Sunday, November 16, 2008

Great Panel Discussion!


Thanks to Gwyn Firth Murray, Larry Augustin, and Jeff Luczcz for a very entertaining panel discussion around Open Source at the recent eBig meeting.

I was a bit nervous about how this panel would come together since I was the 'rookie,' whereas Gwyn had worked with Larry and Jeff separately before. However, the commonality of the passion for Open Source brought this panel together nicely and there was an excellent exchange of ideas between and amongst the panel (as well as our audience). I think we had someone in the audience comment on the fact that it seemed like we had all known each other a long time! :)

The areas we covered during the talk were: licensing, community development, and reasons for using Open Source. I think the panel all agreed on good reasons for using Open Source, with all of us giving cogent examples of what the value proposition for using Open Source is (taking advantage of the huge amount of R&D and work that goes into good Open Source projects, like the Linux kernel), and the fact that you are most likely using it right now, without even knowing it (server side, or possibly even in a mobile/handheld device).

The discussion of Open Source's value proposition dovetailed into a talk about making money with the proper business model around its utilization, and especially due diligence in code/compliance reviews prior to shipping a product or being acquired as a company. Due to the large percentage of audience members who were startup-focused, a lot of discussion was around exit strategy as it applied to Open Source compliance.

However, my focus was definitely on the community aspects, and utilizing the exponential power of what the community builds to give you a head start in your business. I shared some anecdotes about my experience at Motorola, when I worked with various teams to shepherd their code changes back to the community. While I tried to share both positive and not so positive experiences, I wanted the audience to understand how to properly work with the community, as well as which pitfalls to avoid. There wasn't as much talk about open sourcing of your own code, but more on how to utilize existing Open Source code out there.

There was a fair amount of discussion of whether Open Source was entering a 'quiet' period, since we don't hear as much about it now. The panel generally agreed that it is a GOOD thing when we factor into it that things like the Amazon Kindle, Android phones, etc. are being sold based not on their Open Source content, but on their lower cost, and better features for end users, which are enabled by the use of Open Source. The eco-systems in these products from a developer and manufacturer standpoint are happening 'behind the scenes,' but the fact is that it is almost impossible to use any sort of technology these days without there being some Open Source component to it, whether on the front end, or with the LAMP stack on the back end.

I made sure to point out that community goodwill should not be the sole reason that you get into utilizing Open Source, and that my favorite expression (WIIFM) holds true here as well. There was also a reminder by me that sometimes as a company, if you need something the community is unwilling or unable to provide, you should consider whether putting that in your protected IP versus back into the community really is the best approach from a business standpoint.

There was definitely discussion around the work I'm doing at CollabNet with DISA to help build a sourceforge.net equivalent inside of the .mil network. I think that crystalized it for a lot of folks that if DoD is realizing the power of not only Open Source itself, but of the community model used to produce it, that small businesses should be thinking of it as well.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening, and I learned a lot from all of my colleagues on the panel. I'd like to thank Jack Repenning (CollabNet's CTO) for suggesting me to Gwyn to fill in for him while he was traveling, and also Gwyn herself for being a gracious panel moderator, and taking a chance on the panel 'rookie.' :)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Live, from Pleasanton, CA....


For anyone interested in hearing about Open Source as it applies to companies, I'm going to be part of a panel discussion at eBig (East Bay Innovation Group) in Pleasanton, CA on Monday 11/10/08 titled 'Open Source: How to Make Money and Get Money?'. Given my previous post on the pragmatic aspects of using Open Source, I think this should be an interesting discussion.

It's been a while since I've spoken/participated in a panel, but this one should be a lot of fun. I'll be joined by Open Source luminaries Larry Augustin and Jeff Luszcz, with Gwyn Firth Murray moderating. So, yes, for those following, I'm the least well known of the panelists. :) Hopefully my colleagues on the panel will handle most of the questions around legal/IP, since those that follow my blog will remember that while I recognize the value of understanding licenses around Open Source, I tend to be more focused on the community building/collaboration aspects (not surprisingly, given that I do community management for a living).

I'm hoping to bring a more 'rubber meets the road'/developer perspective to what it means to participate in communities and use Open Source. However, I do have opinions on how companies can do a better job of utilizing Open Source in their products, and working proactively with the community is a big part of that. Given the economic times we are in, I believe it is more important than ever for companies to fully leverage the value that Open Source brings, and not just follow a 'fork and forget' mentality when it comes to Open Source in their products. The audience is supposed to be mostly startup and VC-types, so it will be interesting to see how the react to the perspectives of the panel.

If you are going to be in the Bay Area on Monday and want to come out, I'd love to see you there!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Path of a Life in Technology...


Stormy Peters, the new Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation, penned an interesting blog post today on how she got started in the computer field.

Reading through it, I was struck by how similar some of the aspects of her beginnings in the industry were to mine. It is kind of scary actually. :) I fell in love with using an Apple IIe in the A/V room of my high school, and found every excuse I could to go down there between classes and at lunch to play with 'peek' and 'poke' (and yes, write everyone's favorite BASIC program which loops the phrase 'I'm awesome' forever). :) The fascination of holding data and programs on a 5 1/4 floppy drive was something I'll never forget. I too 'graduated' to IBM PC's, and wrote some early graphics programs (but, they looked kind of hokey on the 'green screen' monochrome monitors). I was very fortunate, in those early days, to know that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I had several choices for colleges, among them, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, CA, and UC San Diego. I almost went to San Diego, but when I found out that you had to pay extra for any computer time you used above your 'allotment', I instead chose Cal Poly, and that turned out to be the better choice anyway, as they focused on 'learn by doing', forever setting my future path of valuing the ability to 'get things done', rather than incessantly theorizing about how to do them. Unlike Stormy, I waited until I got to college to get 'in trouble' in computer class. :) I learned to really love BSD Unix (remember, this was pre-Linux), and became a system administrator/backup person for the school's library system. As such, I ended up with a ton of practical experience in the Unix operating system. The 'trouble' came when I was the only one raising my hand to answer questions in my 'Theory of Operating Systems' class. Eventually, my professor stopped calling on me, but he was a great guy who let me go off and do advanced projects after I'd finished the normal course work.

For those of you old enough to remember Usenet news groups (you youngsters can relate by mapping 'Usenet' to 'MySpace without the graphics' in your lexicon), that was my first exposure to the 'Open Source Ethos'. Now, 'Open Source' as a concept hadn't been born yet, but the idea of folks sharing code/ideas/algorithms/information was prevalent in those early newsgroups (as was the occasional flame war). During the latter half of my college experience, the Internet started to become more 'mainstream', and while it led to the boom that helped propel all of our careers, I started to miss the collaborative aspects that Usenet had held.

Thankfully, it wasn't too long after I'd graduated that the Open Source movement started taking hold. As I've grown more 'seasoned' (note - not 'older'), I've learned to balance the pragmatics of the 'business world' with the passion and fun that the Open Source community brings to the table. I no longer code as much as I once did, but I'm excited about the future of my career helping bridge the gap between business folks and technologists. Keeping one foot in both camps can be a bit tricky at times, but I think it is incredibly rewarding.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Open Source Pragmatism...


First off, to my few readers, I didn't die... :) I had a very interesting couple of weeks, plus a vacation. The short version of my interesting weeks is that I've left Motorola and taken a job as an Open Source Community Manager at CollabNet, where I'll be working to help build the communities of CollabNet's current and future customers interested in Open Source development practices. When and if I end up doing a corporate blog, I'll post the link here.

Now, on to today's topic - Open Source Pragmatism. I was having a conversation with some new colleagues, and I mentioned that I sometimes get a hard time from hard line Open Source folks about my use of a Macbook Pro. I look at software very pragmatically, and quite frankly, while Ubuntu has done a great job of getting the Linux Desktop to where it is, it still cannot compare (for my needs as a consumer) with OS X. Now, that doesn't mean I don't believe that Open Source (and Linux) have made great strides on the server side, and even in embedded.

I do strongly believe that more folks need to take a pragmatic view of Open Source in general, and understand how to get customers to use software (i.e. - meet their needs) instead of playing the religious card (yes, that means you Mr. Stallman).

Open Source needs to realize it has to start approaching things from a pragmatic, as well as a passionate point of view. Doing this will ensure that more folks see the advantages of using Open Source where it makes sense and meets their needs.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Multi-touch Technology on Steroids


If you've ever wondered whether the 'multi-touch' technology present on Apple's iPhone and iPod products would make sense on a larger scale, then take a look at this video from perceptivepixel.com.

This technology has been being worked on since at least 2006 by Jeff Han, as a spinoff of an NYU project, and it has been featured on CNN's election coverage, and written up in several places, including this article on OSNews.com. Though I'm completely sold on the promise of this technology for vertical applications such as weather and news, I do wonder about the usefulness of this technology in the general purpose computing space.

Wondering about this technology's general usefulness doesn't mean it can't be an excellent niche market tech, but the prospect of most knowledge workers or others who enter a lot of data into their computer using this interface makes me cringe. Some people can get by with just 'haptic' feedback (ala the iPhone's typing mechanism), while others feel more comfortable with a dedicated keyboard (such as a laptop or Blackberry).

Still, a smaller-scale (say, small wall or painting-sized) version of Perceptive Pixel could make an excellent photo album/HVAC/AV controller for home use. If they can get the price down and also start making a variety of sizes to suit specific vertical niches, we may start thinking of multi-touch as a mainstream user interface paradigm, instead of the 'space age' awe it holds now.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

'Old' Tech Still Has a Few Tricks Up Its Sleeve...


I've been a technology/gadget freak almost my entire life, and I remember at an early age being curious about how the technology around me (TV's/Radios/Remote Controlled cars) worked. This of course influenced my career path, and led me to a Computer Science degree. However, I've never lost my love of all forms of technology, especially radio. This love of technology has also intersected with the desire I've developed to volunteer in emergency services/communications roles outside of my normal job (a desire cemented after I lost a colleague and friend on American Airlines flight 11 on 9/11).

Two years ago, I studied for and received my Amateur Radio (Ham) technician class license (K6GWM). At the time, some of my tech friends questioned the decision for me to invest in such 'antiquated' technology. However, experience in emergency situations since that time has taught me time and time again that the saying: 'When all else fails, Amateur Radio' is absolutely true. While I'm as much of a cell phone/computer geek as the next guy, I've experienced first hand how fragile those networks and connections can be. Amateur Radio, and commercial radio systems used by public safety agencies are the only truly foolproof communications methods that will work in a disaster situation. During disaster drills, I've had to explain that fact a number of times to well-meaning, but ignorant, city officials, who claim that their 'walkie-talkie' Nextel phone will be more than adequate should the 'Big One' hit.

Now, before everyone labels me a tech Luddite, I'd like to point out that there are some great examples of the synergy of old and new tech, especially in public safety agencies like the fire department. One of my volunteer roles is as a Volunteer in Prevention (VIP) with Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). Cal Fire, like other agencies of its kind, relies on dedicated commercial radio systems to perform their engine/crew dispatches, and keep in contact with fire protection resources. However, they have evolved to include new technology in all of their operations, from Geographic Information Systems (GIS), to cell phones, satellite phones, pagers, and email/instant messaging. Our VIP group in the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit has built up and staffs a fully mobile command center, with a mix of both Ham and fire radios, as well as a satellite phone connection, full ethernet switch, and a multi-function printer/scanner/fax machine. We also keep enough connectors of every conceivable size and shape on hand, to tap into local landlines, etc. Since Cal Fire is primarily known for working in wildland areas, the ability to bring both old and new tech to bear on a problem is critical.

As an example, on the recent Summit Fire, I volunteered in the Emergency Command Center, answering the information/media line, and I experienced first hand how this flexible approach to technology helped fight this fire and keep folks informed. In the more remote areas that this fire burned in, there was very spotty cell phone coverage. The dedicated fire radio system kept all of the firefighting forces in realtime contact. However, internal communication among the command staff (including coordinating of evacuation areas) was handled over the Research in Motion Blackberry network from the incident command post and Emergency Command Center. GIS systems were employed to map the fire, and put up nightly Google Maps images of the fire containment lines. During all of this, those of us manning the information center passed information to the public on landline phones (still a critical 'old tech'). When one of my roles on the first day became to be an information point at the front of Santa Clara Unit Headquarters (fielding media queries, and directing incoming command staff to the command center), I relied on both my cell phone and my Ham radio to stay in contact with my supervisor and my teammates.

All of these experiences have reinforced the tenet that I think we should all remember - 'old' tech should always be evaluated to determine how it can best serve in conjunction with newer systems, not just dismissed out of hand because of its age.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Open Source and Corporations - Can't We All Just Get Along?


Corporations and the Open Source community seem to have a love/hate relationship most of the time, and I think it stems from several key misunderstandings (mainly on the part of the companies). A lot of companies (though there are notable exceptions, such as IBM) seem to look at Open Source as a source of free (as in beer, not as in speech) code/labor. In other words, management sees that code and those developers as a great way to shortcut the product development process, do it for less, and then 'profit ensues'.

I know that sounds funny to a lot of technology people (like me) who are familiar with and involved in the Open Source community, but that mentality is very real in larger/older companies (especially those in consumer electronics sectors). It doesn't help that marketing and PR grab ahold of the notion of Open Source as a great 'hook' to make their company or product offering sound sexy and appealing. The unfortunate reality is that a lot of corporate execs consider Open Source to be a 'risk management exercise' (yes, I actually had an executive that I met one time tell me this).

Now, lest anyone think I'm picking solely on the corporate guys, the Open Source community is complicit in this as well. In larger projects inhabited by ideological zealots that believe Open Source/Free Software is the end-all/be-all (think Richard Stallman), the blinders get put on when it comes to the reality that businesses are in business to make money. Making money is not a bad thing, but the notion that all code should be free and open flies in the face of that for these people, causing them to spend lots of time, effort, and money chasing down every single last license violation that they can. I prefer to recognize the needs of both the corporations and the individuals and find a way for both of them to satisfy the WII FM (What's In It For Me) notion.

Now, let me be clear - I don't think Open Source license violations should be tolerated, but I'd like to see a lot more emphasis on finding 'win-win' situations between corporations and the community. The reduction in legal expenses alone should be incentive enough for both sides to try and come to amicable solutions. Below are some "Do's and Dont's" that I hope will give both sides some ideas on how to accomplish this:

Companies:

DO have a plan to work with Open Source communities - don't grab the code, fork it, and then go along your merry way. It costs you more money in the long run (for bug fixes and maintenance), and you lose at least 50% of the value of working with Open Source in the first place. Remember that 'compliance' and 'risk management' are only half of the plan - community interaction is at least as important.

DO participate actively in the community, whether it is mailing lists, forums, or other forms of communication. Make your voice heard, but remember you are but one voice in the community, and you are rarely the driving factor in decisions.

DO utilize Open Source in a way that you can treat it as a commodity - use your engineering resources on more value-added projects, since it is likely you will not be able to keep up with the amount of code that a good community project can produce.

DO re-evaluate if you truly have critical 'intellectual property' in a piece of code. If you don't, and the community is willing to extend/support that code, consider putting it out with an appropriate license to let them do so.

DON'T slight the community, and do your part for the project (if you find a bug, and determine it isn't fixed, offer to fix it and contribute the patch back).

DO try to keep up to date with the latest code revisions (both for your own regression testing and to allow you to contribute back fixes easily).

DON'T try to make up your own 'Open Source' licenses by attempting to modify an existing Open Source license for your purposes - the community will reject it out of hand, and your credibility will be zero.

DO remember that, except in certain circumstances, these developers do not work for you - plan your release cycles and development processes to take into account the variability of the community you are working with.

Open Source Community:

DO have patience with companies as they work through a ton of internal issues related to being better open source citizens.

DON'T immediately call out the attack dogs for perceived license violations - attempt to work with the company.

DO understand if companies choose to architect things in a way to avoid having to give up intellectual property through "license taint". See comment above about 'making money'.

I believe we need to get to a place where both the Open Source community and the corporate world work together consistently for the greater good of software. It is a difficult challenge, but one well worth expending the effort for.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Silicon Valley Prognosticators Convention


I recently attended the Churchill Club's annual 'Top 10 Tech Trends' event at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, CA. I had been looking forward to this night, since I've attended previous club events, but never this one. I wasn't disappointed, as the panel of tech prognosticators that they brought in was informative, entertaining, and had a good mix of opinions.

I'll lay out all of the trends below, and comment on a select few that interested me the most. This was a panel format, with each panelist getting time for two trends that they could put forth as their top thoughts on the future. After each presentation, the panel got to 'vote' ('red' or 'green'), and explain their reasons. An audience poll was also taken after the panelists were finished discussing, and this was recorded as well. The panel was a 'Who's Who' of Silicon Valley tech experts, venture capitalists, and technologists. The panelists for this evening were:

The evening was moderated by Tony Perkins, Creator & Editor-in-Chief, AlwaysOn. The ten trends presented were:

  • Demographics are Destiny - Tech-savvy 'Boomers' getting older creates opportunities to harness their knowledge (Jurvetson)

  • Device That Used To Be a Phone - Mobile phones turning into mainstream computers to hold all of life's data (Khosla)

  • Rise of the 'Implicit' Internet - How the harvesting of your 'digital trail' could yield useful mashups to make your life easier (Kopelman)

  • Migration of Mobile Phone Market from 'Feature Phones' to 'Smart Phones' - many implications to OEMs and carriers (McNamee)

  • Water Tech Will Be More Important Than Global Warming - Our current focus on global warming may be less important than insuring clean water supplies for everyone (Schoendorf)

  • Evolution Trumps Design - Utilizing evolutionary processes to design better technology (Jurvetson)

  • Fossilizing Fossil Energy - Traditional energy sources (oil, natural gas) will have increasing competition in the form of more economically produced biofuel (Khosla)

  • Venture Capital 2.0 - VC funds have had to grow larger to continue to make a profit & are shifting away from IT/Software opportunities or other tech (Kopelman)

  • Within 5 Years, Everything You Need Will Be On Your Device - result will be more internet traffic to/from mobile devices than PCs (McNamee)

  • 80% of World Population Will Carry Mobile Devices in 5-10 Years - wireline phones/dial tone will be a thing of the past (Schoendorf)


The first trend out of the gate was one that is near and dear to our family, since my wife is a baby boomer. The idea that we will soon have a large population of older Americans that are tech savvy will present some interesting opportunities, both for corporations, and the boomers themselves. Jurvetson theorized an 'eBay-style' market for information processing or technical services. I could even imagine using the accumulated knowledge as a giant 'human supercomputer'. For the boomers themselves, being able to do productive work with sharper minds will provide both financial and health benefits, since studies have shown that those with stronger, agile minds are likely to live longer and suffer less from diseases of aging.

I'd like to address two of the very similar mobile phone trends together - 'Device That Used To Be a Phone', and 'Everything You Need Will Be On Your Device'. The panel and audience seemed split on both of these, mainly because they were not seen as 'future-enough'. I will agree to a certain extent that in places such as Asia and Europe, the concept of a phone that replaces your credit cards, ID, keys, etc. is much further along. However, I believe that Khosla's key element in his trend prediction is one of all of your mobile phone data living in the network 'cloud'. If we are going to rely upon these devices to hold all of our lives (and given the cultural bent toward Ludditism in North America, I'm not sure this will happen soon), there has to be a clean and easy way for you to 're-provision' a new phone should you lose or break your existing device. Even mobile phone carriers should applaud this one, as it would make it much easier to provision new customers, as well as encourage 'upgrades' without the pain that accompanies a phone replacement today - re-provisioning on the network, helping customer transfer address book, calendar, etc. I know that I would appreciate something I could carry with me to replace all of the things I currently shove in my pockets when ready to walk out the door. Putting the data from these devices into the network, and applying appropriate security measures (biometric, plus something you know) would go a long way toward making this future a reality.

The one trend that really resonated with me was Kopelman's 'Rise of the "Implicit" Internet'. His proposal of harvesting the 'digital breadcrumbs' of one's Internet existence is squarely in the cross hairs of Social Knowledge Management - the ability to utilize data from disparate sources that is authored both by you, and others. There have been numerous attempts to break down the silos of information that exist about you on the net (Google search results, Facebook, del.icio.us, etc.). Some of these have been more neutral (FOAF - Friend of a Friend), and some have been commercial (OpenSocial). I believe the first standard to be adopted in this space will have huge impact in terms of both personal productivity as well as monetization opportunities by companies. This could also help usher in the era of Web 3.0 - the ability for computers to take over some of the more mundane tasks that we do 'by hand' now (travel booking, for instance). McNamee brought up the security concerns associated with this data harvesting (which are valid, to a degree), but was shot down by Khosla, who called the argument a 'red herring', and said that we have the technical know-how to make these kinds of systems secure.

Leaving aside the Water Tech and Fossilizing Fossil Energy for now (not because they aren't important, but because I believe we have the impetus and technology wherewithal to get those done), I'd like to close by spending some time on Jurvetson's Evolution Trumps Design. The idea of using evolutionary processes to help build better chemicals is not necessarily new, but the idea of utilizing the same processes in computer science and artificial intelligence for evolutionary computation is still reasonably recent in practice (even though research has been going on for quite some time). The idea of using evolutionary theory to help build better programs by cycling through several computer programs and winnowing the group down to the best one is fascinating to me, and I would hope that it would eventually lead to more stable software overall. It would also remove some of the 'political' aspects of technology solutions, if you could prove that the system(s) chosen were the result of 'natural selection'.

This night was very informative and entertaining, and I enjoyed meeting a lot of new folks at dinner and in the hallways. I look forward to next year's trends dinner, and hope to bring my blog readers more interesting content from other Churchill Club events. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In Search Of...

In today's installment, we go in search of... well, code. This being a technology blog, searching for answers in codes seems like a natural thing to do. :)

In the last year or so, I've become more convinced that detailed, accurate code search technology is critically important to developer productivity, code reuse, and helping to squash pesky bugs on projects/pieces of code that have subtle inter-dependencies. I also believe that, properly implemented, social knowledge management/networking can be applied to further enhance the benefits of accurate code search.

First, let's start off with the major players:

Google does a fairly good job of indexing existing Open Source code from the net, but their interface relies too heavily (in my opinion) on regular expressions, and doesn't provide the flexibility of search targets that Krugle and Koders do. Additionally, Google currently doesn't offer an Enterprise version of their tool for 'behind the corporate firewall' usage.

Now is the time for full disclosure - in my role at my employer, I helped evaluate Koders vs. Krugle. While they both provided a lot of similar functionality (easier search interface than Google, Enterprise versions, limited reporting, syntactic understanding of different programming languages), I ended up recommending Krugle because of the following factors:

  • Deployed as a network appliance - based on Open Source components like Linux and MySQL

  • Early stage development - the ability to help shape and define this product going forward

  • Innovative features such as 'tagging/annotating' files, link creation for sharing, and the 'Show Clones' option

  • The ability to have 'related information' easily at hand in the interface (SCM checkin comments, tech pages, related code from external sources)


Now, to be fair, it hasn't been a completely smooth ride during our Beta deployment of Krugle, BUT the team from Krugle has been very responsive to our needs, and have queried us on numerous occasions for input into their product planning process. In a lot of respects, it has felt more like an Open Source community engagement than a traditional vendor/customer model, and I think that in a nascent field like code search, this is extremely important.

Developers in my organization have given a mostly positive review to this initial trial installation, and have provided some feedback which we have shared with Krugle. I mentioned earlier the social knowledge management/networking aspects I'd like to see applied to code search. These fall into categories such as 'voting', 'tagging', 'enhanced annotation', and 'collaboration/discussion'.

I'd love to see the ability for users of systems like Krugle to 'vote' a piece of code up or down. Doing this would affect not only the order a piece of code was returned in while searching, it would give the searcher some measure of what others thought of that particular source code. While Krugle and Koders do provide a rudimentary form of 'tagging', I'd like to see the ability of that tagging infrastructure to be pluggable, to allow integration with social bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us, or internal installations of Open Source equivalents like Scuttle.

Krugle already provides for 'notes' or 'annotation' to a piece of code, but I'd like to see the ability to have URLs added to these notes, and have those automatically show up in the related information 'channels' that are already provided. Finally, the ability to start ad-hoc collaboration 'conversations' (forums, IM chats, shared code viewing sessions) directly from a file listing, or even from search results, would be a useful feature, especially for distributed development teams.

I believe that code search technologies are on the verge of drastically improving developer productivity, but there are cultural barriers that still need to be broken down in enterprises, since peer review and collaboration are not as widely ingrained in those types of development organizations as they are in the Open Source world. I certainly hope that systems such as Krugle can continue to evolve and provide value to independent developers and organizations alike, while helping to break down those barriers.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dash Express GPS Software/Traffic Model Updates


As most of you might guess from reading this blog, I'm big on social collaboration and 'crowdsourcing'. I've mentioned Dash Navigation in the past, since I think they epitomize that notion quite well. Gizmodo had a blurb about Dash's first major software/traffic model update today.

Quoting from the article:

"The Dash Express GPS just received its first historic traffic model update using the live Dash data gathered by users. That'll help predict traffic in areas where no Dash or other trusted data sources have been in the last 15 minutes. By end of month, a software update is coming with tweaks in performance, stability and routing."

I for one certainly hope that Dash becomes more successful and ubiquitous, not just for the cool collaborative traffic and their other features, but mainly for the ability to update maps over-the-air. I have a Nissan Murano with a built-in navigation system that works well (for the most part), but on a trip to Reno this past weekend, there were two huge gaps in the map data which caused us to have to extrapolate our position manually. While this is at most a minor inconvenience, the worst part was that we just recently purchased the new map DVD for $190, and then they turn around and send us an email for the 'updated' DVD at another $190. Besides annoying me no end, this makes me yearn for Dash's much simpler (and cheaper) alternative for map updates.

I'm watching Dash closely, and may take the plunge once the hardware gets slimmed down a bit (which it inevitably will). These guys have the right idea, and if they can stick to their guns and resist the urge to compete feature to feature (with Bluetooth dialing for example) with the Garmin's and TomTom's of the world, I think they'll be alright. Most people don't need or want 50 features, just 5 that are killer and work flawlessly.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

WII FM


My colleagues and I have a standing joke when we talk about what makes social networks/collaborations/knowledge management work - it's everyone's favorite radio station, WII FM (What's In It For Me). To be sure, there are some social/crowdsourcing applications out there that people contribute to purely for altruistic reasons, or to share things with their friends. However, the vast majority of attempts to harness the 'group collaborative', or 'hive mind' for business purposes or knowledge management have failed unless there was a clear win in the WII FM department.

Two examples of applications where WII FM makes a huge impact are del.icio.us (social bookmarking), and Dash Navigation (crowd-sourced realtime traffic). In both of these cases, there are clearly benefits to the users of the respective applications, and the participation engendered by that benefit is the main reason the systems produce good data (search and traffic, respectively). It is very rare that a large enough proportion of people will contribute to a 'group data/application store' without seeing a significant, and more importantly, immediate benefit to themselves. At this point, one might argue the Wikipedia instance, and while it is true that the crowd-sourced encyclopedia is quickly supplanting (if it hasn't already) most 'old-fashioned' references, there are intrinsic rewards that drive people to contribute to Wikipedia, not the least of which is seeing their name 'in lights'. I would argue that contributing to such efforts also helps one stumble upon other areas of interest/exploration, so that would satisfy the WII FM theory.

Also, if you look at Open Source closely, you'll also see instances of WII FM, despite the popular press's characterization of the movement as 'peace, love, free code for all'. To be fair, there are a number of Open Source projects that do exhibit those traits, but a large portion of Open Source code is still driven by the WII FM mentality, especially when big corporations become involved. 'Community goodwill' is never the primary motivation for any corporate participation in Open Source, despite what the press releases and PR spin may lead you to believe. Despite this, I believe that 'What's In It For Me' doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, as long as the needs of the community as a whole can be served by what certain corporations desire in the project. For the latest case of what could be an example of this, if it is pushed a little more by the big vendors, check out this Slashdot article on PC vendors 'strongly encouraging' suppliers to provide Open Source drivers. To be sure, this takes some of the onus off of the Dells of the world for support, but it also opens things up for the community to tinker/fix/enhance such drivers. In short, WII FM for both sides.

WII FM isn't bad in and of itself, but it certainly pays to be aware of it when evaluating various technologies or platforms, be they social networking/collaboration, Web 2.0, or Open Source. Understanding the ramifications of this idea can help you avoid big mistakes as you are rolling out a project, or choosing a technology direction.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Why Startups Are Like Mashed Potatoes


Those of us who love mashed potatoes (and as this blog's author, I of course do :)) have inevitably had both good and bad batches of the glorious puffy starch. The common theme, though, in both the good and bad batches, is the mix of ingredients. Good batches are creamy, light, perfectly seasoned, and, depending on personal preference, may have unique spices, or vegetables mixed in. Bad batches, on the other hand, are usually ruined by too much, or too little, of one or more ingredients.

Now, those reading this may wonder when I'm going to get to the comparison of mashed potatoes to startups. Well, to illustrate my point, have a look at this recent blog post by one of the guys at 37signals, a cool and successful 'semi-startup' that focuses on collaboration and development tools.

The author's point is somehow missed in several of the comments, which lambast him for being 'reverse-ageist,' etc. Thankfully, some of the other comments are from folks who understand what he was trying to get at, which ties into my comparison. Any company (but especially a startup) is vulnerable to 'group think,' and it is beneficial to have a group of people from different background/perspectives when you form a team. The more politically correct among us would call this 'diversity,' but I believe it is much more important than any legally-mandated goal. Companies with too many 'young guns' are doomed to failure because of constantly shifting ideas of what to build, whereas companies with too many 'family folks' are usually too stodgy and conservative.

The best companies, and the best mashed potatoes, have a mix of young, ripe ingredients, combined with 'seasoned' components that provide just the right blend that makes the end product perfect for business, and your palate.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Technology and Leadership


I stumbled across the blog of David Jakes (Strength of Weak Ties) today, and found the following entry to be a great read. Warning: it is a little long, but I think the themes that he mentions are very valuable, not just in his workspace of education, but also in the professional world as well. I like David's approach to learning (RSS feeds, 'meatspace' publications, collaboration), and I love this quote from him: "Successful technology coordinators are leaders, and leaders understand that leadership is about relationships. Having relationships with people that understand you, and support you, are required to be truly successful, but this only comes with honoring and understanding them first."

I think that there is so much truth in that, especially in a world where we like to substitute technology for personal relationships. Technology should be about augmenting those relationships, and helping others - tools such as del.icio.us are a great example of this - helping others while also getting your own needs met. In a world full of 'Web 2.0' and 'social networking' sites, I believe it is important to utilize the 'crowdsourcing', or 'hive mind' for the betterment of all. Ok, I know that's a bit idealistic, but keeping toward an ideal, even if never achieved, can steer us in the right direction.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Open Sourcing Eugenia's Mobile Browser Detection Kit


So, my friend Eugenia Loli-Queru, master of many interesting things, has open sourced her Mobile Browser Detection kit. Good stuff - check out her blog for more details. True to form, the community has commented, and an ongoing code review is happening as we speak. I love that immediate feedback you get from the Open Source community. :)

First Step - a.k.a 'Why Am I Doing This?'


So, the journey of a thousand miles always begins with one step... :)

In my case, I finally decided to take the plunge and begin blogging about the things I'm passionate about. I am a self-confessed 'Gadget Freak' who loves to tinker with emerging technology, is passionate about Open Source (and the benefits it can bring to companies who use it correctly), and believes that collaboration is the most important piece of the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon.

When trying to settle upon a name for this new blog, I went through several iterations, but with the help of friends and family, I settled upon MashedPotato Tech, a name I hope invokes the combination of several good ingredients that make a tasty and interesting meal. While I'm doing this mainly to give myself an outlet to capture my thoughts on technology, Open Source, collaboration, and the social aspects of each, I do welcome feedback and a dialog with those who may be reading this.

I hope this is just the beginning of a long and interesting trip through the world of technology...