Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Four reasons Google is still Awesome

My recent predictions about which Google products will succeed (and which won't) are causing people to think that I'm anti-Google, which makes me sad since Google is probably still the best company of its size, and I really enjoyed my time there. 

Unfortunately, positive stories are never as popular as negative ones, but regardless, it's worth highlighting some of the things that continue to differentiate Google as one of the best companies in tech.

1 - They take big risks. People often point to projects such as Wave as evidence that Google has "lost its magic" or something. To me, it's evidence that they are still willing to take risks on new ideas and new ways of doing things (Wave was run as a completely autonomous project in Australia). If everything you do works, then you're not taking many risks and probably aren't innovating either. Obviously, if everything you do fails, that's not good either, but there's a sweet-spot somewhere in the middle. Google has enough big successes, such as Chrome and Android, to show that they are somewhere near that sweet-spot.

2 - They are willing to build new technology seemingly unrelated to the core business. When we started work on Gmail, many people said it was a distraction and that Google should focus on web search. Now nobody questions email, but they wonder why Google is developing self-driving cars. From a market perspective, this looks like a lack of focus, but that's a rather narrow way of viewing things. From a broader perspective, it can be seen as a focus on using technology to improve the world. Did people criticize Edison or Tesla for inventing too many different things?

From an employee perspective these non-core projects are also an opportunity for greater autonomy. Part of what made the Gmail project so fun was that we had a lot of independence and could pursue ideas that other people inside Google thought were "the wrong way to do it". Most other tech companies do not offer that kind of freedom.

3 - They compete in positive ways. Many companies compete in ways that actually destroy value, such as using patent lawsuits to slow down or kill competitors. Google's weapon of choice is more often open source and open standards. There's no question that projects such as Android and Chrome have strategic value and work to weaken Microsoft and others, but they also happen to be good for the world. Google has managed to keep their interests surprisingly well aligned with the interests of their users.

4 - They don't seem to mind honest criticism. I'm currently reading a draft of a forthcoming Google book, and was amused to find that it includes an email that I sent back in 2000 trashing our then most recent product launch. It's painful for me to not tell people what I think, so for the most part I try to find people who don't mind hearing the truth (or my take on it, rather). Much of my interaction with startups consists of me telling them everything that I don't like about their product (and then they thank me!). I've worked for a lot of different companies, and Google was the only one where me speaking my mind never seemed to cause a problem. I'm not claiming that I'm always right, because obviously I'm not, but systems (or individuals) that don't welcome negative feedback are doomed. Cultures that don't laugh at themselves are cults.

Talking about Google is always a little tricky for me given my background, but they continue to be a fascinating company and a great source interesting lessons, so I'm going to keep trying. Hopefully I don't come off as a hater or a fan boy, but simply an honest observer.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Cloud OS

My recent remark about the future of ChromeOS generated a surprisingly passionate response. Some said that my prediction was obvious and boring, but others disagreed, arguing instead that I am ugly and "don't get it". I won't disagree with either side, but I also noticed that my prediction was sometimes inaccurately characterized as me "hating" ChromeOS, Google, or The Cloud, all of which is false. Since there seems to be so much interest in this topic, and because people keep emailing me about it, I should probably explain my actual thoughts a little better.

First, what is a "cloud OS" and why should I want one? Actually, I don't even know if anyone calls it a "cloud OS", but I couldn't find a better generic term for something like ChromeOS. The basic idea is that apps and data all live on the Internet, which is has been renamed "The Cloud" since that sounds cooler, and your laptop or whatever is basically just a window into that cloud. If your laptop is stolen or catches fire or something, it's not a big deal, because you can just buy another one and nothing has been lost (except your money). Many people characterize this approach as using a "dumb terminal", but that's wrong. Your local computer can still do all kinds of smart computation and data manipulation -- it's just no longer the single point of failure.

To me, the defining characteristic of cloud based apps is "information without location". For example, in the bad old days, you would install a copy Outlook or other email software on your PC, it would download all of your email to your computer, and then the email would live on that computer until Outlook corrupted its PST file and everything was lost. If you accidentally left your computer at home, or it was stolen, then you simply couldn't get to your email. Information behaved much like a physical object -- it was always in one place. That's an unnecessary and annoying limitation. By moving my email into "the cloud", I can escape the limitations of physical location and am able to reach it from any number of computers, phones, televisions, or whatever else connects to the Internet. For performance and coverage reasons, those devices will usually cache some of my email, but the canonical version always lives online. The Gmail client on Android phones provides a great example of this. It stores copies of recent messages so that I can access them even when there is no Internet access, and also saves any recent changes (such as new messages or changes to read state), but as soon as possible it sends those changes to the Gmail servers so that they can be reflected everywhere else (such as my home computer). To the greatest extent possible, the information all "lives" in the cloud, and all other copies are simply caches which may be discarded at any time. (BTW, Apple is lame for not allowing a native Gmail app on the iPhone -- email is the one place where Android really outshines the iPhone for me)

Continuing with the Gmail example, it's not just your data that resides in the cloud -- the entire application lives there. This is the part that causes people to erroneously describe cloud based apps as a "return to dumb terminals". Just because an application "lives" in the cloud doesn't mean that your local computer isn't still doing work. When you use Gmail from your web browser, it downloads large chunks of Javascript code to run on your computer doing things such as rendering your inbox, handling keyboard and mouse events, pre-fetching messages, etc. The advantage of having this code run on your computer is that it can respond to your actions within a few milliseconds instead of the hundreds of milliseconds it could take to reach Google's servers (thanks to the relatively low speed of light). Which parts of the application run on your computer and which run on Google's computers? Ultimately, it does not matter, and can change over time (and in fact the split is different for different interfaces -- the basic html interface does not need any Javascript) As an end-user, you simply use the app, and let Google worry about making it all work, keeping it up to date, etc.

Because we're now treating the executable code and system configuration as data that lives in the cloud and is only cached locally, it also makes sense to do away with the old notions of installing and administering applications on your computer. And of course we also need a security and sandboxing system that prevents the code from breaking your computer (as is so common in the Windows world). In the web/Javascript world, this happened somewhat automatically because web apps evolved from simple web pages, and obviously you don't have to install or uninstall web pages -- your browser simply fetches what it needs to display, optionally caches parts of it for improved performance, and discards resources that it no longer needs (since it can always re-fetch them later on).

Cloud-based apps don't necessarily have to be written in Javascript and run in your web browser however. iPhone and Android apps behave in much the same way. Although they can be "installed" or "uninstalled", from a user perspective, that process isn't substantially different from adding or removing a bookmark, and in fact many of those apps are little more than a thin wrapper around an embedded web browser. A combination of technical and review policies prevent those apps from doing anything dangerous to your computer (unlike a Windows app, which could install a new device driver, replace a core system library, install a root-kit, etc). 

One way of understanding this new architecture is to view the entire Internet as a single computer. This computer is a massively distributed system with billions of processors, billions of displays, exabytes of storage, and it's spread across the entire planet. Your phone or laptop is just one part of this global computer, and its primarily purpose is to provide a convenient interface. The actual computation and data storage is distributed in surprisingly complex and dynamic ways, but that complexity is mostly hidden from the end user. For example, interacting with my FriendFeed page involves the coordination of thousands of individual processors and disks owned by a dozen different entities, including you, Facebook, Amazon, Google, your ISP, and many intermediate ISPs. The same is true of the services provided by thousands of other web apps.

This global super-computer enables us to do things that would have been impossible not long ago, such as instantly search billions of documents, access our email and other info from almost anywhere, easily share ideas with thousands or millions of people, collaboratively edit documents with people spread around the world, leak embarrassing diplomatic cables, etc. It also makes it easy to launch new services and applications with almost zero money, which has created a new generation of low-budget startups and expanded the world of high-tech entrepreneurship to many more people.

Inevitable, some curmudgeonly types will say this is all bad, and indeed it is not without some downsides and complications, but overall I believe the development of this global super-computer is one of the most important technological advances in history.

And what about ChromeOS? If my laptop is just one part of a much larger computer, what is the ideal design for my local node? It should be relatively cheap and reliable, secure (no viruses or anything), zero-administration (I don't want to be a sys-admin), easy to use, and fast. I believe this is roughly the design target of ChromeOS. They are building laptops that run the Chrome web browser and approximately nothing else.

I actually like the idea of ChromeOS, so why did I predict its demise? The answer is that we already have millions of devices that almost meet the same ideal, and they are running iOS and Android. In the 1.5 years since ChromeOS was announced, Apple launched the iPad, which quickly became one of the fastest selling new devices ever. Google will necessarily respond by building Android tablets, which means Android will be running on larger, more powerful devices. All of the benefits of ChromeOS (security, instant-on, etc) should apply to Android as well, and I expect that any new Chrome features (mostly under the umbrella of HTML5, but perhaps Native Client as well) will also be added to the Android browser, since platforms succeed by being as large as possible. Once Android has all the benefits of ChromeOS, the most obvious difference will be that ChromeOS lacks the thousands of native apps which are popular on Android. Android apps are closer to web apps than Windows apps in terms of security and manageability, so eliminating them doesn't seem like much of an advantage for ChromeOS. 

The other obvious difference between ChromeOS and Android is that ChromeOS assumes a mouse/track-pad while Android currently assumes a touch interface (many Android devices already have a keyboard). If my prediction is wrong and both OSs stick around, this will probably be the reason. However, I doubt that's enough of a difference to justify maintaining two separate OSs, and ultimately everything may end up with a touch screen anyway. Perhaps the tablet / laptop convertible will make a comeback.

Put another way, the ChromeOS laptops are awkwardly positioned between the established Mac/Windows laptop market, which isn't going away anytime soon, and the rapidly growing Tablet market, and it has approximately zero users. That's not a great place for a new platform to get traction and establish itself. But if it does, I will be happy for it. And even if it doesn't, it may still be a worthwhile experiment.



Friday, October 29, 2010

The quest for freedom and safety: Why I donated $100,000 to YesOn19

The common theme uniting most of my efforts is the desire to be free. One of the reasons I'm so interested in startups is that they give people the freedom to create, independent of the institutional limitations found in large companies. This is why unexpected new ideas and techniques (such as new languages or development practices) often appear first in startups. Of course the startups don't always succeed, but at least I'm free to pursue my own ideas, even if others don't believe in them. And when a startup is successful, it can provide a great deal of financial freedom to the people who built it.

Internal freedom is also very important, though often less obvious. If we are always held back by our own fears and self-limiting beliefs, then we aren't really free. That is why my previous post on serendipity is largely about escaping ego-fear and other negative limitations.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Philosophically, I agree with that. However, if we don't feel safe, if we can't go out in public without fearing for our lives and the lives of our family, then we aren't really free. Since becoming a parent, I've come to understand why parents often seem especially fearful. Our children are so precious to us, and we must keep them safe. I can understand the impulse to simply make more rules, to build taller walls, and to lockup anyone who seems scary.

I think the real point of Benjamin Franklin's quote is that when we destroy freedom, we are ultimately destroying safety as well. This is most apparent when we examine the disastrous effects of drug prohibition.

Not only is prohibition an attack on our basic right to control our own bodies and minds (a philosophical point which most people probably don't care about), but prohibition also provides a multi-billion dollar subsidy to violent criminal organizations that threaten our physical safety and security, something everyone cares about.

The drug cartels have already overrun much of Mexico, and that violence will inevitably spill over in to the United States if we continue subsidising them with one of the world's most lucrative monopolies.

The alternative path is to begin restoring individual freedom and responsibility, defund the drug cartels, and instead shift those dollars towards roads, parks, public safety, and other beneficial causes. This is the solution offered by California's proposition 19, the "Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010".

Some politicians have argued that proposition 19 is "flawed". To me, this seems like a weak defense of the status quo from politicians afraid to stand out on a controversial issue. Of course it's not perfect -- no law is perfect. However, the current system of drug prohibition is much, much worse. "Perfect" is not one of the options offered on Tuesday's ballot. We can either choose "much better" (Yes on 19), or "keep the current, disastrously bad, system" (No on 19). 

If proposition 19 passes, the immediate effect may not be that significant due to federal challenges and such. However, I believe the long-term effects will be enormous. Prohibition is a disaster. Many politicians will admit to this fact, however most of them have been too timid to actually do anything about it, to lead the country towards safer, saner policies. In this case, the voters must lead, and the politicians will follow. Even if 19 does not pass (Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives it "even odds" of passing), it will still mark an important shift in the debate over drugs, especially if YOU vote for it.

And that's why I decided to donate $100,000 towards the Yes on 19 campaign. It's tempting to wait for the "perfect" solution to the drug issue, but meanwhile millions of lives are being destroyed by the current system. That's evil.

Here are a few more thoughts on the issue:

If you would like to be part of the solution, please share this or other articles, and encourage your friends and family to show up at the polls on Tuesday and vote "YES on 19" (assuming they live in California). Also, donate to YesOn19 -- it's not too late (ads are still being purchased).


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Serendipity finds you

Here is an interesting comment from Hacker News, on a story about someone turning down an early Google offer:
Similar thing happened to me in 1999. I realized Google was way cooler than alta vista and better at finding unknown things rather than Yahoo's directory. Truly the future, I thought. I sent in a resume to do some kind of work not development related; data center & sys admin stuff. They called me twice but I convinced myself that they would not have hired me anyways so I never called back.

Whether or not ignoring Google's calls was the right decision for him, his reason for not taking the call (fear of rejection) isn't great.

I don't have many positive memories from high school, but the one that has stayed with me more than any other comes from the first day of my 11th grade English class. My teacher (I believe his name was "Mr. May") shared a brief anecdote from the prior evening. He was driving home in the rain, and noticed two people on bicycles along the side of the road. He stopped to ask if they needed any help, and ended up driving them back to his house, where they dried off and had dinner with him and his wife. During dinner, the couple shared the stories from their ongoing bike ride across the country.

It's not a very dramatic story, but I loved the serendipitous nature of it, both on the part of the couple having adventures biking across the country, and my teacher who saw people along the road and invited them into his home. None of it was planned -- they simply allowed it to happen. It was inspirational to me because it felt like the right way to live, the fun way to live. I don't think that's how most people operate though.

My own story of how I ended up at Google in 1999 is rather boring. I was interested both in startups, and Linux (which was still somewhat fringe at the time), so I sent my resume to a few companies that I had seen mentioned on Slashdot (a rather lazy job search, in hindsight). Fortunately, most of them never even responded, and only one actually offered me a job, Google. I was skeptical of their business and didn't expect it to last long, but it seemed like it could be fun and educational, so I accepted.

Obviously that's an example of rather extreme luck, but I've noticed that most of the good things that happen to me follow that general pattern, and aren't part of any "plan". The story of how I met my wife is remarkably similar. Shortly after moving to California, I signed up for match.com, read a bunch of profiles, emailed three of them, and only one responded. I was very much not looking for someone to marry, but that's what happened anyway. As they say, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

My plans rarely work (unless they are boringly simple), but serendipity has been good to me, so over time I've tried to make the most of that. My theory of serendipity is still evolving, but from what I've seen, it's better to think in terms of "allowing" serendipity rather than "seeking" it or "creating" it. Opportunity is all around us, but we have beliefs and habits that block it.

The two biggest blocks to serendipity seem to be ego-fear and "other plans".

I'm using the term "ego-fear" to describe fears that go beyond rational concern. For example, you wouldn't run out into the middle of a freeway thanks to a healthy fear of getting run over by a car -- that's not ego-fear. However, the fear that often keeps people from public speaking, talking to strangers, interviewing for jobs, etc is typically driven by fear of embarrassment, humiliation, rejection, criticism, etc -- that's ego-fear. Sometimes it can be difficult to separate the two types of fear because ego-fear will rationalize itself as healthy fear, e.g. "I don't want to talk to that stranger because they could attack me, or waste my time."

The HN commenter quoted above who never accepted Google's calls because, in his words, "they would not have hired me anyways", seems to be experiencing quite a bit of ego-fear, fear of rejection and humiliation. That fear is probably blocking a lot of great opportunities.

It's tempting to try and think your way out of ego-fear, but I suspect that only makes the problem worse by generating a more complex tangle of rationalizations for the fear. Fear is defeated by confrontation -- avoidance only makes it stronger.

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." - Eleanor Roosevelt

The program for eliminating ego-fear and unblocking serendipity is very simple: seek ego-fear. Hunt it down and soak in it. Steal its energy. This is, by definition, scary. That's good.

The other big serendipity block seems to be "the plan". Serendipity and luck are by their very nature unpredictable, and therefore not part of any good plan. When something unexpected happens, things are no longer "going according to plan", and there is a tendency to view the unexpected event either as a distraction, or as a frustrating obstacle to success.

The difference between a life full of frustrating obstacles, and a life full of serendipity, is largely a matter of interpretation. It can be difficult, but the most beneficial response to unexpected events is a sense of gratitude. Even seemingly adverse events can lead to something great. Accept what is given. (see Yes Man for a cute caricature of this mindset)

"Plans are worthless. Planning is essential." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Planning in itself is not a bad thing, but picking a single plan and obsessively sticking to it doesn't allow for much serendipity. The world is very complicated, and we humans are very stupid, so it's good to be flexible and open minded about things. Instead of having one plan, have one thousand plans, and revise them as necessary. 

The desire to have "a plan" can also cause "paralysis of analysis" -- we put all of our energy into formulating the perfect plan, and consequently never actually do anything. The more effective approach is to simply pick a plan with the knowledge that it's flawed, set the plan in action, and then adapt, revise, or switch plans as the world unfolds.

I suspect the desire to have a definite plan is also partially rooted in fear. Uncertainty can be scary, and having a plan helps create the illusion of predictability in a very unpredictable world. However, if we actually manage to reduce risk and unpredictability, then we are also reducing serendipity. This is one reason why large organizations often have trouble producing innovation -- they want it to be planned and scheduled, but that just kills it.

The whole notion that plans are something that we should "stick to" makes them distracting enough that I prefer to call them "ideas" or "rough sketches" instead. Personally, I try to avoid having plans for my life, but I have many ideas. Which ones actually happen will be a surprise to me. It's more fun that way.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What to do with your millions

There's another "I just got a bunch of money, what do I do now?" type post on Hacker News today, and much of the advice is from people who clearly don't know, though the current top comment is actually very good. Since this is a relatively common issue (ha ha) in the startup world, I think it's worth sharing a little of what I've learned from observing others who have this "problem" (yeah, cry me a river, right?). This is somewhat dangerous since money is a very delicate topic for many people, so if you have any strong feelings, please skip this post.

Although today's poster only asked, "What do I do with my money?", there's a second, related question that's also very important, "What do I do with my life?" In both cases, I think the right answer is, "start slow, and avoid making any big decisions now", though as always, there are exceptions.

The money question is the easier of the two to answer: First, don't lose the money!

Many people will naively tell you to immediately hire a financial advisor. What those people don't understand is that the only skill a financial advisor needs in order to be successful is the ability to sell you things. Their actual financial skills are almost irrelevant. Unfortunately, this means that you will need to learn something about money management, and that will take time. Fortunately, you have plenty of time. Read what Warren Buffett has to say about financial helpers. Spend a few years getting recommendations and talking to various advisors before deciding (intermittently, not full-time, of course). Avoid hiring this guy. Meanwhile, put your money in a very safe fixed-income investment, such as short-term CDs. You can circumvent the FDIC insurance limit by having the money spread accross multiple banks (think of it as "RAID for money") -- see CDARS for more info. Don't rush to invest it in the stock market -- that's risky and you could easily lose half of your money in a matter of months. Avoid long-term or illiquid investments, though it's fine to put a few percent into random things such as startups, but understand that you'll probably lose that money, so consider it an educational expense.

Edit: Many people have incorrectly interpreted my advice as, "don't hire a financial advisor". My actual advice is, "don't rush to hire a financial advisor -- just keep things very simple and take time to decide what is right for you." I personally have a bunch of advisors.

Longer term, you'll probably want to diversify into other types of investments. Unfortunately, there's no simple formula for how to do this, and the right answer will depend on your own financial particulars, emotional composition (how does losing money make you feel?), etc. Again though, the most important thing to understand is that you don't need to decide this now. If anyone pressures you to do anything right now (especially financial advisors), tell them that you are not presently interested in their services, only be less polite about it :)

Now for the hard question: What to do with your life?

First, it's important to understand that once you have the basics, happiness comes primarily from healthy social connections and a sense of purpose. If you quit your job and move to a new city where you don't know anyone or have a clear purpose, there's a good chance that you'll end up depressed or even suicidal. So unless your current life is very broken, don't do that. Take it slow.

Many people with jobs have a fantasy about all the amazing things they would do if they didn't need to work. In reality, if they had the drive and commitment to do actually do those things, they wouldn't let a job get in the way. Unfortunately, if given a lot of money, they are much more likely to end up addicted to crack, or even worse, World of Warcraft. (edit, since people are getting offended: there are, as always, exceptions, but the point is that actually doing stuff is about a million times harder than just dreaming about it, which is why 99% of people wouldn't actually do it even if money weren't an issue) If you've been institutionalized your entire life (school, work, etc), it can be very difficult to adjust to life on "the outside".

Again, don't make any drastic changes unless you really need to. Spend time building up new activities, interests, and social connections, especially ones that will give your life a sense of purpose.

Money can also mess with your identity in bad ways. It's important to remember that we're all made of the same shit -- some people are just a little luckier than others. The nice thing about money is that it gives you more freedom, but it can also be a prison if it takes over your identity, makes you fearful, or causes you to cut off connections with the people around you. True freedom comes from the inside anyway -- we're all still slaves to the larger system. (while searching for a story to illustrate this point, I ended up on Epictetus's Wikipedia page -- he seems to have had it about right, so I'll go with that, though The Matrix is also entertaining)

Sometimes, good fortune can also make people feel guilty. But if you find yourself in this situation, you were probably already very lucky (reasonably healthy, intelligent, well educated, etc) -- there's no reason to feel bad about getting slightly more lucky. Your luck is a gift. It's ungrateful to not make the most out of it (and also help others become a little more lucky).

Explore the opportunity. Do something remarkable. Go for a walk in the park. Appreciate the trees.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

Today is my wife's birthday...

For her birthday, she wants as many people as possible to donate to her cause, raising $55,555 for the Intensive Care Nursery (ICN) at UCSF Children's Hospital, where our daughter spent the first several months of her life. Proceeds will go towards funding hospital neonatal supplies and monitoring equipment, family-oriented support programs, and neurodevelopmental programs.

To donate, go to causes.com/ucsfpreemies. You can also contribute by: 1) Donating directly using UCSF's 'Make a Gift' page. 2) Making a contribution offline, by sending a check. Please write your check out to 'UCSF Foundation', indicate on the memo line 'UCSF Preemies', and mail to: UCSF P.O. Box 45339 San Francisco, CA 94145-0339 3) For those of you who are contributing through your Donor Advised Fund, please reference the foundation's EIN/tax ID#: 94-2829914



Tuesday, February 09, 2010

If your product is Great, it doesn't need to be Good.

By now, everyone is tired of hearing about the iPad, but the negative responses are so perfectly misguided that it would be wrong to waste this opportunity. Even better, we can look back at the 2001 iPod launch and see the exact same mistakes. But this isn't about the iPad or the iPod -- it's about product design.

The most famous iPod review was from Slashdot, which simply declared, "No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame." The iPad reviews are similar in that they focus on the "missing" features. Those missing features are typically available in a variety of unsuccessful competing products, which leads people to erroneously conclude that a successful product would necessarily have even more features!

I believe this "more features = better" mindset is at the root of the misjudgment, and is also the reason why so many otherwise smart people are bad at product design (e.g. most open source projects). If a MacBook with OSX and no keyboard were really the right product, then Microsoft would have already succeeded with their tablet computer years ago. Copying the mistakes of a failed product isn't a great formula for success.

What's the right approach to new products? Pick three key attributes or features, get those things very, very right, and then forget about everything else. Those three attributes define the fundamental essence and value of the product -- the rest is noise. For example, the original iPod was: 1) small enough to fit in your pocket, 2) had enough storage to hold many hours of music and 3) easy to sync with your Mac (most hardware companies can't make software, so I bet the others got this wrong). That's it -- no wireless, no ability to edit playlists on the device, no support for Ogg -- nothing but the essentials, well executed.

We took a similar approach when launching Gmail. It was fast, stored all of your email (back when 4MB quotas were the norm), and had an innovative interface based on conversations and search. The secondary and tertiary features were minimal or absent. There was no "rich text" composer. The original address book was implemented in two days and did almost nothing (the engineer doing the work originally wanted to spend five days on it, but I talked him down to two since I never use that feature anyway). Of course those other features can be added or improved later on (and Gmail has certainly improved a lot since launch), but if the basic product isn't compelling, adding more features won't save it.

By focusing on only a few core features in the first version, you are forced to find the true essence and value of the product. If your product needs "everything" in order to be good, then it's probably not very innovative (though it might be a nice upgrade to an existing product). Put another way, if your product is great, it doesn't need to be good.

So where does this leave the iPad, with it's lack of process managers, file managers, window managers, and all the other "missing" junk? I'm not sure, but one thing I've noticed is that I spend more time browsing the web from my iPhone than from my laptop. I'm not entirely sure why, but part of it is the simplicity. My iPhone is ready to use in under 1/2 second, while my laptop always takes at least a few seconds to wake up, and then there's a bunch of stuff going on that distracts me. The iPhone is a simple appliance that I use without a second thought, but my laptop feels like a complex machine that causes me to pause and consider if it's worth the effort right now. The downside of the iPhone is that it's small and slow (though the smallness is certainly a feature as well). That alone guarantees that I'll buy one to leave sitting next to the couch, but I'm kind of atypical.

Ultimately, the real value of this device will be in the new things that people do once they have a fast, simple, and sharable internet window sitting around. At home we'll casually browse the web, share photos (in person), and play board games (Bret's idea -- very compelling). At the office, maybe we'll finally have an easy way of chatting with remote people while discussing a presentation or document (e.g. audio iChat with a shared display). Of course these things are theoretically possible with laptops, but it always ends up being so clumsy and complicated that we don't bother (or give up after trying once).

Making the iPad successful is Apple's problem though, not yours. If you're creating a new product, what are the three (or fewer) key features that will make it so great that you can cut or half-ass everything else? Are you focusing at least 80% of your effort on getting those three things right?

Disclaimer: This advice probably only applies to consumer products (ones where the purchaser is also the user -- this includes some business products). For markets that have purchasing processes with long lists of feature requirements, you should probably just crank out as many features as possible and not waste time on simplicity or usability.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Censorship flamewar

This post is inflammatory and unfair. It argues an extreme position that I don't agree with, but nevertheless find amusing. When writing angry responses, please direct your hate at the straw-man, not at me :)

Agree/Disagree:

When a powerful group forces information to be removed from the internet, that is censorship. Some acts of censorship are more acceptable than others depending on what information is being censored and why.

For example, Disney can force people to take certain information off of the internet because they have exclusive rights, and the free availability of that information threatens to undercut their profits, which would undercut their power to make new movies and also new laws to protect their interests (such as retroactively extending copyright, or increasing penalties for violations). In this case, censorship is good because if Disney lost that power, their profits could disappear entirely and then the world might run out of Princess movies. Perhaps someone else would start making Princess movies, but making Princess movies is difficult, and without the ability to censor the internet, they too might fail.

A second example is the Communist Party of China. They can force people to take certain information off of the internet because they have exclusive rights, and the free availability of that information threatens to undercut their power and profits, and without that power they could lose control of China. In this case, censorship is good because if the Communist party lost that power, their control could disappear entirely and they would no longer be able to preserve the peace, stability, and growth of China. Perhaps someone else would start governing China (after a quick revolution), but governing China is difficult, and without the ability to censor the internet, they too might fail.

Debate.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Books and stuff: three years of Amazon addiction

I'm a slow reader, but that doesn't stop me from buying a lot of books. Inspired by a Blippy review, I thought it might be fun to publish my Amazon order history.

My threshold for buying books is very low, so don't interpret these purchases as endorsements. Also, I haven't read most of them yet, so if you spot anything especially good, please let me know.
  1. Return to the Little Kingdom: How Apple and Steve Jobs Changed the World
  2. Inside Steve's Brain, Expanded Edition
  3. Influencer: The Power to Change Anything
  4. How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (Signet)
  5. Aquinas 101: A Basic Introduction to the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas
  6. Apple MacBook Pro MB986LL/A 15.4-Inch Laptop
  7. 6-Pack Tank Tops by Bambini - white, 27-34lbs.
  8. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  9. Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory)
  10. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
  11. The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late
  12. The Invisible Kingdom: From the Tips of Our Fingers to the Tops of Our Trash, Inside the Curious World of Microbes
  13. Confessions of a Public Speaker
  14. The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal
  15. Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age
  16. Social Structures
  17. The Organization Man
  18. Coby CA-747 Dual Position CD/MD/MP3 Cassette Adapter
  19. Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash
  20. Alice In Wonderland
  21. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior
  22. Dr. Nicholas Romanov's Pose Method of Running
  23. ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running
  24. Evolution Running DVD Run Faster with Fewer Injuries
  25. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason
  26. Injinji Performance Series CoolMax Micro Socks, MD, M8-10.5/W9-11.5, Black
  27. The Atlantic
  28. CamelBak Rogue 70 oz Hydration Pack (Racing Red/Charcoal)
  29. MSR Ground Hog Stake Kit
  30. CamelBak Rogue 70 oz Hydration Pack (Estate Blue/Charcoal)
  31. Wenzel Ponderosa 10- by 8-Foot Four-Person Two-Room Dome Tent
  32. Coleman Queen-Sized Quickbed with Wrap 'N' Roll Storage
  33. Wenzel Pinon Sport 7-by 7-Foot Three-Person Dome Tent
  34. MSR Ground Hog Stake Kit
  35. Teton Sports Mammoth 0-Degree Sleeping Bag
  36. Injinji Performance Series CoolMax Micro Socks, MD, M8-10.5/W9-11.5, Black
  37. Vibram Five Fingers SPRINT Men's Shoes (Navy) FREE SHIPPING (41, Navy/Blue/Camo)
  38. ASICS Men's Transitive Seamless Boxer Size: M/L, Color: Black
  39. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey
  40. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
  41. The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa
  42. The Africa Cookbook
  43. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
  44. The Jungle Effect: Healthiest Diets from Around the World--Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You
  45. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
  46. 21IN1 Multimedia Reader/writer Expresscard 34SLOT Mac/pc Sd/mmc/xd
  47. You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise
  48. Weber 7508 Stainless-Steel Burner Tube Set
  49. Weber 6415 Small Aluminum Drip Pans- 8.5-Inches by 6-Inches
  50. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
  51. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (Vintage)
  52. Somatics: Reawakening The Mind's Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health
  53. Change Your Mind, Change Your World
  54. Beyond The Dream: Awakening to Reality
  55. VMware Fusion 2
  56. Feed
  57. Arduino Duemilanove Starter Kit
  58. Rayovac Alkaline Batteries, C Size, 12-Count Packages (Pack of 2)
  59. Wired (2-year)
  60. Atlantic Monthly
  61. Omron HEM-780 Automatic Blood Pressure Monitor with ComFit Cuff
  62. French I, Conversational: Learn to Speak and Understand French with Pimsleur Language Programs (Pimsleur Instant Conversation)
  63. Stumbling on Happiness
  64. Human-Computer Interaction (2nd Edition)
  65. Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind
  66. Transcend TS32GCF133 133x 32GB Compact Flash Card
  67. Tiffen 77mm UV Protection Filter
  68. Maui Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook (Maui Revealed)
  69. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Book & DVD)
  70. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
  71. 50mW Black Dimple Green Laser Pointer High Powered Diode
  72. Canon PowerShot SD880IS 10MP Digital Camera with 4x Wide Angle Optical Image Stabilized Zoom (Gold)
  73. Transcend TS8GSDHC6-S5W 8GB SDHC6 Memory Card with Card Reader
  74. ASUS Eee PC 901 12G (8.9-inch Display, 1.6 GHz Intel ATOM Processor, 1 GB RAM, 12 GB Solid State Drive, XP Home, 6 Cell Battery) Pearl White
  75. The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain
  76. How to Get Rich: One of the World's Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets
  77. How to Be Rich
  78. Crossing the Chasm
  79. The Systems Bible: The Beginner's Guide to Systems Large and Small by Gall...
  80. Healing Without Freud or Prozac by Servan-Schreiber, David
  81. Amish Country Red Popcorn - 2lb.
  82. Amish Country Midnight Blue Popcorn - 2lb.
  83. Amish Country Rainbow Blend Popcorn - 2lb.
  84. Amish Country Purple Popcorn - 2lb.
  85. Forgive for Good
  86. The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business (Collins Business Essentials)
  87. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
  88. The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra
  89. Dubble Bubble Twist Wrapped, 180-Count Tubs (Pack of 3)
  90. Political Ponerology (A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political...
  91. The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations
  92. Kingston 8GB SDHC Class 6 Flash Card SD6/8GB
  93. Rules of the Game
  94. 1776 [Bargain Price]
  95. Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge (Collins Business Essentials)
  96. Propaganda
  97. Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls
  98. Multi Directional HDtv Antenna
  99. Cables To Go 16.4FT CBL VIDEO HDMI-TO DVI M/M VELOCITY RTL ( 40323 )
  100. Canon PowerShot SD1000 7.1MP Digital Elph Camera with 3x Optical Zoom (Black)
  101. Netgear GS108 ProSafe 8-Port Copper Gigabit Desktop Switch
  102. Man's Search for Meaning
  103. Axis 207MW Network Camera Network Camera- Wireless Megapixel
  104. Le Chat Chapeaute
  105. The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
  106. The Alphabet Of Manliness
  107. Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another
  108. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition
  109. The Logic of Political Survival
  110. Canon PGI-5 BK 2-Pack Pigment Black Ink Tanks
  111. Canon CLI-8 4-Color Multipack Ink Tanks
  112. Fujifilm Finepix F50fd 12MP Digital Camera with 3 x Optical Image Stabilization
  113. Canon PIXMA MP830 Office All-In-One Printer
  114. Alkaline Battery Value Packs
  115. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business Essentials)
  116. Hawaii The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook (Hawaii the Big Island Revealed)
  117. Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition
  118. The Alchemy of Finance (Wiley Investment Classics)
  119. Freedom: The Courage to Be Yourself (Osho, Insights for a New Way of Living Series)
  120. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life
  121. Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People 2nd Edition
  122. Why Ducks Do That: 40 Distinctive Duck Behaviors Explained & Photographed
  123. Cat's Cradle
  124. The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker's Essential Writings on Management
  125. How to Kill the Job Culture Before it Kills You: Living a Life of Autonomy in a
  126. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs - 2nd Edition (MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)
  127. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
  128. Accelerando
  129. Rainbows End
  130. Satanic Purses: Money, Myth, And Misinformation in the War on Terror
  131. A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder--How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place
  132. Pro JavaScript Techniques (Pro)
  133. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us
  134. Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality
  135. The New High Intensity Training: The Best Muscle-Building System You've Never Tried
  136. NLP: The New Technology of Achievement
  137. Logitech Z-4I 2.1 Speaker System
  138. SEAGATE 2.5 100GB SATA 5400RPM S9100824AS NOTEBOOK HARD DRIVE (Bare drive...
  139. Apple MacBook Pro MA611LL/A 17" Notebook PC (2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 160 GB Hard Drive, DVD/CD SuperDrive)
  140. The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do
  141. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
  142. Influence: Science and Practice (4th Edition)
  143. Using Your Brain--For a Change by Bandler, Richard
  144. Door Gym
  145. On Intelligence
  146. The Design of Everyday Things
  147. Kingston USB 2.0 Hi-speed 15-IN-1
  148. SanDisk SDCFH-1024-901 1 GB Ultra II CompactFlash Card (Retail Package)
  149. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill
  150. Wired [1-year subscription] [with $5 Bonus] [Magazine Subscription] [Print]
  151. Open Society and Its Enemies (Volume 1)
  152. Griffin Technology 9066-IMIC2 iMic/USB Audio Interface
  153. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (Penguin Classics)
  154. Power of Spirit: How Organizations Transform
  155. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
  156. Basic Economics: A Citizens Guide to the Economy, Revised and Expanded

Saturday, January 02, 2010

10 predictions for the world of January 1, 2020

After writing my predictions for the past 10 years, I decided it might be fun to write a few predictions for the next 10 years as well. This is a little more dangerous though, since I now lack the benefit of hindsight and at least one of them will probably turn out to be as dumb as "Palin/Gore win the 2014 presidential election".

That said, here are my (random and probably over-optimistic) predictions for the world as of Jan 1, 2020, assuming civilization doesn't collapse first:
  1. All data lives "in the cloud" and can be accessed from anywhere. Most computers are essentially stateless caches which can be replaced without any data-loss or need for reconfiguration or reinstallation. This prediction was copied from 10 years ago, but this time it's right.
  2. Android and iPhone kill off all the other mobile phone platforms. Android will be bigger (it will run on all of the "free" cell phones), but iPhone will still be "cooler", and will work more seamlessly with Apple's tablet computer.
  3. Facebook will be a big success, possibly as big as Google. I'm probably over-optimistic because I work there, but the people are smart and ambitious.
  4. 3D displays will be popular because people want to watch Avatar and all future 3D movies and games at home (plus porn, of course -- think of the porn!).
  5. No human-like artificial intelligence, but computers get a lot better at both high level and low level intelligence. At the high level, Google will release an amazing question answering service that can answer complex questions and is in many ways smarter than any human. Low-level, insect-like intelligence will become common enough that I'll be able to quickly build a Lego robot that uses computer vision to spot ants and physically squash them (and it will be awesome).
  6. There will be an even bigger economic crash. The system becomes increasingly unstable as we try to paper-over the damage from one bubble by creating an even bigger bubble elsewhere. Nevertheless, things continue semi-working for some reason.
  7. The health care system continues to be badly broken, and attempts at reform probably only make it worse (here is a nice summary). Fortunately, solutions will come from outside of the system. People will get better at avoiding disease (start with Taubes), and bio-tech will start to deliver in a big way. Unfortunately, the bio-tech will probably come from China, since they don't have so many rules to slow things down. The Chinese treatments won't be approved in the United States, but we can simply travel to Mexico for care. Urgent care will be local, but non-urgent procedures will be performed outside the US. Not everyone will do this, but it will be a very visible and growing trend by 2020.
  8. The drug war will be over, mostly. An increasing number of people will realize that the war is causing a lot more harm than the drugs are (it's killing Mexico, for example). The end of marijuana prohibition in California will demonstrate that non-addictive drugs are not as dangerous as the government claims. It's unclear what will happen with highly addictive drugs such as heroin, but bio-tech may offer a solution that removes the addiction.
  9. The energy problem is largely solved by cheap solar. It's not 100% done obviously, but we'll be on the ramp. Nuclear technology (Thorium?) could do it too, but probably isn't politically feasible. Edit: To be clear since not everyone has the same definition of "solved", for me it means that we have a relatively cheap and scalable energy solution, not that we're fully converted to it.
  10. Politics will evolve much faster than in the past due to the Internet and social networks changing the core architecture of society (what people think and how they came to think it -- the professional media and government are no longer at the center). New movements will arise and gain power very quickly. Obama beating Clinton was the first hint of this. Political outsiders will begin winning elections. Steven Colbert will win the 2016 election -- the left will think he's joking, the right will think he's serious, and both sides will think that they are tricking the other ;)

Friday, January 01, 2010

My poorly remembered and partially imagined predictions from Jan 1, 2000

Reviewing old predictions is fun. Unfortunately, I didn't bother to write any down, so I'm working from memory here, and of course human memory is very unreliable and selective, so this is rather bogus.

Predictions for the next 10 years, from Jan 1, 2000 (as remembered on Jan 1, 2010):

Prediction: Linux will continue expanding into new spaces and will eventually make Microsoft irrelevant. Windows 2000 is the last release that anyone will care about.

Result: I was over-optimistic about Linux -- the community is unable to produce anything worthwhile on the desktop, most development has moved to the web anyway (making the desktop OS irrelevant), and OSX popularity among developers took away a lot of energy (I develop in Linux, but use OSX to host my web browser and other apps). Linux is a huge success on the server-side though and continues to grow in more "embedded" contexts, such as Android and Chrome OS. Microsoft made itself irrelevant -- they still make a lot of money, but they are no longer changing the world.


Prediction: Wireless data access (such as that provided by Ricochet) will become fast and practically ubiquitous, meaning that the Internet is always with us.

Result: It took longer than I expected, but we're finally starting to get there, and it is awesome.


Prediction: "Computer Aided Reality" will provide a cool visual overlay by using computer vision to identify objects and then fetching info about them from the Internet.

Result: I was very over-optimistic. There are a few basic "augmented reality" apps around, but nothing major. I still think that this will happen, though the display technology is still very uncertain (I haven't even heard about direct retinal projection lately).


Prediction: All data lives "online" and can be accessed from anywhere. Your computer is a stateless cache which can be replaced without any data-loss or need for reconfiguration or reinstallation.

Result: I was over-optimistic. We made some progress with things like Gmail, but computers still store information (configuration at the very least). Chrome OS may be more like what I had in mind, and the iPhone is too if you set aside the fact that it requires manual syncing.


Prediction: The Java VM will get good enough that people will finally stop using C++.

Result: I was over-optimistic. The JVM got somewhat better (though it still has significant GC problems), but Java got worse due to cultural problems. Fortunately, a lot of other interesting languages became popular, including Javascript, and there are a number of fast virtual machines in the works.


Prediction: Google will be a big success, possibly as big as Yahoo. I'm probably over-optimistic because I work there, but the people are smart and ambitious.

Result: I was under-optimistic. Google is bigger than Yahoo ever was, and is getting close to Microsoft (their market cap is 70% of Microsoft's).


Prediction: Humans will be cloned. After the initial outrage, people will stop caring once they see that the result is just a regular baby (like the "test tube babies" before them), not a "soulless monster".

Result: To my knowledge, that hasn't been any successful human cloning, though I wouldn't be surprised if there has and they are just keeping quiet about it.


Prediction: The stock market will crash, and take Silicon Valley (and other bubble-zone) real estate markets down with it.

Result: The market crash came (sort of), but instead of going down, real estate kept going up! Even when it did finally crash, local prices (especially Palo Alto) remained remarkably high.


Prediction: A meteor strike will destroy all life on Earth on November 5, 2007, so I don't need to waste time writing down my predictions for 2010.

Result: I meant 2012, there was an off-by-5 error in my calculation ;)