Oct 21

nikePlusAppliance.jpgI’ve been meaning to buy an iPod nano for awhile so I could use the Nike + running appliance to track my runs. We received Nano’s for attending the Office 2.0 conference last week in SF so I finally picked up the Nike device this week and just tried it for the first time today. All I can say is that this is what Web 2.0 is truly about. It has nothing to do with AJAX and rounded corners- it’s simple, invisible technology that bridges your real life with online and quietly improves your quality of life, gives you useful information to enhance your health, connects you with health-conscious strangers, motivates you to stay in shape and allows you to talk smack with friends on the other side of the globe all in the pursuit of better fitness.

This little gadget is about the size and thickness of three stacked quarters and sells for $30 at the Apple store. They try to sell you the special Nike running shoes that have a divot in the sole where the appliance clips in but realistically, it works anywhere in the shoe. I just took my old running shoes, removed a few stitches from the rubber logo and sewed it into the tongue. This thing is amazing- once you calibrate it, it tracks your runs (both time and distance), can calculate calories burned and talks to you during your workout to tell you where you’re at. You can designate your power song (think your own personal Rocky theme song) and if you start slacking it automatically kicks in to motivate you to exert yourself more.

Calibration of it was slightly annoying. I’ve never run on a treadmill before but I figured that would be the best way to gauge a mile and calibrate the device. Realistically the best way to calibrate it is to either find a known street distance or better yet, a racetrack. Once it knows your stride though, it tells you exactly how far you run. The NikePlus.com interface is slick- this is a great example of a rich interface (looks like they used Flex as the technology). The community they’re building with this service has to be extremely valuable to both companies as well- health-conscious people that aren’t just self-proclaimed but demonstrably so.

Possibly the coolest feature is the seamless integration via iTunes with the NikePlus.com site- every time you sync your Nano, it will send the stats from your latest workouts to your account on Nike+ so you have one place where you can login and track your progress. You can also challenge up to fifty friends anywhere in the world and compare their progress with your own (smack-talking is always the best motivator for improvement). The Nike / Apple partnership is genius on so many levels- Apple has a new product, Nike sells more of their shoes and sports apparel that integrates, Apple sells entire workout playlists of celebrity athlete’s’ favorite workout songs complete with voiceovers to inspire the runner, both get access to a valuable community.

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If you have friends with Nano’s that run, this is an affordable Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah gift they will never forget.

Oct 18

File this one under the “nerd” category as this will be highly technical but I finally fixed the hotsync from my Treo 650 to my Mac. Hopefully this post will help anyone else grappling with the same issue and googling for the cryptic error message I was getting. The problem turned out to be multiple issues. First the background…

I had the bluetooth hotsync working under the Palm Desktop software and OS X for awhile but one day it just crapped out throwing the error message “unexpected error 71013.” It was seemingly a problem with the conduit since we could open the Hotsync manager but upon trying to open the conduit manager, nothing happened. I tried reinstalling the Palm Desktop software but ran into a strange issue where I couldn’t delete the old instance. Apparently the Palm installer installs the software as root rather than the administrator that it’s running under and I was getting the message “Cannot delete trash. Localized.rsrc in use.” It took a friend to show me how to go into the command line and navigate to this hidden trash folder under /users/root/Trashes to clear out the file in use. So we were able to get it back to square one with no Palm Desktop.

My friend Jay told me about an app called Missing Sync which supposedly would bypass the Palm software altogether and allow me to sync my contacts directly to the address book and my calendar to iCal (which was all I wanted). I bought the software (there is no free trial) and installed it per the readme but unfortunately got a new error saying “Unable to connect to Hotsync, port is in use by another application.” This was annoying. I followed the Missing Sync tech support representative’s instructions and tried killing the bluetooth preferences and repairing my phone to the Mac. Nothing.

MissingSyncBlue.gifWhat ended up being the problem was an obvious mistake on my part in failing to enable the bluetooth connection from within the Missing Sync software. Apparently the bluetooth is turned off by default and the interface for enabling it is an icon which glows blue when it’s on. I missed this crucial step so the bluetooth connection was working fine but my phone was effectively “knocking on a door that nobody knew to answer.” Once the Bluetooth was enabled from within Missing Sync, all worked perfectly.

I will say Missing Sync is pretty slick and gives you all the functionality you’d want from the Hotsync software plus the capability to sync iPhoto and your iTunes playlist as well as AvantGo. Kudos to Mark/Space for excellent software and solid support.

Oct 18

I just remembered why I stopped reading the newspaper and watching network news…

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yep, that pretty much sums it up.

Oct 12

office20Conference.gifThe conference here in San Francisco is winding down and I wanted to share a random collection of thoughts in no particular order.

The Good

As always it’s the hallway conversations at these events that are by far the most valuable bits. There were a good number of companies here (~20?) and I was able to meet the principles of just about all of them and talk with them about what challenges they have in delivering their products. There seems to be an energy in the air perhaps due to the YouTube acquisition earlier this week that indicates tech investments are once again where it’s at. So this is an exciting time to be in this field. There were a few demos that caught our interest for apps like SystemOne, Vyew and SmartSheets that look really interesting. And meeting the guys who built WordPress and Tech Dirt was very cool.

The Not-so-good

I hated the term “Web 2.0″ but I realize I hate the term “Office 2.0″ even more. If I’d have charged the conference sponsors a nickel for each mention of this term throughout the panels, I’d have recouped my entrance fee and have our second round of funding for JumpBox. Far too many of the demos given here showed off these me-too MS-copycat products ported to the web with a bunch of slick AJAX features. While this might have turned me on a couple years ago for the implementation details of how they pulled it off technically, it now feels like “features for features’ sake” and smells “bubblish” in this sort of silly exuberance over things that really aren’t that cool. To me the real productivity gains to be made in an office come from not having to think about software at all, getting rid of the lame problems that plague IT departments and, if done right, getting rid of the IT department itself. Gains will be made as we learn to unearth the underground insight of the organization that locked away in the form of unapplied knowledge. I’m way more excited about apps like InklingMarkets and the proposition of bringing the power of internal prediction markets to the office than I am about authoring a word doc within the browser. I just feel like most of the companies hawking their wares here are missing the boat.

That being said, I don’t discount the value of better tools for collaboration. I just think that if I were running a larger company and had $10k to invest towards the goal of improving our productivity, I would spend zero on software apps and instead train all my employees on how to use David Allens GTD program, give them an incentive bonus for whoever comes up with the most innovative/effective improvement and then turn them all loose with an in-house instance of Trac/SVN to use in collaborating. The apps that did catch my eye here:

  • Vyew – a slick way to do a shared whiteboard synchronously as well as asynchronously
  • Koral – painless knowledge management
  • SystemOne – an intelligent self-building wiki
  • SmartSheets – a better method for excel/email-based project management
  • oDesk – be Big Brother for your outsourced development efforts

Beyond those, the other apps I looked at really appeared to be just minor enhancements to existing ideas with little innovation. The new Tech Insight Commnity thing is interesting- essentially a way to disrupt expensive research from analysts like Forresters, Gartner’s and Cahner’s InStat by drawing upon cheap, qualified labor of bloggers around the world.

Eighty percent of the demos were sub-par unfortunately. I’m thinking there really might be a market for pitching yourself as a hired gun who can effectively demo a company’s product and grab the audience, because apparently most CEO’s are inherently bad at it. Most of the speakers were so immersed in the features of their own product, they dove into this highly-technical tutorial of the guts of how their products work rather than establishing that emotional connection with the audience members for why they should even be listening in the first place. That coupled with some connectivity issues due to sharing wireless with the conference attendees and a rare server outage for google mail (which everyone seemed to be using as the example email service) made some of the demos really painful.

To summarize though- some great people in attendance, a bit of a confused message (please please please let’s drop the 2.0 suffix on terms), good energy and vibe in general. Let’s just remember that the best technology are the ones we never notice (the refrigerators, the air conditioners, the airbags, the backup generators). Office 2.0 should be about simplifying not complicating the role of tech in the workplace.

Oct 10

I use the del.icio.us service for my bookmarks and make a habit of tagging the things that I don’t have time to read yet want to come back to with the “ToRead” tag. When facing a long plane flight you can certainly bring traditional reading material to fill your time but I like to catch up on the current information that seems to get neglected when I have an internet connection. The easy trick to do this is to open your “ToRead” taglist in del.icio.us and if you’re using Firefox as your browser run down the list of links and right-click “open in new tab” for each item.

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You can use this same trick on a folder of bookmarks as well and it’s even easier since it allows you to open an entire set of bookmarks in new tabs with one click. I have a folder of bookmarks called “Time Wasters” that consists of links for non-essential leisure reading. I like to grab the homepage of each site and cache it in my browser before leaving for the airport. This allows me to catch up on a bunch of mindless stuff on the plane and if I run across a story in the air that I want to read more about, I select the text and drag it to the desktop (on a Mac this logs both the text as well as the source of the content) so I can come back to it later.

You can use this technique of opening a bunch of web pages on any web-based service that isn’t making use of AJAX to refresh itself. It works with Bloglines though the navigation on the left side will eventually die because it uses AJAX – the right frame with the content should remain in tact however. Gmail does not work with this trick because of its heavy reliance upon AJAX. If you find other creative uses of this tactic, please share them here.

UPDATE: no sooner do I publish this when I find this article on lifehacker. That proposed method is more automated but windows-specific. This trick with the tabs will work on any platform that supports Firefox and the files cached locally will automatically be cleared out (ie. it means you can avoid the manual process of removing them once you are finished reading them and instead just close the tabs).

Oct 09

This is a free-form brain dump of some thoughts I have after reading Wisdom of Crowds and having been an active contributor to Cambrian House for about a month now. I just now caught up on most of the Primordial Soup podcast episodes (which is excellent btw) and reviewed the current top ten ideas in Idea Warz on the CH site. The idea of CH itself is very similar to what we were after with Grid7 Labs and having first-hand experience trying to do what they’re doing, I feel I have qualifications and context to make these assertions.

Wisdom of Crowds

First off, if you haven’t read James Suroweicki’s book yet, you should. It’s an extremely interesting proposition: the idea that you can collect many independent judgements from a group of diverse members, tally it all up and get a highly-accurate prediction of what the truth really is. What’s neat about WOC is that it can apply to anything- from jelly bean counting to sports games to complex business decisions. We had proposed the development of an app that would enable corporations to conduct decision markets internally and with their customers as a great candidate for a Grid7 Labs project. Inkling Markets beat us to the punch though and it seems they’ve done a partnership with Cambrian House to handle the decision markets under the hood for CH that are used in determining which ideas end up getting built. This all makes perfect sense given the similarity of the Y Combinator concept to CH and knowing Paul Graham’s affinity for incubating early-stage tech businesses. We wish both companies the best in this effort as the developer co-op concept is something we tried ourselves with difficulty.

Getting back to WOC though- the example used at the beginning of the book is a carnival environment where a group of 500 or so attendees is asked to submit guesses as to the weight of an ox. The mean average of all guesses ends up being 1lb. off from the true weight of the ox supporting the theory that many independent judgements from diverse people yield a very accurate prediction. James goes on to cite numerous other examples of situations where this phenomenon has been tested and proven. For instance, the disappearance of a navy sub where the potential resting location of the sub could have been anywhere in a thousand-mile radius in the Atlantic. They conduct a focus group with a bunch of different navy people and submarine-related people in various roles and have them posit guesses as to where the sub went down. The aggregation of these guesses ends up being within a hundred yards of the actual location of the sub yet again supporting the premise of WOC. There are a ton of other examples in the book but here’s the core principle:

In order for the WOC phenomenon to work, there must be four pre-conditions fulfilled for the environment in which the guessing occurs:

  1. Independence – that the judgements be made in a way that doesn’t influence each other
  2. Diversity – that the participants making the judgements be composed of the most diverse possible group
  3. Decentralization – that the participants be able to draw upon knowledge that is obtained locally and not funneled through a central source
  4. Aggregation – that there be a mechanism to capture and gauge all the judgements made

The Flaws with CH

Herein lies the problem with the existing implementation of Cambrian House:

The current system breaks three of the four necessary pre-conditions.

Let me preface the following by saying, I love CH. I love the spirit of this concept of crowdsourced software (deep down i’m really a modern-day hippy- i’ve had a peace sign around my neck for the past 15yrs). And I really like the execution so far on how they’ve told the story and managed to ignite the community behind their drive. The whole Viking / Napoleon Dynamite theme is genius and keeps things fun and engaging when they could easily drift towards sterility and blahness. I want to see them succeed because this is a difficult problem they’re tackling and we struggled with making it work ourselves in the Grid7 Labs cooperative. So this is not a slam at all but rather a collection of constructive suggestions that will hopefully make their system tighter.

Problem #1: The current Idea Warz implementation allows the rater to see the score once he/she has rated an idea. Bad! There needs to be a “quiet period” where new ideas are rated without divulging their status. It’s too easy to give a thumbs up/down and then immediately change your vote once you see the score. This breaks the first pre-condition of independence because it allows the hivemind / groupthink / herd mentality to skew the results.

Solution: They need to conceal the rating and maybe even the comments for at least the first week that an idea is submitted.

Problem #2: The current participants are homogeneous and consist of the slashdot / digg crowd. It’s not surprising that the early adopters of this thing are highly-technical people. But in order for it to truly work it needs to attract a more diverse group that bring other skills to the fray. I’ve submitted eleven ideas so far, all of which came from the Grid7 Labs project and were the distillation of many hours of brainstorming and working through business models and technical ideas within the Labs team. In the first three days of submitting these ideas, eight of them kited up to the top-twenty out of a total of 2,500 ideas. I was excited about that but then a strange thing started to occur- all eleven ideas were getting great comments but their ratings took a dump. They are all now hovering around the -10 rating (+ scores are better). This is a bit disturbing and after reading the top five ideas just now, here is my hypothesis of what’s occurring here:

In order for an idea to gain traction in CH right now, the pitch needs to be tailored to a slashdotty audience.

Anyone who has made a successful pitch will tell you that the content of the pitch itself is not nearly as important as the level of connection you establish with the pitchee. We learned this through an experiment at our second FastTrac class when we went around the room and had to recite the elevator pitch of another entrepreneur from our class. It was a powerful lesson that your pitch is only as effective as the impression it makes on the listener. The contrapositive to this negative example was the experience that happened only a few days after we launched the JumpBox entity in which we were contacted by someone who had caught wind of what we were building through a friend of a friend and was interested enough to track us down and ask us when he could purchase it (and all this only one week after deciding that we were going to build it).

I imagine the typical CH participant right now as someone who sleeps with his gameboy controller and checks Digg twelve times every hour for the latest AJAX tutorial or YouTube video. There are a ton of intelligent, insightful people in there but unfortunately the masses right now seem to be composed of mostly the slashdot crowd and are basing judgements on ideas solely on the technical “wow factor” rather than the business-viability factor. Having your ideas (essentially your babies) torn apart by this crowd feels a bit like I imagine it would feel to come home and find your pet slaughtered by a roving pack of jackals that then wanders to the next neighborhood in search of fresh meat.

Solution: CH needs to spend some of that VC money to promote this concept amongst the business schools and MBA programs. It’s neat that their community is a global one (good news on the geographic and ethnic diversity axes) the industry axis is hosed and way too skewed towards tech nerds. They need more people thinking about and contributing to the business model aspects and worrying less about the technology. This will undoubtedly be a concern of theirs and surely be addressed some time soon. It would be fairly trivial to run a facebook ad campaign and reach some of the talented students of the various MBA programs to get this diversity in motion sooner rather than later.

Problem #3: And I don’t know how you solve this one but the nature of participants’ interaction with the system is such that it will always be filtered through the CH lens. It can’t be any other way or else the idea becomes loose in the wild and it’s impossible to apply useful metrics to the feedback that gets generated. It’s conceivable that they could use the structured blogging plugins and something like MC Ping to create a specific microcontent definition for a CH idea and then allow people to post them via their own blogs and elicit feedback there and aggregate it on CH via the MCPing notification service, but it seems like they have bigger fish to fry right now with the need for getting projects in the queueu and people contributing to those. They do need to stress the business model aspects of the ideas more. It was suggested in the podcast that they create a separate field for “how this idea makes money” in the idea submission process – this could also be incorporated in the MCD.

Solution: There is no silver bullet for this one unfortunately. They could do the above suggestion with the SB plugin but at the cost of losing the reins on the data and not being able to have the tight metrics on how the ideas are being interacted with. My recommendation on this is to run with the current setup but stay cognizant of the fact that the CH interface itself (as unbiased as it may be) is still a lens that adds distortion to the true picture. They need to try and minimize this distortion as much as possible at all times.

What I like about their current setup

For the handful of things that go wrong and that I’m choosing to pick on, I know from experience that this is difficult stuff and that there is a million other things that are going right under the hood in order for them to establish the momentum they’ve built so far. So once again, I applaud CH for telling the story well and creating a surprisingly-good mechanism for aggregating the feedback and using it to determine the winning project ideas.

They’re on the ball with the various collaboration mechanisms in place- Norseforge appears to be built with the same GForge technology that is used to create SourceForge. We explored using this ourselves for G7 but ended up going with a simple Trac/SVN setup using a private Google Groups and traditional IM for real-time exchange. They have an IRC channel setup which is also something we toyed with but never ended up doing. We’re now planning to run an internal Jabber server rather than a private IRC channel but both achieve the same function of having chat that accrues in a central archive. The style of their marketing, blog, podcast, public site and backoffice is pure genius: it’s just the right tone- a ongoing fun yet legit cooperative game showing consistent progress each week and celebrating the small wins. They use fresh and concise writing style and seem to value the same transparency that we did in how things are conducted- they have to in order for it to succeed. They’re setting up an independent “tribal counsel” composed of both members and CH people to solve the inevitable IP disputes that will arise once a project hits and becomes valuable given that it emerged from a stew of ideas submitted and touched by many people along the way. My overall impression is that they’re hearts are in the right place and they’re using agile processes to make things “light yet sufficient” and roll with the punches as they come.

Anyways, this post ended up being longer than I had hoped so I’ll discuss the Inkling Markets stuff at another time. The bottomline here: CH has a good thing going. I have a bunch more ideas to submit and I plan to apply what I’ve learned in the next round of submissions and tailor the pitch more to the slashdot crowd. They have interesting and challenging problems to solve but so far they’re doing the right things, they have money and there is no fundamental, show-stopper flaw that I can see in their model. They will undoubtedly meet the same challenges we encoutered in relying upon labor that is not on the hook to actually deliver but only motivated by promise. My involvement in CH is hobbyist status at this point given the fact that JumpBox dominates 110% my schedule right now but I could see after the JumpBox liquidity event becoming more involved in CH. It’s even possible that the Grid7 Labs team itself becomes dedicated to executing CH projects as a long-term play for recurring revenue and recruiting talent. It’s very consistent with the goals of Grid7 and would essentially mean that our people get to contribute without actually having to host the infrastructure ourselves. Apparently they’re announcing a new Idea Warz voting system this week. I would love to see them work with Luke to incorporate some of the theory from Innovation Games into the next iteration of Idea Warz. At any rate, it will be interesting to see how the CH system evolves to address some of its current flaws.

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