Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Finally, Someone Who Listens to Me

Okay, something that listens to me. There is this really awesome voice service called Jott ( Jott allows me to call into their system and leave a message. The message is then transcribed and sent to whoever you have listed in the system. With Jott, I can be heading down the highway, shooting off e-mails to people and reminders to myself.

Jott really finds its full potential when you combine it with other on-line services. For example, I can use Jott to create a entry in my Google Calendar. I can also use it to send messages to Sandy, the equally cool on-line "assistant". Combining the two gives me the ability to leave a message for my virtual assistant Sandy who thensends me e-mail reminders throughout the day for important events. Jott links to a whole host of other on-line services like Twitter, Blogger (for posting quick blog entries), and the XPenser on-line expense tracking system.

There are two things that Jott still needs to work through. First, is the time it takes to transcribe a voice mail into an e-mail. The delay can be significant. If you are driving around and won't see your calendar or get a reminder for hours, that's no big deal. If you are leaving a quick message while running into the office, it can be a pain.

The other technical problem to work on is the quality of the transcription. Even when you speak slowly and annunciate clearly, it can get things wrong in a spectacular fashion. That creates some really funny sentences that sound like a Mad Libs game. For example, Jott mangled Bruce Springsteen into "blue spring street". Sometimes, it gets so confused it's not even sure what to do so it does it's best and places a question mark next to the entry that caused it problems. I'm not sure why Rite Aid was so confusing that it came out Raidy(?) but it least it knew it was stupid.

Though I'm not sure how Jott will make money, I hope they can figure it out so that the service stays active. Unlike many Internet services out there, it really is useful.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Santa Skips the NeoScale House

It looks like the Grinch came early for the folks at NeoScale. They are gone, finished, kaput! That's not only sad for the people involved (and they were good people) but for the storage security market as well.

Oh wait! That was the problem. There was no storage security market! In the end, that's what killed them. They had a product that quickly became a feature. They had a market that was not really a market unto itself anymore. Somewhere on the Autobahn of technology, they found themselves driving a Model T while everyone else zipped by in a Porsche.

If you are looking for the moment in time when Neoscale jumped the shark, you would have to look to EMC's RSA acquisition. At that point everyone knew (except NeoScale perhaps) that storage security was being folded into the overall security market. Decru clearly saw that train coming down the track. They were smart and sold themselves to NetApp. NetApp got some key competitive features and technology, Decru's investors got out while the getting was good.

But NeoScale. Ah, poor NeoScale. They held onto their dream a little too long. Life just passed them buy. And now they're gone into the dust heap of data storage history.

So this holiday season, let's all remember the poor folks at NeoScale and in the future, remember the lesson that they bring this season. Expand, sell, or you die. A product does not a company make. A feature even less so.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

SNW, a Lovely Time of Year

It is that time of year again. Geese are flying south, the leaves are turning colors, and herds of "storage people" have gone to Storage Networking World. This year's show was not like other SNWs for me. For the first time, I was there as a vendor (someone trying to sell something to someone else) but also as a consumer. Since the company I work for (the wonderful buys data center equipment including storage, I had a different mindset. Boy, did that change the way I looked at the show.

On a positive note, the show appeared well attended. My talk was on the last day at 8:30am, the trade show equivalent of the grave yard shift. In the past, that severely limited my audience size to say the least. Not this year! Instead, I had a full, practically overflowing, room. That's great because it tells me that people are attending the show for the right reasons. It's no longer a junket. It's a real learning experience. This puts pressure on speakers. If people are serious about the sessions, you can't throw together a talk at the last minute. That's an excellent turn of events. Nothing vendors like better than attendees that are there for serious reasons and not just trick-or-treating at the expo booths.

In terms of what was being offered from a product perspective, there was little earth shattering. There was a bunch of noise about Fibre Channel over Ethernet, which I don't really get. I don't mean I don't get it technically. I just don't get why anyone would care. People who want to install Ethernet SANs are happy with iSCSI. Those who need more than iSCSI can deliver are willing to go with real Fibre Channel. FCoE looks a like someone is trying to slice the baloney too thin and find a middle path between the two. Okay. I still don't get it.

There was a lot of marketing around XAM. It didn't appear like a lot of people cared too much about that either. I'm guessing that it is more important to other vendors than IT people. What that boils down to is that the people actually attending the show (IT people) won't care much about it past the cute buttons being handed out. the XAM marketing looks like navel gazing to me.

Other than that, there was still too many array vendors, ILM has all but disappeared, and there were a lot of storage management vendors selling tools that should be bundled in the first place. In other words, not much has changed since last year.

In an interesting aside, while at the ARMA conference the week before SNW I noticed something strange. ARMA is all about records management and there was a lot said about ILM, especially mapping ILM to records management processes and terminology. It struck me as unusual that the records management folks still seem to care about ILM and the storage folks (who started the ILM train rolling) don't. Odd!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

I've been watching the fratricidal spat between Sun and NetApp with increasing interest. Since I started working for, I've been much more immersed in philosophy and mechanics of intellectual property. Since patent litigation is complex and I'm not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV), I am not going to comment on the validity of the suits. If you are technical enough, go ahead an read the patents involved and the legal filings. Draw your own conclusions.

What I don't understand is why there wasn't another way. Patent suits in the computer industry are notoriously bad for both companies. For those without long-term memory, please recall the patent infringement suit that Crossroads brought against a bunch of companies including Chapparal. Look how that worked out for them. They are not exactly Brocade now, are they? That might be a bad comparison given Brocade's recent legal woes but you get the picture.

In the computer industry, patent litigation breeds several effects. One, people stop buying stuff from both companies. Let's face it, do you want to buy a product that the company may not be able to sell in the future. Anyone who doesn't think that the SCO suit effected the adoption of LINUX is kidding themselves. The result of this suit will be to slow down sales of NetApp boxes as much as the ZFS file system. Since Sun is giving it away as open source, you have to wonder who this will hurt more, at least in the short term.

The second effect is to reduce the collaboration so necessary to the functioning of the industry. Suits of this nature build mistrust and fear. This, in turn, makes it less likely that companies will want to work together on certain projects. Who wants to work with the folks that might sue them tomorrow.

What is almost sad is how these two companies have let an opportunity pass by. That's a polite way if saying they had a chance here and screwed it up. Let's face it, Sun's storage offerings have always been weak. They are the almost-rans of the storage industry.

NetApp is constantly fighting for business against the stronger EMC, IBM (with its legions of loyal customers), and a host of smaller, nimble competitors. A connection with Sun would have benefited both. Sun has the breadth of hardware and software products and NetApp the storage strength. Instead of beating the heck out of each other, they should have decided to work together, whatever that takes.

I firmly believe that intellectual property is the cornerstone all industries, especially technology industries. It does need to be protected strongly. However, like all assets, it's there to be used constructively. This is not a good use of valuable assets. Instead, the patents are being used as blunt weapons. Sort of like using a gold bar to beat someone upside the head, rather than buying food.

So, here's my message to Sun and NetApp, two companies I respect - Stop fighting like dysfunctional siblings. Instead, bury the hatchet now (but not in each other's heads) and work together. I will even propose something radical - a merger. I'm sure the financial people will tell me I'm stupid but from a market perspective, it makes sense. You would end up with two stronger companies, better positioned to compete with the tech companies emerging in Asia and the already strong domestic competitors.

Make love, not war!

DISCLAIMER: Now that I work for another company other than my own, I need to point out that this blog is all my own thoughts and opinions. I do not represent in it any of the positions of my company. If you think it's stupid, then I'm the one you should blame. If you like it, then I'm brilliant but so is for hiring me. While I'm entitled to my opinions, when I'm doing my thing as an executive, I keep some of them to myself.

Friday, September 14, 2007

SCO Gets Pinned To the Mat

It looks like we are finally winding down the sad history of SCO. For those who have been living in a cave these past few years. SCO has been locked in a brutal legal battle with some of the software industry's heavyweights such as IBM and Novell. Before you start feeling sorry for them, their wounds are self-inflicted.

SCO was once an early purveyor of UNIX on PCs. That may not seem radical now but in the late 1980's it was completely insane but very cool. Their products were good but the company foundered and sold its assets to what was then Caldera, one of the many Linux companies started in the 1990's. So ended SCO Phase 1.

Caldera then changed its name to SCO and abandoned any pretense of selling software. Instead, they sent nasty letters to Linux customers accusing them of absconding with SCO's intellectual property and threatening legal action. They then went about suing companies involved in Linux, picking on IBM especially.

One problem: They didn't actually own the copyrights to UNIX. Oops! According to court documents, when the original SCO bought the rights to UNIX from Novell (who acquired them from AT&T), they got licenses to distribute UNIX but not the actual copyright for the software. In fact, Novell explicitly kept the copyrights for themselves. When SCO phase 2 realized this, they claimed that they should have had them and it was a misunderstanding on Novell's part. The judge didn't see it that way. Now, you can't sue someone for misusing something that isn't yours to begin with. So SCO had nowhere to go and might actually end up owning Novell money. With that in mind, SCO filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. While not as bad as liquidation, it's not likely they can continue to exist when they own and do practically nothing of value.

Usually this would be sad, but not in this case. This is an example of an the worst sort of patent troll - the highwayman. Unlike many trolls who have legitimate intellectual property and only want a fair deal fro a license, SCO is the sort that lies in wait and then threatens someone with a loaded pistol. Only in this case, there were no bullets in the gun. Once they ran into someone (Novell) who was bigger and unimpressed, they got their clock cleaned. They were shooting blanks, so to speak.

Thus, we shall let's raise a glass in remembrance of SCO phase 1. Too bad what happened to them. Let's laugh at SCO phase 2 and hope that they serve as an object lesson to those who only want to disrupt and suck on the teet of technology, and not create. They will get their just desserts.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Webkinz: Ceti Eels for Kids

In the Star Trek movie "The Wrath of Khan", the bad guy Khan uses something called a Ceti eel to control the Captain and First Officer of a starship. A horrid looking thing, it crawls in through the ear, wraps around your brain stem, and takes control of your mind. Lovely. The fine marketeers of the toy company Ganz have created the kids equivalent of this mind controlling horror and have called it a Webkinz.

On the surface, a Webkinz looks pretty harmless. It is a stuffed animal. As a stuffed animal, it does what all stuffed animals do - it lays there waiting to be picked up and hugged. Pretty benign so far. Do not be fooled. A Webkinz is an insidious creature, lurking about, waiting to strike.

And strike it does. When your kid gets their Webkinz, they are instructed to go to a website where they can create an online version of their cuddly little friend. The online version, unlike the stuffed one, is a more demanding master. You have to feed it and take care of it or, to quote my daughter, "IT WILL DIE DADDY!" Feeding it is not free.

They give you some of whatever currency you need to buy things for your Webkinz. As is the case in real life, when that runs out you have to use real money to get more of the local currency so that you can continue to care for your online pet. Or "IT WILL DIE".

Simply feeding the damn thing is not enough. You have to buy things to make it happy. Since, all of your kids' friends have these, yours cannot be the only Webkinz who doesn't get the right trinkets. There's a lot of tween jonesin going on here.

What I especially hate is that they draw kids into this by playing on emotions that are especially heightened at this age. The need to belong and to nurture. The need to have nice things and, like all kids, the desire for pets. Webkinz plays off of these primal needs to draw kids in and then make their unsuspecting parents pay. Otherwise, your kid is humiliated and their little online friend "WILL DIE DADDY
!" Did I mention that the Webkinz will "DIE!"

This type of bald faced manipulation is one of the least desirable aspects of marketing. When you do it to kids, it's truly awful. It is a misuse of technology and one of the worst aspects of capitalism. To make a child care about something that is not real and is designed solely to separate parents from their hard earned dollars (money better saved on college) is inexcusable.

So, with all the other challenges of parenthood, we now have to deal with these greedy bastards using the Internet to manipulate our own kids to get at our wallet. In the meantime, my child will just have to learn that on the Internet, as in real life, things die. That's the fate of this Webkinz, harsh as it is. At least I don't have to pay the vet to do it or bury something in the backyard afterwards.

Thanks a bunch Ganz. I hope your kids put you in a home someday and refuse to visit.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Save Me The Schadenfreude

For those who don't know, schadenfreude is when you take pleasure in someone else's misery. There is probably a lot of that going on in the storage industry today after the conviction of Greg Reyes, former CEO of Brocade, in federal court. Reyes was not always liked and not just because he was successful.

I don't feel any pleasure in his conviction though. For whatever faults he may have had, to be looking at possible decades in jail for something like options backdating is crazy. People commit rape and murder and don't spend as much time in the hoosegow.

What is even more nuts is that he didn't make any money on it himself. That's right. Reyes backdated options for other people but not himself. That suggests to me that he really didn't think it was illegal. Did he think it was scummy? That's between him and his confessor. You don't put people in jail because they do lousy things only illegal ones.

I'm sure this is scaring the heck out of others who sit on corporate boards or are corporate executives in public companies. It's one thing to make an accounting mistake - or even to bend the rules a bit - and have to pay fines to make it go away. It is something else entirely to find yourself a character in HBO's OZ. Okay, make them resign in disgrace if they were caught trying to game the system. Make them pay back the ill gotten gains. But send them up the river? That's not "sending a message that corporate malfeasance won't be tolerated!" It's going after rich people because they're rich and sending them to reeducation camps. Where's the Gang of Four when you need them.

So, if any of you are feeling smug and thinking that Greg got his comeuppance, don't tell me about it. He doesn't deserve this and everyone knows it. This should be a civil not a criminal issue. If he was a bad boy and made an accounting boo-boo, then take away his piggy bank. Don't lock him up in the slammer. That's not justice. It's vengeance and we should be better then that.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Sunrocket Drives a Stake Into The Heart of VoIP

If the instability with Vonage wasn't enough, now Sunrocket has gone ahead and done a world of hurt to VoIP as a consumer product. For those who have not heard (such as people living in a cave with a goat somewhere in central Asia), Sunrocket has abruptly shut down. The consumer VoIP service sent out a message a couple of weeks ago saying it would cease operations. Another one arrived a few days ago declaring that all service will be off-line by August 5th at the latest. In the meantime, expect service disruptions. Nice.

Now keep in mind, they took my renewal in April. Late April at that. There is no way that they did not know that they were having severe financial troubles. I admit, businesses on the downward spiral will often delude themselves into thinking that they will somehow survive when it's not possible. However, to make a year long commitment at a time like that is unconscionable.

This will hurt the nascent VoIP industry because it will literally crush confidence in the very idea of VoIP. People will say “First Vonage runs into trouble. Now Sunrocket does a meltdown. No way am I putting my money into that.” It is for exactly this reason that early phone companies were allowed to be monopolies for awhile. It was necessary that they have the time to build their infrastructure and create critical mass in the marketplace before having to compete on price. Without that luxury, it will be very hard for any VoIP company to succeed.

Here's the big problem: though it costs less to deploy a VoIP system then a traditional land line or cellular system, the costs aren't zero. The capital costs can still be significant even if future operating costs are lower.

Even that assertion is unproved. In a consumer business, technology costs can often pale in comparison with marketing and customer service costs. So, even if the cost of deploying and maintaining the system is less, the cost of acquiring and maintaining the customers is not that different. In order to maintain their organizations and make money, VoIP companies will have to charge nearly as much money as a traditional provider such as Verizon. Yet, they can't begin to offer the service Verizon offers.

The Sunrocket implosion will drive a stake into the heart of VoIP. The cost differential for most VoIP services is not enough to put up with the uncertainty, difficult installations, poor service, and relatively lousy call quality. VoIP is a technology, not a business. As a technology, it will continue to exist within major providers' or corporate networks. It may eventually lead to the elimination of long distance in North America. As a business, it's doomed to die.

So, what's in store for consumer VoIP? First, the dozen or so standalone VoIP phone companies won't survive. All the clever advertising won't restore consumer confidence. Second, some of the better companies will sell their networks to traditional phone companies as a way of providing cheaper service than a land line. Finally, the only service to have that wonderful combination of critical mass, low cost, and marketing cachet, namely Skype, will evolve into a more important and ubiquitous utility. That is assuming they can get a cheap Skype phone out.

Other than that, I think that Sunrocket is striking the death knell for consumer VoIP services.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vista: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Something like a million bloggers, journalists, and pundits have written, talked, and pontificated about Microsoft Vista. So why should I bother. Because I am that unlikely combination of techie and tidewad. While I love the geek stuff, I'm usually too cheap to buy things when they come out or just to be the first one on my block with the latest doo-dad. That gives me “value investor” approach. I don't swoon over the latest technical innovation nor am I the Luddite who dismisses them out of hand. Instead, I look for good technology that actually solves some serious problems.

What's nice is that I see that in Vista. By and large, despite the backward compatibility problems, it offers real value over XP. A quantum leap? Nope. That's just fine with me. I want good incremental value. That's not to say that Microsoft is hitting on all cylinders here. There is plenty to dislike about Vista, though little to outright hate. And isn't there enough hate in the world to be hating an operating system? I think so.

The Good


Search is everywhere. It is integrated into the operating system like no add-on can. You can search for files from anywhere. If you open a folder, you have a search bar at the top and search that folder for whatever you want. Sweet! You can search everything from the Start menu (is it still called that? It's just a little circle now...). You can do simple searches and more advanced ones. Best of all, you can search the program menu. In XP, once you acquired a significant number of programs, you ended up paging through a billion menus to find and launch them. Microsoft has fixed this problem. Not only have they redesigned the program menu system but you can search for your program. This has eliminated dozens of Desktop folders that only contained short cuts.

Wireless Networking

With wireless access becoming ubiquitous, Microsoft rightly decided to make it easier to connect to wireless networks. It's pretty much automatic with Vista. The only decision I usually have to make is to determine what type of network I'm connecting to, which alters the security options.


Speaking of security, that too has improved. I'll take the other writers word for it that the underpinnings of the OS are more secure. The biggest, most visible security changes are the inclusion of features that you used to need additional programs for. These including a personal firewall that is finally useful and an anti-spyware program. Oddly, Microsoft still does not include anti-virus in the system. I'm sure there's a good reason, such as a court order or threat of a lawsuit.

Visual Elements

Vista has a lot of eye candy. It's not useful but it makes the day more pleasant. For example, there is this new feature whereby the you see a miniature picture of each open window and you can scroll through them to get to the one you want. Useful? No more so than then XP's task switching (which still works) but much prettier. The same goes for the opaque window dressing. It's pleasant even if it's not particularly useful.

Tons of Useful Goodies

Microsoft continues its tradition of adding small but useful programs to the OS. Most of these are available somewhere else, often for free. Microsoft is not known for originality in this respect. The just turn it into a feature. The Gadgets are just another desktop widget like Yahoo! Widgets or the Google version. What's different is that they are there out of the box and don't require you to download something special.

The included calendar program is also decent. It's not as full featured as the one that comes with Outlook but it is serviceable and stable. The same is true for the photo organizer (a Picasa clone) and the snipping tool.

The Bad

TCP/IP Printers

It is still a monumental pain in the tookus to set up a printer that does not support Windows naming conventions. I know it is in part the printers fault (how hard is it to put SMB support in a printer anyway) but that doesn't takeaway from the fact that this comes up a lot. There are boatloads of networked printers and print servers that only hand out a TCP address. Vista, like its predecessors, makes you jump through a dozen hoops to create a port, load a driver, etc. Given the geniuses at Microsoft, you would think someone would have figured out a way to detect and configure these printers in a more user friendly manner.

Living in a Microsoft World

The only drawback with Vista's search engine is that it cannot index all types of files. As an user, my documents do not get indexed which limits what search can do. All the search engines have this problem but it seems about time to include what has become a major office suite. It makes you wonder if it's on purpose. This is true about any program in Vista. They don't seem to understand that theirs is not the only file formats.

No Program Launch Bar

This one is so simple. Microsoft has that lousy little program launch toolbar at the top. That forces you to have small icons. Why not have a big fat tool bar like the Mac OS X Dashboard? Clearly someone at Microsoft was thinking of that. They have the sidebar for the gadgets that kinda works that way. I can download ObjectDock but why have another program floating around when it's obvious people want to do this. It's just obvious.

The Ugly

User Access Controls

One of the best features is also the most annoying. Vista makes it difficult to do certain little tricks that viruses like to use such as changing registry options or spawning other programs. Vista also looks to see if a program has been certified as genuine too. The same is true for programs that could do a lot of harm such as those that change system settings. Since there are lots of legitimate reasons a program may break these rules or not provide certification (such as being an older program), you get a dialog box that asks you if you want to run this program. The reason why this is so annoying is that it happens a hundred times a day. It would have been better if the program asked this once and then remembered that it was okay to do so.

Now you can shut this behavior off but you lose the protection. If you try to fine tune this behavior you quickly find out that there is a security policy program (secpol.msc) that can do this and that it doesn't come with Vista Home Premium, the most ubiquitous of the various versions. So, for most people the only options is to run it at full throttle or not at all.

Backward Compatibility

Like I said in a previous post (To The Pain), backward compatibility is a real problem. An awful lot of applications - fairly recent ones - simply don't work or won't work right. If there is one reason not to use Vista, this is it. If you can't run a critical applications under Vista, then it's of no use to you.

Vista is a worthy update. The additional security, search, and wireless networking support are serious improvements. While it's not enough to spend money on an upgrade, if it comes with a new machine, you will be pleased. That is, if you don't mind half your programs not working.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

To The Pain

In the truly excellent movie The Princess Bride, the hero tells the evil prince that he will torture him “to the pain”. He describes “to the pain” in this way “It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery, forever. “ That's pretty much how I feel about my recent, unexpected move to Microsoft Windows Vista. I can deal with the death of my computer but not the pain of moving to Vista.

The story begins, like so many of these stories, with an otherwise usable machine dying an untimely death. My trusty computer of these past five or six years, simply refused to wake up one day. It's probably the power supply. The problem is that it costs a lot to find out if that's true and and then replace it. It's simply not worth trying to revive it. A new computer was in order and that meant Vista.

Now, Vista is a fine OS. It is clearly more secure than XP and has some neat user interface tricks. It's very nice to look at and easier to use than XP was. The search features alone are almost worth the price of upgrading. So far, this looks to have been a lucky move. That's until the “to the pain” part started.

The key problem is application backward compatibility. Several key applications simply do not work and many more don't work right. What really is tortuous is that we are not talking about ancient applications from the Regan era. No! Instead, many of the applications that do not work under Vista are only one or two years old.

For example, Quickbooks 2006 doesn't work. It won't even install. Intuit doesn't seem in the least bit interested in distributing a shim or patch either. Their advice – upgrade to Quickbooks 2007. That's insane. It's not like they didn't know that Vista was coming. It's been delayed longer than Quickbooks 2006 has been released. According to the support forums, this isn't Microsoft's fault either. Intuit apparently did some not so nice things to the Windows registry, exploiting a hole in Windows security that Vista plugged up. If true, that's not right. Actually, it sounds like a scam to me.

I had the same thing happen with NHL 2006. The graphics go wacky when you try and play with a 3D card, which is recommended by the way. The response from EA Sports is “Sorry we released that before Vista”. Nice. Haven't these folks ever heard about developer programs. At least EA Sports gave me some hints on how to get around whatever the problem is. I don't think they will help but at least they're trying.

Interestingly enough, all of my open source applications work flawlessly. Firefox, Thunderbird, Sunbird, and all installed and worked perfectly fine.. Even Truecrypt worked and creating encrypted volumes can be tricky. Maybe it's because developing cross platform applications means you can't use goofy operating system tricks.

Anyway, Vista's multimedia hooks are great and the interface much improved. Overall, I'm pleased with the OS. Not that I had a choice really. This time around, I think Microsoft got it right and the application developers hosed us.

Friday, May 25, 2007

All You Need is Love!

It's true. All you need is love. So, do we really need another scripting language? Ever since Perl and Javascript showed us that we could crank out code quickly by using a simpler, non-compiled language, scripting languages have proliferated like nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Besides the old languages such as C Shell, AWK, TCL, or SED, and the middle period ones like Javascript, VBScript, Flash Actionscript, and Perl, we nowmust contend with a whole host of new ones.

In the last few years we have seen the emergence of Ruby, Python, and PHP. All have their adherents who defend them with nearly religious fervor. PHP has become one of the most deployed server side scripting languages while Ruby is often used for interfaces that provide rich user experience (in other words Web 2.0) web sites. We can also add to the mix Java Server Pages (JSP), a scripting language for Java Servlets (popular amongst the Tomcat crowd) also for user interfaces. On top of that, Javascript has been extended and integrated into the AJAX model to provide for pretty much the same purpose.

Now, we can add a couple of new languages or environments to the mix. Some have been pushing Groovy, another servlet-oriented language. Despite the obvious Java-oriented scripting language proliferation, Sun has seen fit to launch yet another scripting language, JavaFX. Microsoft has also announced its scripting effort called Silverlight, despite have ASP.Net already.

Why do we need all of these languages? My take on it is that software companies need to have an entry in this space. Most scripting languages have come from the user community, with Javascript being a notable exception. Unlike compiled languages, which typically have high learning curves and need extensive tools, scripting languages are easy to learn and implement. By creating new scripting languages, many of which are similar to proprietary compiled languages, they extend the franchise in the part of the business that makes them money and neutralizing the user scripting languages which don't. This explains Sun and Microsoft's latest announcements.

I also think the open source and hobbyist communites feel compelled to develop new scripting languages because they simply don't like something about existing ones. It usually starts out with the need to have a language that solves a very narrow problem and expands into a general scripting language. Python and Perl comes to mind here.

The result is too many languages that offer few benefits over existing ones. Most are similar to another language but not exactly the same. This leads to a large number of mistakes that actually slow down coding. Anyone who writes both PHP and Javascript will know exactly what I mean. It also makes for a confusing landscape when trying to choose the what languages to use for a project. What I want is a language that can be implemented as compiled code, client side scripting, or server side scripting. It should start with a standard computer language syntac like C++ or Java. That way I only have to learn one language and can use it for everything. I can also start junior programmers on the more stripped down client side scripting version and work them up to the full, middleware enabled, component-oriented version used in my high volume server applications. This is something for Sun to consider since they, more than anyone else, have the capable to deliver this breadth of options based on the same core language, specifically Java. Microsoft might be able to accomplish this if they standardize on C# syntax.

Scripting languages are a very good idea. They allow for rapid, iterative, development, are exceptionally useful for user interface programming in browser-enabled applications, and make it much easier to deploy small applications quickly and with few resources. They also helped recreate programming as a hobby, something that was on the verge of disappearing as professional programming became more complex. We just have too much of a good thing and need to pare it down a bit. That way we can get on with writing code and not learning new computer languages.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Is it that thing real?

Q. When is an article not an article
A. When it's an ad!

For the past several weeks I've been on a tear about how the computer industry markets its products. First, I complained about the misuse of statistics. Then it was a general rant about ridiculous marketing. Now I want to turn my gaze toward the world of technical periodicals.

Don't get me wrong, technical magazines and websites are a great resource. They often have important news and, on occasion, thought provoking articles. I myself have written for some of the better technical publications that focus on data storage or open source software. Sometimes I'm even paid for these articles. Industry journals are important if you want to remain informed about the computer industry. They are also a legitimate component of a computer industry marketing campaign.

The problem is that too much content is not independent content. A lot of it is actually advertising disguised as independent content. This is different than ad supported content which is typical of news sites, newspapers, and most magazines. We expect to find ads on websites and in periodicals. It is also easy to tell what's an ad and what isn't. This is a good synergy. You read about something that interests you and there is an ad to help you get just that thing. Sure, the vendor wins but so does the consumer.

What I dislike is when the line between ads and content blurs, or worse, is trampled on. This happens in two ways. First, many of the articles in trade magazines and websites are provided by the vendors. This immediately makes them suspicious. However, that only means that you have to take them with a grain of salt. You need to remember that the article is there to get you interested in buying something. Since periodicals invariably tell you who wrote the article and what company they are with, you can tell pretty easily when something is vendor supplied. Most editors also clamp down on articles that are just sales pitches. There is something of an art to writing an article that gets your company's message across while not appearing like a sell sheet. As long as you keep in mind that they didn't write the article just to be nice, it can have a lot of value.

As an aside, my experience has been that buying ads doesn't get you coverage. The sales folks might get the editorial staff to meet with you but they rarely have much influence beyond that. The editors really don't like to print garbage or sales pitches. That's important to the sales force too. They know darn well that readership will decline if bad articles are printed, especially ones that are blatant sales devices. That, in turn, will drive their audited circulation and impressions numbers down, diminishing what they can charge for an ad. It's stupid to overtly cross the line.

Still, some magazines and websites are so heavily laden with vendor articles that they may as well be sales brochures. Although it seems like a win-win (the magazine gets content and the vendor get exposure) it makes the audience wary, maybe even jaded.

Even articles by analysts need to be viewed with a skeptical eye. While myself and my brethren analysts try very hard to remain independent of vendors, the pressure to promote their point of view and products is enormous. More than that, there is a natural hesitation to criticize clients and potential clients or their technology. Complete honesty may be valued in society by not in business. We tend to live by the old rule “if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” Everyone has their biases and ours are shaped, in part, by our clients.

To avoid the obvious negative consequences of too many vendor articles many periodicals and websites will create advertisements that look like articles. When these first appeared over ten years ago, it was obvious that they were paid placement. Not only was the word “advertisement” prominent but the ad was set using different fonts and graphics. Over time, the “advertisement” notice has gotten smaller and in some cases disappeared altogether. Worse, the articles are being designed to look just like the rest of the journal or site. I ran across one of these recently. It seemed like a normal article yet was so unabashedly promoting a vendor that I couldn't imagine a journalist writing it. The lack of a byline (something few authors would tolerate) was a giveaway. Then, at the bottom, in the type of fine print usually reserved for ripoff contracts, were the words “Paid Advertisement”. I actually had to get a magnifying glass to read it. Otherwise, it was indistinguishable from the rest of the magazine. Mind you, this happens in mainline business press, not just techie publications. It's positively endemic.

There are some obvious ethical questions about this type of infotisement. Even infomercials have a massive disclaimer at the beginning and end of the “program”. The style and content of informercials make it obvious that this is not a normal TV program. Paid magazine articles, on the other hand, can almost seem like they designed to deceive. They give the impression of journalism to a sales pitch. Like I said, I have nothing against advertisements, as long as they look like advertisements. Obviously look like advertisements.

Why care? Simple, deception destroys the relationship between the information source and the consumer. Ultimately is sours the relationship with the advertiser. That can't be good for anyone. As consumers we should expect more. I don't expect vendor articles to go away, nor should they. Paid advertisements masquerading as legitimate, independent, content should be expunged.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

I'm Bored! I'm the Chairman of the Bored!

With that quote from Iggy Pop and the Stooges I open my article about You Tube. We all know about You Tube, right? We remember how it brought every moron's homemade videos to the masses. We know how adept it has been at getting copyrighted material up on the net without paying royalties. It is the video home of the great unwashed. You Tube is a true indication that democracy lives and has a home on the Internet. There isn't a person on the planet that doesn't know that Google paid the equivalent of small country's GDP to purchase it.

What many are only now realizing is that it has jumped the shark. Yep, it's no longer the toast of the digerati elite. To put it simply: It's gotten boring. More accurately it has begun to collapse under its own weight and finally started running into deep pocketed and determined content owners like Viacom.

Three things are killing You Tube. First and foremost, it is collapsing under the sheer weight of the number of videos. It is damn near impossible to find anything simply because there is so much of it. If I want to find a (presumably legal) video by a band I'm interested in, I have to sift through lots of clutter. Like some drunken college student's review of the group's last concert (like I care). Or just as bad, fan videos. Where do these people get off thinking that they can make a better music video than professional filmmakers backed by the artists themselves and lots of record company money? Ultimately, it is impossible to find the gems buried in amongst the dung.

Second, is that you really can't post content without the owner's permission and expect to profit from it. You would have thought we learned that with Napster, yet so many companies persist in doing so. It only works in the underground. There, you can keep under the radar because you don't try to make money.

That's the crux of the problem. Content providers really get annoyed when people try and make money off of their content with giving them a cut. Sure, the RIAA weasels are suing high school students for their lunch money. That's the stupid end of the spectrum. Suing one's customers is hardly ever a good business strategy. Suing a multi-billion dollar company that is making boatloads of money is entirely different. At the very least, You Tube will be forced to pay much more attention and spend much more money keeping unauthorized content off their site. They will also be spending a lot for deals that allow them to post material with permission. Not only will that eat into profitability but it will remove one of the real reasons people flock to the site – to see videos they are supposed to pay for.

Finally, the quality of the amateur content is just plain poor. It used to be funny to see lots of really stupid people doing really stupid things. It was also fun to watch boring people doing boring stuff. After a few of those type videos, it's not so much fun anymore. It's dull, dull, dull! Outside of the promotional type videos that marketing flaks put up and the illegal content, You Tube is a vast wasteland. Even the most emotionally stunted people don't want to listen to endless breakup stories. No one wants to hear homemade karaoke either. Some of us hate karaoke all the time under any circumstance. In short, You Tube's homemade content has exceeded our collective attention span.

What's left then? More jackass videos? That was old before You Tube. More Mentos-Soda explosions? Yawn. Seen it before. Bodily functions? I think we've had enough of that. Really bad, primitive animation that isn't the least bit funny? I can get that on Cartoon Network but at least there will be some really good animation to break things up a bit.

You Tube showed us that we want really want video over the Internet. There is no doubt about that. Ultimately, as the newness of watching video wears off, we want good, professional, content, not amateur trash. AtomFilms has survived much longer than You Tube, in part because it features independent, short films by professionals. ABC and Cartoon Network stream their programming over the Internet and people watch it. Even better, folks pay a dollar and a half to download it to their iPods so they can watch it on minuscule screens.

You Tube can't keep it's audience if they rely on just anybody to upload content. They can't keep operating as a business if they make it easy for people to post illegal content. They can cut deals (and are doing so) for professional content but many big providers will resist, leaving them with nothing more then a smattering. Once these content providers build their own video capabilities, they'll yank their content off You Tube faster than you can say “injunction”. That way they don't have to share ad revenues with them.

Clearly, You Tube has hit it's apex and it's downhill from here on end. They won't go away or implode. Google will see to it that that doesn't happen. You Tube will simply lose its grip on its audience and become less cool. And less important.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Stikkits: Cool Technology You Can Use

While reading Boing Boing (one of the strangest yet most entertaining blog sites on the Internet) I was alerted to a neat company called Value of N. They offer a free web-based product that I have grown truly enamored with. The product is called Stikket. The Stikket site allows you to create and manage sticky notes on-line. Nothing new there really. For example, Yahoo! has Yahoo! Notepad. It allows you to create on-line notes that can conveniently be accessed via a Yahoo! Widgets widget or the Yahoo! website. Google Desktop has a similar feature as well.

Stikket, however, does way more then your typical notepad application. It includes a to-do list, calendar, and bookmarking system. Again, other services have these as well. They are not as well integrated but they do exist. What sets Stikkets apart is that everything is derived from the sticky note, called a stikket. The Value of N software analyzes what is written in the note for clues that tell it how to manage the content of the note. For example, if you say “remind me” in the note, it will send you a reminder via e-mail. If you say “Order Books Tomorrow” it will create a calendar entry for “Order Books” with tomorrow's date. It can recognize e-mail address, hyperlinks, and other typical clues. There is a simple and natural way to list items as to-do list entries that can be checked off. The stikket itself is then listed in the To-Do section as well.

What is remarkable is that bookmarks, to-dos, tags, and calendar entries are not treated as separate items. The stikket drives everything. At the very least, you always have the original note which could contain much more information then a typical calendar entry. In fact, a stikket could be interpreted as a calendar entry while portions inside as to-dos.

In the same manner as the MyStuff system, you can create a bookmark for a website. However, to paraphrase Fred in the movie “Valley Girl”, it's not what they do, it's the way they do it that makes the difference. You can save a link on your toolbar to create a stikket. If you click on it while on a website, it pops up a stikket with the URL embedded in it and categorized as a bookmark. You can add to the stikket just like any other stikket. The software will also analyze the content of the page and provide a ready-made list of tags for the stikket. Neat!

Which brings us to yet another great feature – tagging. You can tag in a number of ways including explicit tags (say “tag as...” in your stikket) or by letting the software figure it out from the content. It is another example of content driven features that makes Stikkets so useful. At this time explicit tagging is the only reliable way to tag a stikket but I'm betting that will change.

But wait! There's more! Stikket contains collaboration features, again driven by the content of the stikket. Make a note in the stikket to share it with someone, or reference them by Stikket name or their e-mail, and copies of the stikket are made available to others. You can even send reminders and assign tasks this way.

A simple, familiar interface belies so much power. There are some features (like peeps) that I haven't even explored yet. Stikkets almost seems to understand what I want it to do without me telling it explicitly. Now that's automation. I'm hoping they can succeed. More likely they will be consumed by some big on-line company. In a way that would be good since this functionality would then become even more widespread. I would love to see this in office productivity applications or CRM packages. Hey Microsoft! You listening?

Next up on the Value of N landscape, an e-mail assistant with some similar features. Called IwantSandy, it promises to look at the content of your e-mail and automate the process of setting events, managing your address book, and organizing e-mail. That may prove to be a truly killer app.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Common Pitfalls of Technology Advertising

I am pretty much appalled at the state of technology advertising. Telcos, hardware companies and software companies have some of the dullest, most confusing, most obscure messaging in the world. The same mistakes are made over and over. I have to wonder where the disconnect is. Is it that advertising firms just don't get technology? Perhaps technology people don't know how to talk to other human beings. The biggest problems happen when technology companies try to market to consumers. Here are a few of my favorite pitfalls of technology advertising.
  1. The “We Suck Less” Approach. A prime example of this is the Cingular ads that talk about fewer dropped calls. First off, why mention the fact that you drop any calls at all? It's not something people tend to focus on. According to Cingular, this happens all the time while sitting in your living room. I'm glad they pointed that out. Before they mentioned it, I always thought it had to do with me driving through different cell zones at 60 miles an hour. Now I know it's the cell phone companies' fault. Thanks for clearing that up. Of course they may drop less calls because they connect less calls in the first place. Don't think we haven't thought of that.

  2. The “Let Me Get The Manual” Problem. Also known as the “What the heck are you talking about” problem. This one is endemic to PC makers. They spew all kinds of techie jargon at people who can't possible know what it means. Consumers want to know what they can do with the stupid thing not what's its configuration is. The good news is that you see much less of this these days. The bad news is that you still see this today.

  3. The “Price of Tea in China” Issue. A great example of this is the Intel Duo Core processor ads that litter the Internet. I don't mean on technology sites where IT people and engineers go, I mean on Atom Films or Adult Swim (which is part of the Cartoon Network, not a porn site). These are video sites that normal people go to. Do you really think they give a hoot about the processor in their desktop computer? They politely watch the ad so they can get on with watching clips of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I'm sure some ad agency is spouting some garbage back to Intel about number of viewings, name recognition, and extrapolating that to processors sold. The problem is, except for the hardcore techie and gamer types, no one cares even a little bit. Even the hardcore folks don't care very much.

  4. The “Beating a Dead Horse” Syndrome. Okay all advertisers do this. They keep the same thing going far too long. Like the Budweiser frogs. Funny at first but annoying at the end. Or the Geico cavemen. Hello Geico. It's jumped the shark! Tech companies are not immune to this either. Take the Apple “PC vs. Mac” ads with the dull, nerdy guy representing the PC and the hip, young guy as a Mac. We get it. Macs are cool, PCs are for boring nerds. Or perhaps for people who don't want to pay too much for a computer. Whatever. But the commercials are decidedly dull now. Much more so than the PC guy.

  5. The “Huh?” Factor. We all know that technology can be hard to describe in a 30 second ad, right? So let's not describe it all! A great example of this approach is the Microsoft Vista ads. They show people doing mundane things like jogging or watching television, all the while muttering “Wow”. What the heck is that suppose to mean? There's a guy staring at a deer in a suburban street. What's that about? At least they show you the product at the end. The connection from the imagery to the product escapes me. An earlier ad for Vista didn't show the product at all. It had people walking around and vogueing. At least the text shown on the screen said what the major improvements in Vista were. I guess Microsoft assumes they can't appeal to our intelligence and have to go for the emotional. Funny thing is that no one is going to buy Vista because they heard it was “Wow”. They are going to buy it because it's bundled with their new PC. From “Huh?” to “Duh!”

  6. The “Dry as an Old Bone” Problem. Pickup any technology magazine and you will know exactly what I mean. Really dull ads that do little more than show a commodity product and some silly background image. Hackneyed, boring, and not worth the ink to print it. Not only don't these ads get someone to buy, they don't even get them to look.

This is not to say that all technology or communications advertising is bad. I especially like the T-Mobile commercial for their MyFaves features. This ad has two teens, a boy and a girl, sitting at the dinner table talking about who is in the MyFaves circle. The girls lists all of her closest friends. The boy does the same – all of her closest friends. She is clearly upset about this. It's funny and clearly shows not only the MyFaves feature but why it is attractive to it's target audience. More technology advertising should be like this.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Greetings from the Data Protection Summit

I've been going to fewer and fewer trade shows, conferences, and expos. The reason: I see mostly the same folks (nice though they are) and the same gear. I have the same conversations about mostly the same stuff. Storage conferences in particular are dull with endless rows of storage systems, mostly disk systems, that all look the same. Usually someone tries to convince me that their new disk system is faster then anything ever known. Okay, sure. Whatever...

However, I decided to go to the Data Protection Summit in Irvine even though it's a new event. I like focused conferences especially about the very thing I write about the most. As can be expected with a new conference, turnout was not what everyone wanted but the sessions were high quality. On the vendor side, there weren't any of the giant three-letter-acronym companies. Instead, there were mostly smaller companies that focused on one or two innovative (or so they hope) products.

So here are my impressions of what the conference had to offer:

  1. Gobs of storage security “platforms”. More concentration of storage security than I've ever see before. There were more encryption devices displayed then people in the sessions. The problem with these devices is that they all look and act the same. I think it would be hard to decide on a vendor given the sameness of the products.

    Note to vendors: People don't buy based on small differentiators especially when they can buy from a large full service vendor instead.

  2. Where was everyone else? With the emphasis on encryption so strong, there was little room for other forms of data protection. Hardly anyone was showing good old-fashioned data protection solutions, tape or disk. ILM, traditional backup and restore, CDP, etc. were talked about in the sessions but no one was showing them. It is a strange disconnect between what was discussed and what was shown.

    This tells me two things. First that in minds of small vendors at least, all the other forms of data protection have jumped the shark. No matter that backup systems are what people are buying. It's just not interesting enough to get the VC's to invest in you. Second, old-fashioned backup is still interesting enough to talk about and (more importantly) buy. It's just not as much fun to see. Everyone talks about the new Fall Out Boy album but secretly listens to Bruce Springsteen.

  3. Compliance Rules! If security didn't get your attention then regulatory compliance sure did. No matter what the subject, it always came up. Vendors, analysts, and IT folks all had something to say about it (me included). It's so worrisome even though it only represents a small part of what is wrong with data protection. It just goes to show that lawyers can scare the snot out of anyone, even seasoned IT people. Most of us would rather face an angry mob of end-users whose data was dumped down the drain than be deposed by an attorney.

    We can all imagine the opposition lawyer, dressed completely in black and hissing “Where are the tapes” like Darth Vader. Sends a shudder down your spine, doesn't it?

  4. Your own private DR site. I saw something really cool from a company called VaultStor. It was a standalone, self contained, D2D system in a fireproof and waterproof vault. It's a DR center that fits in a closet. It's a great solution for small and remote offices where it is terribly inconvenient to build a protected data center. Often in those cases the device are left vulnerable to physical disaster. Or the data is left vulnerable to any kind of disaster. VaultStor is a great idea. My thanks to Tom Rauscher of Zetera for pointing them out to me.

  5. From The “All Talk and No Action” Department. There was a lot of gabbing about protecting mobile data but few solutions. Everyone admits it's a problem yet there didn't seem to be too many good ways to address it. Most of the solutions were geared toward protecting mobile data from prying eyes but not from total loss.

    There seems to be this fantasy land where laptops hold no useful information that isn't backed up on a corporate server. In this wonderful place, the CEO has never dropped his laptop down a flight of stairs and a salesperson never accidentally erased the customer proposal that was written in the hotel the night before. Lovely place. I want to live there.

And there you have it. The first Data Protection Summit has come and gone. It yielded, for me anyway, some interesting insights into where the industry is heading. So, despite the low turnout, there was a lot of value in it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

My Top Five Reasons Why The Open Source Community Should Stop Whining

I like open source products. I use them, write about them, and recommend them. What I can't stand is the constant whining and sniping about Microsoft from vocal members of the open source community. They position Microsoft as the Evil Empire. The popular wisdom amongst the anti-Microsoft crowd is that the company owes its success to being technology buccaneers. They steal other people's good ideas and then crush those people under their mighty fist.

I see this every day. Every press announcement from Darth Ballmer or Gates is seen as a pronouncement from the depths of Hades. Vista was lambasted even before it was released and not for the reasons it should be lambasted. The loudest and most persistent whining was over the mutual patent agreement with Novell. It's not a sign of the apocalypse. Companies make these kind of arrangements every day. It's called covering your behind.

What these folks fail to see is that Microsoft is good for open source. In the spirit of giving back to the open source community, I have compiled my top five reasons why Microsoft is good for the open source community. Take heed and maybe you will have something to think about.

5. Jealousy Makes Open Source People Look Like Babies. Oh grow up! When all you can do is cry about Microsoft you look silly. Wah! Wah! Bad Microsoft took all the corporations away from me. Stop telling us why they are lousy and tell me why open source is good. “They stink more” is not a an effective communication strategy. Nor is “Because Microsoft is a bunch of meanies.” If you can't present a compelling reason why your solution is better then maybe it's not. What's sad is that there are a lot of compelling reasons for open source. They just get lost in the self pity.

4. They Have Figured Out the Desktop. Unlike everyone else, they figured out that mix of features and cost that works on the desktop computer. In fact, I think pushing the “Wow” factor of Vista is misguided. People who want eye candy pay the extra it takes for a Mac. People who want really cheap but more geek factor use a Linux desktop. Microsoft has the mix right and is an example for future desktop operating systems. Good enough and cheap enough.

3. Microsoft Actually Makes Some Good Software Sometimes. Sorry but it's true. Let's face it, is a copy of Microsoft Office. And every word processor touts MS Word file compatibility, even Google Docs. In this instance, Microsoft became the leaders by making good software such as PowerPoint (which created an entirely new category of software). You can't act like everything they do stinks. It's simply not true or fair.

2. The Eye of Sauron Effect. Without Microsoft to draw their attention, open source software would attract the black hats. For proof, look at the growth in the number of Firefox attacks since it started taking market share from Internet Explorer. Also keep in mind that the short comings of open source software are often overlooked because people are busy complaining about Microsoft.

1. Competition is good. If Microsoft did not exist, then open source would stagnate. Without something pushing the development, without a sense of oneupmanship, it would be hard to justify the effort that goes into open source development. The open source community needs a big monolithic company as its foil. Otherwise, they have no reason to exist.

The unkindest cut of all is that Microsoft actually helps promote open source products. Check out the MSN Tech site. Right on the front page is a link for Firefox and other open source products. I'm no Microsoft apologist but fair is fair. Criticism is fine but constant attacks are unproductive.

Stop the whining and crying and get on with making software. If you make it better than Microsoft then you deserve attention. Otherwise, you end up looking like a crybaby. And here's the world's smallest violin playing just for you...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mark Twain Was Right

Everyone knows that old wag by Mark Twain that goes There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. Truer words were never spoken. It's not so much that people who use statistics are trying to lie. Instead, in many cases statistics are used inappropriately and lend too much gravitas and certainty to an unknown situation. Unlike scientists, business people rarely make inquires as to research methods and models. If there are numbers in front of us, it's much easier to believe whatever point someone is trying to make. We tend not to question the statistics in the same way we would a financial information.

So why the rant? The trigger was a rather good article I read in InfoStor. The article was examining the shift from older storage protocols such as parallel SCSI and ATA to more modern ones such as SAS or SATA. I absolutely agree with the premise that we are shifting away from parallel protocols - a vestige of the ancient world in computing terms - to serial ones. I also agree that it is happening rapidly. So far, I'm completely on-board.

What caused me to get seasick was not the article per se but the graphics that accompanied it. They had two sets of pie charts, showing changes in the market share of the different storage protocols from 2006 through 2009. What was jarring was how different they were.

Now, I can understand perfectly how the 2008 and 2009 numbers could be very different. Different forecast models will yield different results. It's why it is important to understand the model used in quantitative research before using the information to make a decision. It is a prediction that looks more precise because it uses numbers instead of words. If I said that by 2009 SAS and SATA would comprise the majority of the storage protocol market, it would be easy to discount it as my opinion, no matter how informed that opinion was. If I told you that “Research shows that SAS will encompass 45% of the market and the next largest share would be SATA at 30%” it would sound much more believable. They are both predictions but the latter sounds more credible because I used some numbers. The assumptions underlying those numbers are rarely questioned. If you don't understand the model then you have no way of knowing if the numbers are just a guess or how good a guess they are.

What caught my eye was the difference in the 2006 numbers. For example, the parallel SCSI share percentages differed by roughly 6 percentage points (43% vs. 49%). This is a substantial gap, especially when it's not a forecast anymore. Now, I know how this works. How you count impacts the numbers. If you tally up the number of chips sold versus the number of ports sold, you will get different amounts. The former actually includes some future “ports” or other uses. One may overcount and the other undercount. It's also the case that these numbers are still part forecast. The last quarter for many companies has yet to be reported. Again, this is why understanding how these numbers are arrived at is tremendously important for decision makers.

In case someone may be thinking that this is a case of professional envy, put that out of your mind. I purposefully don't do quantitative research for this very reason. People should accept my opinions for what they are. Informed and insightful analysis but not certainty. Too many people accept relatively simple statistics as a sure thing, as truth. They're not and should be examined with a critical eye. Besides, the reported statistics are unusually simple. We tend to think that's enough. Basing any conclusion on a frequency distribution would be laughable in modern social science research.

I have nothing against statistics or the analysts that use them. In most cases, I have great respect for their insights. That doesn't mean that their methods should not be scrutinized by a consumer. As these charts show, not everything is what it seems and nothing should be taken on face value.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Back To The Future with Google Apps

I am generally a proponent of Software as Service (SaS). To me, the advantages are clear. With central control you eliminate the costs associated with updating and distributing client applications. It's also much easier to share information that resides in a central repository. Even client-server applications, where data is stored and managed in a central database, have the problem of client distribution. Strip away the GUI and make it a web page and you will achieve cost savings. SaS makes the most sense for enterprise applications such as MRP, CRM, and other three letter acronym systems. It also works well for social networking. What I don't get is SaS for office productivity applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets. I'm not even convinced of web-based e-mail except as an adjunct to a client-server environment or as a low-end, free, consumer product.

Google has been rolling out free versions of its word processor and spreadsheet products for months. They hope to entice corporations, big and small, to use this service instead of buying standalone productivity applications such as Microsoft Office. Google, like Yahoo and Microsoft, has been selling premium on-line e-mail packages for quite some time and think office applications dovetail nicely into this business. The e-mail services have been popular with individuals and small businesses because of their low or no cost. The fact that they lack the features of Thunderbird or Outlook matters very little to the technophobic low-usage public that doesn't want to install and, more importantly, configure an e-mail application. However, that won't be a problem for business of more than a few people.

What Google seems to be recreating is the ancient IBM PROFS suite. PROFS was developed by IBM in the 1970s and deployed on mainframes throughout the US Government. It had an integrated e-mail and calendaring system and was often used for word processing as well. PROFS got killed by client-server e-mail systems in the 1980s, though it lingered on under the name OfficeVision for quite some time until finally replaced by Lotus Notes and Domino.

PROFS became irrelevant for the same reasons that Google Docs and Spreadsheets are a tough sell for me. They can't create the kind of user experience you need in a word processor or produce the range of features desired in a spreadsheet. Even with all the new techniques for enhancing user experience, these applications are slow, quirky, and lacking in features when compared to established office suites. Even more importantly, you need to be tethered to a high speed network connection. That eliminates the ability to work on an airplane, secluded beach, or anywhere else that you can't get a broadband connection. A secure and reliable broadband connection at that. Add to that all the normal problems of network applications such as network congestion and overloaded servers – again the problems of mainframe applications – and you have to wonder why we seem to be going backwards in time.

There are also some special problems associated with SaS for office applications. For starters, you have to feel comfortable having your intellectual property and trade secrets housed off-site by different company. That pretty much killed the Storage Service Provider Market five years back. It scared the pants off corporate security analysts to have someone else control many classes of corporate data. Will spreadsheets be okay somehow? What about privacy? Will there be problems if I write a performance review or termination letter in Google Docs?

A key argument in the sales pitch for office SaS is that the cost of applications such as Microsoft Office are high. True enough. The latest version of Office is very expensive not only to buy but to deploy. You have to believe that the benefits of the revamped Office interface will pay off enough to overcome the costs of retraining and supporting confused workers.

There are alternatives that don't include a feature poor service. You can avoid the high purchase costs of upgrades or even new deployments by using open source applications such as Thunderbird for e-mail and the productivity suite. There are a number of lower cost commercial suites as well such as the storied WordPerfect. All of these are perfectly good for the modern office. Besides, no one says you have to update you word processor just because Microsoft has a new version. With on-line applications, you may not get the choice.

Ultimately, SaS makes sense when there is a natural advantage to being connected. In that case, you are going to be networked anyway. Intranet portals, order entry, customer management, workflow management, and group calendaring makes sense as a service. To be useful, they have to have access to a central data repository so you might as well make the whole system centralized. Productivity applications are designed around individual work and need to be available when there is no network.

Google thinks they can take us back to the days of PROFS. Nice idea but I doubt it will work. Centralized mainframe office applications suffered a quick death for a reason. Those reasons haven't changed. While they may get a bunch of consumers to use these applications and sell ads around it (nothing wrong with that) they won't get a sufficient number of corporate clients to make it viable as a Word or Excel killer. If I were Microsoft, I would be more worried about the Open Source community than Google's on-line apps.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Managing Metadata

Everywhere I turn, I hear more about metadata. It seems that everyone is jumping on the metadata bandwagon. For those of you who have never heard the term, it is data about data. More precisely, metadata describes data, providing the context that allows us to make it useful.

Bringing Structure to Chaos

Organizing data is something we do in our heads but that computers are pretty poor at. It is natural for a human being to develop schema and categories for the endless streams of data that invade our consciousness every moment we that are awake. We can file things away for later use, delete it as unimportant, and connect it with other data to form relationships. It is an innate human capability.

Not so with computers. They are literal in nature and driven by the commands that we humans give them. No matter how smart we think computers are, compared to us organics, they are as dumb as rocks.

Metadata is an attempt to give computers a brain boost. By describing data, we are able to automate the categorization and presentation of data in order to make it more meaningful. In other words, we can build schema out of unstructured data. Databases do this by imposing a rigid structure on the data. This works fine for data that is naturally organized into neat little arrangements. For sloppy situations, say 90% of the data in our lives, databases are not so useful.

Metadata Is All Around Us

We are already swimming in metadata. All those music files clogging up our hard drives have important metadata associated with them. That's why your iPod can display the name, artist and other important information when you play a song and iTunes can build playlists automatically. Your digital camera places metadata into all of those pictures of your kids. Because of metadata, you can attach titles and other information to them and have them be available to all kinds of software. Internet services use metadata extensively to provide those cool tag clouds, relevant search responses, and social networking links.

Businesses have a keen need for metadata. With so many word processor documents, presentations, graphics, and spreadsheets strewn about corporate servers, there needs to be a good way to organize and manage them. Information Lifecycle Management assumes the ability to generate and use metadata. Advanced backup and recovery also uses metadata. Companies are trying to make sense out of the vast stores of unstructured data in their clutches. Whether it's to help find, manage, or protect data, organizations are increasingly turning to metadata approaches to do so.

Dragged Down By The Boat

So, we turn to metadata to keep us from drowning in data. Unfortunately, we are starting to find ourselves drowning in metadata too. A lot of metadata is unmanaged. Managing metadata sounds a lot like watching the watchers. If we don't start to do a better job of managing metadata, we are going to find out an ugly truth about it – it can quickly become meaningless. Just check out the tag cloud on an on-line service such as Technorati or Flicr. They are so huge that it's practically useless. I'm a big fan of tag clouds when they are done right. The ability to associate well thought out words and phrases to a piece of data makes it much easier to find what you want and attach meaning to whatever the data represents.

The important phrase here is “well thought out”. A lot of metadata is impulsive. Like a three year old with a tendency to say whatever silly thought comes into their brains, a lot of tags are meaningless and transient. Whereas the purpose of metadata is to impart some extended meaning to the data, a lot of metadata does the opposite. It creates a confused jumble of words that shine no light on the meaning of the data.

The solution is to start to manage the metadata. That means (and I know this is heresy that I speak) rules. Rules about what words can be used in what circumstances. Rules about the number of tags associated with any piece of data. Rules about the rules basically. It makes my stomach hurt but it is necessary.

I don't expect this discipline from Internet services. It runs counter to the “one happy and equal family” attitude that draws people to these services. For companies this is necessary as they implement metadata driven solutions. Unfortunately, it means guidelines (tagged as “information”, “guidelines”, “metadata”, or something) and some person with a horrible, bureaucratic personality to enforce them. Think of it as a necessary evil, like lawmen in the old West.

For the most part, companies will probably start to manage metadata when it is already too late, when they are already drowning in the stuff. There is an opportunity to still avoid the bad scenario though. Metadata-based management of unstructured data is still pretty new. Set up the rules and guidelines now. Enforce the rules and review the tags and how they are used regularly. Eventually, there will be metadata analysis software to assist you but in the meantime, put the framework in place. The opportunity is there to do it right from the beginning and avoid making a big mistake. Use metadata to create value from your data rather than confuse things further.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Why PRDs Screw Up Product Development

Anybody who has ever been involved in product development, especially in the computer industry, knows that it is a process that rarely proceeds smoothly. At some point in the development process it is becomes obvious that the product will either not be what was hoped for or will be late. If you are lucky, you will get a product that is just about good enough and close to on time.

Sometimes, you get what you want (or more accurately, what the customers want) when you want it. Rarely. Products like the iPod are the exception to the rule. They hit the right market at the right time with the right features. It's rare because it takes an extraordinarily visionary with the clout in the company to make it happen. Not every company has a Steve Jobs.

Instead, we all get to that point in the product development cycle where Engineering and Marketing/Sales are at each others throats and things are heading south quickly. The culprit? The Product Requirements Document a.k.a. the PRD. It might be called almost anything (Specifications, Requirements, Concept) but it's always the same - the document that defines what the product is and who it's meant for.

"Now wait a minute!" you might be saying "That's the very situation the PRD is supposed to avoid!" By outlining the features in sufficient detail, engineering knows what to build and marketing has the commitment that it will be built when they need it. How could that be the problem.

The problem isn't the document per se. It is what it really means to the people involved. To most of the folks involved in product development, the PRD is a social contract. An agreement between those who build and those who sell to produce something that the company can make money with. There is a lot of emotional and social capital invested in it. For marketing people, their ability to do their job properly as well as their reputations are on the line. For the engineers, their sense of self - as builders and innovators - is at risk.

Inevitably, there is some important feature that turns out to be much harder to produce than was originally thought. That is the nature of innovative products. When the PRD - the contract - cannot be met all kinds of social problems start to raise their ugly heads. To some, failure to meet the PRD is a failure of the people involved, a kind of dishonesty. A breaking of the contract. There is a tendency to try and find fault with "the other side". The feature wasn't well defined. Sure. You guys in the back have been goofing around with unimportant features. Right!

This inherent conflict cannot be resolved easily either. Too much is at stake for all parties for that to happen. Two major drivers inhibit resolution. The first is humiliation. To the engineers especially, this is personal. They are the makers and they can't make. It's like a chef messing up burning your steak. Few organizations are able to deal with this effectively. Even if most of the team acts well, there is almost always some who do not. There is always a few folks who will act dismissively. It is typical for the marketing fool to say something like "I don't understand why this is so hard. It's just code (or plastic or whatever). This is a non-too-subtle way of saying "You are a loser who can't do your job". Not that the marketing dweeb in question has any idea how hard it can be do to code or plastic or toilet seats.

By the same token, there is always some geeky engineers who, in trying to save face, say things like "Why don't you just sell the features we have finished". Again, a dismissive attitude about something they know nothing about. Sure. No problem. Of course, the fact that the competition has what we have plus the feature you can't make doesn't matter. Sometimes that's ignorance talking (most engineers have never had to sell anything - and we are thankful for that). Most of the time it is a clumsy attempt to deflect criticism. In the end, acting this way toward each other makes everyone furious and shuts down the ability to solve the problem.

As an aside, one of my favorite behaviors that you see in these circumstances is The Pointing Out of Flaws. Similar to the Airing of Grievances at Festivus (Watch Seinfeld reruns if you don't get that) it consists of one arrogant jerk pointing out all the problems with a plan while never offering up a solution. I can't stand that. It accomplishes nothing while making everyone want to slap the pompous ass doing it. These people must be put on the spot with "What do you suggest then?" or "Thanks for the analysis. I'm making you responsible for coming up with solutions to these problems."

The only thing that short circuits this behavior is a lack of tolerance for it. Team members have got to be able to admit they are struggling with something without fear of being publicly humiliated by others. Not only shouldn't the dismissive behavior be tolerated but an environment has to exist where small failures can be admitted so that the team can come together and form a solution.

The other reason for product failure is, oddly enough, lack of accountability. In too many cases, either no one or the wrong person is held
is held accountable for failure. That happens all the time. In some cases, we are afraid to take people to task because they will become unmotivated (a highly questionable assumption). In other cases there is no way to do so since metrics are vague or nonexistent. Or worse, the metrics are stupid such as lines of code per day. Since no one is accountable for failure, no one is responsible for solutions. So, you don't get any solutions.

The whole team suffers from the slackers or incompetents. Either everyone has to work doubly hard to make up for those who fall behind or everyone gets blamed. That's when the humiliation factor kicks in. If you feel like you are being tarred with the same brush as the guy who isn't keeping up, you will get pretty defensive. It's simple mental self-protection..

The way out of this dilemma is also good management style. Those who bear the most responsibility, the team leaders, need to identify ways to measure outcomes along the way and deal with those who are not making the grade. That can be frightening when it means you may end up shorthanded on the project. Shorthanded is still better than behind held back. If you can't rely on someone, you're better off without them. Jettison them immediately before they do too much harm.

And perhaps, most of all, change the PRD into something that sets the initial course of the project then, toss it in the back of the file cabinet. Let the managers manage to the people and the needs of the market and not a slip of paper. Make decisions together rather than pointing at a paragraph in a document and say "See! It's right there and you signed it. Loser!"

PRDs are fine for describing what you want to do. The team is what makes it happen. Free your team from the contract, refuse to tolerate dismissive behavior and hold everyone (including yourself) accountable for success and failure. You will get better products that way and on-time.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Looking Forward in 2007

At this time of year, there is a tendency to look back on the year that just passed. Subsequently, the industry press and blogsphere is chock full of articles with titles like "The Best of 2006 in.." or "Looking Back at 2006 in...". I thought about doing that too. For about ten seconds. Who wants a recap of stuff we already know. That's fun for cultural ruminations about music or movies but not for technology, especially a subspecies like data storage. We are more interested in where we are going than where we've been.

One of the reasons I was tempted to do a retrospective is because the upcoming year seems to be shaping up to be, well, a bit dull. The last few years have been, technologically speaking, quite exciting. We have seen the mainstreaming of ILM, CDP, disk-to-disk backup, and WAFS. Highly scalable NAS devices and file virtualization, on the edge just a few years ago, are now commonplace.

With all this new technology having previously been introduced, a slowdown is inevitable. Once technology is proven to the point where managers can feel it is safe, they deploy it. That's where the focus will be in 2007. Getting all of this useful technology into the data center without something going horribly wrong. The good news is that after all the data disasters of the past year, there is renewed interest in data protection at the highest levels of the corporation. That means there will be budget for these projects.

For vendors, this is good news indeed. Rather than evaluating new technology, IT managers will actually be buying it. It's a salesperson's dream - something new to talk about that works and that customer might actually buy.

Also on the vendor side, consolidation will continue. The big companies will continue to gobble up the small ones that are still left. Their focus will be on integrating these newer technologies into their overall product lines. To that end, CDP is fast becoming a feature of disk-based backup and WAFS another network service.

Since everyone will be spending their time digesting acquisitions and technology, don't expect radical new technology to hit the streets. Think incremental changes to products rather then revolutionary new technology. Most folks will be too worried about deployment to care about something disruptive.

For sure, some areas will continue to show innovation. Information management tools such as classification or information tracking are still in their infancy. A lot can happen in this arena in the next year. Application specific storage also has some ways to go and will be a hot area in 2007.

A lot will be happening on the consumer side as well. While more a packaging project, making advanced technology available to consumers will be an interesting path for some companies. Seagate and Iomega are gearing up to attack this market head on. As more and more households store and share lots of digital photos, music, and videos, they will need better storage options then a PC hard drive. These products will be well received once the prices come down a bit.

In a nutshell, 2007 will be a bit boring unless you are making or spending money. In that case, you will be very busy.