Sunday, September 30, 2007

Challenges to Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office applications are ubiquitous, but they are being challenged on two fronts: the Open Office application suite and network-based suites from companies like,, and Google.

Open Office has been maturing for years, and it got a recent boost when IBM released a version with their own user interface. (Since Open Office is open source software, IBM or others can modify it).

As Nicholas Carr points out, Microsoft is responding by extending Office to use the Internet.

You can see a video on the advantages of online suites here, and a comparison of nine Office competitors here.

What are the pros and cons of Microsoft Office versus Open Office or an online suite for a student? For a small company? For a university? A large enterprise?

If you were running Microsoft, how would you respond to these challenges?

Looking to the future -- do technology trends tend to favor one approach over the others?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The cellular network is broken -- two examples

As we discuss, the Internet was designed to be an end-to-end, dumb network. The large ISPs would like to break that principle in order to give higher priority to certain users and applications, and, as we have seen, the cell phone network is even more restricted.

Developers cannot create and use cell phone applications without permission from cell phone carriers. We had a graphic example of this recently when Verizon would not permit an abortion rights organization to use their text messaging service. They later reversed the decision, but this illustrates how badly broken the cell phone network is.

Along the same lines, a software upgrade to Apple's iPhone renders phones with third party applications installed inoperable. This was not inadvertent. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said it was done to protect carrier networks and to make sure the phone was not damaged.

His first reason -- protecting the network -- was what AT&T claimed before the 1968 Carterphone decision that allowed people to connect equipment to their network as long as it did no harm. His second reason -- protecting the phone from damage -- is exactly what he has done -- turned them into worthless "bricks."

People are working on an open cell phone, and perhaps Wimax will lead to open network access one day.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Off shoring -- who are the big winners?

We talk about off shoring and its impact on individual careers, organizations and national economies. A UC Irvine study analyzed the iPod, asking where the 451 parts that go into it are made and who makes them. IPods are assembled in Asia by companies you have probably never heard of, but Apple is the big winner. Most value is added by companies with brand names that conceive of products and do user-interface and engineering design, marketing, distribution and sales. Those involved in manufacturing and assembly add less value.

UC Berkeley professor Hal Varian discusses the report in this New York Times article. (This is a very good article, but I would not mention and link to it while the Times charged a subscription fee).

Do you think US firms will have the same advantage as Apple does today in the future? Why?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The value of free: NY Times drops subscription fee

Internet sites generate revenue by charging directly for items (Amazon), subscription fees (Wall Street Journal, premium versions of services) or advertising. Until recently, the New York Times had a mixed revenue strategy -- current news was supported by advertising and they charged a subscription fee for opinion columns and archived articles. They have now dropped their subscription service in favor of advertising.

Times executives may have felt ad revenue would be greater than subscription revenue, but, even if that were not the case, there is a compelling reason to make information free. If access to information is restricted in any way, people will be less likely to refer to it. For example, I would not have linked to a New York Times article on this blog because students would not be able to read the article without paying a subscription fee. By charging a fee, the New York Times had removed itself from the Internet "conversation."

Doug Kaye of the Conversations Network pointed this out some time ago. The New York Times should have listened to his talk on "value of free."

Or, the Times could have read the Internet business classic The Cluetrain Manifesto, which states

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.

These markets are conversations.

People also "pay" for information by registering on a site. Does having to register stop you from entering sites or using services?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Freebase -- Wikipedia for structured data?

We have discussed varying degrees of data structure on the Internet, ranging from free-text pages like Wikipedia to rigidly structured relational databases.

Freebase is like a structured Wikipedia, combining the advantages of free text and relational databases. Like Wikipedia, Freebase is open -- any user can create and change content. Unlike Wikipedia, Freebase data is structured so users can query it as they would a relational database.

This example illustrates Freebase. "Topics" are instances of formally defined "types." Here the type is person, and persons have formally defined properties like height, weight, and place of birth.

I am adding a new person (a new topic) to Freebase, myself. I was born in Pasadena, California, and when I began typing a value for place of birth, the system quickly showed the "Pasadenas" in its database with their structured descriptions. It knew that the value of the property had to be a location, and immediately displayed names and property values of locations named "Pasadena." This mechanism both saves time and assures that users have a common vocabulary.

Any Freebase user can create a new topic or change the property values of existing topic. For example, you could add yourself (a new person) to Freebase, and you could also change my place of birth from Pasadena, California to Santiago, Chile.

Thus far, Freebase sounds like a fancy relational database. However, qualified users can also change the structure itself. If one is qualified to be a "type administrator," he or she can create new types and modify the definitions of existing types. For example, one could add the property eye color to the definition of a person.

The developers of Freebase hope that, like Wikipedia, it will attract many users, some of whom are motivated to become type administrators. That way, both the content and structure of a domain of knowledge will evolve over time.

If this sounds interesting, listen to this wide ranging interveiw on Freebase and Metaweb, the system used to create it.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Fully networked (program and data) applications

Some networked applications use the Internet for communication and data storage. Others go further and use network-based programs accessed through a Web browser. Hotmail and other Web-based email applications were among the first of these fully-networked applications. There are now hundreds, perhaps thousands of them.

This database of fully-networked applications gives a brief description and has reviews of each. New entries are probably added (and others removed as companies fail) daily.

If you find the full list overwhelming, check out the list of applications used by Ismael ChangGhalimi who maintains the full database. Ghalimi is a true aficionado who has only one application -- a Web browser -- installed on his laptop.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

VOIP in US and Europe

We cover voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP). VOIP is widely used for phone systems within organizations, and is taking off in the consumer market. A recent market research report compares VOIP growth in the United States with that in Europe. Note that growth is faster in Europe and that independent companies like Vonage are growing more slowly than the VOIP offerings of cable companies in the US. Unlike their US counterparts, European telephone companies are active participants in the VOIP market.

Google's Mountain View network

We have talked about municipal WiFi networks. Many municipal networks were oversold and have been disappointing. Still, the technology is evolving, and Google has operated a network in their headquarters city, Mountain View, California for a year. The network covers 12 square miles and 25,000 homes and serves approximately 15,000 unique users each month. This is a research project for Google, and perhaps the most interesting thing Google has learned is that over 100 distinct types of portable WiFi devices have been used -- not only laptops. Google applications on Apple's touchscreen portable devices also shows their interest in portable service. You can get a feeling for the Mountain View network at this support site.

Update, 8/2/12. Google's Fiber rollout in Kansas City reminded me of Google's WiFi trial in Mountain View, California (coverage map shown here).

I did not check with Google, but, based on the sparse Web site with a broken link, I would guess that the network was not a great success. Let's hope the KC rollout is!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Network-based image editors

We do most of our image editing using stand alone applications like Photoshop, but there are also network-based image editors. TechCrunch surveyed several recently and FotoFlexer has come out subsequently.

What are the pros and cons of using a network-based image editor compared to a desktop program?

Why connectivity is fast and cheap in Japan and is not in the US

We have seen that US Internet connectivity is rapidly falling behind other nations. This Washington Post article on Japanese connectivity sheds some light on the physical and policy differences that have led to their success. Japan has newer telephone infrastructure and is more densely populated than the US, but. more importantly, their policy makers have created competition where the United States has left control in the hands of powerful telephone and cable companies.

The US Congress sought to introduce competition by passing the 1996 Telecommunication Act. William Kennard, chairman of the United States Federal Communication from 1997-2001 was frustrated in implementing the Act. Near the end of his term he said “all too often companies work to change the regulations, instead of working to change the market,” and spoke of “regulatory capitalism” in which “companies invest in lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, instead of plant, people and customer service." He went on to remark that regulation is “too often used as a shield, to protect the status quo from new competition - often in the form of smaller, hungrier competitors -- and too infrequently as a sword -- to cut a pathway for new competitors to compete by creating new networks and services.”

The telephone and cable companies succeeded in stopping the intended competition, and now the US is falling behind. What are the implications of that failure?