Whose Responsibility is Clarity?

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Too often I believe that purveyors of information/knowledge tend to leave the burden of comprehension of what is being communicated solely to the recipient of that knowledge; all too often, they forget about their responsibility to most fundamentally communicate what they are saying clearly and in a manner that is adapted to the needs of their audience.

Think about this in the context of your day to day life. Imagine a time when someone has asked you a question about some aspect of your life, job, area of expertise, etc that you know backwards and forwards, up and down. For this topic you will be able to rattle off a detailed answer to the question, you will anticipate every single follow-up question that someone could ask of you, and most importantly if the explanation is not understood you will have 2 or 3 other ways of explaining the same thing in your back pocket just in case the 1st explanation was not clear.

Now imagine an alternative scenario. Think about a topic you have just recently become familiar with. You have obtained a surface level understanding of something and when questioned about it you stand, secretly hoping you can cover the surface level information and get the hell out of there. You end up speaking intelligently enough about this part of the question that the questioner pushes you further, expecting you to be able to go deeper. In a futile attempt you begin to go deeper, all the while knowing you are venturing into uncharted territory – wanting to help provide information but not wanting to offer false data. Suddenly your answers become confusing and obfuscated. Even as it is happening you know the latter half of this discussion is not as clear as it should be. As is often the case however, people don’t back out and offer to clear the topic up in their head and get back to the person, they merely continue on this zig-zag path towards the land of confusion. We’ve all been there on the sending and receiving side of things.

What is the end result? Well my suggestion is two sided when you are the sender and you recognize being in this position:

  1. Take the path less travelled get the details you need to be able to explain the topic fully and clearly.
  2. Take responsibility for the receiver leaving with an understanding of what you are saying!

When you are on the receiving end, the key is to recognize when the sender is weaving you into the land of confusion and since you now demand so much of yourself as a sender, demand no less when receiving information from someone else.

State of the Empire – #3 Open Document Format (ODF) Standardization

Historically, another immense barrier to alternative Operating System adoption was Microsoft’s stranglehold on the Office document formats (DOC, XLS, PPT). These formats have become the de-facto standard in business, education, and personal computing – most definitely one of Microsoft’s great success stories.

Until recently, the dependence on Microsoft for Office and its associated file formats had not been broadly questioned. Companies and open source projects have made large scale efforts to break this dependence by way of trying to support the Microsoft formats as much as possible. It is unfortunate, however, that despite great work by projects like OpenOffice and AbiWord the level of compatibility achieved is not to the point where one can freely swap documents between them with no risk of losing any aspect of the original document. This being said, even if document parity was achieved this ultimately only breaks the dependency on having no choice but to buy your office software from Microsoft, it does not change that Microsoft controls the format of the document and thus how it lives and dies in the future.

Large companies and government organizations have started to see their older documents ‘expiring’ as a result of losing backwards compatibility in newer versions of Microsoft Office products. This has raised concerns about how to deal with long-term archival of information to ensure it is not lost as Microsoft changes file formats and ends support of old versions of Microsoft office. To this end, a push for a document format standardized by ISO has increased to the critical point where both Microsofts Office Open XML (OOXML) format and the ODF format were presented to ISO for evaluation as a standard. In a landmark decision ISO has initially turned down Microsoft’s application for ISO standardization and approved the ODF format. This approval as an ISO standard paves the way for widespread adoption within large organizations who need to ensure that their documents live on indefinitely and their fate is not dictated by product decisions within Microsoft.

If this standardization does prove to drive the switch-over to ODF within governments and other organizations it is also possible that this would produce a trickle-on effect to the average user as this format becomes increasingly more common and supported within most Office applications, both client side and web based. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will take the step of supporting this format natively within Microsoft Office but it will definitely be interesting to see how things progress here as this is one of the critical barriers today in keeping people locked into the Windows platform.

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The Gimli Glider

Last weeks Boeing 777 crash landing at Heathrow reminded me of the phenomenal story of the Gimli Glider in Canada in 1983. CBC has a video report from 1983 online as well, gotta love the old 80’s videos.

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The Benefits of "Completing the Product"

Perhaps one of the lower key announcements in Apple’s keynote this week was the solution they developed for people buying a Macbook Air without a CD/DVD-ROM drive. To deal with the potential concern from customers about not having a CD/DVD drive with them when they needed it Apple created a simple piece of software to sit on a Mac or PC which allows the Macbook Air to use the CD/DVD drive on a remote computer. Brilliant! This surely isn’t a marvel of technological achievement but the result of doing it so elegantly portrays the benefits of what I would call “completing the product”. Loosely, I would define “completing the product” as solving a problem that the creators imposed on the buyer as a result of their chosen design constraints. To see how this may play-out at an Apple store near you over the coming weeks consider the following “imaginary” scenario:

  1. Customer comes into the Apple store considering buying a Macbook Air
  2. Customer speaks with sales person and expresses their apprehension about the fact it doesn’t have a built-in CD/DVD drive.
  3. Sales Person says, not to worry you can buy an external one to match the Macbook Air for $99.00.
  4. Customer expresses to Sales Person that this mildly solves their problem thinking that when (and if) they truly need it then they can buy it, however they are not that keen on the additional $99.00 price on-top of the laptop cost.
  5. Customer is still slightly hesitant.
  6. Sales Person asks the hesitant customer if they have another computer at home or at work with a CD/DVD drive.
  7. Customer says yes.
  8. Sales Person says “Perfect, well we have a great solution for you. We include software that lets your Macbook Air use another computers CD/DVD drive wirelessly over your network”
  9. Customer likely first stands amazed about being able to use a CD/DVD drive wirelessly and secondly cheers that this solves all of their concerns!
  10. Customer lays down the credit card and walks out a happy consumer!

Not only has this solution given the sales person a way to address all the customer concerns but they’ve also miraculously turned what was a negative into a positive – think: “Apple is innovative because they are able to let you use a CD/DVD drive on another computer wirelessly!” Of course, it is not rocket science to know the software is just making the act of ‘sharing’ a network drive simple and usable for all users regardless of technical ability but what an incredibly effective way of addressing customer concerns with what was quite likely a minimal amount of development effort. No doubt this small effort will pay off ten-fold in customers gleefully running out the door with a Macbook Air and no CD/DVD drive in hand.

Putting that final bit of polish onto a product is a staple of Apple products with too many examples to list, but it is this attention to ‘completing’ the product that without doubt leads to immense gains in their bottom line due to increased sales, and greatly decreased support costs. It is a key differentiator for them and other companies like them – I just wonder why more companies don’t take note!

Filed under: User Experience | 1 Comment

Waiting for wireless high speed data in Canada, means waiting for competition

Why does Canada lag so far behind places like the UK in terms of mobile high speed data adoption? The obvious answer is that it is a lack of competition, but when you really dig into “lack of competition” what is the actual impact? Looking at the mobile high speed data market in Canada provides a front-row seat view into what happens when there is no competition.

You do not need to examine Bell, Rogers and Telus’ mobile data offers for very long to realize that none of these guys have had much luck figuring out how to sell this service in Canada. They’ve gone ahead and built these tremendously expensive wireless networks and yet they continue to have seemingly no idea who in the marketplace wants to actually buy access to this network! They have continually shown that they believe the only possible buyers for this service is high-end business customers who can justify a minimum of $60/month over and above their existing mobile services bill. This message comes out loud and clear in both their marketing and in the outrageous prices they charge for the service. Is this really the best they could come up with? Where is the imagination and drive to get people using this network they spent so much money on? Have they done any market research, or do they really just not want anyone using the network (for that matter, try even finding the service on the Rogers website!)?

In many ways it seems like there is someone in these companies saying “Unless we make this much profit per user on this service we’d rather have the network sit there un-used”. This attitude has all but killed off the carrier controlled WIFI (Hotspot) networks in Canada as well. These WIFI networks have been priced so high that they are also only accessible to high-end business customers while the entirety of the rest of the market (all laptop users with WIFI cards) are completely ignored. Sorry, this service is not for you despite how much you want it. Oh, you would pay $5.00 more per month to have access to it? Sorry, that means we can’t get business users to pay $9.95 for 24 hours of access!

Now, for comparison purposes lets look at how things are done in the UK.

If we take the Three UK offer as an example – For business customers this service becomes a quite reasonable £10/mth add-on to whatever services they already have, and meanwhile for consumers this would be simply moving money from one hand to another by way of offering a replacement for their home broadband service. The carriers average revenue per user (ARPU) goes up for the business users and the mobile operator stands to gain new customers from the consumer space that perhaps they never had before and who may now be more inclined to join the same company later for mobile voice services.

These figures are interesting in that they paint a picture of a carrier going after a broad market with many multitudes more potential customers for this service then the Canadian carriers could ever dream of having within their tiny target market of ‘high-end business customers’. Without question, the UK has more business customers then the Canadian market could even imagine – the population is 2 times as big, it is the dominant business centre in Europe and one of the major financial centres in the world. But despite all of this, companies such as Three UK, made a decision which shows that at some point someone realized that going after only high-end business customers would not provide a big enough return on the investment made in building out these networks. So I have to ask the question, if these companies can’t do it here in the UK with just high-end business customers, how do the Canadian carriers ever expect to do it? Maybe I am missing some great piece of strategic information that the Canadian carriers know and I don’t but for the time being this seems like a plan built on very shaky ground.

Over the years I have of course tried to come up with a logical explanation, and to be honest I’ve only ever come up with two potential rational explanations for the Canadian Carriers apprehension to move beyond the safe harbour of their tiny market segment. The first being that they are not actually prepared operationally to handle large numbers of subscribers of a service like this, and the second that the networks themselves are not yet built to withstand the inevitable increased usage. With either of these reasons, the unfortunate truth is that these might have been acceptable answers 3 or 4 years ago but they are surely not today. If this is still the case then we simply have a case of a bunch of complacent monopolies driven by nothing but the safety of doing things the way they have always been done. Never reaching beyond, never striving for more.

Bell, Rogers, and Telus – It’s time to wake-up, start listening to your customers, give them what they want, stop letting the dust gather on that expensive network you built, and begin moving forward again. If you don’t do something soon, perhaps the newcomer will.

Google Maps for Mobile

The updated version of Google Maps for Mobile is awesome.

One of the new features of this version is “My Location” which works remarkably well and definitely makes getting this updated version a must-have. You can download it here.

Here is some more info on the My Location feature.

State of the Empire – #2 Cross Platform Development

Being the only operating system to support as many applications as possible is very important to Microsoft. It used to be that companies could build for Windows and be happy that this would serve 90-95% of the market. However, as the variety of devices we use on a day to day basis expands, and the operating systems used on these devices becomes more fragmented software vendors will no longer be able to focus entirely on Windows to reach this large a market.

With more devices, such as phones, MP3 players, UMPC’s, etc, coming into the market everyday we are seeing other platforms emerge which companies are increasingly aware they need to support. As these companies adjust their development to support a 2nd platform, such as OSX for example, they are also seeking out ways to build their applications or services in a more platform independent manner. Many of these companies are looking to incorporate web based applications or advanced containers such as Adobe AIR into their product design in an effort to lower (or eliminate) the cost of porting these applications to different platforms in the future.

Companies can no longer depend upon reaching 90-95% of the market simply by supporting Windows. More applications will be built to support many platforms and the old barrier of consumers not being able to switch to Linux, OSX, or anything else due to a lack of application availability will begin to be a thing of the past.

We need only look to Steve Balmer screaming on stage “Developers, Developers, Developers” to understand how important it is to Microsoft to be the only operating system that developers think of when they decide to build an application.

…and, just in case you forgot about this video, here it is..in all its glory.

Filed under: Open Source | 1 Comment

State of the Empire – #1 Apple/OSX Market Share Growing

So to start things off – Apple/OSX and the risk they pose to the Microsoft empire.

There are obviously a number of reasons why Apple’s market share has started to grow, probably the most quoted one is the popularity of the iPod driving the so-called ‘halo effect‘ onto other Apple products and services. Apple started to gain significant publicity while conquering the music player space but more importantly they have continued to enhance and add new products and services which build upon the same successful elements of the iPod – elegance in design, and simplicity. Apple has been so successful in this regard that many computer users have been convinced to leave the safety of their known world in Windows to explore the apparently more hip and happening Mac world.

Some recent statistics point to much of Apple’s growth occurring in the US right now. This article identifies Apple computer sales moving into 3rd place amongst all US computer makers, in addition to now occupying an overall market share of 5.9%, up 1.1% from the previous year. While on a global scale this is still a largely insignificant share of the market it highlights what I believe is the beginning of an important trend – that people are starting to use and buy devices for everyday use which do not have Windows on them. Of course, the reasons why this is happening, and is even possible today, is not entirely to do with Apple but more importantly it is a function of convenient timing in relationship to a number of other events we will cover off later in this series of articles.

Going forward this increased Apple market share will also grow the more general non-Windows based device market so it will be interesting to see what impact this will have on devices running operating systems like Linux. As an example, will software vendors having to support > 1 operating system result in more platform independent software being built?

Depending on how successful Apple ends up being, there is always the risk that one monopoly simply gets replaced with another. However, with any hope the Apple success story will simply inject some healthy competition into a market that has desperately needed it.

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State of the Empire

How long do Empires last, and what are the signs of one falling?

From the time I installed my first Linux distribution (good ol’ Slackware, when I was probably 12) I was fascinated with the question of why Linux wasn’t as widely used as Microsoft Windows. Obviously, for my rather unsophisticated mind of the day, this was a simple matter of what *I* thought was better. Back then the idea of considering broader market dynamics as a way to analyze why Windows was more popular than Linux was clearly not the top thing on my mind, and aside from the fact I didn’t even know what “market dynamics” meant I was much more interested in trying out new versions of the Linux kernel. It is kind of quaint (or sad, depending on how you look at it) to recall myself actually thinking “I don’t understand why more people don’t use this!” at precisely the same time I was in the midst of downloading the bootdsk.144 file from the internet over my 14.4 modem. Ahh Memories.

Sixteen years later much has changed, while many things have stayed the same. No more DOS or Windows for Workgroups 3.11, no more bootdsk.144 or floppies for that matter, we have Vista and Ubuntu, and that other guy Apple has returned with a vengeance. No doubt, if I showed my 12 year old self the Ubuntu of today he would be certain of the fact that it must now be winning the war against Microsoft. However, he would be quite surprised to hear that Microsoft, more than 20 years into their monopoly, after multiple anti-competitive legal challenges, and after missing such “minor” technological shifts such as the internet, still manages to maintain a 90%+ market share.

Remarkable stuff for Microsoft, but alas all good things come to an end and even the strongest empires have lost their way at one point or another. Now that I am infinitely wiser than my old self I thought it would be a good idea to revisit those market dynamics I so foolishly left out of my analysis when I was 12. Over the next few weeks I’ll write up some of the most interesting current trends and market events which, when taken together, I believe pose the most imminent threat to the Microsoft empire and the greatest opportunity thus far for Linux.

Filed under: Open Source | 1 Comment

What happened to October?

It’s been a busy month and I can honestly say I’ve not put a lot of time into writing recently, or at least writing about things on my own volition about topics of my choosing. This is largely because I had the great pleasure (please note sarcasm) of spending a fair chunk of time last month preparing for my GMAT and while it was very exciting re-learning about Isosceles triangles and analyzing the case for building a new ski lodge in Anytown, USA I am very glad that experience is now behind me.

Of course, just as one task completes another one takes its place. Now that the GMAT has been written and I am pleased with my score there is nothing impeding me from moving forward with applying to schools other than the rather important issue of whether or not I am actually ready to commit the time and $ to go forward with doing an MBA. So for the next little while this question will be filling my mind in the hopes that at some point the mist that clouds this decision will soon be burnt away and I will suddenly have clarity about what to do.

While I continue to ponder the expensive MBA, I’ve been using the reading list defined in the somewhat cheaper Personal MBA to guide my spare time reading. Most recently I’ve been reading The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. Mind you I am only a quarter of the way through the book but I was intrigued by his commentary on the so-called “man of knowledge” (or perhaps in today’s terms “person of knowledge”).

“The man of knowledge has always been expected to take responsibility for being understood. It is barbarian arrogance to assume that the layman can or should make the effort to understand him, and that it is enough if the man of knowledge talks to a handful of fellow experts who are his peers. Even in the university or in the research laboratory, this attitude – alas, only too common today- condemns the expert to uselessness and converts his knowledge from learning into pedantry. If a man wants to be an executive – that is, if he wants to be considered responsible for his contribution – he has to concern himself with the usability of his “product” – that is, his knowledge.”


– Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

Being that my wife is quite involved in the field of usability I’ve grown a great appreciation for why usability is fundamentally important to products and services. However, I have never given any consideration to the fact that knowledge itself can be usable (or even not usable). The funny thing is that when I think about it this is probably something we all encounter everyday. We’ve probably all requested some piece of information from a co-worker or friend and what we received back was either not exactly what you were looking for or just simply resulted in more questions. In other words the information provided back to you was not usable and for all intents and purposes you end up no better off having asked for the information than if you had never even bothered.

In any case, definitely an interesting idea. With any luck the rest of the book will be just as interesting.

Filed under: Random | 2 Comments

Duplication Duplication

I came across Tristan Rhodes’ blog today while browsing through some recent posts on Planet Ubuntu, and his recent post about the benefit of open source seemed quite timely (at least in my life!). Specifically Tristan’s comments here were noteworthy:

“I believe that the open source development model is the most efficient way to create software. In the traditional software development model, each software company creates an isolated software silo. Meanwhile, their competitors are spending resources to create software that does almost the exact same function! Compare that to the open source model, where worldwide resources can be shared to develop an application.”

In this case Tristan is speaking specifically about duplication of effort between competitors, though I would argue that this is just as likely to happen between two companies working together. Of course whenever you run across this it definitely makes you look to the open development and free code re-use that is ubiquitous in the open source community as a model of how things really should work to avoid such pointless re-inventing of the wheel. After all, companies the world over are already re-using code (anyone who needs a database in their application is not recreating it everytime!). My suspicion is that there is often uncertainty within an organization regarding what components of their development projects need to be developed entirely on their own vs those for which it is better to give up some control and work on them in a more collaborative way – whether that be with competitors, partners, or the open source community. Those pieces of a project which do not provide any long term strategic advantage (a database for example) but which merely support getting to the end result would be a great place to start for many companies.

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