Category: Technology

Apr 30 2005

Dan Bricklin’s Open Source Video

I hooked up with Dan Bricklin last week when I was in Boston.  I met Dan in the mid-1990’s when he was starting up Trellix (which I was an early investor in).  I still remember the day I cracked open my copy of Visicalc for the Apple II (I think it was copy 200–something.  It was the actual copy used in Triumph of the Nerds as Dan didn’t want to risk losing one of his few remaining copies.  We got it back eventually from some Oregon Public Radio dude, but that’s another long story.)  I adore (and worship) Dan – Visicalc and my Apple II had a huge impact on my life as it was an integral part of my first real introduction to computers (beyond a high-low game I wrote on some mainframe somewhere and a day of APL in front of a Frito-Lay computer with my Uncle Charlie.)  I remember /SL and /SQY like it was yesterday.  Of course, this led to a thousand hours playing Ultima and Choplifter, but that was more an issue of lack of self control as a teenager.

Dan has been spending a lot of time thinking about Open Source issues over the past year.  He’s written extensively on it and just created a video called A Developer’s Introduction to Copyright and Open Source: Why a Lawyer is a Developer’s Friend (eek – lawyers – scary).  Given all the issues surrounding Open Source licensing and copyright issues these days and based on the synopsis, Dan’s video looks comprehensive and highly relevant (I’d expect nothing less from Dan.) 

Dan promised that my autographed copy is on its way.  You can buy an evaluation copy here and a corporate training edition here.  And – no – I don’t get a commission on this one – just karma points.  Maybe Dan will also send me an autographed copy of Dan Bricklin’s Demo Program (I lost mine in a move somewhere.)

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Apr 13 2005

Internet Axis of Evil

Today is my periodic Fred Wilson blog love fest.  Fred’s characterization of the Internet Axis of Evil, which currently consists of Phishing, Click Fraud, DNS Hacking, Comment Spam/Link Spam, Adware/Spyware, Spam, and Viruses is awesome.  In sympathy with Fred and in an effort to help reign down terror on these evil fuckers, I’ve created a new category in my blog called Internet Axis of Evil.

As I a went through my daily early morning ritual of feeding the dogs, drinking some tea, reading various papers on line, and deleting trackback spam (who really responds to “poor credit loans” and “military cash loans”) I came across an article in the Denver Post on Scott Richter, the CEO of the spam firm OptInRealBig.com.  Scott’s making a ton of money spamming people ($19.6m in revenue in 2004; Scott took down $1.2m last year), but the company filed for bankruptcy to help protect itself against a variety of law suits, including one from Microsoft / Hotmail.  C’mon guys, the company is “absolutely profitable” (Scott’s dad and lawyer Steven’s words), but y’all go bankrupt to protect against lawsuits – could it be that you are actually concerned that the lawsuits are legit?

Fortunately, there are plenty of good guys fighting the bad guys.  Today, the Email Service Provider Coalition added a number of members, including our company Return Path.  ESPC also expanded their steering committee to including Return Path.  ESPC exists because the folks involve “recognize the need for strong technological anti-spam solutions that ensure the delivery of legitimate email.” 

While I’m sure this post will generate lots of comment spam, I’m trilled (shit, someone’s going to throw something at me today) that there are plenty of good guys in the world fighting the Internet Axis of Evil.

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Apr 8 2005

NPR: An Impending Period of Transitional Chaos for Media

I don’t write about broadcast media much – it’s not my thing.  I’ve definitely had my entertaining moments – including a very strange lunch at Blackrock with Mel Karmizan when he was the president of CBS pre-Viacom (“the Internet – it is irrelevant to us – you just can’t sell enough ads on it”) and a due diligence trip to a South Carolina radio station when I was at Ameridata in 1994 (“Maybe we should buy them and try to introduce computers into the radio business” – at least lunch was good).  However, I do like 24 (I plan to be Jack Bauer in my next life) and I thought last week’s West Wing was superb.

My trip home from the airport coincided with NPR so I listened to an hour of it.  Near the end, Bob Garfield had a fun piece titled An Impending Period of Transitional Chaos for Media.  He started out with the hypothesis – What if network broadcast media simply disappeared?  What if TV as we know it was replaced by something really cool (cut to the theme from The Jetsons).  Over the air network is gone, affiliates are gone, satellite radio is a 4 billion dollar eight track tape player pushed aside by free podcasting.  What if the old model collapsed before the new model was ready?

Now, I always find it mildly entertaining when mainstream media (e.g. NPR) talks about its impending demise (it feels so self indulgent in a sick, twisted way), but Garfield deeply believes disruption on a mass scale is coming.  He leads with the quote “I truly believe … that today’s marketing model is broken” by Jim Stengel, Global Marketing Officer of P&G telling ad agencies that network TV isn’t giving advertisers its money’s worth (and P&G – the biggest advertiser in the world – spends $5.5 billion per year on advertising).  Then – the facts:

  • Network audience has eroded 2% a year for the past decade
  • Advertiser cost of reaching consumer in the past decade has tripled
  • This assumes that folks watching on Tivo are actually watching the ads (which of course, they aren’t)

Ok – so now that broadcast media is going to die – he goes on to talk about vLogs and how mass media will be overthrown by micromedia. Then – cut to the ubiquitous Jeff Jarvis for a sound bite on the public flogging of Tucker Carlson by Jon Stewart (400k viewers on CNN, 5m viewers on the Internet) and pithy quotes from Drazen Pantic at Unmediated.org about how chaos must ensue.

The last half of the broadcast loses some steam as it devolves into more lightweight banter about what’s going to happen, how it’s going to be a mess, how traditional media (e.g. CBS) thinks they must survive to uphold the American way, and how absurd that notion is.  But – overall – in 10 minutes – I thought Garfield did a good job of explaining what’s going on in a way that my mom could relate to.

I’ll end with my favorite West Wing quote of all time – when Josh is struggling with the NASA Mars chick that we think he’s going to have a romantic interlude with (but doesn’t – damn) and Leo is annoyed that Josh is wasting time on stupid NASA Mars stuff.  Leo turns to Josh and grumbles, “My generation never got the future it was promised… Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel’s exactly the same.  We don’t even have the Concorde anymore.  Technology stopped.”  Josh counters with “The personal computer,” but he can’t stop Leo who says “Where’s my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?”

Having spent the last 17 hours (door to door) getting from Paris to Boulder, all I can say is my teleporter can’t be ready too soon.

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Mar 25 2005

Unexpected Drivers of VoIP Adoption Growth

A long time friend, Shawn Broderick (first employee at my first company Feld Technologies and founder/CEO of Genetic Anomalies – acquired by THQ), has started up a new company called MaxVox that’s working on some cool consumer VoIP related stuff.

Shawn’s been studying the VoIP market to try to determine which demographics are actually driving the adoption of VoIP. MaxVox announced today that they have discovered that a much younger demographic than expected is actually driving VoIP adoption. They issued a press release discussing the “Wired Toddler” category and announcing the availability of their report Residential VoIP Adoption – The Pampers Segment – which costs $495 and will be available via their website on April 1.

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Mar 24 2005

Automating My Compute Infrastructure

I woke up this morning thinking about Plaxo and my computer.  I’m been thinking lately about the number of manual things that I do that my computer should take care of for me (when I say “my computer”, I mean “my personal computing infrastructure”, which goes well beyond an individual computer at this point and includes four desktop computers, a laptop, server Al servers, a Danger Sidekick, a Windows Media Player, a ton of software, all the data stored at various web-based services, lots of web-based applications automatically doing things for me, several people (including “my IT guy Ross”) – all spread across at least four locations plus all the different places I travel to). 

I’ve experienced numerous big advances in this over the years.  A relatively recent example that many people can relate to is spam.  I used to have to deal with spam manually – now I never see email spam because of Postini which automagically eliminates it all in the background. Email spam is gone from my life – it’s no longer something I have to interact with – whereas before Postini, I probably was manually deleting 200–300 spams a day and now – when I periodically check my spam filter online – it’s well over 1000 a day.  I put this in the “magic” category where the solution was a binary experience – one day I had a huge problem, the next day it was gone.  I especially notice this when I have to deal with Movable Type spam (both comment and trackback) – this is a “new” problem that hasn’t been solved yet (although tools are starting to appear to address it better).

I realized that in the past year, I’ve introduced a new set of computing tools in my daily life.  A lot of this has been driven off of the shift to web-based applications, but RSS and the way that I interact with real time information has changed this as well.  As I thought about this, I got aggravated with the number of things that I have to do to simply “interact” with my compute infrastructure.  They range from the trivial (manually synchronizing my bookmarks across multiple computers – since I use Firefox, I can use the Bookmark Sync plug in to keep the bookmarks across my four computers synced – but I still have to actually click on Sync when I make a change) to the more complex (dealing with all of the email-based meeting requests that I get – fortunately my assistant Wendy handles much of this, but it is clearly something my compute infrastructure should be smart enough to figure out.)

Twenty years from now the way we interact with our compute infrastructure will be as archaic as it was twenty years ago (when the Apple III and IBM PC AT were the innovation of the day and del c:\*.* was a big scary deal).  So – I’ve started to think about how to increase my compute infrastructure to the next level – especially with regard to “automating all the trivial shit that my computer should be smart enough to deal with for me.”  I want my compute infrastructure to continually get smarter, do more effective things for me in the background, and free my time up to actually generate “content”.

Contact management is a great example of this.  My core contact management database lives on my Exchange server and I access it through Outlook.  After years of playing cut and paste from email when I wanted to add a new contact, I finally found a program (Anagram) that effectively sucks contact info out of email and puts it in my Outlook databases.  While this was a small step, it saves a huge amount of “stupid time” over the course of the rest of my life. 

The concept of a web-based address book synchronizer has been around for a while (we even talked about at it Anyday.com – an online calendar company that I funded in the late 90’s that was bought by Palm in 1999 for $80m and promptly shut down one year later.)  Until recently, all the approaches I had ever interacted with caused me more work then they saved as they generated lots of new email (spam).  Linkedin is a great example – I’ve got a nice Linkedin profile and plenty of connections, but I’ve gotten minimal personal value out of it at this point and it’s generated hundreds (thousands?) of email I’ve had to deal with (even if dealing with them is as looking at the email and hitting delete).  At some point, I blacklisted Linkedin in my spam filter so I don’t have to see the emails and every now and then I go onto Linkedin and interact with it directly, but the value is low, so my interaction is low, etc.

When Plaxo first came out, it had the same problem – it was merely a gigantic spam generator.  So – I eventually gave up, deleted it, and wiped out all my Plaxo data.  I downloaded version 2 the other day to see if it was any better. 

I have 3000 active contacts in my Outlook database.  There are probably 500 core contacts that I communicate with regularly, another 500 that are my “house list” for mass emails I send out about various things I’m involved in that I want to invite folks to (and yes – I observe good email hygiene and give people a way to opt out of these things), another 1000 contacts that I know well enough that I’d recognize them if I ran into them on the street but don’t interact regularly, and 1000 randoms that I interact with transactionally.

I was positively stunned with what Plaxo did.  After installing it, it connected 300 of my contacts (10% of my database) and automatically updated the information in the background (on the Plaxo servers).  It synchronized this data with Outlook/Exchange in the background and kept track of what it did.  It was flawless – handling typical thorny sync issues correctly (Outlook on multiple machines connected to the same Exchange data store has a whole series of classic sync issues that anyone that has ever dealt with sync knows about – another example of a “problem” that computer should solve for me that continues to be an issue).

Now – independent of whether or not Plaxo is a good business (there are some clever new “monetization approaches” in version 2) – the software suddenly became part of my compute infrastructure.  I’ve had it up and running for a couple of days on two machines and it has settled into the background, doing what I expect, and continuing to help incrementally with managing my contact database.  Like Anagram, it’s a relatively small application in the grand scheme of what I do everyday, but has suddenly improved the automation of one of the more annoying things I deal with regulary that adds no fundamental value to how I interact with my computer.

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Mar 8 2005

Exponential Cost Curves and the Datacenter

Everyone knows that exponential curves don’t last forever.  However, it’s remarkable to look at how they apply to specific cost curves – especially when they enable a radical transformation of how technology is used and deployed.  My partner Ryan McIntyre – one of the co-founders of Excite – talks extensively about this in his post Mr. Moore in the Datacenter.  It’s a great read with some fascinating real data (yes – I remember paying $1k / megabit / month in 1996 back when SaaS was called ASP – but I was too young for it back when it was called timesharing – although I bumped into Multics a couple of times at MIT).

In the mid-1990s, Dan Bricklin told me that computing had gone full circle – in the early 1980’s it used to be that you typed some stuff on your screen, hit enter, and waited a few seconds for something to happen.  By the mid 1990’s we were doing the same, only using a PC over dial-up lines using HTTP.  Those mainframe dudes had it right, but thanks to Mr. Moore and crew, we no longer have to wait a couple of seconds (except every now and then, or when I’m accessing the web from my Sidekick.)

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Feb 16 2005

The Me Too Zone

I don’t learn from demos, conferences, or listening to other people present powerpoint presentations.  I figured out a long time ago that I learn by reading, reflecting, experiencing, and playing with stuff.  The best confirmation of this was my experience at MIT – I was there seven years (through 2.5 degree programs before they threw me out), went to about 33% of my classes, read everything I could get my hands on, and did just fine.

So – it was with great pleasure that I saw Jeff Nolan’s extensive blog coverage of Demo and Weblogs Blogging Demo site.  I hate conferences – they are the convergence of all the “learning” approaches that don’t work for me.  It’s not that conferences are bad, I just can’t bear to sit in a room for a day listening to other people – followed by mid-day and evening schmoozing.  I realize this all has something to do with my upbringing on Planet Grodon as an earth child of a pair of space aliens, but – well – there you have it.

Back to Jeff’s coverage – it’s great.  While the official Demoletter site has a good overview of the companies, Jeff gives his own point of view (as a good blogger should).  As I was reading through his posts on each company, I had a strong feeling that the RSS / Blog universe has entered the “me too zone.”  It started when I read about Five Across (a Six Apart clone, but better – please change the name <g>), saw the aggregator congestion (Onfolio, Pluck), and more blog / audio / video / photo tools (Serious Magic, Imeem, WhatCounts, Photoleap, iUpload). 

Every emerging market hits a point where there is a mad rush of early stage entrepreneurs and VC’s piling in.  In some cases, it drives rapid innovation; in most it creates near term over-saturation, lots of irrational financings, and plenty of carnage as the laws of Darwin play out over the next couple of years.

I’m afraid we just hit that point with RSS / Blogging.  The meme has spread broadly – which is great.  Now we’ll watch all gods children pile in to try to get something up and running in this “space” (more on the fallacy of “space” in an upcoming blog).  Again – nothing wrong with this – it’s the natural dynamic of an early emerging market, but anyone that is experienced (and still has their long term memory intact) knows how it plays out for so many companies, entrepreneurs, and investors.

Clayton Christensen discusses this phenomenon in detail in his classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma – and reaches back to the example of the hard drive industry from 1976 to 1995.  In 1976, there were 17 firms in the hard drive industry.  Between 1976 and 1995 there were 129 new entrants to this industry.  By 1995, of the 17 firms in the industry only one – IBM’s hard drive operation – still existed as a stand alone business.  Of the 129 new entrants, 109 had failed.  Christensen developed his “technology mudslide hypothesis” from this – “coping with the relentless onslaught of technology change was akin to trying to climb a mudslide raging down a hill.  You have to scramble with everything you’ve got to stay on top of it, and if you ever once stop to catch your breath, you get buried.”

Sound / feel familiar?  Christensen then studied a lot more data and concluded his “technology mudslide hypothesis” was wrong.  He concluded that neither pace nor the difficulty of technological change lay at the root of the leading firm’s failures.  This led to Christensen’s theories on sustaining vs. disruptive technologies – where the real meat of the discussion is (and I’ll encourage you to read the book for more – it’s worth it – even if you learn better from conferences then from reading books).

While Christensen addresses what happens in the early stage of a disruptive market, I can boil it down into my own simple phrase – “the me too zone.”  It’s as if the whole world wakes up one day and starts working on the same types of things.  Lots of innovation continues at the core – and the first movers either aggressively extend their lead or completely fuck up somewhere and self-destruct – but in either case a huge number of “fast followers” (or “me too”) companies appear.  VCs suddenly get religion and the funding piles into the sector.  Suddenly everyone is talking about the “hot new “X” space”. 

The cliche “watching a car wreck in slow motion” comes to mind.  It’s definitely fun in a sick sort of way.  Welcome to the me too zone – I believe we just entered it for the RSS / blog world.  There is a huge adoption (and innovation) curve ahead of everyone who is doing stuff with RSS / blogging – and there are plenty of good investments left to make and companies to create – but the noise and clutter is about to get really loud.

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Feb 8 2005

Google Maps

Wow.  That’s about all I can say to the new Google Maps.  I’ve been a long time Yahoo Maps user – but no more.  My friend Bruce Wyman – the Director of New Technology at the Denver Art Museum (who is involved in one of the most amazing art / architecture related projects happening in the country as part of the creation of the new Fredric Hamilton building by Daniel Libeskind) turned me on to it after emailing me about Googlezon’s Epic the other day.

If you haven’t seen it yet – don’t pass go – try it now.

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Feb 6 2005

Googlezon’s Epic

In 2014 the New York Times goes offline and becomes a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly. The press and the fourth estate as we know it today has ceased to exist and Googlezon rolls out EPIC (Evolving Personalized Information Construct). Find out how it happened here.

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Jan 29 2005

Computer Forensics – Does Your Used Hard Drive Still Have Data On It?

Tom Bartel – a long time colleague going back to the early days of Email Publishing in the mid-1990s and a hardcore privacy advocate currently working at Return Path – mentioned a powerpoint presentation by Simson Garfinkel titled Remembrance of Data Passed: Used Disk Drives and Computer Forensics.  While I don’t know Simson, we were both in the same year at MIT (87) and I remember him as the guy that always had articles and photos in a variety of MIT-related publications and I’m reminded of it every time I see an article by him in Technology Review.

If you care about data security and privacy, it’s worth downloading the powerpoint and scanning through it.  Simson bought 235 used hard drives between 11/2000 and 1/2003 from eBay, computer stores, and swap meets.  He set up a technical infrastructure to mount the drives, image them (using FreeBSD), store the images on a RAID server, store the metadata in a MySQL database, and then mine the data. 

Not surprisingly, he found a huge amount of data, including confidential information such as medical records, HR correspondence, and financial data.  For example, Drive #134 was from an ATM in a Chicago bank.  It contained one year’s worth of transactions, including over 3,000 card numbers.  In this case, the bank had apparently hired a contractor to upgrade the ATM machines – the contractor hired a sub-contractor.  The bank and contractor assumed the disks would be properly sanitized, but there were no procedures specified in the contract.  As a result, the drives weren’t sanitized correctly and the data was still on them for Simson to play around with.

In addition to explaining the problem and substantiating it with real data, Simson makes a number of suggestions for how to address the issue.  Two of his more severe (but logical) suggestions for cleaning all the data off of used drives are (a) to degauss them with a Type 1 or Type II degausser or (b) destroy, disintegrate, incinerate, pulverize, shred, or melt the drive. Simson’s ultimate prognosis is that “drive slagging is a fool-proof method to prevent data recovery.”  Just be careful not to light your house (or office) on fire.

Simson logically ponders this issue, especially in our current Patriot Act governed world.  For less than $1,000 and working part time, he was able to collect thousands of credit cards, detailed financial records on hundreds of people, and confidential corporate files.  He concludes by asking – “who else is doing this?”

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