October 9, 2005
@ 11:45 PM

John Montgomery has a blog post entitled Why Ning? where he asks

Not to complain or anything, but I don't get Ning. For the past fifteen minutes, I've been clickning through hotornot-like scenarios. Some of them are hysterical (try "Which driver has the smaller penis?") and some are mundane (Which is the better beer?). But I'm looking for why this is the next bit thning and can't figure it out.

The potential that Ning presents is counterbalanced by how hokey it is. On the one hand, it is an attempt to cash in on the "Web 2.0" hype by creating a build-your-own-web2.0-website toolkit in much the same way build-your-own-eCommerce-website toolkits were popular a few years ago. I imagine the scenario outlined in Dave Winer's post Editorial: Ning harkens back to 1999 is closer to the truth than we suspect.

On the other hand, Ning points to the next stage in the evolution of building mash ups and web platforms. Forrester Research's Charlene Li has a post entitled The Roll-Your-Own Mash-up Challenge where she writes

Im at Web 2.0, which is just a great conference. One of the hot discussions is around mash-ups (def) which combines the functionality from two different applications into a new one. One of the best ones is housingmaps.com, which combines apartment rentals etc., from Craigs List and Google Maps.

To me, this is the next step in the "social computing", Web 2.0, or whatever-you-call-it evolution. First, we had personalized content a la RSS-generated content on My Yahoo! At the same time, widgets, which are now hitting their stride, gave us our own customized set of applications on the desktop

The next step now is creating customized applications that can be paired with the content of our choice - yup, mash-ups. (I wrote about this previously in the context of widgets.) But to do that today, you have to know Javascript, Flash, and AJAX. I'm looking forward to the day when there will be simple interfaces into these APIs so that consumers like me (OK, Ill admit, Im a pretty geeky, techno consumer) can create our own mash-ups.

This is because I think were just at the very tip of the revolution. Imagine if we could tap into the collective creativity of thousands, millions of consumers. How many times have you said to your self, "Wouldnt be nice if I could just." And heres the killer part - what if some built a platform for consumers to do this, and then enabled a way to SHARE those innovations? Some of them would float to the top (thanks to ratings, tagging, etc.) and you could actually start monetizing them. Now thats tapping into the power of consumers!

So heres my challenge - what mash-ups would YOU create? Add them to the comments below - Im curious to see what all you bright minds can come up with!

I personally think Ning is ahead of its time. What we need today is more web sites turning themselves into web platforms as well as business models for both the web platforms AND the developers building on these web platforms. As an industry we're still muddling our way through at this point. Once we've have an ecosystem of web platforms as well as sustainable business models for the various offerings, the next step is how to broaden the target of these platforms outside the traditional developer market. This is similar to the same way that Microsoft brought programming against COM components to the masses back in the 1990s with Visual Basic except this time the platform is the entire Web and not just one vendor's operating system.

That's why Ning is cool.


Categories: Social Software

Mini-Microsoft has a blog post on middle management at Middle Managers, Bureaucracy, and No Birds at Microsoft where he offers pointers to some counter arguments to his regular bashing of bureaucracy and middle management at Microsoft. The various linked posts and some of the comments do a good job of presenting an alternate perspective to the various complaints people make against bureaucracy and middle management.

Derek Denny-Brown, a friend of mine who just left Microsoft, has a blog post entitled The curse of Middle management where he writes

I had a long discussion with a friend of mine about Longhorn aka Windows Vista. He had just caught up with news and some of the recent interviews with Jim Allchin. He knew I had some involvement with the OS divisions, and was just generally curious for my perspective 2 weeks out of the company.

In my view, a lot of the problems at Microsoft stem from bad middle management. Microsoft has built up a whole ecology of managers, who are at least as concerned with their career as they are with making good decisions. I've interacted more than I like to admit. The effect is that upper management doesn't hear a clear story about what is really going on. I think the phrase I used was that they 'massage the message'. Combine that with long release cycles and lack of accountability falls out as an inevitability.

One of the reasons I left is because I just don't see any way out of that mess. I am humbled by MiniMicrosoft and his determination to be part of the solution.

I tend to agree with Derek about lack of accountability being a problem here. One thing I've noticed about bad middle managers is that (i) it is almost impossible to get them out of their positions and (ii) all it takes is one or two to seriously derail a project. I've personally been surprised at how many bad middle managers just keep on ticking at Microsoft. It seems it is a lot easier to see individual contributors or even VPs pushed out for incompetence than middle management (Dev Managers, General Managers, Product Unit Managers, Group Program Managers, etc).

It is also surprising how much damage, a well-placed yet broken middle management cog can be in the smooth functioning of the corprorate machine. I've lost count of the amount of times I've asked some member of a team that creates a much reviled project why they product sucked so much and the response would be "our test/dev/general manager didn't see fixing those problems as a high priority". As Derek states, it is even worse when you get the ones that present a false impression to upper management about how things are going. 

Michael Brundage also covered some of this in his essay on Working at Microsoft which is excerpted below

+ Company Leadership

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer get most of the press, but it's an open secret that all of the division heads (and their staff, and their staff) are top-notch. I'm (happily) oblivious to how that circle operates, so I can only judge them on their results.

Given that Microsoft's been convicted of monopolistic practices, it may shock you when I say that Microsoft's upper management strikes me as very ethical. They talk about ethical behavior all the time, and as far as I've seen, lead by example. Maybe I'm being naive, but I find Microsoft's upper management to be very trustworthy. They're also thinking very far ahead, and doing a good job getting the information they need to make solid decisions.

Microsoft's leaders are also very generous, and frequently encourage the rest of us to make charitable donations (both money and time) a priority. Giving is a large part of Microsoft's corporate culture.

It's refreshing to work at a company where you can trust that the upper echelon is smart, hardworking, and making right decisions. I don't have to worry that my general manager or vice-president will drive our division (or company) into the ground through incompetence or greed. Microsoft's no Enron or WorldCom.

- Managers

In contrast, most of the middle management should be tossed.

Did I mention I've had six or seven managers in five years? I've only changed jobs twice the others were "churn" caused by reorganizations or managers otherwise being reassigned. In fact, in the month between when I was hired and when I started, the person who was going to be my manager (we'd already had several phone/email conversations) changed! It's seven if you count that, six if you don't.

None of these managers were as good as my best manager at NASA. Of the six-seven managers I've had, I'd relish working for (or with) only two of them again. Two were so awful that if they were hired into my current organization (even on another team), I'd quit on the spot. The other two-three were "nngh" -- no significant impact on my life one way or another. I'd love to think this is some kind of fluke, that I've just been unlucky, but many other Microsoft employees have shared similar experiences with me.

I think part of the problem is that Microsoft doesn't generally hire software developers for their people- or leadership-skills, but all dev leads were developers first. Part of the problem is also that (unlike some companies that promote incompetence) good leads are usually promoted into higher positions quickly, so the companies best managers rise to the top. Consequently, the lower ranks are filled with managers who either have no interest in advancing up the management chain (which is fine) or else are below-average in their management skills (which is not).

But it's more complex than this. At Microsoft, many managers still contribute as individuals (e.g., writing code) and are then judged on that performance (which is mostly objective) as much or more than they're judged on their leadership performance (which is mostly subjective). Because individual developers have so much freedom and responsibility, it's easy and typical to give individuals all the credit or blame for their performance, without regard to the manager's impact. Conversely, managers' performance often does not translate into tangible effects for their teams (other than the joy or misery of working for them). For example, I can still get a great review score even if my manager is terrible. I think these factors contribute to management skills being undervalued.

Microsoft also suffers from a phenomenon that I've seen at other companies. I describe this as the "personality cult," wherein one mid-level manager accumulates a handful of loyal "fans" and moves with them from project to project. Typically the manager gets hired into a new group, and (once established) starts bringing in the rest of his/her fanclub. Once one of these "cults" is entrenched, everyone else can either give up from frustration and transfer to another team, or else wait for the cult to eventually leave (and hope the team survives and isn't immediately invaded by another cult). I've seen as many as three cults operating simultaneously side-by-side within a single product group. Rarely, a sizeable revolt happens and the team kicks the cult out. Sometimes, the cult disintegrates (usually taking the team with it). Usually, the cult just moves on to the Next Big Thing, losing or gaining a few members at each transfer.

I think these "cults" are a direct result of Microsoft's review system, in which a mid-level manager has significant control over all the review scores within a 100+ person group (so it's in your best interest to get on his/her good side), and conversely needs only a fraction of that group's total support to succeed as a manager (so it's in his/her best interest to cultivate a loyal fanclub to provide that support). The cult gives the manager the appearance of broad support, and makes the few people who speak out against him/her look like sour grapes unrepresentative of a larger majority. After a string of successes, the manager is nearly invincible.

Fortunately, these managers are unlikely to move further up the ranks, due to the inherent deficiences in their characters (which are usually visible to upper management and enough to prevent their advancement, but not so severe as to warrant firing them).

These "personality cults" always negatively impact the group eventually (while they're there and/or when they leave), but counterintuitively sometimes these personality cults have a large positive initial effect. Many successful Microsoft products have come into existence only through the actions of such personality cults. Some of these products even survived after the personality cult left for the Next Big Thing.

I totally agree with Michael's analysis. Like Derek, I'm unsure as to how one would go about reversing this trend. However I definitely think the way we assess accountability of folks in [middle and executive] management needs an overhaul.


Categories: Life in the B0rg Cube

October 9, 2005
@ 08:18 PM

Below is a mishmash of thoughts that crossed my mind while at the Web 2.0 conference last week.

  • If you attended the conference you'd have gotten the impression that "web 2.0" isn't about technology or about social effects, it is about money. Specifically "web 2.0" is a meme that tries to describe the characteristics of the new generation of startups that have gained success either by IPOing (e.g. Google) or being bought by large companies (e.g. Flickr). The targets of this meme are VCs (to tell them what kinds of companies to invest in), startups (to tell them what kinds of companies to emulate) and big companies (to tell them what kinds of companies to buy). The fact that there multiple panelists were VCs is also very telling.

  • Google is the new Microsoft. Several times during the conference, it was brought up that Google has replaced Microsoft as the company that Silicon Valley companies love to hate because it enters nascent markets and dominates them (e.g. there was visible negative reactions by some audience members to the announcement of Google Reader

  • Microsoft isn't on anyone's radar in this audience except as an example of an aging dinosaur or the butt of some joke. This is consistent with the impressions I've seen at other conferences such as ETech and Gnomedex.

  • Just like in the dotbomb days of 1999/2000, most "web 2.0" companies don't have a business model besides getting bought by a big company. The new crutch many of them lean on is Google AdSense when queried about how they plan to be profitable.

  • Sun Microsystems is living on borrowed time. Their business strategy now seems to be one giant Hail Mary play.

  • The folks at Yahoo! Inc totally get it. If I was at Google I'd probably spend as much time worrying about them as I do about Microsoft.

  • Meebo reminds me a lot of the dotbomb days. It's basically an AJAX version of Trillian.  Building an AJAX version of Trillian is cool from a geeky perspective but I honestly don't see them lasting long except if they get bought by some bigger player like Google, Yahoo!, MSN or maybe even Trillian.


Categories: Current Affairs

The panle on what teens want was hosted by Safa Rashtchy who asked questions of 5 teenagers. There were three males and two females.

Earlier in the day, I was chatting with Mike and I pointed out that all through th econference I hadn't heard mention of the kind of Web apps that excite the younger generation. I hadn't heard MySpace mentioned once, and the only times instant messaging came up was in the context of Skype being sold to eBay for $4 billion. The Web 2.0 conference seemed dedicated to applications mostly of interest to the twenty five and over crowd.

This changed during the session when Safa Rashtchy questioned the teenagers about various aspects of their computer usage. The notes summary below is mainly from memory since I didn't take notes during this session.

Three out of five of the teenagers used MySpace. One of them said he spends all his free times waiting for comments to his space. Another teenager said she had stopped using MySpace when she went to college because it was too "high school" and now she used Facebook which was more college oriented.

One of the teenagers said he spent up to $50 a month on ring tones. Four of them had iPods and all of them rarely [if ever] paid for music.  It seemed thay had all tried the iTunes Music Store at one time or the other but eventually succumbed to the lure of file sharing networks.

They all used AOL Instant Messenger and one other IM client. Two used MSN Messenger mainly because they had friends outside the US (Mexico & Brazil) and MSN Messenger is very popular outside the US. One or two used Yahoo! Messenger. None of them used Skype and in fact they sounded like they had never heard of it. They didn't seem interested

They all used Google for search.

Two of them had used eBay but worried about being ripped off online.  

When asked what kind of applications they'd like to see on the Web. They asked for "more free stuff" and "get rid of spyware".

The most amusing part of the session was when Safa was trying to find out what eCommerce sites they'd visit. He first asked where they'd buy a cellular phone and each kid said they'd go to the website of their current cellular service provider. Then Safa tried another tack and asked where they'd buy a CD player online and the first kid went "CD Player?" with the same tone of voice and expression on his face I'd have if asked where I could buy a record player online. The audience found this hilarious.

PS: This panel is almost identical to a similar one at the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium 2005 held earlier this year. MSR has a video of that panel available online.


Categories: Trip Report

After lunch on friday, there was a surprise session. John Battelle announced that he was going to have a conversation with Sergey Brin. Throughtout the interview Sergey came off as very affable and it's easy to see how he can tell his employees that their corporate motto is "Do No Evil" without them questioning its naiveté.  

John Battelle started off by asking "It's been a long strange trip to where you are today, how's your head?". Sergey responded that they were very fortunate to have started at Stanford. Being in Silicon valley turned out to be very helpful and influential to the course his life has taken today. When he and Larry first started Google they had planned to open source the Google code. The main reason they decided to start a company was because they needed money to purchase the significant computing resources that the Google search engine needed.

John Battelle then asked Sergey to respond to Terry Semel's comments from the previous day that Google is an extraordinary search engine but as a portal they probably rank as number 4. Sergey responded by jokingly stating that although their cafeteria is nice and they keep trying to improve the quality of the food, they aren't in the top 10 or top 100 restuarants in the world. This elicited loud laughter from the audience.

John followed up by asking Sergey what he thought of the comments by Yusuf Mehdi of Microsoft that they are now the underdog.  Sergey replied that he is very excited that Google is considered a leader in terms of technology. He knows they may not be number 1 when it comes to big business deals or creating huge platforms like Microsoft but they are definitely a technology leader.

John then asked Sergey whether he felt any pressure due to their high share of the Web search market and high stock market valuation. Sergey said he wasn't a valuation expert so he couldn't comment on that. As for high market share in the search market, he is glad that so many people use their search engine based on word of mouth. It shows they have built a quality product. They have some promotional partnerships but for the most part their market share has grown due to the great search experience they provide.

The next question from John was whether Google would keep the clean look on their search page. The response from Sergey was that they will continue with that look on their front page but there will arise the need for other kinds of products from Google. For example, GMail arose out of the need for a better user experience around Web mail. Not only have they improved the web mail experience for GMail users but they have also bettered the lot of users of competing services since competitive responses have increased the mail quota size on various services by 100 times or more.

John began his next question by bringing up a topic that had been an undercurrent in various conversations at the conference. Google has become the new Microsoft, in that they are the 800 lb. gorilla that enters markets and takes them over from existing players. John gave the specific example that the newly launched Google Reader has now scared vendors of web-based RSS readers. Sergey responded by pointing out that when Google enters markets it usually leads to good things for existing parties in the market because small companies get bought and new companies get funded. He used GMail as an example of the entrance of Google into a market leading to a flurry of positive M&A activity. Secondly, Sergey stated that some of their offerings are intended to benefit the Web at large. He said they created AdSense as a way for Web publishers to make money and stay in business. Google had become concerned that a lot of web publishers were going out of business which meant less content on the Web which was bad for their search engine.

The questions from John Battelle ended and a Q&A session with the audience began.

The first question asked was about the rumored office suite being developed by Google. Just like Ray Ozzie and Jonathan Schwartz had done when asked the question, Sergey said he didn't think that it made sense to simply port outdated ideas like the mini-computer to the Web. The audience laughed at the comparison of Microsoft Office to the mini-computer. Sergey did say that Google would likely be creating new kinds of applications that solved similar problems to what people currently use traditional Office suites to solve.

The next question from a member of the audience was whether Sergey thought that click fraud was a big problem for Google. Sergey felt that click feaud wasn't a big problem for Google. He said that like credit card companies they have lots of anti-fraud protections. Additionally their customers calculate their ROI on using Google's services and know they get value. Finally, he added that the algorithms that power their advertising engine are fairly complex and not easy to game.

Continuing with the "Google as the new Microsoft" meme, the next question from a member of the audience was what markets did Google not plan to enter in the near future so VCs could tell where was safe to invest. Sergey joked that he thought the various markets entered were good investments. His serious response was that Google is a very bottom up company, and their engineers usually end up deciding what becomes products instead of directives from the executives. John Battelle then jumped in and asked if the company wasn't being directed in its recent offerings then how come most of the offerings seem to be echoing the offerings found in traditional portal sites. Sergey's response was that it was probably because Google's engineers wanted to build better products than the existing offerings in the market place.

I asked Sergey that given Terry Semel's comments that search only accounts for about 5% of page views on the Web while content consumption/creation and communications applications made up 40% of user page views each, what was Google's vision for communications and content related applications. Sergey said that Google definitely plans to improve the parts of the Web where people spend a lot of their time which is part of the motivation for them shipping GMail.


Categories: Trip Report

The second From the Labs was presented by Usama Fayyad and Prabhakar Raghavan.

The presentation started by listing a number of Yahoo!'s recent innovative product releases such as Yahoo! 360o, Yahoo! MyWeb 2.0, Yahoo! Mail beta, Yahoo! Music
and Yahoo! Messenger with voice. Yahoo! launches 100s of products a year and recently started spending more resources on research. They want to create a science to explain the various characterisitic of the Web which they can use to build innovative products.

So far they have launched the Yahoo! Tech Buzz Game which was launched at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference earlier this year. It is a fantasy prediction market for high-tech products, concepts, and trends. They also demoed Yahoo! Mindset which enables you to sort search results by your intent. The example scenario on the website is being able to sort search results for terms like "HDTV" based on whether you are doing research or trying to buy something. This is something Robert Scoble was recently asking for in his blog as the next generation in search. This is very impressive if they can actually scale it out to be more than demoware

Finally they showed off an application called Tagline which was a visual representation of popular photos and tagging trends in Flickr over time. It was a very flashy looking application but I couldn't see what the practical uses could be.


Categories: Trip Report

The final From the Labs was presented by Alan Eustace and Jason Shellen.

Alan began by stating that google is focused on innovation which is why the have small teams [to promote spontaneity] and give their 20% time to allow engineers free to pursue projects they are passionate about. They demoed two recent efforts

The first was an image recognition engine that could identify the sex of people by their faces using machine learning. They had trained it with over 2 billion images and it's accuracy had gotten up to 90%. The long term goal is to enable scenarios such as 'identify the people in this picture' and then other pictures with this person in them'. That would be very cool if they can actually get that to work correctly.

The second project that was demoed was the Google Reader. Actually, it wasn't really demoed. It was announced. Like everyone else I tried to use it by navigating to the site but it was so abominably slow, I gave up.


Categories: Trip Report

The first From the Labs was presented by Gene Becker.

Gene started off by asking how many people in the audience were growing board with the traditional computing interface of keyboard, mouse and monitor. He called the current computing interface a kazoo when we really need a virtuoso violin. HP Labs is fovused on utility and ubiqitous computing. The Web has become increasingly social, diverse, mobile, creative, experiential, contextual, and physical. HP Labs is designing software and hardware for this new world.

He showed a number of interesting developments from HP Labs such as physical hyperlinks, media scapes - digital landscapes overlayed over physical locations by combining gps + wireless + audio + ipaqs, the misto table - an interactive digital coffee table, and virgil - a context aware extensible media driven browser. Gene also mentioned that HP has been making strides in utility computing by renting out their grid networks to animators such as DreamWorks SKG. Their grid has also enabled independent animators to have access to large-scale render farms that would traditionally be out of their price range.


Categories: Trip Report

I attended the discussion on open versus closed models which was hosted by Danny Rimer  Jeff Barr, Toni Schneider and Sam Schwartz.  

Tim O'Reilly began the session by talking about openness and how this is a central theme of Web 2.0. However he pointed out that at the end of the day to have value a company must own something. He then asked the various members of the panel what their company owned.

Jeff Barr said that although Amazon has open APIs they do own their customer database, the buying experience, as well as the procurement and shipping process. Toni Schneider responded that Yahoo! wants to own the user's trust so that users have no qualms about placing their data in Yahoo!'s services. Tim then asked if Yahoo!'s users could export the data they have in Yahoo!'s services. Toni responded that there were ways to get data out of Yahoo!'s services and this was mostly provided based on customer demand. For example, one can export photos uploaded to Flickr but this reduces their worth since the user loses the network effects from being part of the Flickr ecosystem.

Tim's next target was Danny Rimer who he asked whether Skype wasn't as proprietary as AOL Instant Messenger since it's IM protocol wasn't based on open standards like Jabber. Danny responded that although the IM protocol is closed they did have a client-side API. He also stated that the main reason the VOIP protocol isn't more open is that they are still working out the kinks. However he did note that the Skype API hasn't gotten a lot of traction.  

Tim O'Reilly then asked the participant where they resided on the continuum of control versus openness. Sam Schwartz mentioned that there was a delicate balance between the old school and new school of thought at Comcast. Toni said Yahoo! believes in opening up their platform which is why they created YSDN, however this doesn't mean throwing things over the wall without support. Tim O'Reilly stated that it seemed Yahoo! seemed more intent on controlling things since the primary list of Yahoo! Maps mashups is hosted on a Yahoo! site while the primary list of Google Maps mashups is not hosted on a Google owned website. So it seems Google's API efforts are more community driven than Yahoo!'s. Toni responded by saying that YSDN is a good first step for Yahoo!. They aren't just about enabling people to put data in their system but also enable them to get it out as well.

As someone who has had to drive developer efforts at Microsoft, first for the XML team and now at MSN, it is a very delicate balance between enabling the community and dominating it. Unlike Tim, I interpret Yahoo!'s efforts as highlighting the efforts of their developer community and also I'd point out that Google does the same as well. It seems weird to criticize companies for highlighting the efforts of people using their platform.

Tim the asked what VC's like him were looking for in today's startups. Danny replied that he is now primarily interested in companies for geographies outside the United States such as China and Isreal. Sam responded that Comcast is looking for people and services who used a lot of broadband resources.

Tim followed up by asking about business models, it seemed to him that the goal of a lot of startups such as Toni's Oddpost was to be bought by a big company. Toni agreed that a lot of people were building applications without a business model. it was also argued by the group that we need better business models for Web 2.0 besides affiliate programs like those used by Amazon and eBay. Danny argued that it isn't a bad thing if what ends up happening is that new startups end up being fuel for innovation at big companies by being purchased. My assumption is that since he's a VC he gets paid either way. ;)


Categories: Trip Report

The session on Open Source and Web 2.0 was an interview of Mitchell Baker and Jonathan Schwartz by Tim O'Reilly.

By the end of this talk I was pretty stunned by some of the things Jonathan Schwartz said. He sounded like a dot bomb CEO from 1999. If I had any SUNW stock, I definitely would have ditched it after the talk.

Tim O'Reilly began the session by stating that the title of the talk was misleading. He asked for a show of hands how many people used Linux and then for how many people used Google. A lot more hands showed up for Google users than Linux users. Tim said that while people tend to limit their idea of Linux applications to desktop software like the Gimp, Google is probably the most popular Linux app. So the discussion is really about relationship between Open Source and Web 2.0.

Tim began the interview by asking Jonathan Schwartz what he felt was fresh about Sun's Open Source strategy. Jonathan said that the key thing behind Open Source's rise isn't the availability of source code but because it is available for free (as in beer). This is what is so cool about Google, they provide their services online for free which increases their reach. Sun is embracing this notion to increase the usage of its software.

The then asked Jonathan to talk about Sun's grid computing efforts. Jonathan said they recently moved to a self service model for their computing grid. Customers no longer need to sign contracts up front, instead customers just need to go to a webpage on Sun's website and have their credit card ready. Tim O'Reilly commented that customer self service is one of the pillars of Web 2.0. Since Sun moved to this model they have sold out their grid services, primarily to Texas oil & gas companies wanting to run simulations on about Hurricane Rita. Sun's goal is for their grid to target the long tail in which case Stanford college students working on their Ph.D's and the like may become their primary customers.  

The previous night Tim O'Reilly had asked Ray Ozzie if he felt new revenue models such as ad-supported Web-based software would make as much money as old revenue models such as selling shrinkwrapped software. Tim continued with this theme by asking Jonathan if he thought that Sun's new revenue model of renting out their grid would bring in as much money as their old model of selling hardware. Jonathan said their internal models show that the grid business will be very profitable for them. At this point Mitchell Baker jumped into the conversation to add that the old models currently suffer from needing a control structure which eats into revenue. Controls such as DRM, anti-piracy measures, EULAs, etc add cost to existing business models and once we move to more open models based on customer self service the savings will be huge.

Tim then asked Mitchell whether she thought that Firefox's trump card was the fact that anyone can modify the application to meet their needs since it is open source and customizable. Mitchell replied that it was less about source code availability and more about the culture of participation within the Firefox community.  

Tim then asked Mitchell if she felt that Greasemonkey would be widely adopted. Mitchell said she thought that would be extremely unlikely. She pointed out that the average user already is confused by the difference between their web browser and a web page let alone adding something as complex as Greasemonkey into the mix. I have to agree with Mitchell here, I recently found out that a surprising number of end users navigate the Web by entering URLs into search boxes on various web search engines instead of using the address bar of their browser. The web is already too confusing to these users let alone 'remixing' the Web using applications like Greasemonkey.

A number of times while he was speaking, Tim O'Reilly gave the impression that extensions like Greasemonkey are examples of Firefox's superiority as a browser platform. I completely disagree with this notion, and not only because Internet Explorer has Greasemonkey clones like Trixie and Turnabout. The proof is in the fact that the average piece of Windows spyware actually consists of most of the core functionality of Greasemonkey. The big difference is that Firefox has a community of web developers and hobbyists who build cool applications for it while most of the folks extending Internet Explorer in the Windows world are writing spyware and other kinds of malware.

It isn't the availability of the source that's important. It's the community around the application.

The next question was for Jonathan and it was about the recent announcement between Sun and Google. Jonathan's started by stating that although many people wanted the announcement to be about an AJAX Office suite that wasn't on the horizon. He said the deal was about distribution and communities which are very important. He pointed out that there are a number of widely distributed and near ubiqitous platforms such as Flash and Java which aren't Open Source. Having a wide distribution network with Java deployed on many desktops meant that one could automatically download new applications such as a VOIP client or Toolbar application on any desktop with Java or StarOffice installed. Mitchell jumped in to point out that well-distributed but lousy products don't work. She went on to add that the new distribution model is no longer about being distributed with the OS but instead is powered by word of mouth on the Web. Firefox has gotten 90 million downloads with no traditional distribution mechanisms.

Tim asked Mitchell whether there would be a return to the browser wars of the nineties where Netscape and Microsoft one-upped each other with incompatible, proprietary new features on a regular basis. Mitchell said there were two things wrong with the browser wars in the nineties; the war itself which led to incompatibilities for web developers and Netscape's defeat which led to stagnation of the Web browser. Mitchell said that Firefox will innovate with new features but they plan to ensure that these features will not be incompatible with other browsers or at least will degrade well in them.

Tim asked Jonathan what was behind the thinking that led him to becoming one of the most senior regular bloggers in the technology industry? Jonathan replied that he believes very strongly in community. He felt that developers don't buy things, they join movements. In this case, Sun's transparency is a competitive weapon. This is especially true when they can't compete with $500 million to $1 billion marketing budgets of companies like Microsoft and IBM.

Tim asked whether Jonathan's the blog is always transparent and he never attempts to mislead or provoke. Jonathan said that he definitely provokes but never misdirects. Even then the legal department at Sun doesn't read his entries before he posts them although a bunch of lawyers now have him on their speed dial and often ask him to include disclaimers in his posts.

Tim then asked Mitchell whether the large number of Google employees working on Firefox caused problems since the company is notoriously secretive. Mitchell responded by pointing out that there are people from lots of different companies working on Firefox, it's just that the Google folks get the most press. All the Google folks are still active on the core of the browser and they know that anything that goes into the core must be open for discussion. She stated that if they began to be secretive about code that would be shipping in the core of the browser then they'd be asked to put those changes in extensions instead.

The questions ended and the Q & A session began. I asked a question each of Mitchell and Jonathan.

My question for Mitchell was that given that the rise of AJAX is primarily because Firefox copied the XMLHttpRequest from Internet Explorer, was there a policy of keeping abreast of innovations in IE. "Not always", was Mitchell's answer. On the one hand they did copy XMLHttpRequest but on the other hand they didn't clone ActiveX even though they took a lot of heat for not doing so. given all the security woes with ActiveX she felt that in retrospect they had made the right decision.

My question for Jonathan was why he dismissed the idea of an AJAX Office suite earlier during the talk. Jonathan said he thought that in some cases not every application transferred well to the Web as an AJAX application. He gave examples of Firefox and Photoshop as applications that wouldn't make sense to build as AJAX applications.

Another member of the audience asked what Sun had learned from Netscape's open sourcing of Mozilla in their efforts. Jonathan replied that everything Sun produces from now on will be Open Source. He encouraged companies to join the Open Source community since he saw no down side. His goal was to get as wide a distribution as possible and then figure out how to give value to their shareholders after that.


Categories: Trip Report