Do we still need IT Consultancies?

Someone asked me this the other day. I went through an automatic salesy response at the time that was likely not very informative. Now I’ve considered it since, here’s my (sub-2,000 word) response – beginning with the smallest bit of history.

In the Nineties, other than Ace of Base singles, the name “IT Consultant” was heard all over town. Structured programming (particularly around class usage and collaborative development) was barely used. ERP/CRM systems were being released/integrated; removing the human side of the business and replacing it with processes and management. Organisations were learning how to harness the Internet to propagate brand and later to do direct business. The underpinning (both technical and cultural) of the Internet (and its Intranet/Extranet friends) in particular was moving so fast that pretty much all enterprise organisations needed several specialists in order to translate what the technology alone meant for them: and if you need several specialists, a bunch of developers and need to be told what to do – you might as well deal with one firm that has it all – the IT Consultancy. There were thousands of arch/competing within a decade predictions which baited organisations further driving demand: Negroponte being the most well-known futurist. It was a sort of golden age but one that perhaps led to a misplaced understanding of efficiency and a loss of confidence in what people can achieve. Its apogee as a uncontrollable meme was  MarchFirst which incorporated, traded at $52 and then went bankrupt all within a year in 2000/2001.

Fast forward two decades; the Internet (although still in infancy) is pervasive, stable and readily built-upon. Enterprise organisations have first-world problems – user “journey”, vendor lock-in, data quality, post M&A systems integration and the seemingly unending moving to the cloud. Employees can be highly tech savvy. The first flush roar of boundary-pushing through dotcom craziness has levelled to a gentle hum of industry. It used to be that instead of rediscovering fire for the thousandth time, an IT Consultant showed you how to use a lighter. Now everyone has a lighter or elects not to smoke. There will always be those who experiment with cheaper/faster/more sustainable methods (magnifying glass, flint/steel, laser etc.) in order to gain some edge.

With this in mind; in the current landscape – do we still need IT Consultancies and, if so – when?

Here we are talking specifically about devoted IT Consultancies (and systems integrators); either standalone or a wing of a larger management consultancy. In addition, many will have specific technology/platform focusses e.g. Oracle, Microsoft etc.

Probably do use them for:

  1. Resource availability. Who has the time in-house to own new projects? Few senior managers have the bandwidth to do this and maintain regular work. Also, bringing in someone from outside who does not have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, but just wants to get the job done and go home, can certainly push things along. Important for Y2K, London Olympics 2012 etc. A caveat though is if you need a critical system built: your organisation is so busy just existing that no-one senior can take point on a project critical to your success? Really?  If this appears so, executive management should probably experiment with Parkinson’s Law in order to gauge the head-count/utilisation/efficacy sweet-spot for their organisation. There are also real seasonal reasons why IT Consultants are necessary.
  2. Risk management. Projects are well known to fail for a wide variety of complex/hard to foresee reasons. Options to compel larger IT Consulting organisations to legally and eventually deliver through fixed priced contracts for specific projects are attractive to many – especially now. It’s a little cynical but then so is software implementation.
  3. Technical expertise. Consultants (assuming they have worked on similar projects before) can add an element of experience and knowledge to projects that many in-house Systems Management/Operations resources simply do not possess. SME’s in particular can be critical in design and QA roles. A caveat – great SME’s increasingly become independent contractors – working their own personal brand due to a combination of a greater need for independence and higher salaries (both met by personal client contacts they have made throughout their career). Great/innovative developers and architects (the ones you need to give you an edge) are invariably drawn toward the still expanding start-up space especially the enterprise side. Good, however, is perhaps better than what you have and so use of IT Consultancies can make sense – for now.

Think twice about using them for:

  1. Large design/implementation projects. First off – why are you doing one? Don’t you know that the majority of these things fail? The recession doesn’t help your success rate either and neither does the majority of your workforce believing the project is doomed before it even starts. Isn’t there an existing cloud solution that you can maybe hook into (technically/commercially) and incrementally tailor instead? Things are going to be even harder if there’s another level of separation with your customers through IT Consultancies. We are talking here specifically about several month/dozens of employee projects: building systems essential to line-of-business or a speculative project that could catapult the organisation into a new sphere of business. This kind of work is historically IT Consultancies’ bread and butter since they are mainly composed of developers and engineers and consultant utilization is key to their bottom-line. They are extremely keen to sell them.
  2. Industry/Market/Vision. Social/mobile is embedded into many B2C transactions and employees have sophisticated awareness right off the bat. IT Consultancies are not really needed to expound upon the art of the possible any more; certainly not for an organisation they may be unfamiliar with. More generally, even without industry insight – why would organisations pay to listen to anonymous salaried technology consultants from a firm (likely with specific vendor agendas) when they can listen to an entertaining executor who has built a $60M company from nothing and is crazy-focussed on the human element – for free? If they want additional specific/ongoing advice, the routine now is – they have these gurus on a retainer – maybe a couple hours a month. They Skype. It’s a cheaper and demonstrably better solution. You probably don’t want one of the hoards of generic social media gurus, a little more (driven by your CIO) specialisation is called for and there is a wide selection available; each with differing value adds to fit your needs – data portability, futurism in respect of social/money, social politics and connectivity etc. What are the competition doing? IT Consultancies typically sign NDAs and so this point becomes moot. Few IT Consultancies carry with them an understanding of B2B interfacing protocols/formats (too many & not historically a tech skill). Users? You don’t really need IT consultancies telling you about your users surely? If so – then you may have a larger problem and it’s one that your new IT solution will fix not a jot. Let’s say though you do need generic user advice – maybe adoption, best authentication mode, user-interface niceties – the guru model still holds – you can talk to one of those carving out a niche as a professional user.
  3. Technical skills transfer: The nature of finding a technical answer/approach has shifted since the 90′s from “Do you know how to do this?” to “How quickly can you find this out?”. Everything is readily available on-line for research. If you’re not finding something, you’re doing it wrong. In parallel, most IT Consultants, rather than burdening their memory with fast changing knowledge use a just-in-time approach (AKA search for it when you need it) – easily replicated by in-house staff. Its mainly about the process. While many IT Consultants are devoted specialists often with deep vendor accreditation, they are not usually recognised as thought leaders or indeed effective coaches. Many do not receive educator training and certainly on a busy project (are there any others?), skills transfer becomes the lowest priority. Consultants are also perceived, even now, as bringing with them a sort of two-for-one apolitical/objective input on management/support staff capabilities through project-based exposure. While this may well be true for selected management consultants (around the manager grade), it is typically not true of IT Consultants.
  4. Operations. Last year Microsoft delivered free/cheap live on-line technical support for Windows, Office, virus removal and general training. They are also partnering with telcos to deliver bundled support services. Apple have delivered free support for years with their Genius Bars. The trend for software vendors to offer free basic support will continue; becoming expected. The need for third-parties to intercede will diminish. Generic ITIL recommendations don’t really fly any-more. Also be prepared for clownishly deep pockets if you want to hand over your desktop infrastructure and apps to an IT Consultancy.

These are general recommendations for most organisations right now. Experiences will vary. IT Consultants still have some role for all but the tiniest of organisations. That role is diminishing though; particularly as organisations are discovering they need to rediscover the human element in dealing with their customers, cloud solutions (either pre-existing or built incrementally through partners) become the norm and enterprise software start-ups gain ever greater potency.

In order to be price competitive, many IT Consultancies utilise offshore development. This is fine. Software needs to be well specified and offshore resources really can work very well. The issue comes with the level of communication required. Telling an IT Consultant what you want and then him/her having to tell an offshore resource (and then report back on progress) is a degree of separation that simply put – adds risk. Much better to directly task/monitor offshore resources. There are plenty of offshore software development teams you can go to. Use of an IT Consultancy for offshoring would make much more sense if they retained a pool of offshore resources ready to work with the client for a few weeks before moving offshore except this is rarely a cost effective option.

Extending the Industry/Market/Vision point above, look at the entertainment industry. It is undergoing enormous change right now: tweets replacing press releases, music becoming essentially free (necessitating new business models), integrity – forged by honesty/sharing becoming a currency and use of previously fringe/decentralised distribution outlets. The entertainment edifice that has stood since Chaplin is falling. Celebrities and the organisations in their orbit that embrace a post-Empire approach are thriving. Look at Lady Gaga and her little monsters. The IT Consultancy in its current form cannot help. The skills needed to thrive  right now are (in order) – creativity wedded to a deep understanding of how a particular industry operates followed by savvy, wide-ranged understanding of technological possibilities. If these skills are not held within your organisation by salaried employees – there’s a problem. It’s a problem because you need those skills, you’ll always need those skills and because IT Consultancies don’t have the first two.

IT Consultancies will focus on poorly run public organisations and redacting the appalling sum of tech journalism in the short-term. Computer Science majors and their desires for money, learning, travel, lifestyle and ideology will gravitate toward increasingly sophisticated/tailored offers from start-ups. Over time, the stock-in-trade of IT Consultancies will become generalised resource availability and risk management. They will morph into outsourced departments owning these functions for large organisations and the smaller ones will consolidate or fall. A very few may graduate to a sort of co-operative of gurus for back-office  purposes e.g. taxation/economies-of-scale. I won’t wimp out on predicting a time-frame for this happening; but it will be the very convenient - within a decade.

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Will OnLive survive?

OnLive have cornered the cloud gaming market, have a clear/straightforward service, a flexible/evolving business model and are slowly getting good word-of-mouth. Bandwidth is just about affordable enough now to make this service worthwhile.

On a wired 8Mbps connection (with nothing else using the Internet), the experience is almost as good as a console/high-spec PC game. Switching to WiFi, graphics become VHS-quality fuzzy around the edges but games remain playable. Occasionally you will see screen freezes but it always seems to right itself. They have some big investors e.g. AT&T, BT and Warner Bros.

However, as has been said elsewhere, next-gen consoles are likely to be here in 18-months or so. OnLive need to make huge inroads before then in order to see these off. IMO the only way to do this in time is to leverage existing console investment: make the OnLive app work natively with XBox and PS3 controllers and leak a simple app that would enable the service on XBox and PS3. These two pieces are both technically and legally challenging but would catapult OnLive into the public consciousness and ensure its longevity against next-gen.

If they can’t/don’t do this, I can’t see that simply rolling out new games at the rate they are while reducing lag and cosying-up to ISPs will be enough to compete against the combined might of Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo and Steam (and also new cloud gaming competitors e.g. GameStop). On the subject of ISPs: OnLive can burn through a 20GB cap in around six hours. This is fine if your ISP is an OnLive partner (and the usage is effectively ignored) e.g. BT but small ISPs will surely want to pass on the charge?

Some commentators suggest next-gen will be here later – around 2015. This might be enough time for OnLive to survive long-term with their existing strategy. They have a great service that should really be the future of gaming.

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How to report in MOSS

Quick post to make a note of how to do basic reporting using MOSS.
If you have MOSS 2007, your best reporting options are:
  1. Deploy the Content Query Web Part (http://www.datasprings.com/resources/articles-information/about-sharepoint-content-query-web-part). This will provide a basic (QBE-type) interface to generating lists about your documents.
  2. If you need more complexity, best option is to integrate SQL Reporting Services with MOSS 2007 (http://mosshowto.blogspot.com/2009/01/integrating-sql-server-2008-reporting.html). This will allow you to write T/SQL and use drag/drop tools. Both options query the catalogue.
  3. If you have problems configuring them to work together (this was the first time, these products worked together); this will help (http://www.docstoc.com/docs/78198021/Reporting-Services-SharePoint-Integration-Troubleshooting).
If you have MOSS 2010, your best reporting options are:
  1. Deploy the Content Query Web Part (http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ecm/archive/2010/05/14/what-s-new-with-the-content-query-web-part.aspx). It is installed and operates slightly differently to the previous version of MOSS; hence the different link.
  2. If you need more complexity, best option is to integrate SQL Reporting Services with MOSS 2010 (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/bb326356.aspx). This will allow you to write T/SQL and use drag/drop tools. Both options query the catalogue. Again – this operates slightly differently to the previous version of MOSS; hence the different link.
  3. Once integrated then you create reports using Report Builder like this (http://fendy-huang.blogspot.com/2011/02/create-ssrs-report-with-sharepoint-2010.html). This is broadly the same as it was for MOSS 2007.
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Chromebook – Shiny but wrong (like the film Christine)

Having just played with a Chromebook (Samsung Series 5) for the last few days, I’m giving initial thoughts here.

It looks great. Could do with being a little thinner maybe but the physical aspects – screen, keyboard (particularly good) and trackpad all work excellently. It boots quickly (maybe four time faster than Windows) and resumes slightly faster than a Windows laptop but Internet connection is about the same which makes this start-up time mostly moot.

In terms of design, its not dissimilar to the (also Samsung) Google Nexus S mobile. It would probably make a good companion to that in that its more practicable than an Android tablet, you can use the Wifi hotspot function on the mobile and everything is synchronized quickly – while also looking like a matching twin-set.

Obviously all it does is the Internet. You can certainly do most of what you need through web-based applications but this requires an Internet connection. At this time, Google Docs does not work offline but it is the one thing that needs to work offline. There has been much speculation around the price (why does it cost so much when it has a low specification?) but Chromebooks are mostly a business proposition: companies are mainly expected to rent them (at quite decent terms) and so purchase cost isn’t a factor. Enterprises spend millions on terminal/systems management services and disaster recovery through Windows and Chromebooks negate all that.

Chromebooks are a business  proposition and selling them through PC World as a consumer item right now is a mistake. Consumers will be immediately frustrated that they cannot run – Skype, Bittorrent, Spotify, Bitcoin client, Google Earth, anything Bluetooth-related, Steam, Audible or Photoshop or any kind of offline office suite. They will switch to the almost equally well cloud connected Macbook Air – that’s if they care about cloud/architecture at all (which they probably do not). Alternatively they will simply buy cheaper netbooks that do everything a Chromebook does and more. Companies (in the main) don’t need these applications but consumers will buy (a few) Chromebooks and it will put them off the Chromebook experience (some of them will be buyers/CTOs after all).

Google needs to get Google Docs working immediately, attack the enterprise much more than they are and completely halt consumer marketing. It is insane that Google Docs does not yet work offline. Lesser items on their to-do list include – warranty clarity, better fan management and get Chrome OS officially released on a USB drive e.g. Hexxeh to ease people into the experience. They have a killer solution on the services side with Google Docs/Google+ replacing Microsoft Office/SharePoint. They can sell to consumers afterwards – much like Microsoft did initially with Windows. When they do, they should be bundled with a year’s free 3G (rather than the three months currently offered). If they do not, other companies – VMWare, Microsoft (perhaps through a post-Windows OS) or some fringe web-based OS e.g. Jolicloud will usurp them.

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I bought a Bitcoin!

Over the last eighteen months, Bitcoin, a new-ish virtual currency has increased in price a thousand fold (it started around six-months before that). It has more than doubled in the last week. It has been variously and recently described as “…the most dangerous technological project since the Internet itself”, “…the most disruptive change ever to happen to collective human behaviour” and “…the greatest hope for liberty”. US Senators are now trying to control it.

Bitcoin was tangentially referred to in an earlier post on digital cash but its basically a decentralized form of transaction-free digital cash that also allows for the creation (or mining) of new Bitcoins by users themselves. Having played around with Bitcoin on-and-off for the last day – my initial thoughts are:

1) The application is poor. I know its 0.3.21-beta but – no help, a pedestrian/unexplained interface and errors that take hours of Googling to sort out don’t help. Neither does the fact that it apparently could take years to generate a single Bitcoin using the “Generate Coins” option (why?). No backup process means that you need to physically locate a file (your wallet) and copy it some place e.g. USB/DropBox etc. Restoring this file can take literally a day (balance staying 0/unconfirmed) and also freeze-up – potentially losing your wallet (and money) without deep technical understanding. OK – there’s a 99.9% chance that it will go through (30:22} and this is probably on par with a bank transfer BUT unlike a bank transfer, if it doesn’t go through – who do you call? Related to this, new Bitcoin sites (esp. around exchange) spring up to fill coverage gaps and are invariably amateur and if someone steals your wallet now and you deposit coins in it later, the thief will be able to spend/transfer ALL your coins, including those you added AFTER the wallet was stolen (this is because its more of a key than a wallet). Finally no official mobile support? Really?

2) The bubble is perceived to have burst. Increases of the scale indicated above are unlikely to occur again especially in a relatively closed system; unlike with gold for example – where new gold is mined or shortages push the price up. People won’t believe they will occur again and that will itself become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are apparently only going to be 21M bitcoins “minted” but this and the fact that around a third of these 21M are already minted and owned by early techie adopters ultimately leads to hoarding/pyramid behaviour such as we are seeing now e.g. a single Bitcoin account has around 6M USD. Yes I understand that Bitcoins are divisible to eight decimal places (seemingly negating the 21M limit) but this means that in order for Bitcoin to be globally pervasive, monstrous inflation (with all its attendant issues) has to occur over the limited time-frame any start-up has in order to permeate public consciousness (< a year). It also doesn’t negate the fact that a third of the world’s wealth would already have been apportioned/hoarded.

3) It’s just too hard to buy them. The leading exchange site Mt Gox allows the use of Dwolla but this is only for US citizens. In the UK for example, you need to use a European Bank transfer that your bank will charge a flat rate of around £25 for and the process will take a week. There’s an option to use a Google map to physically locate someone close to you to conduct a face-to-face exchange but who is realistically going to do this? Many of the ways to earn Bitcoin that were around last year have now dried-up. If you just want one Bitcoin to play around with, you are probably left with (as I was) buying one on eBay for £21 – an 80% mark-up! Even when you have them, converting them into classical currency is expensive – typically losing money on conversion to Linden dollars first. Related to this, if government wanted to retard Bitcoin, all they need to do is threaten sanctions on the exchangers. It would persist as some geeky underground thing for people that enjoyed Neuromancer or Cryptonomicon but no-one would really use it.

4) The team is tiny. According to the site, there are just seven people who all describe themselves as developers. Where is the backing, marketing, customer support, development pipeline and links to other services e.g. SSO? One of them recently had to double-duty present to the CIA. In addition, the founder – Satoshi Nakamoto appears a shadowy Assange-type - if he even exists at all. Also – who is tweaking the model to cater for unforeseen economic shifts? If this is all programmed into the supposedly unchangeable algorithm – requiring no input then surely its too simplistic and inflexible to be a solution over the next decade? next century? Related to this, there’s no one in the super-CEO, well-known Economist (Peter Diamond? Elinor Ostrom?) or celebrity blogger space that’s putting their name on the line and shouting – GET BEHIND THIS RIGHT NOW! The Economist have stated it is no threat to real-world cash.

5) There’s no accommodation for trust. You need to be on-line (often for some time) in order to have transfers confirmed. There is no use of extended social networks to support offline transfers (see previous post). Some social networking support is apparently being worked on by others e.g. payment via Tweet but this takes no account of the social graph to effect trust. This is particularly ironic since classical currencies all hinge on trust. As long as you absolutely need to be on-line, cash will remain King. Changing the model/algorithm to accommodate trust doesn’t seem to be possible. I’m not taking here about wider social implications such as trading on reputation (which I actually don’t think is realistic due to its flip-flop nature – reputations can be wiped-out by a single mis-speak rather than being gently devalued). I’m simply referring to the mechanics of dealing with someone that might give you fake cash. Related to this, bot [net] shocks are a very real possibility.

6) There’s more of a burden of ownership. Unlike with real cash which you can put under your mattress and you are safe unless you are physically burgled, with digital cash – you’re still open to physical burglary but also remote burglary through malware and trojans like this unfortunate individual. Yes you could put your money on USB sticks – effectively taking it offline but you’re either using it as a payment mechanism (in which case you need it online) or as a savings mechanism (in which case you want to physically count it like Midas every now and then). USB sticks don’t play in either situation. There’s a wider trend moving consumers away from physical ownership e.g. iCloud, iTunes etc and digital cash doesn’t play with this well yet. Of course online sevices will hold it for you (acting like a bank) but how many can be trusted not to fail?

7) There’s no easy/scalable naming convention for fractions. Because its decentralised, no-one is coming up with names for fractions – bit-cents? This week the price for one Bitcoin (BTC) went over $30 USD. This means a latte in Starbucks would have cost a tenth of a Bitcoin – what’s that called? If you want an apple – that’s a hundredth of a Bitcoin – what’s that called? Let’s say that Bitcoin usage spreads virally and eventually subsumes all money in circulation globally – say 4 Trillion USD. There are only 21M being minted remember so that means that each Bitcoin needs to be worth nearly $200,000 USD. An latte then costs in thousanths of a Bitcoin and an apple nearly a millionth of a Bitcoin. Of course names may emerge collectively (much like Twitter hashtags do) but this is all confusing for users without it being moderated – especially when dealing internationally. The open-source method for moderating fractions (and the system in general) is far from ideal – just look at the decades of competing Linux distributions.

There are a host of other detailed socio-economic reasons currently being touted as to why Bitcoin might fail. The chestnut is that its not backed by Gold (but as I understand it neither are the majority of the world’s classical currencies today?). There’s also the big reason that there isn’t much yet that you can buy with them (although this could readily/quickly be addressed through great marketing and a phased release approach). Transition is also considered a problem – both from physical cash and to new/better protocols (instinctively though this feels achievable and has at least been discussed by the team). Finally there’s low criticism that it engenders marginal activity such as Silk Road (but so does cash/barter).

Although weighty economic inhibitors certainly exist, consumers and their unsophisticated ways simply won’t be able to get past the core acceptance issues above to experience them. In essence, why would the consumer adopt a system that is both horrible to use and has its main appreciation opportunities already attributed to others? There will be better alternatives. Without these users, the currency will fall into disuse or persist as some fringe off-grid mechanism.

I believe in the future of a decentralized, global, transaction-free currency (unconvinced it needs to be open-source). Not for reasons of Agorism but because – (perhaps naively) the separation of money and State appears inevitable for – efficiencies sake. At the very least, a mix of styles is healthy. I just see Bitcoin as having jumped-the-shark. Another more usable service iteration – one not orientated toward technology enthusiasts and with a sizeable international effort supporting tweaks and obsolescence in a proper manner will simply overtake it (especially around the areas of social trust and mobile/wallet). Ideally this solution should be backed by some physical product/service – making a hybrid solution.

Each day that goes by with Bitcoin on the periphery of public consciousness and where currency speculation/hoarding dwarfs real purchasing transactions conducted in Bitcoin (even though it steadily appreciates) i.e. the situation we have now – is surely a nail in the Bitcoin coffin.

A clear way to safe-guard Bitcoin would be for Google to embrace it into their digital wallet/social offerings (they have already experimented with a Java implementation) but this appears unlikely given announcements already made. eBay too since there has to be a litmus test for this kind of currency and when eBayers accept it – then its probably been met. Big organisations with automatic brand trust that can mitigate somewhat the irreversible nature of these transactions and provide recourse.

For something that has the perceived ability to dramatically help the Third World, it doesn’t appear to be generating much interest there.

Bitcoin is not fundamentally flawed, its just not good enough. By the time it is, there will be something better in implementation. It has already served its purpose of softening public opinion and acting as a proving ground and for that alone it deserves high merit and a place in history (alongside Cyber/Digi-Cash [hopefully not e-gold] or its spiritual predecessor – Napster). If Bitcoin becomes anything more than that, I’ll be surprised but also – excited (and sad – that I didn’t buy more than one!).

UPDATE: Although as a potential unit of investment Bitcoin seems to be sky-rocketing, I spotted a great post here summing up Bitcoin adoption as a currency right now. It shows a badge with the Bitcoin logo that indicates that you bought the badge with Bitcoin. Quite clever and self-referential? Then in the comments below – “Anybody willing to sell me their …badge for dollars?” followed by the deal-breaker – “…I can Paypal it to you”!

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The case for anonymous comments

Identity and anonymity are having another flash-point in Internet circles (esp. blogging and commenting):

There are those that feel we should associate everything we say with ourselves. We’re forced into taking defensible stances through self-censorship; not running with idle loose talk because our identity is attached to our words. We are easier to challenge because people know where we “live”. Considerations about repercussions are met with cries of – coward! Additionally, our identities are able to be checked so that recipients can apply weighting to our answers to mentally assess whether our points are valid. In an Internet with much dross and trolling, this is certainly needed.

On the other hand, some believe that anonymity is a vital method for eliciting the truth. It allows people to be freer, fuel audience engagement, to run with their inner child toward the goal of open discourse. They point to the current North African situation where people communicating with the rest of the world need to be anonymous to avoid reactionary, automatic and brutal persecution. Many want to protect friends/family from hurtful dialogue. Anonymity is also attractive to the young. Adolescents and young adults often try out different personas without saddling themselves for life with association.

Authenticity is claimed by both camps as just cause. If you believe in it enough, put your name to it versus the freedom to actually be you.

It’s kind of obvious that it’s best to use your real identity if you want to manage long-term relationships, conduct commerce or best convey your point (even if this leads to some self-neutering). You need accountability there. Calls for removing (even making illegal) anonymous comments are widespread.

I am unconvinced Facebook is the right place for identifying and aggregating blogging and commenting activity (as recently spearheaded by TechCrunch) due to a consumer need to separate your work stream from your social stream (not so much the other way around), a history of confusion over Facebook’s end-user control solutions, little in the way of open standards e.g. you cannot currently import comments into Facebook and another reason I’ll come to in the next paragraph. Disqus don’t seem to be too worried anyway despite the free social analytics Facebook now provide for comments. Nevertheless, the principle of identity as a requirement for blogging and commenting should dominate.

Last weekend, there was a fascinating discussion on Reddit (51 hours left to live). Its better to follow the link than have me describe it but it was ostensibly a dying man wanting to interact with the world through his iPad as that was the only avenue left open to him. Reddit is well known to be an anonymous discussion community. Its clear why this man would want to remain anonymous (he had limited time available and didn’t want to burden his family with his innermost thoughts). Reading this thread was the single most potent display of global emotion I have yet seen (on the Internet or otherwise).

There is some dissention as to whether this was a hoax but to a great extent – it doesn’t really matter: yes if he had a verifiable account people wouldn’t be “taken-in” but conversely he wouldn’t have posted in the first place. Should this person be denied a voice? Moreover, should we (through Quora or sites that will soon use the Facebook Comments Box) miss out on tranches of humanity?

Tech blogs and Q&A sites are empirical/factual in nature and it makes complete sense to push accountability there but other forums – ones that principally deal with human beings will lose richness if there is a blanket shift toward authentication (such as any pervasive Facebook solution). Looking toward future Internet, it won’t be a techie artifice; it will be mainstream; communities with personality – positively affecting personal well being and granularly dealing with emotions. It will have a real handle on sentiment analysis; being able to weight-out trolls, bots and haters, concentrating on consensus, meaning and memes.

Yes, anonymous comments (esp. siloed ones) can discredit and upset but I believe they have a continuing place.

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Future tablets

Apple sold 15M iPads between April and December 2010. Despite wide assertions that it is “the most successful electronics product ever”, it is broadly comparable with PS2 (140M sales over nine years). It is certainly wildly successful anyway. iPad 2 announced last week looks more desirable and is set to do even better.

Microsoft owned the tablet market for years but Windows just wasn’t right for a tablet device and it remained the province of IT specialists. They are now reportedly looking at 2012 for the release of a dedicated tablet OS; around the same time as Windows 8.

Should they chase the tablet market from a standing start (like they are doing now with WM7 and smart phones)?

They probably don’t need to respond directly. There are scores of tablets coming out all trying to differentiate slightly. Its a tough market. In the same consumer space as iPad however, some Kinnect/Surface/Lightspace evolution might well be the way forward. In a few years, after we’ve all moved to the cloud e.g. Chrome OS and others, how long will it be before we want our hardware in the cloud too? Most iPad usage is within the home anyway and placing 3D cameras/projectors both there and in public spaces together with some cool image/heat signature/Mobile 7 NFC identification; all subsidized by advertising might be where we ultimately end up for casual consumer computing.

Who needs tablets as Ballmer suggested recently? Microsoft already have the lead now and solutions like this could make the iPad look like a 1970′s calculator. They should play a vision-centric/waiting game.

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Laws of design & development

Some years ago, the understated site Edge asked the question “What’s your law?” This covered a wide variety of suggestions for eponymous laws; basically nuggets of wisdom. It focussed on science and philosophy with some technology and was a fascinating dissection of some of the best minds in the world.

Which laws are useful for IT projects (esp. solution design and development)?

We’ll ignore Murphy’s Law (Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) – too obvious (and so of limited use). We’ll also ignore the classic Moore’s Law (The quantity of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on a chip doubles every two-years) since it’s not exactly actionable, can mislead (see Wirth’s Law) and is dead anyway according to its inventor.

My top-ten laws then for IT projects (with some paraphrasing) are:

1) Gall’s Law

a. It should be simple if it is new. A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.

2) Hofstadter’s Law

a. It always takes longer than you expect. This is pretty obvious but it’s just so important that it needs to be here and there are corollaries to this law that are more actionable:

i. Zawinksi’s Law

1. It should meet its original goal and then stop. Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Similar to Glass’s Law.

ii. Boyd’s Law of Iteration

1. It needs to iterate fast. Speed of iteration beats quality of iteration.

iii. Little’s Law

1. It needs to be considered in the context of other projects.

iv. Brook’s Law

1. It shouldn’t have new people toward the end. Adding manpower to a late software project can make it later. You are going to be late. You don’t want to also slow the team down at a critical time by having them train others.

3) Parkinson’s Law

a. It should be a stretch for all concerned. Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

4) Segal’s Law

a. It should have a single point of authority. A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.

5) Reed’s Law

a. It probably needs social networking. I know that like all of U2’s music since the mid-nineties, this is over-produced but simply put – it is so powerful you likely need it. Basically the utility of large networks (esp. social networks) increases exponentially with the size of the network. Similar to Metcalf’s Law. There are corollaries to this law:

i. Campbell’s Law

1. It shouldn’t hinge on reputational scoring. As a boundary to Reed’s Law: The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. Similar to Goodhart’s Law.

ii. Godwin’s Law

1. It shouldn’t hinge on threaded discussion. There are simply too many of them and they typically aren’t connected. As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

iii. Kelly’s Second Law

1. It needs crowd-sourcing wherever possible. Nobody is as smart as everybody.

6) Boyd’s Law

a. It needs to be synchronous. Value is best enabled by real-time, synchronous response. There need to be enough people within a community who are both enabled to and sufficiently interested in the endeavour, to drop everything for a while to join in.

7) Delta’s Law

a. It may have a third-way. There are scores of operational and design decisions/trade-offs in any sizeable project e.g. do you build web-forms yourself or use a third-party solution? Many times this is over-simplification. The next time you are confronted with only two choices, think hard – create a third and see the possibility space expand. Similar to Etcoff’s Law.

8) Wirth’s Law

a. It shouldn’t rely on hardware curing performance. Faster hardware (as quantified by Moore’s Law) does not imply that work will actually get done faster.

9) Linus’ Law

a. It needs a widespread beta programme. Ideally stay in beta for as long as possible. Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix will be obvious to someone.

10) McLuhan’s Law

a. It should always be almost working right. If it works, it’s obsolete. This can be seen as contradicting Zawinksi’s Law (although that is of a higher priority). What I mean here though is that the goal for the application (as opposed to the particular project) should always evolve and strive to be bigger and better. A successful application is invariably the result of several projects.

There are more specifically relating to software development here.

I think there is real insight in some of these laws. These aren’t just name droppers to impress people. Project management can be a lonely place and it genuinely helps to have casual/easily applied (and communicated) support. Methodologies often don’t take account of scale, can be unwieldy and don’t typically incorporate design elements.

I do think that they need to be brought to life with prioritization and examples though.

Google particularly observe Linus’ Law for their projects in general. They perhaps don’t treat Reed’s Law with the same gravitas and arguably overlooked Gall’s Law with Google Wave. Despite their huge advanced server farms, they are also pretty keen on Wirth’s Law (with Brin even restating it as Page’s Law). Yahoo, with their Yahoo Answers solution were foiled by Godwin’s Law. Microsoft would perhaps have benefitted from understanding Zawinksi’s Law in respect of Microsoft Office.

In a world with many acquisitions, Segal’s Law also becomes more important but many projects (or start-ups) seem to fall foul of Gall’s Law for competitive reasons. Thinking appears to be; if we’re going to be as successful as X, then our solution needs to do more than X. In reality that may not be possible since X actually did not emerge fully conceptualised into life but rather took years to evolve. There is also a drive toward making the technology complicated to reduce competition to other organizations with large R&D budgets.

 

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Groups & buying

Across many industrialized, free-enterprise countries exist government sponsored groups tasked with maintaining a chamber of commerce. They are focussed upon supporting a particular business community and are found at international, national, state or county and local (city) level.

Those with the largest focus engage in political and international/corporate trade disputes and opportunities. Further down the scale (generally no standard hierarchy between them), local ones are mostly independent. At town/borough level, there may also be smaller business forums that perform fewer activities. They may be additionally funded by subscription, sponsorship or donation and again are mostly independent.

The remit for local chambers of commerce/business forums typically includes lobbying (business rates, permits, building regulations); warden management (direct passers-by to local services); event management (swap ideas/network) and communication (mainly newsletters around current legislation). Larger ones may offer translation, interpreting, business course and market research services. By far, the most useful thing they do is local networking events.

While these ancillary services add value to local businesses, particularly within a multi-cultural context, they do not directly benefit net income. The high street has been dying for years not because of a lack of ancillary support but because they couldn’t compete against online, large retailers and shopping malls.

Once their bottom-line is demonstrably improved, local businesses will be able to stick around – that’s the first thing; but then they will pay attention to the body that gave that opportunity to them and engage in its current (wider) remit (swap ideas/network etc.). In turn, this guards against urban decay, improves cohesiveness, collaboration, prosperity and general well-being. Ultimately it enables the community empowerment political ideal known, at least in the UK, as big society.

Although these services differ in structure and accountability, the characteristic they all have in common is the network: there are a lot of them each having many members. The UK alone has 52 local chambers of commerce, with the largest having more than 5,000 members. Hundreds of business forums exist. In the US there are reportedly 7,800 chambers of commerce in total with presumably hundreds of thousands of members.

What mechanism is available to directly deliver bottom-line improvement (lower cost/higher revenue) to local businesses using the power of the network?

This has to be around the perennial concept of economies-of-scale; like-minded groups combining purchasing power to negotiate better prices and terms from vendors. There are two key methods of using economies-of-scale for local businesses:

1)      Reduce the cost of supplies.

  1. How can they do this?

i.    It is difficult for local businesses to obtain the cheapest supplies since they rarely buy in bulk. An alternative is to join a local buying group. Typically these operate in grocery, health-care, energy and electrical spaces. A group will buy common goods (supplies) at discount and share them among its members. Reducing duplicated buying activities also improves efficiencies.

  1. Why doesn’t everyone do this?

i.    The concept can fall down on distribution e.g. the group needs its own distribution depot since the only way they can get that discount is by buying and having delivered in bulk.

ii.    It needs a deal negotiator (who takes a cut). If the deal negotiator is one of a group of friends (to save money), interpersonal issues are rife.

iii.    When you can buy a can of coke for less than 25 pence wholesale there isn’t a great deal that can be further discounted unless you are buying tens of thousands. You would need a very large buying group to handle this.

iv.    Both the local business and the consumer get funnelled into a narrower range of goods.

  1. How could local chambers of commerce/business forums help?

i.      They typically have their own offices which could be used as delivery addresses. It may be also possible to use other government facilities or, assuming they could be secured, abandoned high street premises.

ii.      Local government is typically non-profit focussed. Deal negotiation could become part of existing roles. Although the UK government has recently disbanded several buying groups, there are around 80 public sector entities managing them in the UK which could presumably be leveraged.

iii.      Other local government bodies could act together to buy in such quantities that they could compete with supermarket giants. That way they can persuade more businesses to join or stay with the group or not defect to commercial buying groups such as Costcutter, Spar or Nisa Today’s.

  1. NHS Supply Chain (operated by DHL) contracts with hundreds of suppliers on behalf of the NHS and competes on price, quality and service against other buying groups and buying teams within individual NHS Trusts. In three years, sales have doubled and over £100M in savings have been passed back to the NHS.

iv.      While true that we would see a narrower range of goods, let’s not forget that these are supplies. Many will be transformed into other things. There is also the opportunity to enforce a minimum health/sustainability standard e.g. butter within government mandated cholesterol levels. Finally, it means local businesses are gently persuaded into differentiating their services further through offers, service, creativity and different processes etc. – all great moves.

2)      Increase the number of sales.

  1. How can they do this?

i.    It is difficult for local businesses to get themselves noticed on the Internet (as local newspaper routes diminish) and compete with large retailers. Websites, if they have them, are typically static/not SEO optimized. They cannot typically handle up-front investment. An alternative is for them to use group buying sites that sell vouchers delivering discounts (usually 50%-75%). These can be used at participating shop/service providers if a minimum number of people sign-up (98% of the time it does). They are very popular (Groupon is now more visited than the UK government site).

  1. Why doesn’t everyone do this?

i.     Sites generally demand 50% cuts. This means businesses basically need to slash their price by half and give half those profits to the site. Local businesses need pricing structures that can accommodate this; at least breaking-even on the deal so that they make money from goodwill/repeat business and cross/up-sell.

ii.    Small services can actually be overwhelmed if they get 2,000+ people turn-up at their store.

iii.    Deals are currently loaded toward luxuries e.g. tanning salons, higher-end restaurants, plays, liposuction etc. Many people may be able to afford these with the deal but not without. This means group buying as customer acquisition strategy falls down.

  1. How could local chambers of commerce/business forums help?

i.    Many local businesses e.g. small restaurants/hair salons simply do not know how to model their marketing like this. While straightforward, it entails (ideally computerized) “what if” analysis and an understanding of local advertising law (some vendors increase prices just before a deal to convey greater saving which can be illegal). Roles can be centralised and focussed toward enabling this.

ii.    Rather than deals made directly with the local business and the group buying site, they could be made with the local chamber of commerce/business forum. This means coupons could be used across the whole community rather than a single business. This would have advantages of spreading load, being a larger deal and so more attractive to the group buying site (they need to accept deals) and also remove the need for individual local businesses to engage directly.

iii.    This is always going to be an issue but the group buying model doesn’t hinge on customer acquisition. Repeated deals are profitable for other reasons (without even touching on word-of-mouth impact). Spreading deals across the community would also create variety and flexibility. This would also better engage local customers. Currently, they don’t consider offers to be varied enough.

There are already precedents for innovation in collaborative consumption working with local government e.g. The People’s Supermarket. Of course local businesses will always need to source quality niche products, know their customers, adapt to local tastes, deliver great personal experiences, add value through proprietary techniques, be commercially savvy, get creative and generally have a little personality but combining local chambers of commerce/business forums with buying group/group buying services should help unlock the value of the local network (not just at periodic events). It would also moderate many of the challenges involved in using both services. Ultimately it should directly help local businesses stay afloat right now and that has to be the primary goal for everyone.

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Startups below the waterline

Startups are getting to be big business.

Loss making Twitter is valued at $10BN, Groupon rejects an offer of $6BN+ less than two-years post start-up. Farmville and Angry Birds are assets valued in the hundreds of millions. ServiceMesh shows X3 revenue growth and profitability for each of its three years. Box.net, an online storage broker receives $48M funding. Outbrain gets $11M funding for a free widget after being in business for months.

In an economy ripe with redundancy, ease of cloud usage (site creation, management and scaling through established and reasonably priced providers e.g. Amazon), open-sourced tools and a very low barrier to marketing (driven by Twitter/Facebook) this is understandable.

If you’re actually in a technology role, the fact that most projects you work on fail affects your job satisfaction. Related to this, the feeling that a small group of like-minded individuals can actually get more done than large enterprise teams seems to resonate. Google in particular are looking to revive their startup spirit.

Venture capital and equity funding is, if not straightforward to come by, easier than at any time since the dot com bubble. There was a 14% growth in venture funding last year. Less people are willing to take risks (and so less competition). Offshore development is established and accessible to many. Programs such as Startup Central, BizSpark and Startup Days by HP, Microsoft and Facebook respectively – offer expertise, patents and funding in the hope of gaining that great idea to own. Open web take-up makes it easier to access treasure troves of data. Even enterprises that are not considered open web provide APIs that other startups use to build their startup (provided you can accommodate regulation/change) e.g. Twitter.

With established rhetoric that – new businesses create jobs; there is probably even government funding to help you out in the short-term and then with acquisitive companies like Google around, you likely don’t even need to get to the long-term. Even P-Diddy is funding startups.

So why wouldn’t you do it? Be a Zuckerberg? Well, most people are aware that the vast majority of startups fail and that the entire Internet purchasing space (the piece where you most obviously make money) is getting to be monopolized by Apple, Google, Facebook and perhaps Microsoft. Many think we are already within a second bubble that will shortly burst. Its also just so much work! People have families and social lives to run with and new Apple product ranges to buy each year. Finally there is a core belief that although you can start-up anywhere (see Microsoft/Amazon), outside Silicon Valley – its harder due to the networking/opportunities/tax breaks. The EU in particular sometimes seems to hinder startup activity.

Outside of logistical/lifestyle choices (family, mortgage etc.), I think another huge reason why people don’t do it is simply – misconception/lack of information. On the misconception side – people wait on that great idea; whereas its actually more about the effort/journey/project, the execution and ultimately the product. The idea can be (and invariably is) a rehash of other ideas (see Apple). The product though (see site) needs to be much better than the competition and, of course, you need to be making something that people need.

The startup space is both fascinating and powerful right now. Its hard to keep-up with movements though. You can subscribe to one of dozens of technology blogs e.g. Scobleizer and get a name, an overview of what they do and if you’re lucky, a stake-in-the-ground as to whether the blogger thinks they are any good or not. You forget them after a few days/hours though. Its only if you subscribe to (and regularly read) blogs and bloggers keep talking about them (as Scoble did with Flipboard/Quora etc.) that they permeate into your consciousness. Either that or there is some huge Groupon-like deal that is just impossible to ignore through other channels.

Like an iceberg though, you miss out on the hundreds of startups below the waterline. Not just stealth startups but ones that haven’t yet broken (or have broken but you’ve forgotten them already). They are arguably more important to analysis than the bigger names – the outliers. They could be interesting because of their core premise, their relative success/public perception, their longevity, their approach to monetization, trends they hook into, their team, their competitors or acquisition behaviour. Just looking at the extremes; the successful ones above the waterline skews your understanding of what works and what is possible in startup world.

I think the best approach is to maintain your own log of interesting startups. This is something I’m trying to do here.

Rather than having a simple list or spreadsheet, I feel a mind-map approach works best for quickly assessing the space. I link to each site, sometimes cut/paste key details I’ve found elsewhere into comments and give it a thumbs up/down icon depending on what my initial thoughts about the startup were. The graphical mind-map approach also conveniently groups like-startups together. The small level of effort in managing it is enough to keep you connected better than any devoted startup list. I’ve been maintaining this map for a couple months now, have logged several hundred startups and found my understanding of that world is much deeper. Doubtless I’ve missed key startups (please comment/email me if so) but its fast becoming an essential reference.

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