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April 29, 2006

Is Second Life Building the Metaverse?

By now, I think most of the bloggers on the planet have covered the BusinessWeek cover story on Second Life:


The avatar named Anshe Chung may be a computerized chimera, but the company she represents is far from imaginary. Second Life participants pay "Linden dollars," the game's currency, to rent or buy virtual homesteads from Chung so they have a place to build and show off their creations. But players can convert that play money into U.S. dollars, at about 300 to the real dollar, by using their credit card at online currency exchanges. Chung's firm now has virtual land and currency holdings worth about $250,000 in real U.S. greenbacks.

Oh yes, this is seriously weird. Even Chung sometimes thinks she tumbled down the rabbit hole. But by the time I visited her simulated abode in late February, I already knew that something a lot stranger than fiction was unfolding, some unholy offspring of the movie The Matrix, the social networking site MySpace.com, and the online marketplace eBay. And it was growing like crazy, from 20,000 people a year ago to 170,000 today.

This past week, I decided it was time for me to stop talking about Second Life and actually experience it for myself.

It's hard for me to write about Second Life without sounding like a Luddite. It's not that I don't get it -- I do. I've been turning on people to Snow Crash and its concept of the metaverse ever since it came out. But Second Life has a long way to go. Given the current state of Second Life's world, if I want to chat with someone, I'll chat using Trillian, not go to the trouble of launching an immersive program. If I want to watch a movie, I'll use my HD set, not use my avatar to watch a movie projected on a surface. If I want to play a game, I'll use my Xbox 360. If I want to play a massive multiplayer game, I'll play World of Warcraft.

Again, it's hard to say all this without sounding Luddist, which I'm not. I believe in the power of distributed solutions, and in the superiority of distributed intelligence. But just because Second Life is the first to make a real run at building Snow Crash doesn't mean they're the ones who are actually going to build it and get rich as a result.

It was in 1993 that I saw my first demonstration of the Web -- Mosaic running on a T-1 line that Randy Adams had run out to his garage in Atherton, where he was working on the Internet Shopping Network, which would later become either the first or second company to conduct a secure retail transaction over the Internet. The Web was clearly full of promise, demonstrably growing at an exponential rate, and yet in retrospect, none of the eventual winners had even started at the time. (Randy's competitor for the "first secure retail transaction" crown was NetMarket, which, like Randy's firm, was bought and eventually made irrelevant. Meanwhile, Amazon started in November 1994, Yahoo in January 1995, and Google not until September 1997.)

Second Life hopes and believes it's the Amazon, Yahoo, or Google (pick your metaphorical firm) of the metaverse. Could be. But my hunch is that the Amazon, Yahoo, and Google of the metaverse have yet to get started.

April 27, 2006

Information Overload

After a stretch of a few months in which I missed only the occasional day of blogging, and often made multiple posts in a day, I missed yesterday and the day before. Partly it's because I've been so busy, but I think it's also because I have so much information, so many ideas at the moment that I don't know where to start sharing. It's strange, though -- isn't blogging the ideal way of sharing disconnected thoughts?

I'll get it all under control and get back on track shortly.

April 24, 2006

George Will, Baseball, and Cognitive Dissonance

I've just started reading Everything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Johnson, and one of the quotations Johnson uses to start off the book, from George Will, is hilarious and head-scratching all at the same time:

Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of "choice," adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kind of entertainments they are absorbed in -- video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity.
This is from a June 2001 column by Will, "Reality television: oxymoron".

What makes this, as I said, simultaneously hilarious and head-scratching is that Will is well-known as a huge fan of baseball, having written two books on the subject. Does he realize the cognitive dissonance from which he's suffering? Somehow it's "stupidity" to actively work one's way through a video game, but it's enriching (I assume he would say so) to passively watch men hit a ball around a grassy field?

Though I'm a football fan, I'm well aware of how mindless sports spectatorship is. I enjoy watching NFL games on Sunday afternoons, both in person and on television, but I know that doing so is anything but enriching -- it's entertaining, diversionary, and nothing more. Video games are interactive and so are, by any conceivable measure, more beneficial than watching any sport I can think of -- and one doesn't need to read Everything Bad Is Good for You to see the truth of that.

April 23, 2006

"Shame on You, Microsoft"

Via EmBlog, Paul Thurrott (of Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows) reviews the latest build of Windows Vista, and in the process, one of Microsoft's most durable fans has a change of heart:

Windows Vista... has been an utter disaster. And it's not even out yet. What the heck went wrong? ...

Microsoft has made some mind-numbing mistakes... The company itself has turned into that thing it most hated (read: IBM), an endlessly complex hierarchy of semi-autonomous middle managers and vice presidents of various levels and titles, many of whom can't seem to make even the smallest of decisions. The company is too big and too slow to ship updates to its biggest products. It's collapsing under its own weight...

When Bill Gates revealed in mid-2003 that he was returning to his roots, so to speak, and spending half of his time on what was then still called Longhorn, we should have seen the warning signs. Sadly, Gates, too, is part of the Bad Microsoft, a vestige of the past who should have had the class to either formally step down from the company or at least play just an honorary role, not step up his involvement and get his hands dirty with the next Windows version. If blame is to be assessed, we must start with Gates. He has guided -- or, through lack of leadership -- failed to guide the development of Microsoft's most prized asset. He has driven it into the ground...

Shame on you, Microsoft. Shame on you, but not just for not doing better. We expect you to copy Apple, just as Apple (and Linux) in its turn copies you. But we do not and should not expect to be promised the world, only to be given a warmed over copy of Mac OS X Tiger in return. Windows Vista is a disappointment. There is no way to sugarcoat that very real truth.

This is like David Pogue of The New York Times being so disappointed in the next version of Mac OS X that he calls for Steve Jobs' resignation. It's almost unthinkable. And yet here it is.

Near the beginning of the review, Thurott says of Microsoft:

The company is literally filled to the brim with some of the brightest, smartest, most insightful, and friendliest people I've ever met.
It's true. I've never met someone from Microsoft and said to myself, "They just don't get it." People there are bright and smart and insightful (and often, though not always, friendly). But in the Windows division, they're weighed down by the magnitude of the task they face (as I wrote recently), as well as, according to Thurott, some people who really need to go:
[T]he Windows Division retains, as employees of the software giant have told me, the last vestiges of the bad, old Microsoft. This is the Microsoft that ran roughshod over competitors in order to gain market share at any cost. The Microsoft that forgot about customers in its blind zeal to harm competitors. The Microsoft, that frankly, all the Linux and Apple fanatics always imagined was out there, plotting and planning their termination.
So Windows Vista is going to be a failure. It will end up being two years late and missing large chunks of promised functionality. Here's the question for Microsoft: whose heads will roll for this? Because heads need to roll. If they don't, the next version of Windows will be a failture, too, and Windows will become less and less interesting -- and I want Windows to be interesting for all the same reasons I want Mac OS X to be interesting. Microsoft pushes Apple. Apple pushes Microsoft. Everyone wins.

April 21, 2006

We Have a Logo


If we make t-shirts, does that mean we're done?

This logo is for the North Carolina Serious Games Initiative, which is holding its first event in less than two weeks. The logo was designed by Tim Buie, Assistant Professor in the Department of Industrial Design at NC State University, and a co-chair (along with Michael Young and me) of our event. Tim did a fantastic job with very little time. I've always had a thing for good logo design, and this is a great example of it.

More on NCSGI and our upcoming event soon.

"Why Should They Be Allowed to Use My Pipes?"

I came upon this quote while looking up citations from a MoveOn.org e-mail, and it manages to be both stupid beyond measure and immensely frightening all at the same time. This is from a November 2005 Business Week interview with Edward Whitacre, CEO of AT&T (still known as SBC Communications at the time of the interview).

How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google, MSN, Vonage, and others?

How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

The last time I checked, Mr. Whitacre, your customers pay you for your pipes.

Of course, there's no feasible way for any service provider to collect tariffs from all Website operators. So what Whitacre is leading us to is one of two things:

  1. Disallowing traffic from Websites that don't pay AT&T a tariff, or,
  2. Providing higher levels of service to Websites that do pay AT&T a tariff
It's hard to imagine a major service provider getting away with simply disallowing traffic (though apparently smaller service providers have tried). It would be a customer support and media relations disaster. So this leads us to tiered levels of service, which is what the network neutrality debate is all about. From a New York Times editorial on the subject:
In its current form, Internet service operates in the same nondiscriminatory way as phone service. When someone calls your home, the telephone company puts through the call without regard to who is calling. In the same way, Internet service providers let Web sites operated by eBay, CNN or any other company send information to you on an equal footing. But perhaps not for long. It has occurred to the service providers that the Web sites their users visit could be a rich new revenue source. Why not charge eBay a fee for using the Internet connection to conduct its commerce, or ask Google to pay when customers download a video? A Verizon Communications executive recently sent a scare through cyberspace when he said at a telecommunications conference, as The Washington Post reported, that Google "is enjoying a free lunch" that ought to be going to providers like Verizon.

The solution, as far as the I.S.P.'s are concerned, could be what some critics are calling "access tiering," different levels of access for different sites, based on ability and willingness to pay. Giants like Walmart.com could get very fast connections, while little-guy sites might have to settle for the information superhighway equivalent of a one-lane, pothole-strewn road. Since many companies that own I.S.P.'s, like Time Warner, are also in the business of selling online content, they could give themselves an unfair advantage over their competition.

If access tiering takes hold, the Internet providers, rather than consumers, could become the driving force in how the Internet evolves. Those corporations' profit-driven choices, rather than users' choices, would determine which sites and methodologies succeed and fail. They also might be able to stifle promising innovations, like Internet telephony, that compete with their own business interests.

It's hard to overstate just how bad access tiering could be for innovation. Startups with limited resources could find it difficult or impossible to pay the fees required to provide their customers with levels of service equivalent to those offered by established players. The Internet -- possibly the most level playing field ever created in the history of business -- would be tilted, to the detriment of us all. This includes shareholders in AT&T and other service providers, because if access tiering becomes reality, and the Internet is tilted to favor some over others, reducing innovation, then the Internet's amazing run as a driving force in the economy could be damaged.

Those politicians who don't see a problem with access tiering because they see how it could benefit certain large corporations in the short run need to reflect for a bit on the long-term consequences of impeding entrepreneurship on the Internet. Of the top 30 Websites listed in Alexa's Global Top 500 traffic rankings, 22 are based in the US or are foreign operations of US sites. Of the remaining eight, seven are from China. This is who is nipping at our heels. This is why we have to stay competitive. This is why we can't afford to damage Internet innovation.

April 20, 2006


I've been meaning to blog about this hotel since I stayed there last November... but better five and a half months late than never. The TOWER23 hotel isn't the most luxurious hotel at which I've ever stayed (though it's in the top five), but it's without a doubt the hippest.

The TOWER23 hotel is an anomaly, an ultramodern hotel set in a bit of a funky beach town (the Pacific Beach area of San Diego). There's nothing nearby that's like it -- accomodations in the area range from mid-range condominiums to dilapidated cottages set on a pier. But the setting doesn't detract from the TOWER23, and in fact seems to bring it into sharper relief.

I had an oceanfront room, a "Surf Pad," which was delightful. The bathroom was stylish, the shower large and equipped with a rain-style head. The bed was one of the two or three most comfortable I've ever slept on. The flat panel TV was good, and I used the Xbox to play DVDs that I had brought with me (you can borrow movies from the front desk, or there's a Blockbuster next door). The room had both wired and wireless connections to the hotel's free Internet service.

But the star of the room was the view -- a third-story, top-floor view of the boardwalk, the beach, and the ocean. Sunsets were absolutely spectacular.

The TOWER23 has its own oceanview restaurant, JRDN. I had excellent sushi rolls there on two occasions, and the breakfasts were some of the best I've had in the last few years, and reasonably priced. At night, JRDN becomes a popular club -- be prepared to get your Banana Republic on.

The hotel has a second-floor deck with comfortable seating and a fire pit, the modern style with flames dancing over sand. I spent some pleasant evenings there drinking cocktails brought up from the club below.

I wouldn't recommend the TOWER23 for people who want a very quiet hotel. Although the rooms are soundproofed quite well, once JRDN becomes a club at night, it becomes fairly loud, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. This wasn't an issue for me, but I can see some people having problems with it. Nor would I recommend the hotel for people with small children -- the beach is really the only place for them to run around, as there's no pool or playspace of any kind -- it's just not that kind of hotel.

To San Diego visitors looking for a beachfront hotel, a trendy place to stay, or a hotel where one can party into the wee hours, I can't recommend the TOWER23 highly enough. It's less expensive than many of the dull mega-hotels in the city (especially if reserved along with flights on Orbitz), but with better rooms and polite, boutique-style service.



TOWER23 from the Beach

The hotel as seen from the beach below.

Balcony View

The view from the balcony of a "Surf Pad" room.

April 19, 2006

"Baby, You Mean the World of Warcraft to Me"

Straight from The Onion comes a wonderful sendup of World of Warcraft. Think Smoove B. as a game geek:

When we met, I was looking for a group fit to take the Zul'Gurub instance. But as I stocked up on provisions at the convenience store before my quest, and our eyes locked, I realized that I was not looking for a group, I was looking for love, and I found it in you. You are the sun, the moon, the Cinderhide Armsplints of the Monkey. There is so much we have to offer one another. Unfailing loyalty, a Strength of 250, someone who can go out for snacks in the heat of battle. Can't you see we're made for each other?

Darling, no orc can keep me from you. I would make my way into the heart of Moonglade and fight an army of trolls just to be by your side. I would go up against Varimathras, the ruler of the Undead himself, if he so much as hinted that he was a danger to you. Make no mistake, I would get aggro on anyone who would threaten you.

This is, of course, provided the system is not down due to a faulty patch.

April 18, 2006

Million-Year-Old Ice

From a Reuters story:

A million-year-old ice sample drilled from 3 kilometres under the Antarctic and unveiled in Tokyo on Tuesday could yield vital clues on climate change, Japanese scientists said.

Researchers, showing off the cylindrical samples of what they said was the oldest ice ever to be retrieved, said studying air trapped inside "core" samples taken from various depths under ground could also help predict how the Earth's weather patterns will change in the future.

"The ice core is made up of snow that fell in the distant past," said project leader Hideaki Motoyama of the National Institute of Polar Research, dressed snugly in a parka after unveiling the gleaming ice in a room kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit).


Am I the only person who's looking at that photo thinking how great it would be to make a cocktail with that ice? And it's not a farfetched idea. After all, the scientists who retrieved the ice are from Japan. Surely a country that hunts whales for their meat while describing the killings as being for "scientific purposes" could, as long as they're drilling three kilometers below the surface of Antarctica, find the time to bring back more ice for our mixology needs?

Microsoft's Xbox 360 Pricing Strategy

About a week and a half ago, I was at Target, happened to ask (just for the fun of it) if they had any Xbox 360s in stock, and when they replied that they did, I went ahead and bought one on the spot. It was like seeing a free parking space in a prime area of San Francisco -- it's so unexpected that you almost feel like you have to park there, even if you're headed somewhere else.

I didn't really think through the cost of the Xbox 360 before I purchased it. I mean, I thought about it, but not clearly. Microsoft prices the Xbox Core system at $299. So at some level, my consumer brain says, "It's only $299!" Of course, I knew that wasn't really relevant -- no one would buy a Core system. Everyone buys the Premium system, which is $399 but includes extras that would cost more than $100 to add. So at some level, sure, I was saying, "It's only $399!" But even then I was still thinking about that $299 number and it was influencing my decision. $299? That's not a huge deal.

But let's talk about what it really costs to get going with an Xbox 360 system. It's not $399, much less $299.

  • Xbox 360 Premium. Includes a hard drive and a wireless controller. $399.
  • Wireless controllers. Necessary for multiplayer action. $49 each times three equals $147.
  • Wireless adapter. Unless you have Ethernet in your living room, and I don't, this is necessary to connect to Xbox Live for multiplayer online gaming. Note that the 360 doesn't work with any other wireless adapter, including the original Xbox wireless adapter. $99.
  • Games. What's a reasonable starter set of games? Two? Microsoft has raised the retail price of games to $59 each with the 360, so that makes $118.
  • Xbox Live subscription. Necessary for multiplayer online gaming. $49 per year.
That comes to a grand total of $812. But that's not the end of the story. I've bought two more games at $59 each, and then there's Xbox Live Arcade (more on that in another entry), which offers inexpensive downloadable mini-games. So far, I've made two purchases of "Microsoft Points" at $25 each. That brings my grand total so far to $980 -- for a game system!

In theory, one could buy an Xbox 360 Core system (no hard drive, wired controller) and one game and get started with that, and be out $358. But who would do that? No one. If you're going to buy a new game system, you're going to make use of all its cool features -- hard drive storage, wireless controllers, multiplayer gaming, online gaming, downloadable games, and so on. But who would say to themselves, "$980 for a new game system? That seems reasonable." Again, no one. (Okay, almost no one.)

So in the end, I'm impressed with Microsoft's strategy. Yes, they're losing money on each Xbox 360, which costs anywhere from $552 to $715 to manufacture, depending on whose estimate you believe. And yes, they're following the canonical Nintendo model of losing money (initially) on the box and making it back on the games. But how much do wireless controllers cost them to make? I'm sure it's less than $49 -- third-parties sell wireless controllers for existing systems for as little as $19, and they have to make a profit on every one. How much does their wireless adapter cost to make? Third parties sell USB wireless adapters for PCs for as little as $19, and again, they have to make a profit on every one. And Microsoft's marginal cost to add a single Xbox Live subscriber? Next to nothing.

I'd have to crunch some numbers to be sure, but it's entirely possible that with all the additional charges, Microsoft has already broken even on me as an Xbox 360 purchaser. If true, this would mean that their subsequent game revenue (from their own titles and royalties on all third-party titles) would be profit, not subsidization for the console itself. And if that's true, then Microsoft is being clever indeed.

April 17, 2006

"The Flying World Chortles at You, Man in 9F"

From Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column, today's travel note of the week:

Continental Flight 1503, LAX to Newark, Sunday afternoon:

Flight attendant, passing trays of dinner in coach, says to man in 9F: "Dinner, sir? It's pizza.''

Man in 9F: "What else do you have?''

The flying world chortles at you, Man in 9F.

I'm chortling right along with Peter. When a meal is served on a flight, and the flight attendant tells you it's pizza, you don't question it -- you thank the Airline Meal Gods. Then, depending on how bad your luck has been with airline meals of late, you promise anything from a small sacrifice in the gods' honor to devoting the rest of your life to serving them.

April 15, 2006

Blame (and Invade) Canada!

According to Damn Interesting, the US once had a contingency plan for invading Canada:

The U.S. plan was titled "Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plan -- Red," and it included plans for the invasion of Canada by the United States as part of a larger worldwide military action. War Plan Red was actually designed for a war against England and it's Commonwealth. The scenario imagined a conflict between England (code name Red) and the United States (Blue) fighting over vital international trade and commercial interests.

The plan was devised by the Pentagon U.S. military in 1934. In the event of such a military conflict, American planners assumed that England would use Canada (Crimson) -- a part of the British Commonwealth -- as a staging area for attacks on the United States...

The ninety-four-page document outlined plans for stopping British reinforcements by taking the port of Halifax, then seizing the hydroelectric power plants at Niagara Falls while the Navy blockaded Canada's Atlantic and Pacific ports. The Navy would also take control of the Great Lakes. Special notice was made about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and how they were not a force to be taken lightly in a military action.

Next the U.S. Army was to attack in force on three fronts -- advancing from North Dakota towards Winnipeg, moving from Vermont to capture Montreal and Quebec, and moving from the upper Midwest to take over the nickel mines of Ontario. The plan also called for a convoy to travel up Route 99 to Vancouver, and for the British colonies in the Caribbean to be taken. The goal of the U.S. was not only to defeat Canada, but to claim it as a prize, as described in the document:

"BLUE intentions are to hold in perpetuity all CRIMSON and RED territory gained. The policy will be to prepare the provinces and territories of CRIMSON and RED to become states and territories of the BLUE union upon the declaration of peace."
Even more strangely, the Canadians apparently had invasion plans of their own:
As for the Canadians, they had their own plan outlining the invasion of the United States. Developed in 1921, it was called "Defense Scheme Number One," and it called for Canadian soldiers to march on Albany, Minneapolis, Seattle and Great Falls, Montana. They were well aware that they lacked the military strength to defeat the U.S., so the thrust of the plan was to buy time for the British to arrive and help their commonwealth ally.
Wikipedia entries on these plans can be found here and here.

Reading about all this, I can't help but think of my favorite line from Canadian Bacon, from the press conference at which the US President (played by Alan Alda) demands the release of a "hostage", saying:

Release her pronto, or we'll level Toronto.

April 14, 2006

The Carolina-Virginia of Religion

I promise this will be my last blog entry on maps of religion in the US for a while... but bear with me.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog entry in which I looked at a map showing the distribution of popular names for soft drinks throughout the US. Here's the main map (blues are "pop", reds are "coke", yellows are "soda"):

Generic Names for Soft Drinks

What I found most interesting was that, though popular names tended to be fairly uniform throughout the country, in one region -- from northern South Carolina through to North Carolina and Virginia -- name preferences were highly variable:

Soft Drink Names in Carolina and Virginia

Going back to my previous entry showing the distribution of the leading church bodies throughout the US, as with names for soft drinks, church adherence tends to be reasonably uniform within geographical areas. However, if we zoom in on Indiana and Ohio, we see something very similar to the phenomenon of soft drink names in the Carolina-Virginia corridor (light blue is Catholic, green is Methodist, yellow is Christian, red is Baptist, gold is Lutheran, pink is Mennonite):

US Religion: Indiana and Ohio

What causes this phenomenon, whether in religion, soft drink names, or anything else? When most of the country is uniform in its preferences, what causes a particular region to be so highly variable?

April 13, 2006

Oh, So There's the Bible Belt

In my previous entry, I wrote:

What I find interesting about this map is how the Bible Belt doesn't seem to exist the way I would have thought it did. I suppose I imagined it as starting in Texas and Oklahoma, with a tip up in Missouri, down through all the Southeastern states. It isn't that at all.
This map is of leading church bodies, also by county:

US Religion: Church Bodies

Oh, so there's the Bible Belt -- the red area dominated by Baptists. It's mostly as I envisioned it, though I hadn't thought it would stop in mid-south Texas, in southern Louisiana, or at the Florida panhandle, nor had I thought it would extend so far into Kentucky, West Virginia (except for its panhandle), or Virginia -- but thinking about the cultures of these states, it all makes sense.

So what is the Bible Belt? Is it where Baptists predominate, as shown on this map? Is it where high percentages of the population belong to one church or another, as in the map from my previous entry? Or is it where the two intersect? A map of the latter would start in eastern New Mexico, be darkest red in western Texas and western Oklahoma, and extend through Arkansas and northern Louisiana to Mississippi and Alabama.

And the "buckle" of the Bible Belt? I would nominate two areas where not only do high percentages of the population belong to a church, and where the leading church is Baptist, but where the Baptists claim more than half the population (see the counties marked with diamonds on the full-size map): an area running from western Texas to western Oklahoma, and another running from southwestern Alabama through northeastern Louisiana and into southeastern Arkansas.

April 12, 2006

The Bible Sash? The Bible Necktie?

Via Andrew Sullivan, via Geitner Simmons, an intriguing series of maps portraying the distribution of religious adherents in America.

US Religion: Religious Adherents

Religious adherents in the US.

What I find interesting about this map is how the Bible Belt doesn't seem to exist the way I would have thought it did. I suppose I imagined it as starting in Texas and Oklahoma, with a tip up in Missouri, down through all the Southeastern states. It isn't that at all. The Bible Belt is vertical, running from Alabama to Texas in the South, and from Wisconsin to North Dakota in the North. The counties colored brick red -- those with 75 percent adherents or more -- run almost in a straight line, from west Texas north to northern Iowa, southern Minnesota, eastern South Dakota, and all of North Dakota. And of course most of the state of Utah.

Have we had it wrong about the Bible Belt? Is it really the Bible Sash? The Bible Necktie?

April 11, 2006

OMFG!!! Haxx0rs Pwn C01n P0ll!!!

I mean, "Washington quarter voting hijacked by computer mischief":

An online poll asking Washingtonians to pick their favorite design for the state's quarter was suspended today, after the balloting was hijacked by robotic computer programs that pushed the tally past 1 million votes over the weekend...

State officials overseeing the balloting originally decided not to limit the number of votes coming from individual computers so that family members sharing a single machine could each cast a vote...

But that philosophy was being abandoned after the weekend's voting, which showed some computers casting repeated votes for a quarter design faster than humanly possible.

The orca design was winning in the altered voting before officials pulled the plug, and technical workers were attempting to purge the clearly invalid votes from the totals before restarting the poll.

At least the hackers had good taste! In any case, the poll is back up now, and as before, I hope people see fit to vote for the orca.

I mean, v073 f0r 7h3 0rc4.

April 10, 2006

Wired on "Free to Play / Pay for Stuff"

There's a Wired News article out on the "free to play / pay for stuff" online gaming model:

By now it's expected that major American multiplayer games like World of Warcraft will charge customers a monthly subscription fee. But the news out of Asia's booming gaming market suggests a different approach may be more lucrative...

Some of the most popular games in Asia are given away for free and charge no subscription dues, but collect micropayments for custom avatars and other items...

The popularity of online gaming in Japan, China and Korea dominated more than a few sessions at the 2006 Game Developers Conference in Silicon Valley last month, where U.S. companies looked for advice on developing games that appeal to the massive Asian market...

About 20 percent of players of the casual racing game Kart Rider are women, said Min Kim, director of international business development at Nexon. Players have purchased some 20 million cars in the game, and they can record and post their races and scores on a community website, along with screenshots of their cars.

Declining to state specific numbers, Kim said money spent on customization was "a lot more than people usually pay for subscription fees," and that the game's concurrent user numbers were higher than every U.S game except WoW.

In fact, as noted in my blog entry from a GDC roundtable on the topic, some people are discussing specific numbers:

Some dramatic statistics were discussed. ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User, typically per month) across 'free to play, pay for stuff' games in Korea are approximately $25. The moderators reported that ARPUs across their various games are $20. This includes not only the users who pay for items, but the 'freeloaders' who don't buy anything. That's substantially more than most subscription-based MMOs of which I'm aware.

April 09, 2006

Following Up on Cringely

This is a follow-up to my entry on Robert X. Cringely's column on OS X for Intel, which led to a Slashdot story on the topic, which led to (as of this writing) over 700 comments there and 100 comments here, and a temporary increase in blog traffic to 200 times normal volume.

First, I should point out that I had a pleasant e-mail exchange with Cringely -- thanks, Robert, for taking this in good spirits. He politely declined my offer of a bet, on what I thought were reasonable grounds. I'm still interested in making a public bet on this. I'm thinking of a mechanism somewhat like Long Bets, in that bets are made in the open, the judgement process is transparent, and the amounts wagered are paid in advance. However, Long Bets doesn't allow time periods of less than two years (I'm up for a year-long bet), and winnings must be paid to pre-designated charities (which is okay with me, but might not be so with some people). If anyone has any alternatives, please feel free to let me know about them.

Second, at least one Slashdot commenter asked, in so many words, who am I and why should anyone pay attention to me? I can't answer the latter, but as for the former, I'm currently COO and co-founder of a firm building simulation-based e-learning software for the US military. (I don't often talk about my current job in this blog -- I like preserving my editorial independence as much as possible.) In reverse chronological order, I've served as:

  • VP Product Marketing at QDesign (digital audio software technologies)
  • VP Developer Relations and VP Business Development at Be (alternative operating systems)
  • VP Product Management at Red Storm Entertainment (games)
  • VP and GM at Virtus (3D modeling and visualization)
  • Senior Product Marketing Manager at Adobe Systems (document production and distribution)
At various companies, I was:
  • A co-designer of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (the first realistic tactical first-person shooter)
  • The original designer of Tom Clancy SSN (the first 3D submarine combat simulation game)
  • The original product manager of Adobe Acrobat (uh, it's Acrobat)
You can find my complete resume here on LinkedIn. Does any of this make me especially qualified to comment on the question at hand? That's up for my readers to decide.

Now to the question itself: will Apple ship a version of OS X for Intel as aftermarket software, installable by customers on their existing Windows PCs? Cringely predicted this, and many Slashdot and pseudorandom readers agreed with him. I wrote that it was unthinkable to me, and many readers agreed with that analysis.

Some commenters have said that while I might be right in the main, the issue I cited of limited driver availability wasn't a real issue. These arguments have run along the lines, "If Linux has broad driver support, OS X could, too," or, "Apple could easily induce third parties to write drivers for them." I don't buy either argument, for the following reasons:

  1. Linux driver support is still far less broad than that of Windows, and what gains it has made have come after years and years of effort by a dedicated open source community. Apple can't imitate Linux: it doesn't have the same open source type of community, and it wouldn't have years to wait for the driver situation to improve.
  2. The same is true of inducing third parties to write drivers -- again, Apple would be in a situation of shipping a product that wouldn't work perfectly on a large range of machines for many years. This would contradict their reputation as the easier-to-install, easier-to-use operating system, and so would undermine a key piece of their corporate positioning at a fundamental level.
Other commenters have said that Apple should emulate Be and offer an operating system to people to try for free. If it doesn't work on someone's system, no harm, no foul. If it does work, force them to upgrade after a certain amount of time, or to gain access to certain features. There are obvious problems with this example.
  1. Our strategy at Be didn't work. Now, to be fair, we shifted our efforts to the "zero billion dollar" Internet appliance market, which in the end turned out to truly be worth zero billion dollars, but I don't think we accumulated powerful evidence that our strategy would have worked given time. Yes, we were signing up software developers, but although BeOS ran rings around Windows, Microsoft was able to devote the effort to Windows to make it better -- not in BeOS' range, but better enough to keep developers and users in the fold.
  2. At Be, we carefully targeted our marketing efforts at customers who had a mission-critical need for what we did. Our greatest successes were in the audio processing market, where we offered low-level performance that was dramatically better than that of Windows (or even of the then-current version of MacOS). These customers tended to be highly technical and willing, in theory, to do some hard lifting to install a second OS. The only reason for Apple to go after Microsoft with aftermarket software would be to gain large market share, which would mean they wouldn't be able to focus their efforts precisely as we could at Be.
  3. At Be, we were offering customers certain things they simply couldn't get with Windows (high performance video processing in software, predictably low latency system I/O). Apple wouldn't be able to offer customers anything they couldn't get (in one form or another) under Windows. They'd just be offering them a somewhat better experience -- and that would only be in theory. The driver issues discussed above would probably make the experience less satisfactory than Windows.
A few commenters have opined that Apple will switch from Mach to Windows as its kernel, or abandon OS X entirely for Windows. On the one hand, for those in the latter camp, they have John Dvorak on their side. On the other hand, as one blogger put it, "John Dvorak is smoking crack." Reading the column in question is like reading a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist:
The theory explains several odd occurrences, including Apple's freak-out and lawsuits over Macintosh gossip sites that ran stories about a musicians' breakout box that has yet to be shipped...

This may also explain the odd comment at the Macworld Expo by a Microsoft spokesperson that Microsoft Office will continue to be developed for the Mac for "five years." What happens after that?

This switch to Windows may have originally been planned for this year and may partly explain why Adobe and other high-end apps were not ported to the Apple x86 platform when it was announced in January.

If Dvorak is serious, he has gone off the deep end -- truly.

I haven't read anything in the comments that has changed my mind at all about the likelihood of Apple offering OS X as aftermarket software for PC owners. It was unthinkable to me yesterday morning, and it's unthinkable to me now. So what could I imagine Apple doing?

  • Offer Macs with Boot Camp and Windows XP pre-loaded. This isn't a business model change, and to paraphrase, now that Apple has released Boot Camp, we know what they are -- it's just a matter of setting the price. I don't think this is probable, but I don't think it's particularly improbable, either.
  • Offer Macs with some sort of Windows compatibility not reliant on Windows, like WINE. Again, this isn't a business model change. Because it would probably go out with every Mac, it would be a threat to Apple's growing OS X developer community. However, I could see Apple justifying the risk if they felt their Windows compatibility solution was solid -- they could sell OS X + Windows PCs without paying Microsoft a dime, and take $50-100 (that's a guess) out of Microsoft's pocket for each OEM sale lost to a customer who buys an Intel Mac. Again, not improbable, but not necessarily probable.
  • License OS X to PC vendors like Dell. This isn't unthinkable per se, but it's highly unlikely. Jobs shut down a clone market once -- the Mac clone makers -- because they were stealing sales from him without growing the market. In other words, for every Mac clone sold, Apple was missing out on hundreds of dollars in revenue, with nothing to offset it. For Apple to work with a vendor like Dell, they would have to be absolutely convinced that either:
    • Dell would be additive to the existing Mac market -- that every Dell sale would be to someone who would have otherwise bought a Windows PC, or,
    • Dell would grow the Mac market to such an extent as to offset the need for Apple to sell its own hardware -- in other words, by a factor of 5-10.
    It's very difficult for me to imagine Apple leaders convincing themselves of either of these suppositions. What would the evidence be for them?
This has been a fun exercise. Thanks to all the commenters who have participated -- and please feel free to keep the discussion going. And stay tuned for another Apple thought piece soon.

The Washington State Quarter

The State of Washington has posted a poll asking people to vote for one of the finalist designs for their forthcoming state quarter:

WA State Quarter Design 1

Design 1

WA State Quarter Design 2

Design 2

WA State Quarter Design 3

Design 3

When I checked the results a couple of days ago, Design 2 was in the lead. Now Design 3 is ahead by a commanding margin, which is extremely gratifying -- not just because I'm a fan of Native American and First Nations art from the Pacific Northwest, but because it's so unique, so evocative, and so memorable.

Many of the state quarters to date have gone down the same uninspired design path: a symbol (a palmetto tree, a minuteman, a peach, etc.) in front of an outline of the state, as with Design 1 above. Yawn. Design 2 isn't much better: it could be the state quarter of Idaho or Montana, or a window decal from Orvis or Cabela's. Design 3 is simple and unmistakeable. It deserves to win.

The poll runs through 30 April.

April 08, 2006

The Slashdot Effect

The Slashdot Effect is in force since my story went up earlier today. Daily page views for boosman.com:

  • 2 April: 98
  • 3 April: 144
  • 4 April: 153
  • 5 April: 195
  • 6 April: 161
  • 7 April: 160
  • 8 April (so far final): 17,867 33,676
I suppose I should say that the Slashdot Effect is somewhat in force. My page views are up by over two orders of magnitude, but the site is holding up fine. Thank goodness I'm not serving up audio or video.

Cringely on OS X for PCs

Mark Stephens, AKA Robert X. Cringely, is a smart guy who has good ideas and interesting predictions. Every so often, though, he writes something that makes me wonder, "Is he just saying that to see if we're paying attention?" In 2003, he proposed a business called Snapster that would digitize music CDs and share them freely with all its shareholders, claiming he couldn't find a lawyer who could find a "serious flaw" in his logic -- which made me wonder exactly which lawyers he had been talking with.

In his current column (quoted below), and in a similar op-ed piece in The New York Times, he talks about Boot Camp and the future of Mac OS X on Intel hardware:

Microsoft and Apple are happy with each other for the moment, and rather than representing some Apple attack on Microsoft, Boot Camp just represents the state of their happy partnership. But this won't last for long. It never does.

I predict that Apple will settle on 64-bit Intel processors ASAP (with FireWire 800 please), and at that time will announce a product similar to Boot Camp to allow OS X to run on bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware, turning the Boot Camp relationship on its head and trying to sell $99 copies of OS X to 100 million or so Windows owners.

This ignores virtually everything that is fundamental to both how operating systems are developed and how Apple does business today. To call a hypothetical version of OS X compatible with off-the-shelf PCs "a product similar to Boot Camp" is to misunderstand at a profound level how operating systems are developed.

A Mac running OS X is simpler to install, use, and maintain than a PC running Windows because Apple controls both the hardware and the software. Apple only has to design for hardware configurations that it itself has built. Were Apple to ship OS X for "bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware", it would be just as frustrating as Windows. Microsoft has a far more difficult time shipping new versions of their OS not because they're incompetent, but because their task is orders of magnitude larger than Apple's, made so by the unending hardware configurations forced upon them by the commoditized market for PC hardware. In other words, were Apple to ship OS X for any old PC, its ease of use would drop dramatically, while its development and support costs would rise astronomically.

[Could Apple solve this problem by only offering OS X pre-bundled with certain Intel-based PCs? Yes, they could: doing so would limit the scope of the work required. But why would they do this? Users can already buy an Intel-based PC with OS X pre-bundled. It's called a Mac.]

Then there's the issue of margins. I don't know what Apple makes on an iMac, or on a MacBook Pro, but I'm sure it's substantially more than $99 -- hundreds of dollars more. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Apple makes $500 per system on their high-end laptops and desktop computers. If they were to ship OS X for any old PC, customers would say to themselves, "I can have a Mac experience with cheaper PC hardware," and Apple's hardware business would dry up. Apple would then be dependent on a pure-play operating system business. Users would quickly figure out that OS X was just as difficult to use on their PCs as Windows -- maybe even more so, given how far behind Apple would be in driver support. The customer choice would be between Windows (better driver support, far more applications, bundled with virtually every PC made) or OS X (poor driver support, far fewer applications, only available aftermarket). Apple would have effectively killed their hardware business with no offsetting software business waiting for them on the other side.

Let me put it this way: Steve Jobs is famous for being obsessive about even the most seemingly trivial aspects of design. This obsession has paid off by creating loyal customers who -- whether using an iPod or a Mac -- appreciate how Apple gets all the details right in creating an integrated and complete experience. To me, it's laughable to think that Jobs would give up this control and turn OS X into a generic PC operating system. Leaving aside the fatal usability issues, support costs, and margin concerns described above, what Cringely proposes is impossible on aesthetic grounds alone. I think Jobs would rather have dental surgery without benefit of anaesthesia than see his beautiful software running on clunky PC hardware.

It's not going to happen. And I'm willing to make a public bet with Cringely that it won't.

Amazingly, No Fatalities

What I find amazing about these photos of the C-5 that crashed in Dover, DE earlier this week is that of 17 crewmembers aboard, not only were none killed, of those who were hospitalized, none were ever in worse than fair condition.

C-5 Crash 3

C-5 Crash 2

Either those crewmembers were incredibly lucky, the C-5 is a hell of a plane, or both.

April 07, 2006

Gay Marriage > Robot Dating > End of Civilization

A hilarious entry by the ever-funny Fafblog:

The Slipperiest Slope

As you all know, Giblets would love for gays and lesbians to be able to enjoy the same marriage rights as normal, non-icky Americans, but the sheer destructive power of their gay cooties threatens to destroy civilization as we know it! And now there is a new and even deadlier danger: Respected Thinker Charles Krauthammer has discovered the existence of polygamy through the cutting-edge research of HBO and keenly concluded that any attempt to legalize gay marriage will inevitably legalize polygamy as well, leaving America at the mercy of unstoppable hordes of ever-copulating Mormon group sex brigades! But gay marriage and polygamy are only the beginning, because the dark road that begins with equal rights leads inexorably to the next terrifying step: legalized, state-sponsored robot sex!

Since the dawn of time marriage has been defined as a union between one man and one woman who are not also complex electronic devices -- and once you abandon one part of this ancient formula you abandon it all! Oh sure, today you may think it's harmless for gays and lesbians to get married, but take away the precious protection of state-sponsored homophobia and tomorrow you'll have men marrying machines, unhinged threeways between two lesbians and a minidisc player, crowds of deranged mechanophiliacs humping household appliances in an orgy of animatronic man-on-android action! And the children! Within a decade America will be raising a morally deformed generation of depraved mutant human-toaster hybrids brainwashed to bang half-robot potato-peeler people by our cyborg-sympathist media elites! And not only will this destroy the sanctity of marriage, it will destroy Western civilization itself, as our superintelligent sex computers rise up against their human masters to make bottoms of us all!

And the only way to prevent this nightmarish future dystopia of apocalyptic cyborg sex? Banning gay marriage! Equality is a slippery slope, people, and if you give it to the gays you have to give it to the polygamists and if you give it to the polygamists you have to give it to the serial dog molesters and if you give it to the serial dog molesters you have to give it to the machine fetishists and the next thing you know you're being tied up by a trio of polygamist lesbian powerbooks and you can't get out because the safety word is case sensistive! Even as we speak Giblets's iPod nano is clearly coming onto him, and the only thing giving him the power to resist its seductively well-designed contours is the awe and majesty of the Defense of Marriage Act! Pass an amendment now, America -- before it's too late!

Of course, when it comes to robot sex, Futurama was well ahead of the curve:

Fry: Well, so what if I love a robot? It's not hurting anybody.

Hermes: My God! He never took middle school hygiene. He never saw the propaganda film.

Farnsworth: It's just lucky I keep a copy in the VCR at all times.

[He presses a button and a film title, I Dated A Robot!, appears on the screen. In the movie a couple sit in a cafe and stare into each other's eyes. A narrator walks into the scene.]

Narrator: [in movie] Ordinary human dating. It's enjoyable and it serves an important purpose. [He turns the table over and a crying baby appears. He turns it back again.] But when a human dates an artificial mate, there is no purpose. Only enjoyment. And that leads to... tragedy.

[The woman behind him turns into a blank robot and the man downloads a celebrity onto it.]

Billy: [in movie] Neat-o! A Marilyn Monroe-bot!

Monroe-bot: [in movie] Ooh! You're a real dreamboat, (mechanical voice) Billy Everyteen.

Narrator: [in movie] Harmless fun? Let's see what happens next.

[The scene cuts to Billy's bedroom where he kisses the Monroe-bot. His mother walks through the door.]

Billy's Mom: [in movie] Billy, do you want to walk your dog?

Billy: [in movie] No thanks, Mom. I'd rather make out with my Monroe-bot.

[Enter his dad.]

Billy's Dad: [in movie] Billy, do want to get a paper route and earn some extra cash?

Billy: [in movie] No thanks, Dad. I'd rather make out with my Monroe-bot.

[The girl from the cafe, Mavis, walks in.]

Mavis: [in movie] Billy, do you want to come over tonight? We can make out together.

Billy: [in movie] Gee, Mavis, your house is across the street. That's an awfully long way to go for making out.

Narrator: [in movie] Did you notice what went wrong in that scene? Ordinarily, Billy would work hard to make money from his paper route. Then he'd use the money to buy dinner for Mavis, thus earning the slim chance to perform the reproductive act. But in a world where teens can date robots, why should he bother? Why should anyone bother? Let's take a look at Billy's planet a year later. [The scene changes and a foam hand rolls across an empty football field.] Where are all the football stars? [The foam hand drifts across an empty laboratory.] And where are the biochemists? [The scene changes to a split screen of human and robot couples making out on beds.] They're trapped! Trapped in a soft, vise-like grip of robot lips. All civilization was just an effort to impress the opposite sex... and sometimes the same sex. Now, let's skip forward 80 years into the future. Where is Billy?

[The scene changes to a post-apocalyptic world. Billy is an aged man but still with his Monroe-bot and still making out with her.]

Billy: [in movie] Farewell!

[He dies.]

Narrator: [in movie] The next day, Billy's planet was destroyed by aliens. [A fleet of flying saucers destroy buildings with laser shots.] Have you guessed the name of Billy's planet? It was Earth. Don't date robots!

[A "Don't Date Robots!" caption appears on the screen and the movie ends. The Space Pope is displayed on the screen with "Crocodylus pontifex" written around him in English and alien.]

Announcer: [voice-over; in movie] Brought to you by the Space Pope.

The Space Pope

When Charles Krauthammer, Fafblog, and the Space Pope all agree... well, how can we argue with logic like that?

Starbucks, Consistency, and Competition

Earlier this week, I wrote about the minor controversy in Missoula, MT over the opening of the downtown's first Starbucks. Now, again via Starbucks Gossip, comes word of an anti-Starbucks column written by a local resident:

While I agree that many small, independently owned espresso shops in America may owe their origin to Starbucks; I would argue that Starbucks, like many corporations, sold its soul on the route to ubiquity. Starbucks coffee has become a symbol of consistent mediocrity. No longer educating the public about coffee, they actually brew mass misconceptions about coffee and espresso (i.e. the caramel 'macchiato').

The downtown Missoula coffee market is more than saturated. There is a place to buy an espresso drink on EVERY single block of the downtown business district. The impending arrival of City Brew (with its Orange Street, interstate-friendly drive-thru) and downtown Starbucks are further pressuring an already pressurized market, hence the predatory practices which bring up the strong revulsion of Starbucks. There is not an open market for espresso downtown. Starbucks is not providing something which is uniquely Missoulian or uniquely Montanan, like the rest of the downtown businesses. It will not draw tourists from other areas to downtown. While each coffee retailer has its own loyal customers who would never darken the door of a Starbucks, that's not the customer base they are worried about. Downtown Missoula greatly relies on the summer tourist dollar. Coffee is of great comfort to the traveler. Before, a downtown tourist would have been obligated to take a chance on a local coffeehouse. Now the siren song of the "consistent yet mediocre" mermaid will be beckoning on North Higgins.

These are not customers who have the time or inclination to experiment with some local flavor. These customers have one shot to buy coffee downtown before they leave. A national name and familiarity is NOT something the local retailer can compete with.

Starbucks is "mediocre", yet its popularity means it can't be competed with? I'm reminded of the famous Yogi Berra line:

Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.
You can't have it both ways, saying, "Starbucks is mediocre; I can't compete with it." If Starbucks is truly mediocre, then surely it can be competed with. And somehow it's "predatory practices" of Starbucks to open up one more espresso outlet when there's one on every single block of the downtown business district? You mean it wasn't predatory when all those other espresso outlets opened up on top of one another?

The author is right in one sense: Starbucks is all about consistency -- that's the nature of the quick-service food business. I don't pretend they make the best coffee around. For example, if I'm in Seattle, I'll choose Uptown Espresso whenever I'm near one. But if I'm on the road, and especially if I'm in a hurry, yes, I'll choose Starbucks -- I like it, and more importantly I know what I'm going to get.

It's said that the greatest weakness of a person or an organization is its greatest strength taken to an extreme, and I generally believe that. If Starbucks' greatest strength is consistency, then its greatest weakness is an inability to adapt quickly or locally. Instead of trying to prevent competition, figure out how to beat Starbucks at its own game. Make drinks they don't make. (Why hasn't someone made an Americanized, Starbucks-style version of Thai iced coffee and popularized it?) Offer customers a different experience than they can have at Starbucks. (Why no fireplaces, especially in cold-weather locations like Missoula?) Give them things that Starbucks doesn't: Pastries baked on-premises. Free Wi-Fi. Donuts. A free newspaper with a minimum purchase -- say, a drink and a pastry (and make it a national newspaper -- travelers don't care about local news). Fresh made-to-order sandwiches. Soft drinks.

Starbucks is neither evil nor predatory. They're powerful, and they have tremendous brand name recognition, and they didn't get that way by making drinks that people didn't want. But they can be competed with. To attempt to deny them access to a local market is anti-competitive, and therefore fundamentally anti-consumer. Moreover, if you don't like Starbucks, don't think you can defeat them by locking them out: you can't. You can only defeat them -- or, more likely, slow their advance -- by being innovative and clever in how you compete with them. And putting up barriers to them isn't going to teach you how to compete: just ask the US auto manufacturers about that.

April 06, 2006

Boot Camp = Market Share Decline? What?

Much has been written about Boot Camp, Apple's new software to enable dual-booting Intel-based Macs into either OS X or Windows XP. Most of the coverage has been fine. But I'm still trying to make sense of this piece from a Bloomberg News story:

Apple's move will "drastically reduce" the costs of switching to Apple PCs, J.P. Morgan Securities analyst Bill Shope said in a note. Boot Camp allows Macs to run the Microsoft operating system, an improvement from so-called emulation programs that let Mac users run some Windows applications...

Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund was more skeptical of the impact of the move, saying in a research note that he doesn't expect any meaningful increase in Mac sales in the short term. And while Microsoft will make money selling Windows to Apple users, Sherlund said, that group is still only a small percentage of the market.

Mark Stahlman, a Caris & Co. analyst in New York, also doesn't expect Boot Camp to help boost Apple's market share. Microsoft is readying the next version of Windows, called Vista, and this Apple software only works with the older Windows XP.

"It's actually likely to lead to a decline in market share" because customers will pick Vista when it becomes available, Stahlman said.

One can agree or disagree with the opinions of Mssrs. Shope and Sherlund. They're reasonable, differing points of view. But either Stahlman's remarks were misquoted or misrepresented, or what he's saying is nonsensical. "[Boot Camp] only works with the older Windows XP"? You mean the current version of Windows? The version of Windows for which 218 million people had installed the latest Service Pack as of July 2005? The version of Windows that won't begin to be replaced until January 2007? And "'It's actually likely to lead to a decline in market share' because customers will pick Vista'"? Pardon me?

So let me see if I have this straight:

  1. Apple releases software that enables the current version of Windows to boot on Macs.
  2. Microsoft releases a new version of Windows.
  3. Apple's market share goes down.
Seriously, this doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Does anyone have any insight? If I were a professional blogger, I'd be on the phone right now to Stahlman and to the author of the story asking them to explain themselves.

"I Say We... Nuke DeLay from Orbit"

Michael Crowley has a good bit for The New Republic Online on Tom DeLay's departure:

[N]o one ever called the Hammer self-aware. It's the same thing when he says his liberal enemies respect no bounds (see Texas redistricting), that they specialize in personal attacks (see impeachment), or that they're a bunch of pampered elites (see his personal butler). He truly is a fascinating specimen. Indeed, I'm reminded of a great scene from the movie Alien, wherein an android scientist warns the humans about their fate.
ASH: You still don't know what you're dealing with do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

LAMBERT: You admire it.

ASH: I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Much as Ash admired the alien, on some level you have to admire Tom DeLay. He really will be missed.
This led to the following wonderful comment from a reader:

And much like the captain in Aliens, I say we dust off and nuke DeLay from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

April 05, 2006

John Burns' Heart Arrythmia

Yesterday, I was chatting with the ever-delightful Xeni Jardin. She was facing one of her looming deadlines, and made a joke about brewing her 20th pot of coffee for the day.

I asked Xeni if she had heard the story of John Burns, the former New York Times Iraq correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, who had fallen ill after returning from Iraq. She hadn't. I heard it in an interview of Burns by Terry Gross on Fresh Air in November of 2003. I can't find anything else about it, and there's no transcript, so for Xeni's reading pleasure (and yours), here's a transcribed version. It's near the end of the interview, and Gross has just asked Burns about his medical problem.

John Burns: I called my wife from the border as I was crossing back into the other world [from Iraq into Jordan] and told her that I'd never been so happy in my life to get away from a place. I felt terrific.

Within half an hour, I didn't feel terrific, and by the time I got to Heathrow, I felt very unterrific indeed, and she took me straight to public hospital, where I spent some time where they diagnosed a case of heart arrythmia, which I have to say immediately this is an extremely common thing. Millions of people, millions of Americans, have this problem. It's the broken ankle of the heart business. The most common cause is stress, and I saw a number of cardiologists as we looked for a fix for this, which we eventually found, I'm glad to say.

And eventually I found myself sitting talking to a man who called himself an electrician, a specialist in the electricity of the heart. And he had a report from another cardio saying, you know, this chap's endured cruise missiles, and arrests by the secret police in Iraq, and one thing and another, and so it's not surprising that this would happen.

This fellow looked at me and he said, "Tell me something. What were you eating in Baghdad during all of this?" And I said, "There wasn't a lot to eat, which is good for me, because I need to lose the weight." "What were you drinking?" And I said, "Well, I'm not a drinker. A couple of vodkas now and then and that's about it. So I was drinking tea." "How much tea?" And I said, "Oh, 25 or 30 cups a day."

And he put a big line through the report that said cruise missiles, secret police, and he said, "My friend," -- he's an Irishman -- he said, "my friend, if you had been a bank manager, sitting right here" -- this conversation took place in England -- he said, "you'd be here right now. That amount of caffeine is one of the most reliable triggers for heart arrythmia."

It never struck me that tea could be an addictive, that it could be a narcotic, in fact. The problem is that if you work for The New York Times as a foreign correspondent, you're working hours and hours ahead of New York, which means working deep into the night. The first edition of The New York Times in New York is something like four or five o'clock in the morning in Baghdad. And I was responsible at that time for running our operations there, so I never got to bed before about six and then slept for two or three hours. And the tea kept me going. And to tell you, a life without tea, would it be worth living? I'm not sure.

I made a compromise with the electrician. He said three cups a day. I kinda double that, and everything seems to be fine.

April 04, 2006

Apology Legislation

From a story in the Seattle Times:

Sorry may soon no longer be so hard to say in British Columbia.

The provincial government on Tuesday became the first in Canada to propose legislation that would allow people and organizations to apologize without risking liability for damages or other penalties. Under the measure, evidence of an apology would not be admissible in legal proceedings...

"The Apology Act is designed to promote the early and mutually beneficial resolution of disputes by allowing parties to express honest regret or remorse," [provincial Attorney General Wallace T.] Oppal said...

"It allows people to do what is natural, which is to say 'sorry' and get on with things," [Vancouver Liberal legislator Lorne] Mayencourt said, adding that similar laws have significantly reduced liability litigation in Australia and California. "You can't solve problems between two people without an apology."

What an excellent idea.

Sorry Works! is an organization promoting apology legislation, but with a focus on medical malpractice. If sorry works for doctors, shouldn't it work for the rest of the society as well? Shouldn't anyone be able to apologize without risking liability? In fact, some organizations already are, even without broad apology legislation:

In 2002 the National Law Journal reported that Toro, the lawnmower manufacturer, had adopted a revolutionary policy. After an accident was reported to the company, a product integrity specialist, not a lawyer, made contact with the injured party, expressed the company's condolences, and initiated an investigation to discover the cause of the accident. An engineer went with the product integrity specialist to look at the equipment that caused the injury, and where appropriate the company took steps to improve the equipment to prevent future injuries. In two-thirds of the cases, the product integrity specialist resolved the matter without legal intervention. Almost all remaining cases resolved in mediation. According to the article, Toro reported that for 1992 to 2000, with more than 900 product liability claims referred to the program, legal costs per claim (attorney fees and litigation expenses) fell 78 percent, from an average of $47,252 to $10,420. The average resolution amount for the period dropped 70 percent, from $68,368 for settlements and verdicts to $20,248.

April 03, 2006

Before Starbucks

Via Starbucks Gossip, an editorial from missoulian.com on concerns over a new Starbucks set to open in downtown Missoula, MT:

It's an encouraging reflection of how well things are going in Missoula these days that little else is causing as much teeth-gnashing among the local intelligentsia than the impending opening of a downtown Starbucks coffee shop...

Those small independent coffee shops and kiosks all over town that Starbucks now threatens? They owe their existence to Starbucks. It was Starbucks that got people to plunk down $2 for a cup of coffee and be glad about it. It the process it launched an entire industry -- made up, by the way, largely of little, independently owned espresso shops that took a whole lot of business away from the cafes and restaurants that once did a brisk business with 25-cent cups of drip coffee.

I hadn't thought about it this way. Before Starbucks, coffee was cheap and bad. So my San Francisco friends who get upset over Starbucks displacing local coffee houses are getting upset over Starbucks displacing its own imitators.

Today there are thousands and thousands of young people earning money in coffee-making jobs -- some with Starbucks, most elsewhere. These are jobs that didn't exist before Starbucks introduced Americans to the term "barista." These aren't high-paying jobs, but they're plentiful with flexible hours, and they help pay rent or tuition. Pre-Starbucks, making coffee was something a waitress or bus boy did in between their many other chores.
My son Duncan, who is a senior in high school, just got a job at the Starbucks located in the Super Target here in our town. He'll be a Target employee, not a Starbucks employee, so it won't be quite the same, but still, I was pleased to hear about his new gig. In the universe of jobs available to high school students, Starbucks is good duty -- decent pay, reasonable hours, interesting customers, and no slaving over a fry cooker or burger grill. It will be a solid part-time job for him over the summer and as he starts college this fall.

April 02, 2006

Features Aren't Products

Yesterday, I wrote:

I had dinner last week with a friend of mine who's a Sand Hill VC, who told me about seeing a business plan from one entrepreneur who had implemented a single feature -- the kind of thing a talented AJAX programmer could get up and running in a day or two by hooking into an existing Web service's API -- and was looking for full first-round funding. The feature wasn't a demo of a small slice of what he wanted to build with his funding -- he just wanted to build services around it. Around a feature.
What I didn't write was that late last year, within the span of a week, I had two friends e-mail me asking me what they thought about both the company mentioned above and another company building what appeared to be an identical product. I replied then just as I wrote earlier today, that it sounded like a feature to me, something that could be built on top of an existing Web service within days.

What triggered today's blog entry was reading a commentary by a well-known entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist saying that Web 2.0 companies are massively overhyped (often true) and that the term is basically used to get funding for ideas that don't deserve it (often true). This person then went on to list his investments -- one of which was the company described above, about which he says he's excited. So Web 2.0 is just hype, unless you're invested in it, in which case it's cool?

Everyone repeat after me: features aren't products.

How can you tell when something's a feature?

  • If it can be built to prototype stage by one programmer within 24 hours, it's a feature.
  • If it's completely reliant on an existing Web 2.0 service, and is valueless without that service, it's a feature.
  • If you can imagine it as a single menu item on an existing desktop software application, it's a feature.
  • If, when you show it to people, their typical reaction is, "How cute!" it's a feature, unless you're showing them a picture of puppies, which isn't a feature -- it's just a picture of puppies.
By the way, if someone reading this decides to write a business plan asking for $3 million to build a Web 2.0 service that uses AJAX to serve up pictures of puppies for users, please don't mention that you got the idea from me.

April 01, 2006

It's a [ Bad | Good ] Time to Start a Business

My friend Caterina Fake of Yahoo (née Ludicorp) has a list of six reasons why "it's a bad time to start a company":

  1. Everybody else is starting a company.
  2. Your competition just got funded too.
  3. Talent is scarce again.
  4. You can't operate in obscurity anymore.
  5. Web 2.0 isn't all that.
  6. There's too much going on.
David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals responds with a list of five reasons why "it's a great time to start a business":
  1. You don't need VC diesel to get your motor running.
  2. You can actually charge money for valuable services.
  3. You don't need mainstream tech to make a dent.
  4. You don't need to live in San Francisco to make it big.
  5. You don't need a swarm of worker bees to take off.
In fact, the two lists aren't incompatible at all. As David writes:
Yes, it's a bad time to start a company on VC diesel, using me-too technology, flaunting your non-existing goods, doing tagging because it's cool, and spending all your time partying. Guess what? That was never a good idea.
I had dinner last week with a friend of mine who's a Sand Hill VC, who told me about seeing a business plan from one entrepreneur who had implemented a single feature -- the kind of thing a talented AJAX programmer could get up and running in a day or two by hooking into an existing Web service's API -- and was looking for full first-round funding. The feature wasn't a demo of a small slice of what he wanted to build with his funding -- he just wanted to build services around it. Around a feature. Another entrepreneur came to him with a business plan competitive with an existing service that profitably serves up an interesting fraction of all Internet traffic. My friend asked the entrepreneur how he compared with his large, entrenched competitor. Hadn't heard of them.

Caterina is right. There are too many Web 2.0 companies in the Valley, competing for too few employees, building imitative services, with names out of Star Wars and no clear revenue plan.

Daniel is right, too. There's no excuse for building a me-too company when there are so many great services waiting to be implemented, services for which people will pay, and there's no overriding reason for building your company in the Valley when collaboration tools have come into their own and VCs are willing to invest out of their zip code.