... think about how much more popular a TV game show can be than the political conventions. Think how much better known even the losers of this contest are likely to be than the Democratic or Republican candidates. Regardless of your political philosophy, you can probably get excited about a process that might shake up the malaise in politics, that might make the pros stand up and take notice and try to do a better job of selecting candidates, and getting them promoted.

If nothing else, this program - carried thru to its final conclusion - could be part of a new political dialectic that forces change in our political system. (Some of us feel that any system that could not only tolerate, but float to the top, a person like GW Bush is radically due for change.) If politics is all people - then bring politics to where the people are - put it on TV with a personable host and hummable theme song.

Furthermore, this could be one of the forces that gets more people online, and possibly - if the content is handled right - wishing to see more video on-demand - to review previous contestants, etc. And the cheapest way - both for the industry and the consumer - to get specific video-on-demand access today - e.g., within minutes - is via the Internet. The servers are in place - but consumers will want higher speed access for the convenience.

There are a number of technical questions that occur to us. For example, how will this winner get on the ballots of enough states to make the potential contest a real one? Someone will have to bulldog all those rules to be sure that the ultimate pay-off is at least theoretically in reach. The qualifications to run are very straight-forward (and we all know what they are, don't we?), but the mechanics are more than a little boggling. And then, of course, there is the possibility that this person COULD win the election ...

While some people feel Murdoch is in fact the Great Satan of media - you can't knock the guy for giving people what they apparently want to watch. True, Fox News leans toward the Genghis Khan school of politics and political news reporting. While it can be hard to listen to, those bozos (as I affectionately refer to them) know how to stir up controversy. And Murdoch is stubborn - after more than 10 years the broadcast Fox Network is always nipping at the heels of the loser of the Big Three - last year, ABC - and occasionally beats the establishment in weekly ratings.

And what can be wrong in getting people thinking and talking about the politics that overrides their lives and livelihoods? I've said for years politics needs more show-biz to appeal to the masses who are supposed to be its main participants. Bill Clinton gave us a little more of a show than he should have (and the Republicans have kept him a headliner a lot longer than they should have - the GOP needs a new program director). But he was a show. Bush has certainly got our attention - but he's doing it by scaring everybody to death. That's not the way to win a loyal audience - the masses look for comfort, not threats. So Murdoch may have put his finger on something.

In any case, he's going to try. Follow the story as it emerges.


The URL may be temporary - but go to Drudge to follow the story for now ... (Man, what a gruesome picture of Rupert ...)

FYI - here's the URL for FX Network - there's a pop-up with an email address to submit your candidacy when you hit this top page --

Thursday, September 19, 2002

The title of this Web log is View Toward the Edge. The "edge" of the market of the industry, of the enlightened consciousness - is always where new stuff happens, where new stuff comes from. As products and ideas mature, the move toward the middle, they become accepted, standardized, internalized. The edge shakes up those ideas, causes us to question tradition, disturbs the status quo. Oh my! Well, this log is dedicated to the edge because I want to point people in the direction of things coming at them. Whether dangers or opportunities - they are all warnings to Watch Out - your life is about to change.

So it is ironic that AOL is going about the process of re-discovering the edge they thought they had passed so long ago. In fact, they had become frozen in their tracks by a huge bureaucracy, and a not very imaginative leadership whose mantra was "the old way got us where we are - and we're on top - so what could possibly be better?"

As critics have been pointing out for some years now, there is much that could be better about the AOL service, the thinking man's/woman's equivalent of chewing cardboard.

As AOL now accepts that the rest of the world's that there needs to be new kinds of content to justify a broadband expense, they are groping for "new ideas" to help them tackle a new marketplace. TOO LATE!! The new ideas they are looking for are already in their files - they've been there for a while - among all the creative approaches the AOL-conquered companies threw at the mothership, which bounced off the heavy armor of not-invented-here.

But being the gracious kind of guy I am, I want to help. There are four concepts that have always worked - given the right premise, that is. (One of the challenges of a group of bureaucrats running a creative operation is that bureaucrats never give credit to dumb ideas. They will say - Oh we tried that before and it didn't work - never crediting the possibility that the first iteration may have been a dumb idea - invalidating only that idea - not the whole concept.)

One of those concepts is porn. Porn always works. AOL is not going to do porn. So that cuts the viable concepts from exploiting online in broadband mode to three.

Tied to these categories of opportunity are a few operating rules: The thing must be promoted, buzz must be supported, it must be a regular occurrence, and it must be at a predictable and stable time. Some of these rules involve money, some are just plain common sense.

The three categories, of course, are games, events and dramas. AOL has had a game online for years that has addicted hundreds of thousands of people. And, of course, games have made TV programmers happy periodically since time began - most recently with two biggies - Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (ABC) and Survivor (CBS). You have to keep in mind that if ABC had tried to bring back Password, or CBS had thought up The Runner first - success may not have been near at all. It's the right concept - the buzz it creates - at the right time.

Events are similarly tricky (ok, it's ALL tricky). The Olympics drives viewership particularly if there's a local star or a controversy. But the Super Bowl is not likely to be a big winner online - that tension, anticipation and excitement has to be translated into something that works online. And maybe it's a weekly event - maybe it's an election every week - Maybe it's American Idol every week. But it has to be something many many people care about.

Dramas can be the hardest of all - unless you employ a trick or two (no, I'm not going to completely spill my guts here - you folks have to figure something out for yourselves). The most obvious example today is The Sopranos - but over the years dramas have crowned the ratings - Dallas, ER etc. The thing about soap operas is that they work in many media. They started in radio and obviously made the successful transition to TV. And today the soaps drive a fairly lucrative print component as well. With the right characters, pacing and plotting (pretty much in that order), people can be led to care enough to spend money.

Now, a few words to my friends who say - "These ideas only appeal to a small segment of the total market." You are correct, but in order to access their favorite piece, the customer must buy the whole package. And it would be silly to limit product development to only one example of one of these basic concepts. There needs to be an independent producer model that encourages independent experimentation - with the promise of monetary reward - so that multiple parallel tracks can be developed at a commercial pace.

AOL has typically told independent producers that AOL will distribute their stuff - if the producer pays AOL! Sound strange? Indeed! And that model is now probably a little bit dead - because AOL is not the lead dog it once was. Their business model is going to have to float a little closer to Earth, and be more accommodating to the people who might be willing to help them build the creative content package that can make broadband necessary, less expensive, and more widely available.

Friday, September 13, 2002

A new kind of War? Not with old kinds of thinking: After the attack on the World Trade Center, it took little time to figure out who was behind it. Our corporate leader realized that in a world where you are the largest industrialized nation, there are certain tasks you must cover for yourself. You have to self-insure health coverage and – in some cases – police actions. No one else was going to bust this bin Laden guy – so we had to do it ourselves. Fine.

With ears still ringing from the disaster – and smoke still rising from the pile in NYC – we undertook what W. called a “new kind of war.” But he undertook it with the same old weapons of war we have used for years – planes, tanks, rifles and people. We blew away a lot of al Qaeda, unseated the government of Afghanistan, and won ourselves a long-term bodyguard duty in that country. We didn’t get bin Laden, however – at least, we can’t prove it – and there is some evidence to the contrary.

So what are the next tactics of this “new kind of war?” Well, go after someone else of course – someone we already despise – go after Saddam & Iraq. Ok, so bin Laden attacked us, and Saddam, by God, is going to pay? That’s a new kind of war alright.

Remember the old story about the guy looking for the quarter here on Maple St, although he lost it way over on Pine St. Why? Because the light’s better over here. Well Saddam really screwed up this time – he left the lights on in Baghdad, and W’s gonna come get him.

This is ridiculous. It is certainly a new kind of situation, and most certainly does require new kinds of tactics. Among other things, bin Laden and al Qaeda used the Internet and a lot of disposable cell phones to pass their communications and make their plans. They used some crude but clever networking techniques to build the conspiracy.

“It is ironic, however, that the terrorists themselves have clearly used our networks against us. On the one hand, the notorious bin Laden was trained and extensively funded by the CIA during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, when he and his compatriots were warmly referred to as "freedom fighters." U.S. taxpayers' funds helped to build the terrorist-training camps that the U.S. military's bombs are now destroying. At another level, other terrorists have struck at the heart of the networks that support the modern world. Nothing connects us together like the postal service, through which letters charged with anthrax have stealthily crept. The initial attacks on September 11 employed our own air transportation network against us, and were organized via remote financial dealings and communications over the Internet. This kind of coordinated effort would have been far more difficult a decade ago.” Nexus, by Mark Buchanan, pgs 21-22 (Norton, 2002)

Turns out, networking is something we are only just now beginning to understand more fully. This goes beyond “network topologies” that have so concerned systems managers these last 20 years or so. This gets to the heart of networking we have found around us since time began: the network that makes up our environment and the organisms that live within it, the network of forces that make up weather, the networks of human relationships, business relationships and more and more.

This issue of networking is a part of an emerging science of complexity. One of the features of these networks is that they exist and function at a wide spectrum of scales – very small to very very large. The human network, for example, works at the planetary level, the continental level, the national level etc. right on down to the family-and-friends level. Many characteristics are the same at each level, sometimes size makes a difference.

But the fact is networks are robust – difficult to disable and destroy. That’s a good thing if you are talking about a beneficial network like the Internet. It’s a bad thing if it’s a network of bad guys – like al Qaeda and their cohorts.

The counteractions to disable if not destroy networks are likely to be very different than the actions we have seen from our current leadership in Afghanistan and what they are so eager to employ in Iraq. Networks of communications methodologies – especially today – are filled with redundancies and other protections that make the mere destruction of equipment in a few localities completely meaningless. Bombers and Rangers and Humvees simply cannot win this kind of war.

A new kind of War? Well, that may be the most significant contribution W and his gang of hawks are capable of making – they accidentally discovered the real problem. But they don’t seem to have any idea how to implement such a counterattack. These are not subtle people – they’re the types who poke fun at “eggheads.” The fact that they don’t have a clue between them does not deter them from action, whether it makes sense or not.

Bin Laden remains the danger to the US – he and his network of hoodlums and dupes. They have an advantage on the sophisticated US forces in a way: they have time – time to wait for the urgency we currently feel to cool down, time to focus on the next tiny little hole in some system they can exploit against innocent people. If we were smart we would be looking for ways to disrupt their current sabbatical – not by going after an unrelated and irrelevant thug like Saddam.

We have to stay on task – go after bin Laden with the new tools that science is giving us – not explosives, but new insights into existing characteristics of society and the human condition.

For more info on the emerging science of networking, I strongly recommend 3 relatively new books dealing with the subject:

--> Linked: The New Science of Networks
by Albert-László Barabási (2002)

--> Ubiquity: The Science of History . . . or Why the World Is Simpler Than We Think
by Mark Buchanan (2002)

--> Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks
by Mark Buchanan (2002)

There is more information coming faster and furiouser about this subject as time goes on – not only public policy but personal and business strategy is enhanced by an understanding of these principles.