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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Twitter is Doomed

Twitter is doomed.

You have to admit. As far as opening statements go, that one is pretty provocative. Granted, it's an overstatement for dramatic effect. To be fair, it should only read “Twitter may be doomed.”

Social networks are different from other forms of Internet-based communication or content. Most media rely on the entire Internet not one service. Email down? Use a different account. It's exactly the same. Same for IM. As long as everyone has access it doesn't matter which you use. Web content in general is usually available in more than one place. If Hulu is ill today, you can still watch your shows on MSNBC out of commission? Try, or any of thousands of news outlets. And so on. There is a lot of redundancy in content and service and one is as good as another.

With social networks, the value is in the network. Not what it does but who it does. Facebook matters because of your Facebook Friends. If Facebook is down, then you can't update your network. You don't care if you update the world. It's the Facebook crowd that matters. Twitter is like this too.

Which brings us to why it is likely doomed. It's down all the time. As in several times a week. Stuff you want to Tweet (as posting to Twitter is called) is meant to go to your Twitter followers and they are waiting for it. There is no alternative since each social network is different. If all the networks was the same, folks would choose only one since you'd see the same content all the time. Even if you post the same thing on different social networks you are addressing different networks of people. Sure there is overlap but not complete and total. Everything else is interchangeable on the Internet since the Internet has 100% overlap. You can always find a substitute. With social networks it is unlikely that you will achieve anywhere that amount of overlap.

The final nail in the coffin comes about because, at some point in time, Twitter has to make money. If enough people get annoyed at the constant outages the value of Twitter over other social media will diminish to the point that the critical mass they need to attract advertisers will evaporate. No money means no Twitter. Twitter is (maybe) doomed.

In fact, the first to go will be the corporate types most likely to want to tie ads to their tweets. Once it reverts back to a handful of teenagers talking about what they had for lunch, no one (not even people who make lunch meat for teenagers) will be there to advertise.

The microblog format is clearly something people want. It just doesn't have to be Twitter. It could just as easily be Facebook, Google, or Microsoft. Which is exactly what it will be if Twitter doesn't deal with the downtime. Maybe Twitter is a victim of its own success. Could be that it is collapsing under the weight of the number of people who like it. None of that matters. People are not that forgiving. Either it gets fixed or Twitter is toast.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Get Off Of My Cloud

With Oracle's recent acquisitions of VirtualIron and Sun Microsystems, it would appear that they are positioning themselves as a player in the emerging area of cloud computing. Last year when I was buying IT resources, the concept of purchasing virtualized resources sounded really good. No more tying up money in data centers. No more hiring people to babysit hardware and software systems. Instead, investment and attention would all be focused on developing applications that created revenue for the company. Why not just buy hunks of processor, memory, disk and bandwidth from someone whose job it was to provide infrastructure? They make money and I don't have to tie up precious capital in hardware that goes obsolete. The nice thing about applications is that they are forever. Hardware, on the other hand, is like a car – it starts to depreciate the minute it leaves the showroom.

A funny thing happen on the way to the cloud though. I began to worry about privacy and long term viability. Some data is so valuable that you don't want anyone taking a peak at it. Intellectual property records, social security numbers, patient data, and the like can't be trusted to anyone but yourself. This is not the same as type data. If my data was sitting on someone's SAN, how could I be sure no one messed with it? When I rented a server that was pretty easy. I could look at the server, check out the storage, and see what the logs told me myself. Fairly basic protections could go a long way towards making me feel secure.

The public cloud however provides none of that. You know practically nothing about the security of the systems. Amazon S3 is a great idea until you realize that you are handing your data over to Amazon with only their reassurances that everything will be alright. You can't see or touch their gear because it's in the cloud somewhere. Given the proclivity of large companies to misuse data and ignore privacy, it seems foolish to give it over to a faceless cloud.

Even if you assume the best, a public cloud requires a level of trust in the provider that is unknown in recent memory and perhaps unprecedented. Do you really trust Google with your data? Do you think they will always make decisions that are in your interest and not there's? Of course not.

And what happens when the cloud evaporates one day? We've seen large numbers of online applications disappear in the recession. What makes us think that you cloud provider, especially the smaller ones, won't join them. Remember the Storage Service Provider fiasco when SSP when boom in the Internet bust? What will you do if your cloud providers goes belly up? Replacing an ISP or even a rented server is fairly easy. You find another one. Can you find another cloud to sit on quickly? And can you adapt your applications to the new cloud in time?

Note that I said “public cloud”. Building your own cloud is fundamentally different. It's just another form of cost effective architecture. That's where I think Oracle will go with all this. Given Sun's ability to deliver a data center in a cargo container, coupled with VirtualIron's software and Oracle applications, they will be able to deploy an entire private cloud to your doorstep. I envision a tractor trailer pulling up and leaving a cargo container with a data center in my back yard. One can dream can't one.

Cloud technology has a lot of advantages. That's been talked about ad nausem. You get many of those advantages even if you own it. A private cloud allows you to have the benefits of a virtualized environment without the privacy and security problems. Public clouds are risky. They might be inevitable but don't get your heads into the clouds lightly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

All The Small Things

It's no surprise that applications have gotten huge. Software is like a gas – expands to fit the volume and disk volume is getting bigger and cheaper.

Take a look at a typical PC game. It likely comes on a DVD because it is several gigabytes in size. The same is true for operating systems and productivity applications. And Linux geeks, don't think it's any better for you. A decent distro with a good GUI such as Ubuntu can still take up gigabytes of disk space. If you are sitting there smug and thinking that it's not true because you use on-line apps instead, think again. A quick look at Google Docs should dispel the notion that it is in some way small. Every day new “capabilities” pop up that not only add to the size of the Google apps, consume amazing amounts of memory and include features that nobody uses. At any given moment, my Firefox browser with a couple of tabs open eats up a half a gigabyte of memory. Sure, it's partly due to my own excess with extensions but without the extensions Firefox is just not that interesting. I know that disk storage has gotten stupid cheap but that's only a small part of it. These enormous apps consume RAM, processor time, and mind share.

The good news is that there are still a lot of great small applications that are easy on your computer resources and downright useful. I love apps like that. They do one thing, do it well, and cost very little if anything. Here's a couple of examples.


Fences organizes the icons on your desktop into little groups. You use the mouse to draw a “fence” around the icons and they are encased in a transparent box with a label (or without if you prefer). You can then move the icon group around, resize the fence, and change the arrangement of the icon. Organizing icons on a desktop is something most of us do anyway with no help from the OS. Fences makes it much easier and more attractive. It's free from StarDock. Huzzah for Fences!


A simple tool bar with a small footprint. RocketDock does what the Apple OS X Dock does but for Windows. It creates a highly configurable tool bar which makes it easy to add and remove applications and folders. It's free from Punk Software. Huzzah for RocketDock!


Cartouche is a nice, simple, matching game. You have a set of colored Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols that you match by symbol or color. When a match is made, the symbols disappear and the other symbols move to fill in the open area and new ones fill in at the top. Do this over and over until you run out of time. One can spend hours playing this game. It's free, written in Java - hence portable -, has a tiny foot print, and even a small child can understand how to play. Huzzah for Cartouche!


Virtual Desktop managers rarely work this well. I expect them to crash Explorer or themselves on a regular basis. That's not the case with VirtuaWin. It creates multiple desktops and has easy keyboard and GUI navigation between them. Unless you have multiple monitors or rarely do more than one thing at a time, it's indispensable. And its memory footprint? 960K with hour desktops. Huzzah for VirtuaWin.

Remember the Milk

An online service that combines simplicity with power. All it does is help manage tasks. Having your task list online means having it wherever you are. It doesn't try and cram too many features and sticks to a simple, clean interface. Huzzah for Remember the Milk.

There are, of course, many more. World of Goo, is an amazing game that is small by modern standards. Notepad++, a text editor that is a favorite of programmers everywhere, is another relatively small but amazingly useful program. And who can forget TrueCrypt, a top notch, open source, encryption program. All of these are low or no cost, do one thing amazingly well, and don't suck up massive amounts of system resources. In some ways that makes them old school but in a good way.

So, when you are feeling frustrated that your latest app took up half of your massive hard drive and requires you to go out and buy a new computer, remember that there are still a lot of really great but small applications. Look past the giant applications with feature overload for the simple ones that actually do what you want.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Is It Right To Enforce a Non-compete

Over the past few days there has been some intriguing commentary on non-compete agreements. This has been spurred on by the recent hire of Dave Donatelli by HP and subsequent lawsuit from his former (long time) employer EMC. Much of the commentary, mine included, though missed the most important point. We failed to consider the question “Is it right?”

I don't know the particulars of Mr. Donatelli's contract but to me the legal technicalities don't matter. Massachusetts law and California law may well differ as to whether the contract is enforceable but that too does not matter. What is not debated nearly as much is whether it is right to try and break a non-compete agreement in the first place. Steve Duplessie of Enterprise Strategy Group went there but looked at it as a business argument. What does the business get and lose from a non-compete.

What interests me is the moral argument. Having signed a number of these agreements in the past, both on behalf of myself and the company, I have confronted the moral ambiguity of the situation enough times to have an opinion. It breaks down to two questions:

  1. When you agree to something freely are you bound to it?

  2. Can a company effectively keep you from working when there is nothing more for you at the company?

The legal answers are different between jurisdictions. The morality is more defined – that is to the extent that any morality can be absolute.

Question 1: Should you be as good as your word?

It doesn't matter if you don't like the agreement. Don't sign it and deal with the consequences. Unless someone holds a gun to your head and makes you an offer you cannot refuse, your word should be your bond. Maybe that is an old-fashioned concept but it is the fabric of society. The social contract should always outweigh the legal one. If you agree to something, even if it is inconvenient later, you should abide by that agreement. That is what used to be called honor . Even mercenaries have a code of honor. And it matters. If you will break your agreement with my rival, then you are clearly willing to break your agreements with me. How can there be trust in that environment? Especially at the highest levels, there must be trust or business, communities, and society can't function. It doesn't matter what the law says. Law is for wrongdoers. Keep in mind, this type of behavior is one reason why we are in such a mess economically. People did what was legal but had no honor. It worked for awhile but now they are despised.

So, if you agree to a non-compete you are bound to no matter what California or Massachusetts says. Do what is legal and not moral and you lose your honor. Maybe your soul too.

Question 2: Can we indenture people like this?

The counterargument is that non-compete agreements are a form of indentured servitude. As was pointed out by many, you always can't hold people (in some jurisdictions but not all) to a non-compete if you fire them. Morally it's straightforward. The company ditched you so you should be free to go elsewhere to make a living.

What about someone who leaves voluntarily? Here the situation gets messy. For the average Joe worker, even a typical middle manager, the job is too important to survival to turn it down. It is especially hard to do so when every job requires a non-compete. Even narrow non-competes can effectively keep you from working. You are binding the employee to the company by making it impossible for them to use their skills and knowledge, especially domain and industry knowledge, to continue and further their career. In philosophy it is called Morton's Choice. You have to choose between two bad alternatives - Be bound like a slave or go bankrupt. There is no moral argument for supporting this type of agreement under these circumstances.

For an executive though, things are different. Executives are very highly compensated people who hold the most important secrets of the company in their heads. How do you not use those for your new employer to devastating effect? It is not just industry and domain knowledge that the new employer wants, it's specific knowledge of your former company. Besides, for executives in Fortune 500 companies, having a job is not a matter of survival. I doubt if any of them won't eat if they can't work for a year.

Still, no job can become a form of bound servitude. The executive who wants to leave must have a recourse, a way of working in his industry without becoming a weapon of mass destruction. That can happen by limiting what they do for awhile. In the computer industry a year is a lifetime. In the case of Dave Donatelli, storage is only one part of his portfolio at HP. One solution is to limit involvement in that group for a year. Another possibility is to pay an executive to not work for awhile. That happens a lot in buy outs. Top folks are paid lots of money to sit on the sidelines or just be pundits for a period of time. Perhaps write a book about their management philosophy or birds. Whatever. Will a year off for a C-level individual destroy their career? I doubt it. Might actually help their marriage and make their kids like them better.

Answer 1: Yes

Answer 2: No for regular people, Yes for executives with a safety valve

In a sentence – we should be bound to our word. If, however, you have the equivalent of a gun to your head – that is you need the job to survive and the employer knows it – there should be a safety valve to protect you from becoming a slave to the company. For most executives, this doesn't apply. Ambition is not the same as survival. Still, even an executive can't be bound permanently. Hopefully, cool heads will devise a solution here that is both legal and moral.

My guess is that EMC and HP will come to some agreement rather then let it go to court. A protracted legal battle in multiple jurisdictions won't help them sell anything. It's a cost they don't need. There will be an accommodation. Okay, but has trust been ruined forever?