And the young eats itself

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Liz Gannes at GigaOM writes a story on Evan Williams and Odeo, and Williams confession at the recent Web Apps of the Future yak fest. Williams talks about how he royally screwed up with his startup, Odeo, burning through it sounds like millions, hiring a staff of 14, all to build a product for an audience the company hadn’t even defined yet. So now that Ev has recognized his mistake, is he going to do better?

So what’s he doing to fix these mistakes? Not refunding the VCs their investment, that’s for sure. And not even trying to earn revenue; Williams freely admitted Odeo hasn’t yet settled on a business model.

I expected Williams to get at least a verbal slap for such, but oh no.

All in all, we can’t say we came out of the presentations convinced Odeo is set to conquer the universe, but Williams’ honesty and humility are admirable. The best part is, his advice has a chance of making an impact while it’s still relevant to today’s startups.

Speechless. I’m speechless.


Office of the Future

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

What the heck, it’s Friday so I might as well push Nick Carr’s post up the techmeme flag pole.

I can agree with Carr on the following:

Whatever the flaws of Microsoft Office, most end users are comfortable with it – and they have little motivation to overturn the apple cart. What is absolutely unacceptable to them is to take a step backward in functionality – which is exactly what would be required to make the leap to web PPAs today. Web apps not only disappear when you lose an internet connection, they are also less responsive for many common tasks, don’t handle existing Office files very well, have deficiencies in printing (never underestimate the importance of hard copy in business), and have fewer features (Microsoft Office of course has way too many, but – here’s the rub – different people value different ones). Moreover, many of the current web apps are standalone apps and thus represent an unwelcome retreat to the fragmented world of Office 1.0. Finally, the apps are immature and may change dramatically or even disappear tomorrow – not a strong selling point for the corporate market.

Aside from everyone completely discounting OpenOffice and the Mac hybrids and interest in open source, the point is good: why should people give up functionality for the dubious distinction of having part or all of said functionality hosted on the web?

Where I disagree, is with the following:

What we’re entering, then, is a transitional generation for office apps, involving a desktop/web hybrid. This generation will last for a number of years, with more and more application functionality moving onto the web as network capabilities, standards, and connectivity continue to advance. At some point, and almost seamlessly, from the user’s perspective, the apps will become more or less fully web-based and we’ll have reached the era of what I call Office 4.0 (and what others currently call Office 2.0). Driving the shift will be the desire of companies, filtered through their IT staffs, to dramatically simplify their IT infrastructure. Mature web-based apps don’t require local hardware, or local installation and maintenance, or local trouble-shooting, or local upgrading – they reduce costs and increase flexibility. These considerations are largely invisible to end users, but they’re very important to companies and will become increasingly important as the IT world shifts to what might be called utility-class computing.

I hear of two reasons for net-hosted office tools: collaboration (Office 2.0) and ease of maintenance (Carr’s Office 4.0).

First of all, in his timeline of Office architectures, Carr neglects to mention all of the work done in the last decade on collaborative tools, such as Ray Ozzie’s Groove, or the old Lotus Notes. These are infrastructures set up for collaboration, but aren’t necessarily considered ‘office’ tools.

Where the idea that the functionality provided by office like tools must be collaborative in nature arose, I don’t know; for the most part whatever would make these collaborative would probably make them unattractive to the typical user. Think of Word as a wiki and you’ll get the point.

I worked in an insurance company that used Lotus Notes to track software bugs, testing, and communication between the members of the entire development staff. It worked well. I also remember a woman putting a Word document up on the division’s intranet without locking out edits and a male supervisor editing the hell out of it in the interests of ‘collaboration’. There was a pretty horrid row over that one and the two ended up barely speaking to each other. So much for collaboration.

There are tools for collabration and there are tools for individual contributions. You mix the two, and you’re not necessarily working to people’s expectations.

There’s also a centralized element to the Office 2.0 of today, and the Office whatever of the future. If the purpose of the tools is to enable collaboration, then the documents produced have to be stored centrally. Some architectures like Groove get around this by listing documents on an individual’s PC as being in the group’s space. However, if the person goes offline, and the document hasn’t been opened by another yet (and hence copied to their machine), *poof* document gone.

Yet a centralized system is a target for hackers, or at a minimum, a place of vulnerability that could have major impact far and beyond one person’s machine failing. If my machine fails, I’m held up from work. If a centralized service fails, the entire department get off from work early that day.

If collaboration is not an issue, there’s absolutely no indicator other than wishful thinking that tools to create things are better when hosted on the net. Doing so implies making changes in the underlying web infrastructure that adds points of further vulnerability.

Many Ajax hackers are working to override or overcome the web browser barriers put in place to protect us from various forms of attacks. Why? Just to build tools such as those in Office 2.0. They use Flash and all manner of technology in order to store increasingly large amounts of data on the client, many times without us even knowing such is happening. Why? Just to build tools such as those in Office 2.0.

What was it the character that Wil Smith played in the movie, Independence Day, said about the dog bringing slippers to him in bed?

If he wants to impress me, why don’t he go out and get a job or something.

I know it can be a twisted bit of code to make a Word like interface on the web, but I can’t be impressed with such when I don’t see that it’s all that useful.

IT departments wanting this new web-based functionality to reduce the overhead that comes from upgrades of individually hosted applications makes more sense, and I remember this from days long ago when I was a Corporate Employee. Again, though, there have been innovations in computer maintenance that simplify upgrades at a global scale, and most companies (medium to large) can make a deal for good pricing of applications.

Carr agrees with the Office 2.0 on one point: that the natural progression is for Office to move to the web. Not just provide web services, but to be hosted and accessed through the web (or more likely a company intranet). How feasible is this, though? We’ve already gone through our phase of thin computers and net hosted functionality and no one was buying: corporate or individual.

The concern that Carr mentions about companies reducing costs this way: how much of an issue is that today? I would say companies have other issues more important. For instance, the issue of security.

Will web services be cheaper? Considering OpenOffice and NeoOffice and such as free, I’m not sure how the web service can be cheaper. Eventually, all of them will have to make some form of money. Ads in the same page where you’re writing your document? Not likely.

Who wants these tools? I don’t know. I do know that I’m seeing a number of applications that provide a desk top tool for web-based applications, such as Blogger and WordPress. That’s the way of the future: editing on the client and simplified publishing to the group or the web; specialized readers that provide access to specialized data.

I agree with Carr: the whole plethora of the so-called “Office 2.0″ applications have very little chance of success. Yes, even those created by Google. Where I disagree with Carr is that based on today’s web architecture, I don’t see this changing in the future.

People Political

Good-bye Ann Richards

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Don at Hands in Dirt has a lovely and very personal remembrance of Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, who passed away on Wednesday.

I don’t think there’s a feminist who doesn’t remember one of Richards most famous quotes, from the 1988 Democratic Convention:

Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.

Others remember her for another quote, about the then Vice President George Bush:

He can’t help it–he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

(Audio recording of speech.)

Both Don and a person in Don’s comments mention about how Richards would encourage young women to speak out. They couldn’t ask a question through their Moms or Dads, they had to ask directly themselves. She fought for women and minorities, but she also believed we had to fight for ourselves.

Richards didn’t always toe the ‘progressive’ line. She defied the ACLU once to defend a religious Christmas scene at the Capital, quipping that the three wise men represented were probably the only wise men that close to the legislature. After she left office, she worked as a lobby for the tobacco industry, to help bring about a settlement that would avoid the potentially more devastating lawsuits. She didn’t follow a course because others laid one out; she followed her own will.

The fact that Richards won the governor’s race–a woman in a state where the women were good, little women and purty to boot–was astonishing. Richards would ultimately serve just one term, though, defeated by the son of the man with the silver foot, who went on to a sad reign that left the state in shambles, before moving his ineptness to a national, and eventually international, level.

If only Richards had been president these last few years, things would have been different. Things would have been better. She was smart, she was strong, and she was fair. Richards was an old school Democrat, the kind that walked the talk. As Don wrote:

Nearly half of all her appointments were women and minorities. She appointed five openly gay people to government positions. Bob Bullock, the Lt. Governor who always felt that Ann was not deserving of office, said that he thought that was her downfall, appointing gay people. She wanted government to represent the people it served, thinking that if people had an investment, a voice in the system, they would see that they are part of it and could make it more responsive.

I’m not sure what Richards would make of today’s new Democrat, with their ‘balanced’ agenda. I think she would be disappointed, though, because she never made deals, and never worried overmuch about how she appeared in the press. Doing a good job was more important than being re-elected.

She was a true American hero. And I bet she’d hate being called that.