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Archive for December 12th, 2008

Black/White – Symmetry/Asymmetry – Forum/Social Network – Search/Browse

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 12, 2008

Interesting post by Ross Mayfield on the disadvantages of symmetry in Social Media.  In particular, he is focused on the disadvantages of forums for this reason.  As he puts it, forums are about ideas not people.   The big selling point of following people instead of ideas is you’re leveraging other people as a filter.  The ultimate example he gives is that when someone is too obnoxious, you can’t unsubscribe.  BTW, that’s not really true.  Nearly every forum I participate in has an “Ignore” feature that does exactly what Ross hopes for and eliminates the need for you to ever hear from that person again.  I use it sparingly to eliminate trolls from poorly or un-moderated forums.

I am a big believer in subscribing to people, but I think you miss out if you choose to ignore all the “symmetrical” Social Media (BTW, it’s symmetrical WRT subscribing to everyone, but asymmetrical WRT subscribing to ideas, so I just see these media as a mirror image to the people based in terms of what’s symmetrical/asymmetrical, but that’s a pedantic note). 

Don’t yield to the Western tendency to have to pick a winner for any choice someone points out.  There is great value in following both options.  I find, for example, that I find the right people to subscribe to by following ideas.  The converse is also true, but the difference is evolutionary.  I seldom find the existing crop of people originating big new memes in my personal infosphere.  It is the people I didn’t yet follow that bring those memes in, which causes me to follow them to hear more. 

Because of that use for finding who to follow, I value “subscribe to everyone” models for building communities and relationships early on.  Once you’ve matured those, go in search of the “subscribe to person” model to reduce the information flow to manageable levels.  If you’re involved in a community that is sufficiently specialized that the information overflow situation doesn’t arise (I am involved in many), you’ll want to avoid “subscribe to person” lest it overly restrict your access to what little information is available. 

And don’t forget to search.  Being subscribed is great, but if you let yourself get so consumed with your subscriptions that you never go exploring, you’re missing out there too.  I was recently in a similar conversation where some folks from one of the REALLY BIG Internet companies asked about the Helpstream application.  We support both searching and browsing (as well as subscription).  They wanted to know our thoughts on the preferability of Search versus Browse, recognizing that you need both (Thank Goodness–they avoided the Western, “There can only be one winner” trap!). 

My answer was in three parts, and bears comparison to what I’ve said above.  First, new users gravitate to Search and have greater success there.   It isn’t surprising as it can take some exploration to learn what the browse hierarchy looks like and internalize where to go to find what you want.  Search jumps you straight in.  This is analogus to links versus search in the mainstream web.  Second, as I’ve discussed many times before, there are personal Learning Styles at work here.  Some people like the add-hoc and asynchronous feel of search.  Others need to know how all the pieces fit together and are organized, they are browsers.  My sense after working with both models at several startups is that this maps well to personality traits (engineers do a lot of browsing), but that Search is slightly more popular, say 60% search, 40% browse.  Individuals will show a marked preference for one versus the other.  The last point is that of task.  If someone is focused on a task that is idea-centric, they like search.  If it is social-centric, they seem to want a “place” (albeit virtual) to go for that task.  It is valuable to the evolutionary hard wiring in our brains to think of information or people as being in a place. 

I think there is a lot to the “place” metaphor.  You can feel it as you’re interacting with various social tools.  Search misses out on providing a place.  It homogenizes and warps “place space” so that things are artificially close to one another depending on what you’re searching for.  That’s best suited to one shot rather than repeat interactions.

More evidence for why you need multiple models, and shouldn’t settle for thinking any one tool is best for all things.

Posted in user interface, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment »

What Keeps Microsoft Office Strong is Incompetence

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 12, 2008

There, do I have your attention with that headline?  And how the heck can incompetence make a product strong?  No doubt you’re assuming I mean Microsoft’s incompetence, but it’s quite the opposite.  I am referring to the myriad competitors to Microsoft Office.

I got started on this rant after reading Larry Dignan’s rehash of a Bernstein report on Cloud Computing (executive summary: lots of buzz but it won’t have that big an impact, they’re wrong, but that’s the subject of another rant another time).

Getting back to the subject of incompetence, that is perhaps too harsh a word, but what’s wrong here, the reason cloud versions of the Office products are not getting uptake, is tragically avoidable.  I agree 100% with Bernstein’s analysis of what that problem is:

While Google Apps and Open Office from Sun have almost all of the functionality of Microsoft’s Office the conversion of documents is still not 100% effective, although Open Office comes very close indeed.  In a recent test Open Office could easily open a Word version of one of our published notes with formatting that was over 98% accurate.  Open Office could similarly open one of our financial models written in Excel – over 3Mb, and using a variety of Microsoft functions with iterative calculation.  Once again the document opened almost perfectly but a minor change was needed to ensure the model converged properly.  Google Docs did less well and could not handle the Excel model but opened our Word note and preserved about 90% of the formatting. Even though these programs are very nearly comparable in functionality and can offer additional functionality in terms of allowing users to simultaneously edit documents – which the client versions of Word and Excel cannot do – we still perceive considerable reluctance on the part of users and IT Departments to use them. 

The mystery to me is why these vendors can’t get compatibility with MS Office right.  There has to be some form of incompetence there, because it just isn’t that hard.

Let me explain.  I was a General in the Office Wars of the 80’s and 90’s.  I was responsible for Borland’s Quattro Pro.  It was 100% compatible not just with Excel, but before that with Lotus 1-2-3 during the DOS days when that product was King of the Hill.  None of the kinds of errors described for today’s MS Office competitors existed in our offering because I knew that any little hiccup trying ot use the original files would be the kiss of death.  As a matter of fact, on the predecessor to Quattro Pro, a product called Surpass, I personally did all the file compatibility work with Lotus 1-2-3.  It took me 4-6 months as I recall, and this while I was CEO of the company and working on a lot of other things.

Borland also had a Windows Word Processor that was MS Word compatible.   Unfortunately, we never got it shipped for various historical reasons (largely profitability issues made us fight over whether to spend the money, my argument was a single app can’t beat a suite no matter how good it is, the rest is history), but we were compatible there too.  And of course we were compatible in the database market, having shipped software that was compatible with dBase.

We were by no means the only software at that time to achieve that level of compatibility.  It is a mystery to me why the industry seems to have lost the capacity to think and execute in those terms.  It is no harder today than it was then.  The Quattro Pro product was built start to finish with just 10 developers in about 18 months.  I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be straightforward to do it again from scratch with a very similar budget.  That’s certainly within the reach of Google and others who want Office-killers.  Yet they don’t get it done.

Outlook is even more vulnerable than Office, yet there is no good synchronization software available for the non-email functions of Outlook.  Lest you send me a flurry of comments about one solution or another, be aware I’ve tried a whole bunch already.  Google’s version failed utterly.  My best result was with Plaxo, but it ultimately destroyed my calendar and contacts so I turned it off again.

The thing Bernstein, Microsoft, and these would be Cloud Upstarts have to keep in mind is that until this problem is fixed, Microsoft will keep dominating.  But it isn’t that hard to fix, and once fixed the friction preventing a switch goes down radically.  Heck, Microsoft can’t even get good uptake on Office 2007 if I look at the number of people that can’t read my files because they have the older version of Office.  Cloud Vendors, let me know if you need some names from my original Quattro Pro team.  They’re still around, still brilliant, and still able to build a product that’s 100% compatible and will get you where you want to go.

Can we get on with it?

Posted in cloud, saas, strategy, user interface | 18 Comments »

Give Your Blog a Health Check (And Share the Link Love)

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 12, 2008

Had a chance to meet Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang today to brief him on Helpstream.  I thought I’d take a gander at some of his blogging and happened on a great post about giving your corporate blog a health check.  I think any blog would benefit from the points Jeremiah presents, not just a corporate blog.

One point in particular really rang my bell though:

4. Linking Behavior:
Links are the currency of the blogosphere, it indicates you respect someone else’s opinion so much that you’re willing to send them away from you.

Great: Links out to other sources, even competitors or critics as well as the next listed +1
Good: Links out to other sources, where other discussions are occurring
Bad: Primarily links to corporate created content 25% of the time
Horrible: Primarily links to corporate created content over 50% of the time

The reason this one rang my bell is I’ve been watching a trend for a little while now for blogs to quit accepting Trackbacks as they become more successful. If they don’t quit accepting them, then they often radically de-emphasize them. 

Why do blogs do this?  I can only speculate.  Maybe they don’t think it’s important.  Maybe they want to own and not share the conversation.  Whatever the reason, they don’t share the link love by not allowing trackbacks. 

I always try to link to relevant content whenever I’m posting.  I think its a service to my readers.  What if you want to know more than I can put in a short blog post because you like the topic?  What if you want to read the original sources that inspired me to see if they’ve said something I missed or if they leave you with a different conclusion?   Trackbacks are just a way to make that relationship reciprocal.  If it’s an important blog, I’ll take the trouble to comment and leave a manual Trackback to my own related post.  But I can tell you, when I go looking for articles to link to, the ones without trackbacks are getting less and less play.

They probably don’t care, because they’ve switched from growing traffic to retaining readership.  But blocking trackbacks is not the way to do that, and missing the idea that trackbacks give something to your readers too is a mistake.

Jeremiah, trackbacks should figure into your blog health check.  They reflect even greater trust in your readers, just like allowing comments that disagree with your post.

Posted in Web 2.0 | 1 Comment »

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