July 12, 2007
@ 05:32 PM

Before starting this review I should probably point out that I'm a Transformers fan. Every car I've ever owned has either had an autobot or decepticon insignia on the bumper and I have most of the seasons for the original TV show on DVD. That said, when I first saw the trailers for Transformers I expected the movie to suck because it seemed like there were too many people and not enough robots, boy was I wrong. The movie freaking rocked. The movie had it all; comedy (the kid's parents being typical annoying nosy parents), romance (nerd meets hot girl and impresses her with his cool car), action (soldiers shooting guns, giant robots shooting guns and Optimus Prime vs. Megatron), tragedy (***spoiler deleted***) , product placement (GMC trucks, eBay1), quotes from the cartoon ("Autobots...roll out!" ,"Megatron must be stopped...no matter cost!", "You've failed me yet again, Starscream") and foreshadowing of the sequel. At two and a half hours I thought the movie would be too long but it didn't seem that way at all. I loved it, my fiancée loved it and so did the kids. Definitely the most fun movie I've seen this summer. 

I saw it on Tuesday evening and the theater was packed. This may have been because of the current heat wave forcing people out of their homes and into any air-conditioned building they could find or it could have been because the favorable reviews have gotten people curious about the movie. I suspect it was a little of both.

Rating: **** out of *****

1Is it me or does it seem like there is a crazy amount of product placement from online services these days? In the past month I've seen eBay featured prominently in movies like 40-year Old Virgin and Transformers. Songs about meeting girls which heavily feature MySpace from mainstream acts like Gym Class Heroes and T-Pain. I've seen Google used repeatedly in movies like The Holiday and Knocked Up...even crazier was when Spider-Man unmasked himself as Peter Parker at a press conference in The Amazing Spider-Man issue #533 then in the very next panel there was Google product placement. The only Microsoft mentions I've seen in pop culture were some teens playing Gears of War in Live Free or Die Hard but the name of the game or the XBox are never mentioned. Our marketing guys have some 'splaining to do.


Categories: Movie Review

In my previous post I mentioned the various problems with relying on incubation teams to bring innovation into a product or organization. The obvious follow up question is that if carving off some subset of your team to work on the "next big thing" while the rest of your employees work on the boring bread and butter product(s) that pay the bills doesn't work, how do you revitalize an organizations products and make them innovative?

My advice is to look at companies within your industry that are considered innovative and see what you can learn from them. One such company is Google which is widely considered to be the most innovative company on Earth by many in the software industry. A number of Google's competitors have several internal groups whose job is to "incubate ideas" and foster innovation yet it seems that Google is the company most associated with innovation in the online space. For example, Yahoo! has Brickhouse and Yahoo! Research while Microsoft has Microsoft Research, Live Labs, Search Labs, and Windows Live Core among others. 

Below are some of the ways technology companies can follow their example without having to resort to some of their more eccentric practices like free food prepared by gourmet chefs and on-site massages, dry cleaning and oil changes to motivate your employees.

  1. Everyone is Responsible for Innovation: There are several ways Google has created a culture where every technical employee feels that innovation is expected of them. First, there is the strong preference for people who have a track record of producing original ideas such as Ph.D's [who are required to produce original research which advances the state of the art as part of their thesis] and founders of Open Source projects (e.g. Spencer Kimball (GIMP), Aaron Boodman (Greasemonkey), and Guido Van Rossum (Python)). Secondly, employees are strongly encouraged but not required to spend 20% of their time on projects of their own design which are intended to benefit the company and/or its customers. Not only does this give employees an outlet for their creativity in a productive way, working on multiple projects at once gives developers a broader world view which makes it less likely that they will develop tunnel vision with regards to their primary project. Finally, Google has a single code base for all of their projects and developers are strongly encouraged to fix bugs or add features to any Google product they want even if they are not on the product team. This attitude encourages the cross pollination of ideas across the company and encourages members of the various product teams to keep an open mind about ideas from outside their particular box.

  2. Good Ideas Often Come from Outside your Box: A lot of people in the software industry often criticize Microsoft for its practice of innovation through acquisition and have compiled lists of Microsoft's innovations that were actually acquisitions but the fact is that the road to success lies in being able to spot good ideas whether they come from within your company or without. Google is no exception to this rule as the following table of acquisitions and the Google products they resulted in shows

    Acquired Company/ProductGoogle Product
    Applied Semantics Google AdSense
    Kaltix Google Personalized Search
    Keyhole Corp. Google Earth
    Where2 Google Maps
    ZipDash Google Ride Finder
    2Web Technologies Google Spreadsheets
    Upstartle Google Docs
    Urchin Software Corporation + Measure Map Google Analytics
    Zenter + Tonic Systems Unreleased Google Web-based Presentation application

    As you can see from the above list, a lot of Google's much lauded products were actually the products of acquisitions as opposed to the results of internal incubation. Being able to conquer the NIH mentality is important if one wants to ensure that the products that exhibit the best ideas are produced by your company because quite often they won't originate from your company.  

  3. Force Competition to Face the Innovator's Dilemma: One reason that a number of Google's products are considered innovative is that they challenge a number of pre-existing notions about software in certain categories. For example, when Gmail [a product of an engineer's 20% time spent on side projects] was first launched it was a shock to see a free Web-based email service qive users 1 gigabyte of free storage. A key reason that this was a shock was because most free Web-based email services gave users less than a hundredth of that amount of storage. This was because the business model for free email was primarily to give users a crappy user experience (2MB of storage, obnoxious advertising, etc) and then charge them for upgrading to a decent experience. Thus there was little incentive for the major players in the free email business to give free users lots of storage or a rich online experience because isn't how the business worked. Another example, that is likely to be a classic case study of the innovator's dilemma in the years to come is Google Docs & Spreadsheets vs. Microsoft Office. From the Wikipedia article on disruptive technology

    In low-end disruption, the disruptor is focused initially on serving the least profitable customer, who is happy with a good enough product. This type of customer is not willing to pay premium for enhancements in product functionality. Once the disruptor has gained foot hold in this customer segment, it seeks to improve its profit margin. To get higher profit margins, the disruptor needs to enter the segment where the customer is willing to pay a little more for higher quality. To ensure this quality in its product, the disruptor needs to innovate. The incumbent will not do much to retain its share in a not so profitable segment, and will move up-market and focus on its more attractive customers. After a number of such encounters, the incumbent is squeezed into smaller markets than it was previously serving. And then finally the disruptive technology meets the demands of the most profitable segment and drives the established company out of the market.

    As someone who now maintains several wedding lists in collaboration with his future spouse I can say without a doubt that universal access to our files from any computer without my fiancèe or I having to install or purchase any software is head and shoulders beyond the solution provided by traditional desktop productivity suites. In addition, it is quite clear that Google will move to address the gaps in time (see Google Gears) so we are likely on the cusp of a multi-billion dollar software category undergo upheaval in the next few years.

    The main lesson here is Change the Game. Do not play by the rules that favor your competitors.

The key thing for people wanting to learn from Google's practices isn't to follow each of Google's specific policies but instead to understand the philosophy behind their practices then apply those philosophies in your specific context.


Marc Andreessen (whose blog is on fire!) has a rather lengthy but excellent blog post entitled The Pmarca Guide to Big Companies, part 2: Retaining great people which has some good advice on how big companies can retain their best employees. The most interesting aspects of his post were some of the accurate observations he had about obviously bad ideas that big companies implement which are intended to retain their best employees but end up backfiring. I thought these insights were valuable enough that they are worth repeating.

Marc writes

Don't create a new group or organization within your company whose job is "innovation". This takes various forms, but it happens reasonably often when a big company gets into product trouble, and it's hugely damaging.

Here's why:

First, you send the terrible message to the rest of the organization that they're not supposed to innovate.

Second, you send the terrible message to the rest of the organization that you think they're the B team.

That's a one-two punch that will seriously screw things up.

This so true. Every time I've seen some executive or management higher up create an incubation or innovation team within a specific product group, it has lead to demoralization of the people who have been relegated as the "B team" and bad blood between both teams which eventually leads to in-fighting. All of this might be worth it if these efforts are successful but as Clayton Christensen pointed out in his interview in Business Week on the tenth anniversary of "The Innovator's Dilemma"

People come up with lots of new ideas, but nothing happens. They get very disillusioned. Never does an idea pop out of a person's head as a completely fleshed-out business plan. It has to go through a process that will get approved and funded. You're not two weeks into the process until you realize, "gosh, the sales force is not going to sell this thing," and you change the economics. Then two weeks later, marketing says they won't support it because it doesn't fit the brand, so we've got to change the whole concept.

All those forces act to make the idea conform to the company's existing business model, not to the marketplace. And that's the rub. So the senior managers today, thirsty for innovation, stand at the outlet of this pipe, see the dribbling out of me-too innovation after me-too innovation, and they scream up to the back end, "Hey, you guys, get more innovative! We need more and better innovative ideas!" But that's not the problem. The problem is this shaping process that conforms all these innovative ideas to the current business model of the company.

This is something I've seen happen time after time. There are times when incubation/innovation teams produce worthwhile results but they are few and far between especially compared to the number of them that exist. In addition, even in those cases both of Marc's observations were still correct and they led to in-fighting between the teams which damaged the overall health of the product, the people and the organization. 

Marc also wrote

Don't do arbitrary large spot bonuses or restricted stock grants to try to give a small number of people huge financial upside.

An example is the Google Founders' Awards program, which Google has largely stopped, and which didn't work anyway.

It sounds like a great idea at the time, but it causes a severe backlash among both the normal people who don't get it (who feel like they're the B team) and the great people who don't get it (who feel like they've been screwed).

Significantly differentiated financial rewards for your "best employees"  are a seductive idea for executives but they rarely work as planned for several reasons. One reason is based on an observation I first saw in Paul Graham's essay Hiring is Obsolete; big companies don't know how to value the contributions of individual employees. Robert Scoble often used to complain in the comments to his blog that he made less than six figures at Microsoft. I personally think he did more for the company's image than the millions we've spent on high priced public relations and advertising firms. Yet it is incredibly difficult to prove this and even if one could the process wouldn't scale to every single employee. Then there's all the research from various corporations that have used social network analysis to find out that their most valuable employees are rarely the ones that are high up in the org chart (see How Org Charts Lie published by the Harvard Business School). The second reason significantly financially rewarding your "best employees" ends up being problematic is well described in Joel Spolsky's article Incentive Pay Considered Harmful where he points out

Most people think that they do pretty good work (even if they don't). It's just a little trick our minds play on us to keep life bearable. So if everybody thinks they do good work, and the reviews are merely correct (which is not very easy to achieve), then most people will be disappointed by their reviews

When you combine the above observation with the act if rewarding does that get good reviews disproportionately from those that just did OK, it can lead to problems. For example, what happens when a company decides that it will give millions of dollars in bonuses to its employees if they "add the most value" to the company? Hey, isn't that what the Google Founder's Awards were supposed to be about...how did that turn out?

The company has continually tinkered with its incentives for people to stay. Early on Page and Brin gave "Founders' Awards" in cash to people who made significant contributions. The handful of employees who pulled off the unusual Dutch auction public offering in August 2004 shared $10 million. The idea was to replicate the windfall rewards of a startup, but it backfired because those who didn't get them felt overlooked. "It ended up pissing way more people off," says one veteran.

Google rarely gives Founders' Awards now, preferring to dole out smaller executive awards, often augmented by in- person visits by Page and Brin. "We are still trying to capture the energy of a startup," says Bock.

Another seductive idea that sounds good on paper which falls apart when you actually add human beings to the equation.


In my previous post, I mentioned that I'm in the early stages of building an application on the Facebook platform. I haven't yet decided on an application but for now, let's assume that it is a Favorite Comic Books application which allows me to store my favorite comic books and shows me to most popular comic books among my friends.

After investigating using Amazon's EC2 + S3 to build my application I've decided that I'm better off using a traditional hosting solution running either a on the LAMP or WISC platform. One of the things I've been looking at is which platform has better support for providing an in-memory caching solution that works well in the context of a Web farm (i.e. multiple Web servers) out of the box. While working on the platforms behind several high traffic Windows Live services I've learned  that you should be prepared for dealing with scalability issues and caching is one of the best ways to get bang for the buck when improving the scalability of your service.

I recently discovered memcached which is a distributed, object caching system originally developed by Brad Fitzpatrick of LiveJournal fame. You can think of memcached as a giant hash table that can run on multiple servers which automatically handles maintaining the balance of objects hashed to each server and transparently fetches/removes objects from over the network if they aren't on the same machine that is accessing an object in the hash table. Although this sounds fairly simple, there is a lot of grunt work in building a distributed object cache which handles data partitioning across multiple servers and hides the distributed nature of the application from the developer. memcached is a well integrated into the typical LAMP stack and is used by a surprising number of high traffic websites including Slashdot, Facebook, Digg, Flickr and Wikipedia. Below is what C# code that utilizes memcached would look like sans exception handling code

public ArrayList GetFriends(int user_id){

    ArrayList friends = (ArrayList) myCache.Get("friendslist:" + userid);

    if(friends == null){
        // Open the connection

        SqlCommand cmd = new SqlCommand("select friend_id from friends_list where owner_id=" + "user_id", dbConnection);

        SqlDataReader reader = cmd.ExecuteReader();

        // Add each friend ID to the list
        while (reader.Read()){


        myCache.Set("friendslist:" + userid, friends);

    return friends;

public void AddFriend(int user_id, int new_friends_id){

    // Open the connection

    SqlCommand cmd = new SqlCommand("insert into friends_list (owner_id, friend_id) values (" + user_id + "," + new_friend_id ")";

    //remove key from cache since friends list has been updated
    myCache.Delete("friendslist:" + userid);

    dbConnection .Close(); 

The benefits of the using of the cache should be pretty obvious. I no longer need to hit the database after the first request to retrieve the user's friend list which means faster performance in servicing the request and less I/O.  The memcached automatically handles purging items out of the cache when it hits the size limit and also deciding which cache servers should hold individual key<->value pairs.

I hang with a number of Web developers on the WISC platform and I don't think I've ever heard anyone mention memcached or anything like it.In fact I couldn't find a mention of it on Microsoft employee blogs, ASP.NET developer blogs or on MSDN. So I wondered what the average WISC developer uses as their in-memory caching solution.

After looking around a bit, I came to the conclusion that most WISC developers use the built-in ASP.NET caching features. ASP.NET provides a number of in-memory caching features including a Cache class which provides a similar API to memcached, page directives for caching portions of the page or the entire page and the ability to create dependencies between cached objects and the files or database tables/rows that they were populated from via the CacheDependency and SqlCacheDependency classes. Although some of these features are also available in various Open Source web development frameworks such as Ruby on Rails + memcached, none give as much functionality out of the box as ASP.NET or so it seems.

Below is what the code for the GetFriends and AddFriend methods would look like using the built-in ASP.NET caching features

public ArrayList GetFriends(int user_id){

    ArrayList friends = (ArrayList) Cache.Get("friendslist:" + userid);

    if(friends == null){
        // Open the connection

        SqlCommand cmd = new SqlCommand("select friend_id from friends_list where owner_id=" + "user_id", dbConnection);

        SqlCacheDependency dependency = new SqlCacheDependency(cmd);
        SqlDataReader reader = cmd.ExecuteReader();

        // Add each friend ID to the list
        while (reader.Read()){


        //insert friends list into cache with associated dependency
        Cache.Insert("friendslist:" + userid, friends, dependency);
    return friends;

public void AddFriend(int user_id, int new_friends_id){
    // Open the connection

    SqlCommand cmd = new SqlCommand("insert into friends_list (owner_id, friend_id) values (" + user_id + "," + new_friend_id ")";

    /* no need to remove from cache because SqlCacheDependency takes care of that automatically */
    // Cache.Remove("friendslist:" + userid);

    dbConnection .Close();

Using the SqlCacheDependency class gets around a significant limitation of the ASP.NET Cache class. Specifically, the cache is not distributed. This means that if you have multiple Web front ends, you'd have to write your own code to handle partitioning data and invalidating caches across your various Web server instances. In fact, there are numerous articles showing how to implement such a solution including Synchronizing the ASP.NET Cache across AppDomains and Web Farms by Peter Bromberg and Use Data Caching Techniques to Boost Performance and Ensure Synchronization by David Burgett.

However, let's consider how how SqlCacheDependency is implemented. If you are using SQL Server 7 or SQL Server 2000, then your ASP.NET process polls the database at regular intervals to determine whether the target(s) of the original query have changed. For SQL Server 2005, the database can be configured to send change notifications to the Web servers if the target(s) of the original query change. Either way, the database is doing work to determine if the data has changed. Compared to the memcached this still doesn't seem as efficient as we can get if we want to eke out every last out of performance out of the system although it does lead to simpler code.

If you are a developer on the WISC platform and are concerned about getting the best performance out of your Web site, you should take a look at memcached for Win32. The most highly trafficked site on the WISC platform is probably MySpace and in articles about how they are platform works such as Inside MySpace.com they extol the virtues of moving work out of the database and relying on cache servers.


Categories: Platforms | Programming | Web Development

In my efforts to learn more about Web development and what it is like for startups adopting Web platforms I've decided to build an application on the Facebook platform. I haven't yet decided on an application but for the sake of argument let's say it is a Favorite Comic Books application which allows me to store my favorite comic books and shows me to most popular comic books among my friends.

The platform requirements for the application seems pretty straightforward. I'll need a database and some RESTful Web services which provide access to the database from the widget which can be written in my language of choice. I'll also need to write the widget in FBML which will likely mean I'll have to host images and CSS files as well. So far nothing seems particularly esoteric. 

Since I didn't want my little experiment eventually costing me a lot of money, I thought this was an excellent time to try out Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) and Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) services since I'll only pay for as much resources as I use instead of paying a flat hosting fee..

However it seems supporting this fairly straightforward application is beyond the current capabilities of EC2 + S3. S3 is primarily geared towards file storage so although it makes a good choice for cheaply hosting images and CSS stylesheets, it's a not a good choice for storing relational or structured data. If it was just searching within a single user's data ( e.g. just searching within my favorite comics) I could store it all in single XML file then use XPath to find what I was looking for. However my application will need to perform aggregated queries across multiple user's data (i.e. looking at the favorite comics of all of my friends then fetching the most popular ones) so a file based solution isn't a good fit. I really want a relational database.

EC2 seemed really promising because I could create a virtual server running in Amazon's cloud and load it up with my choice of operating system, database and Web development tools. Unfortunately, there was a fly in the ointment. There is no persistent storage in EC2 so if your virtual server goes down for any reason such as taking it down to install security patches or a system crash, all your data is lost.

This is a well known problem within the EC2 community which has resulted in a bunch of clever hacks being proposed by a number of parties. In his post entitled Amazon EC2, MySQL, Amazon S3 Jeff Barr of Amazon writes

I was on a conference call yesterday and the topic of ways to store persistent data when using Amazon EC2 came up a couple of times. It would be really cool to have a persistent instance of a relational database like MySQL but there's nothing like that around at the moment. An instance can have a copy of MySQL installed and can store as much data as it would like (subject to the 160GB size limit for the virtual disk drive) but there's no way to ensure that the data is backed up in case the instance terminates without warning.

Or is there?

It is fairly easy to configure multiple instances of MySQL in a number of master-slave, master-master, and other topologies. The master instances produce a transaction log each time a change is made to a database record. The slaves or co-masters keep an open connection to the master, reading the changes as they are logged and mimicing the change on the local copy. There can be some replication delay for various reasons, but the slaves have all of the information needed to maintain exact copies of the database tables on the master.

Besides the added complexity this places on the application, it still isn't fool proof as is pointed out in the various comments in response to Jeff's post.

Demitrious Kelly who also realizes the problems with relying on replication to solve the persistence problem proposed an alternate solution in his post MySQL on Amazon EC2 (my thoughts) where he writes

Step #2: I’m half the instance I used to be! With each AMI you get 160GB of (mutable) disk space, and almost 2GB of ram, and the equivalent of a Xeon 1.75Ghz processor. Now divide that, roughly, in half. You’ve done that little math exercise because your one AMI is going to act as 2 AMI's. Thats right. I’m recommending running two separate instances of MySQL on the single server.

Before you start shouting at the heretic, hear me out!

+-----------+   +-----------+
| Server A | | Server B |
+-----------+ +-----------+
| My | My | | My | My |
| sQ | sQ | | sQ | sQ |
| l | l | | l | l |
| | | | | |
| #2<=== #1 <===> #1 ===>#2 |
| | | | | |
+ - - - - - + + - - - - - +

On each of our servers, MySQL #1 and #2 both occupy a max of 70Gb of space. The MySQL #1 instances of all the servers are setup in a master-master topography. And the #2 instance is setup as a slave only of the #1 instance on the same server. so on server A MySQL #2 is a copy (one way) of #1 on server A.

With the above setup *if* server B were to get restarted for some reason you could: A) shut down the MySQL instance #2 on server A. Copy that MySQL #2 over to Both slots on server B. Bring up #1 on server B (there should be no need to reconfigure its replication relationship because #2 pointed at #1 on server A already). Bring up #2 on server B, and reconfigure replication to pull from #1 on ServerB. This whole time #1 on Server A never went down. Your services were never disrupted.

Also with the setup above it is possible (and advised) to regularly shut down #2 and copy it into S3. This gives you one more layer of fault tollerance (and, I might add, the ability to backup without going down.)

Both solutions are fairly complicated, error prone and still don't give you as much reliability as you would get if you simply had a hard disk that didn't lose all its data when you rebooted the server goes down. At this point it is clear that a traditional hosted service solution is the route to go. Any good suggestions for server-side LAMP or WISC hosting that won't cost an arm and a leg? Is Joyent any good?

PS: It is clear this is a significant problem for Amazon's grid computing play and one that has to be fixed if the company is serious about getting into the grid computing game and providing a viable alternative to startups looking for a platform to build the next "Web 2.0" hit. Building a large scale, distributed, relational database then making it available to developers as a platform is unprecedented so they have their work cut out for them. I'd incorrectly assumed that BigTable was the precedent for this but I've since learned that BigTable is more like a large scale, distributed, spreadsheet table as opposed to a relational database. This explains a lot of the characteristics of the query API of Google Base.


Categories: Web Development

None of these was worth an entire post.

  1. Universal Music Group Refuses to Renew Apple's Annual License to Sell Their Music on iTunes: So this is what it looks like when an industry that has existed for decades begins to die. I wonder who's going to lose out more? Apple because people some people stop buying iPods because they can't buy music from Jay-Z and Eminem on iTunes or Universal Music Group for closing itself out of the biggest digital music marketplace in the world in the midst of declining CD sales worldwide. It's as if the record labels are determined to make themselves irrelevant by any means necessary. 

  2. Standard URLs - Proposal for a Web with Less Search: Wouldn't it be cool if every website in the world used the exact same URL structure based on some ghetto reimplementation of the Dewey Decimal System? That way I could always type http://www.amazon.com/books/j-k-rowling/harry-potter-and-the-goblet-of-fire or http://www.bn.com/books/j-k-rowling/harry-potter-and-the-goblet-of-fire  to find the Harry Potter book on whatever book website I was on instead of typing "harry potter goblet of fire" into a search box. Seriously.

    This is the kind of idea that makes sense when you are kicking it with your homeboys late at night drinking 40s and smokin' blunts but ends up making you scratch your head in the morning when you sober up, wondering how you could have ever come up with such a ludicrous idea.

  3. Facebook has 'thrown the entire startup world for a loop': This post is by a startup developer complaining that Facebook has placed limits on usage of their APIs which prevent Facebook widgets from spamming a user's friends when the user adds the widget to their profile. What does he expect? That Facebook should make it easier for applications to spam their users? WTF? Go read Mike Torres's post Facebook weirdness then come back and explain to me why the folks at Facebook should be making it easier for applications to send spam on a user's behalf in the name of encouraging the "viral growth of apps".

  4. Does negative press make you Sicko? Google ad sales rep makes impassioned pitch to big Pharmaceutical companies and HMOs to counter the negative attention from Michael Moore's Sicko by buying Google search ads and getting Google to create "Get the Facts" campaigns for them. I guess all that stuff Adam Bosworth said about Google wanting to help create better educated patients doesn't count since patients don't buy ads. ;) Talk about making your employer look like an unscrupulous, money grubbing whore. Especially 

    Do no evil. It's now Search, Ads and Apps

  5. People Who Got in Line for an iPhone: I was at the AT&T store on the day of the iPhone launch to pick up a USB cable for my fianc´e. It took me less than ten minutes to deal with the line at around 8:00PM and they still had lots of iPhones. It seems people had waited hours in line that day and I could have picked one up with just ten minutes of waiting on launch day if I wanted one. I bet if you came on Saturday the lines were even shorter and by today you could walk in. Of course, this is assuming you are crazy enough to buy a v1 iPhone in the first place.


Working on social software, I've been thinking about the dynamics around walled gardens recently. There is a strong tendency for Web applications that benefit from network effects to metamorphosize into walled gardens. Unfortunately, I haven't found a definition of "walled garden" that I like. Most references to "walled gardens" in the context of internet services refers to ISPs creating their own closed network which is "pay to play" for publishers as opposed to giving their users access to the World Wide Web.  The most popular examples of this are AOL of old and most recently mobile phone carriers. However this definition doesn't really capture the new way in which users are being tied to a particular vendors vision of the Web, thanks to the power of network effects.

In his post Facebook vs. AOL, redux Jason Kottke writes

I wanted to clarify my comments about Facebook's similarities to AOL. I don't think Facebook is a bad company or that they won't be successful; they seem like smart passionate people who genuinely care about making a great space for their users.1 It's just that I, unlike many other people, don't think that Facebook and Facebook Platform are the future of the web. The platform is great for Facebook, but it's a step sideways or even backwards (towards an AOL-style service) for the web.

Think of it this way. Facebook is an intranet for you and your friends that just happens to be accessible without a VPN. If you're not a Facebook user, you can't do anything with the site...nearly everything published by their users is private. Google doesn't index any user-created information on Facebook.2
...Compare this with MySpace or Flickr or YouTube. Much of the information generated on these sites is publicly available. The pages are indexed by search engines. You don't have to be a user to participate
Everything you can do on Facebook with ease is possible using a loose coalition of blogging software, IM clients, email, Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader, etc.

In his post Avoiding Walled Gardens on the Internet Jeff Atwood writes

I occasionally get requests to join private social networking sites, like LinkedIn or Facebook. I always politely decline. I understand the appeal of private social networking, and I mean no disrespect to the people who send invites. But it's just not for me.

I feel very strongly that we already have the world's best public social networking tool right in front of us: it's called the internet. Public services on the web, such as blogs, twitter, flickr, and so forth, are what we should invest our time in. And because it's public, we can leverage the immense power of internet search to tie it all-- and each other-- together.

In comparison, adding content to a private, walled garden on the internet smacks of the old-world America Online ideology:

Jason and Jeff are both smart guys but they think like geeks. To me it seems pretty obvious why the average person would want to to use one application for managing photos, blogging, IM, reading feeds with updates from their friends, etc instead if using half a dozen products. Especially if the one product fosters a sense of community better than any of the other individual products does on its own. Of course, I've said this all before in my post Why Facebook is Bigger than Blogging so I won't repeat myself here.

What I do find interesting is trying to define what makes Facebook a "walled garden". Jeff and Jason seems to think it primarily hinges on the content produced on the site being visible to search engines. This belief seems fairly widespread since I've also seen mentions of it on blog posts by Steve Rubel and danah boyd. This definition doesn't sit right with me. I actually think it's a good thing that the drunk frat party pics, emotional public break ups and experimentation with new ideas that make up the average high schooler or college students life (i.e. the primary demographic of social networks) shouldn't out there for search engines to index, cache and then keep around forever. From the perspective of Jeff and Jason it seems the problem with walled gardens is that people outside the garden can't see it's beauty, from my perspective the problem is that they surround their users with beauty to disguise the fact that they are trapped (or should I say locked in?). Thus I actually think of "walled gardens" as services that limit users. This is the difference between being able to send email to anyone on the internet and only being able to send mail to send email to people who use the same ISP. It's the difference between being able to send instant messages to anyone who uses an IM client instead of just to people who use the same IM service or use a product that has "paid to play" in your IM network. It's the difference between being able to accept any payment on your online auction (e.g. Google Checkout) and being told you can only use that provided by the the owner of the marketplace (e.g. Paypal). 

When you look at things from that perspective, there are more walled gardens on the Web than people would care to admit. Why this is the case is eloquently explained in this comment by leoc on reddit which is excerpted below

Certainly it's not simple, but that's why it would be the "next Web" rather than what we have now. It seems there are two big forces creating the Web 2.0 social-site bottleneck.

One is the fact that hosting is fiddly and expensive. It's certainly better than it was, but it's still the preserve of nerds and professionals. (El-cheapo PHP4 hosting is almost cheap enough but too fiddly and much too limited; virtual hosting and up is flexible but much too fiddly and expensive.) We need a future where the casual user can drag-n-drop fairly arbitrary programs and documents into his own webspace without having to worry too much about configurations or Digg-storms or bandwidth fees.

The other is that centrally-controlled databases are the low-hanging fruit; it's much harder to create decentralised systems that work. It's much easier for Amazon to have users log in and enter their book reviews in Amazon's database than it would be for you to find and aggregate all the reviews for a given book from the Web, then reputation/spam-filter them and present them in some kind of coherent framework. (And that's assuming that people would rather put reviews in their own webspace rather than just typing into an Amazon textarea - problem one again.) Similarly, the classic wiki model is inherently centralised

In today's world, it is far easier and cheaper for the average Web user to use a centralized hosted service than utilize a service on their own Web space even if they can get the software for free. In addition, a lot of software on the Web especially social software applications benefit from network effects so once a service hits a certain critical mass, displacing it is a losing proposition whether it is an online auction market or the #1 instant messaging application. When you put these things together you get a world where the dominant software in certain categories tends towards a monopoly or at the very least conforms to a Power law distribution

And once a product gets to that point, it is easy to think in terms of preserving marketshare as opposed to giving users choice. At that point, another walled garden has been created.


Categories: Social Software

Recently an email written by a newly hired Microsoft employee about life as a Google employee made the rounds on popular geek social news and social bookmarking sites such as Slashdot, Reddit, del.icio.us and Digg. The mail was forwarded around and posted to a blog without the permission of its original author. The author of the email (who should not be confused with the idiot who blogs at http://no2google.wordpress.com) has posted a response which puts his email in context in addition to his reaction on seeing his words splattered across the Internet. In his post entitled My Words Geoffrey writes

Today my words got splashed all around the Internet. It’s interesting to see them living a life of their own outside the context they were created in. I enjoyed seeing it on Slashdot, reading the thoughtful responses whether they agreed or disagreed, and laughing out loud at the people who were just there to make noise. It’s fun, in the abstract, to the be the author of the secret thing everyone is gathered around the water cooler talking about.

The responses are my personal impressions, communicated to my Microsoft recruiter in the context of a private 1:1 conversation. A few days after I sent my response to the recruiter, I saw an anonymized version floating around and being discussed inside Microsoft. I hadn’t realized at the time that I wrote it that it would be distributed widely within Microsoft so that was a bit of a shock. To see them distributed all over the Internet was another shock altogether. The biggest shock was when Mary Jo Foley over at ZDNet Blogs sent a message to my personal email account.

Read the rest of his post to see the email he sent to Mary Jo Foley as well as how he feels about having words he thought were being shared in private published to tens of thousands of people without his permission and with no thought to how it would impact him.


Categories: Life in the B0rg Cube

I was recently in a conversation where we were talking about things we'd learned in college that helped us in our jobs today. I tried to distill it down to one thing but couldn't so here are the three I came up with.

  1. Operating systems aren't elegant. They are a glorious heap of performance hacks piled one upon the other.
  2. Software engineering is the art of amassing collected anecdotes and calling them Best Practices when in truth they have more in common with fads than anything else.
  3. Pizza is better than Chinese food for late night coding sessions.

What are yours?


Categories: Technology