August 2009 Archives

Server Relocation, Scheduled Downtime on 09/01/09

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The time has come! I am happy to report, that as of right now, all systems are go for a long sought after relocation from on top a stack of boxes in the home office into a proper server cabinet at a local co-location facility.

Which means that while this relocation is being undertaken tomorrow morning (9/1) this site will be unavailable.

If everything goes as planned all will be back in order by mid-afternoon Chicago time. However, please expect some sporadic downtime to continue as DNS propagation of the server's new IP address occurs. Thus, if you have difficulty accessing the site, please try again later. The dust will settle by Friday at the very latest.

Progress updates will be posted via my Twitter account, @pdweinstein (So long as Twitter doesn't experience one of their famous outages).

Please post a comment if you see anything out of sorts. Thanks again for your support!

Social Matchbox

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For every famous success story such as Amazon.com or failure like Pets.com there are hundreds of unknowns; companies that find success, or failure, anonymously. Yet each of those companies have interesting stories to tell, as do those within the company, individuals discovering what it takes to bring about a compelling idea to the world.

I hate the "Dot Com Bubble" and "Bust" labels that have become mainstream media's shorthand for "stupid business people who should have know better" because it limits the story to companies like eToys.com as "obvious" failures. Having lived in San Francisco during that period of time, having been part of an anonymous "success"1 story with C2Net Software, having met many interesting individuals I know from firsthand experience the "reality" of that "bubble" and "bust", "stupid business people" is not the first thing that comes to my mind2. I am still friends with a few individuals from "back then", follow and keep in touch with many more online and have, alas lost complete contact with many others. Each and everyone of them carries with them an interesting perspective and insight from moving in a similar network of people and ideas at a similar place and time.

While I know organizations and companies like those exists in many places I have yet to find a loose confederation of those individuals, organizations and companies similar to what I experienced in the Bay Area here in Chicago where I currently reside. I have however found such a network in Washington, DC and it is known as Social Matchbox.

As I experienced back in San Francisco with Webzine, I'm sure to many in the DC Metropolitan Area, Social Matchbox means different things to different people. To some it is a guiding principle of similar ideas, to others an event and still to others a social network of people and organizations. I can't speak to the network of people as a whole, since being in Chicago leaves me with a tenuous connection at best. I can however speak to the idea and, at least to one, event.

According to their website "Social Matchbox is where East Coast entrepreneurs and startup professionals congregate, launch, stay informed, announce job openings, and connect."

Quite an ambitious idea.

In practice, at least as I saw it put to practice last Thursday night, the group focuses on technology startups in the DC area. Now, one might think that DC startups, even technology focused ones, are geared toward one idea; winning big, fat Federal government contracts. While that might be the case for some, the startups selected to give their 5 minute sales pitch for Social Matchbox were anything but. In fact, it seemed quite the opposite, of the dozen or so presenters, about half of them had a social consciousness element to their concept. Take for example the winner of the evening's "group funding", Earth Aid.

AudienceEarth Aid is an online tool designed to assist in managing the household utilities by providing one place for viewing electric, natural gas, and water usage information. But that's hardly the only aspect. Earth Aid also highlights rebates, tax incentives and discounts to help reduced household expenses. The social consciousness element comes into play with the users ability to earn rewards for reducing utility usage, reducing in turn one's impact on the local environment.

Other groups focused on the social engagement front included:


  • Apps for Democracy: An online competition designed to foster innovative and useful usage of local government data online

  • Sunlight Foundation: Similar to Apps for Democracy, only focusing on federal information via Data.gov

  • Grasshopr: Designed to be a single online source for civic engagement on issues at the federal, state and local level


As for those "traditional" tech startups, two of my favorites:


  • TapMetrics: An analytics tool for iPhone Developers for tracking information about their Apps

  • Unblab: An API to a machine intelligence that can be used to label important messages (email, blog posts, tweets) for the user, automatically filtering out "important" information from other "non-important" messages


Will all these ideas take? Maybe. Will any strike it rich? Doubtful. But if these individuals are anything similar to the West Coast counterparts I know, the "rich and famous" part isn't what drives them. What does drive them? Well as Steve Jobs famously put it to John Sculley, "do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water to children, or do you want a chance to change the world?"




1 For some, success or failure is a hard label to place. I, like many others, walked away with shares in Red Hat, which acquired C2Net in 2000, that actually had value. But it was a difficult transition that left a bitter after-taste for many. All, in all it was probably a draw.

2 Don't get be wrong, there was some stupidity going on, but hardly everyone was a speculator, rotten to the core.

Open Software versus Closed (Proprietary) Software

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The project is a go. The decision has been made. Because of the strategic nature, a significant investment will be made to optimize and support a critical business function with the development of new software.


For many a key question requires answering, does the organization develop this new software in-house or outsource it to a specialized development firm? Quite an array of factors can go into deciding this question. In other cases, the question might be simple to answer.


Increasingly however an additional question comes into play when deciding how to move on the question of software development, go with an open source solution or a closed, proprietary solution? Open and closed systems, like anything else, have advantages and disadvantages.


For example if software development is done in-house proprietary software can provide legal protections for any intellectual property built into the functionality of the software that the organization considers critical to its great business success.


On the other-hand. an in-house system that either is developed internally and then opened or built initially on an open source codebase can reduce development costs and overhead.


These days, for many, the virtues of openness has an strong appeal. Consider the example of a little project I undertook a few years ago to connect an Apple //c to a Mac mini. At the heart of the hardware connection is the bridge between the old-school RS-232 standard to the currently ubiquitous USB standard. To many the success of the project is seen in the very open nature of the two standards. While I was able to purchase all the parts I needed, "off-the-shelf", many, not doubt would note that, if the key product didn't exist, I could have taken to building my own cabling, by looking up the published documentation on the two standards.


But a standard, just like software, doesn't have to be open to be well documented. Now a days the use of Microsoft Word or Excel goes without much forethought. If considerations are made it is with the eye toward wide support, compatibility and availability. Thus, while every organization, software or individual might not be highly compatible with latest version of Microsoft's productivity software, the high adoption rate means at least a high rate of basic support and compatibility for the software and its document formats.


In fact, opened or closed, standard or software, the importance for many is not about the technical or legal risk. From a business perceptive, more than anything else, the question ends up being about support and compatibility. If one invests a large amount of money into software to manage a critical business function the concerns and ideals of open or close take on a lot less importance . What does take on importance are questions about return on investment or on-going cost to support, manage or improve upon the solution, in the short and/or long term.


This is why people talk about communities, development networks, ecosystems and adoption rates. Because these pieces of information present a larger picture about market conditions. For if software and the standards the software adopts are largely adopted then chances are good for the long term viability of the software.


Market position and investment costs, also explain why, more times than not, market leaders such as Twitter, will favor closed systems over open ones whereas disruptive challengers, such as Oracle back in the day, will champion openness over close-knit systems.1 For if the "micro-blogging" format becomes an open standard then Twitter loses out on their investment scaling up their infrastructure. Whereas Oracle, with the open SQL standard, provided a challenge to the proprietary hardware/software lock-in of IBM, the success of their challenge directly dependent upon their investment in get SQL standardized with high adoption.


In other words the division between opened and closed software is hardly as cut and dry as many try to make it out to be.



1 It also explains why some companies, such as the Oracle example, might change their position over time, while others, like Microsoft, might have conflicting positions depending on the goals of a specific department/product.

Strategic Software Development

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I've been thinking a lot about software development and strategic business strategies recently, in part because of some business work I've been doing recently and in part because the reason why the software program exists has a strong relation with how the system is designed.


'We Are All Software Companies Now' is a post I read last week suggesting that all businesses are software businesses these days, even HP, Tesla, Rackspace and Apple. Well that's not quite right, as I've noted before about Apple all one has to do is look at their financial statements to know that Apple is a hardware company, selling iPhones, iPods and Macs. Apple is no more a software company than it is a technology retail chain outlet.


But of course Apple does both because it has determined that having retail stores and software engineers are critical functions that allow themselves to effectively preform in bringing the best personal computing experience to consumers around the world.1


That is in many cases a business might determine that their own development of software for a key business activity will enable the organization to achieve its long-term objectives.


To determine if a business function might be of strategic importance, let's consider two different types of businesses and how they relate to a specific type of business software.


Spacely Sprockets is specialized widget maker, but unlike Apple, only sells its sprockets wholesale to retailers who then sell a range of individualized widgets from various manufacturers to public consumers. ACME is just such as retailer.


Both Spacely Sprockets and ACME have warehouses. Both companies have shipping requirements. Both companies are using a software solution to manage and track products from origin to destination, from creation to final sale. Spacely uses an "boxed" enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution from a highly regarded business software vendor. ACME, on the other-hand, uses a customized, self-developed and managed ERP solution.


What exactly are these two ERP systems doing for these companies? In general ERP systems are about removing barriers to data that can become trapped in department specific solutions. That is ERP systems are about eliminating standalone computer systems in finance, marketing and manufacturing, and integrating them into a single unified system.


For Spacely Sprockets this means a solution that tracks wholesale sales and overall market penetration, production volume, warehouse inventory and shipping costs. The software vendor Spacely has contracted sells a solution built on software modules for each department; marketing and sales, production and shipping. Each department can choose from a set of predefined workflows optimized for their need. At the same time the modules share a common communication infrastructure enabling access to any required piece of data for the company's Operations department.


Thus Spacely can focus on their business, building the best widget for their market. At the same time reducing the overall cost of their operation and leveraging the expertise of other similar business models via their software vendor's solution. The reduction of operating costs can either be passed on to the consumer in lower product cost or to Spacely's shareholders in higher profit margins.


For ACME their business also involves sourcing products, procurement and logistics management. They too are in need of integrating resource management solution within their company.


However, their decision to build their own ERP stems from the fact that their continued success in business is built on their ability to properly managing the procurement and logistics of numinous products, including Spacely's widgets. AMCE has years of in-house knowledge and expertise that just cannot be replicated in any "off-the-self" ERP solution.


ACME's strategic business objective is to continue applying and refining their hard-won supply-chain knowledge to their operation. In doing so they too can reduce their operating costs in relation to their competition and can either pass on the savings to their customers or to their shareholders in higher profit margins.


Of course in the abstract, this seems extremely straight-forward. In reality, business conditions change all the time. One day the hard-won knowledge your business has fought for is gold, the next it might become a liability.


And just because a business elects one option over the other doesn't mean the software concerns end there. Nope, besides deciding to build a custom solution or not, a business has to consider; do they go with a close-source solution or an open source solution? If they do decide to develop a custom solution, do they try to develop the software knowledge and solution in-house or outsource?




1 I couldn't find an up-to-date reference for Apple's current "mission statement." The best reference Google could come up with is a few years old. None-the-less, even if Apple doesn't have a stated mission, this statement isn't that far of the mark of how the company is currently operating.

Campaign for Change

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A little over a year ago I packed up my car with a weeks worth of clothing, left my home in Chicago for the unknown awaiting me in St. Paul, Minnesota. Two weeks previous I had agreed to take on the position of State IT Director for Barack Obama's Presidential Campaign.


Campaign is most definitely the right word. I have never been in the military, but given the stories I've read and heard from strangers and friends I feel that even if I can't total relate, I understand parts of the experience: Life away from home; 18 to 20 hour work days, seven days a week; extremely limited resources; time, money, personnel and materials.


The job was something akin to working as a Quartermaster for the Army; Optimizing limited technical resources so that the campaign staff and volunteers could get to work. In one quite surreal moment I was aghast in our Mankato office - a town of 30,000 people some 90 miles southwest of St. Paul/Minneapolis - shaking my head at a hulking old HP LaserJet 5 printer that the DFL had procured. The machine was useless. Actually, less than useless since it took up quite a bit of room in an office that had none - the "office" being housed in a former beauty salon that had a total of three salon stations turned into desks. The printer in question had no internal printer server - the card no doubt having been removed by the refurbisher who sold the unit, no standard parallel cable - HP having used a non-standard PIN configuration for their parallel ports and a power cord that would work just fine, for a 240 volt outlet commonly found in the United Kingdom and Ireland.


I've been asked if working on the campaign was "fun." Fun is not the word I would use to describe it. By my third sleep deprived, highly stressed day on the job, I felt like I had made a terrible mistake. I can say without at doubt that I "worked more" in those months leading up to the election than in any other period of time in my life. While the feeling of misstep abated as I got a better handle on the job, fun still doesn't come to mind. The controlled chaos of Election Day, participating in a Michelle Obama Rally, witnessing first hand Al Franken's Senate run, meeting new and interesting people and watching people's passions being unleashed would be, haunting, impressive, and extraordinary. Memorable. Yes, memorable would be a better one word adjective.


Of course that, in part, is to be expected. To try and take advantage of just that I wrote a bit while working on the campaign. While my plan of writing at least once a week ultimately didn't pan out, I lacked time to decompress and organize my thoughts collectively; I did get in a few moments of thought clearing writing in:


Plus the usual photos and videos which can be found here on pdw.weinstein.org and elsewhere:


Enjoy.

About the Author

Paul is a technologist and all around nice guy for technology oriented organizations and parties. Besides maintaining this blog and website you can follow Paul's particular pontifications on the Life Universe and Everything on Twitter.

   
   


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