February 2007

About a month ago a friend said the following before a hockey game (yeah – our team has very geeky locker room talk):

“Is IBM not making enough money these days? I hear they’re providing services for some online world”

At the time, I didn’t know much about Second Life (SL), but had read the news release, so I explained what (I understood) we were doing; i.e. helping companies build a presence on SL. I explained that SL was another avenue for companies and their customers to engage in a conversation, and IBM was helping companies do just that.

I finally got around to trying SL last week. While I don’t have enough experience with SL to make predictions on its future, I thought I’d share why I tried SL and why that reason is significant.

I was invited to a SL training session and in-SL meeting by the folks that run the MLDP (Market Leadership Development Program). The MLDP program has grown into a talent development program inside of IBM. Its history dates back to when Abby Kohnstamm joined IBM and decided IBM needed to beef up on its marketing skills.

The notion that some of the best young-ish folks at IBM were being exposed to SL in such a deliberate way something that really struck me. I’m not saying that SL or other metaverse is going to have the impact on our lives that the Internet did, but imagine the business implications of exposing your staff to the Internet years before your competition. Or imagine if IBM had held an “intro to Open Source” session for MLDPers 5 years ago.

We learned that the SOA Marketing team is quite active on SL and the customer response has been phenomenal. Does that mean we’re selling SL in-world versions of WAS Community Edition or System z? (And if we did, what would a SL resident do with such an object?!?!). Obviously not; SL is being used to get the SOA message and value proposition out, and the folks that are listening aren’t teenagers, they’re business level folks. Surprised, yeah, so was I. (These must be in-SL meetings during a real world event or conference??)

Don’t get me wrong, I’d guess > 75% of the folks who tried out SL during the MLDP meeting will not use it again (for the foreseeable future). But if the other 25% come back, get comfortable with SL and come up with new ways of conversing with our customers, that’s a win for IBM. What if they help build an environment where IBM can play matchmaker between (IBM) customers who are searching for goods/services/information and (IBM) customers who have good/services/information for sale? Yeah, why not do the latter on the net vs. in SL. Good question – maybe because marketplaces have already formed on the Internet and SL is still in its infancy, or maybe because SL can allow for a level of interaction that can’t be replicated on the Internet itself (without a ‘viewer’ such as SL).

In any case, don’t neglect SL because your customers won’t.

I’ve been catching up on some reading and found the comments to a post from Dana very interesting.

Here’s a summary (although the comments are worth a read):

  1. Dana writes about Zenoss, an open source IT management vendor
  2. Zenoss CEO, Bill Karpovich, comments that: “(1) we provide strong coverage of what organizations are *really* looking for and are expanding rapidly (2) we will never do 100% of what the Big 4 does since much of it has resulted in bloated, shelf-ware, and (3) we will do many things that they can’t/won’t do.”
  3. Tarus Balog, a contributor from a competitive open source IT management provider (OpenNMS) questions whether Zenoss is really enterprise ready

Okay, is some software bloated? Sure. Are there features inside of <insert_your_fav_sw_here> that you don’t use? Sure. But I think the Bill’s comment on “bloated, shelf-ware” is a bit broad. Maybe he meant to apply his analysis against small or medium sized customer requirements?

Good product management practices don’t usually allow for adding a feature just to beef up the “New Feature list”. Most of the time the feature is something that a large number of customers or a small number of your best customers have asked for. Product managers don’t just dream up these new features (we’re not that smart or creative). Just because a feature is not used by the majority doesn’t make it useless to the majority. A friend used to format headings in MS Word document manually (i.e. highlight, underline, bold, change font size, find next heading and repeat) until I showed him the “Format Painter” icon. Until I showed him what that icon did, it was a “useless feature”. The ability to cluster a web application is “not necessary” or “critical” depending on the customer type and specific project. The ability to consume a QuickBooks data resource is “not necessary” for Citibank, but critical for a smaller sized company (a plug for another friend).

Incidentally, I haven’t heard anyone complain about “bloated” automobiles. I’m not talking about form factor; I mean “too many features” inside this thing that should just take me from A to B. Do we really need rain sensing windshield wipers, multiple temperature zones inside the car, or headlights that pivot during turns? Why don’t we vote with our wallets for manufactures to build something more like the Polski Fiat 126p?

Different customers require different features for different uses. Heck, they even need different levels of quality within a given feature, i.e. I’m happy with a car that can go from 0 to 60 period. My friends in the automotive industry care about going from 0 to 60 in less than 5 seconds.

Let’s be careful when claiming that open source software will cure the world of bloated software without understanding the customer types and use cases that the software is aimed at.

[The pic is from Flickr user sirronwong]

In doing a literature review about 6 months ago, I read about research that Gordon Bell was doing at Microsoft. His team is working on MyLifeBits, a project that aims to digitize and store *all* the information one interacts with in her/his daily life. It’s supposed to be a fulfillment of Vannevar Bush’s vision from 1941! (That’s a pic of him from wikipedia).

One of Bell’s papers mentioned the challenge of not just digitizing and storing the information, but ensuring that the data could be readable in the future. As Bell states:

“The most serious impediment to a lasting archive is the evolution of media, platforms, formats, and the applications that create them. Unique, proprietary, and constantly evolving data formats such as Acrobat-4, MPEG-4, Oracle 8, Quicken 2001, Real G2, and Word 2000 suggest or even guarantee obsolescence.”

After reading the paper from 2001 I was fairly certain that I could find files on my hard drive from 2001 or earlier, that I could no longer open because of format & application version compatibility issues. And that was only 5 years ago, what about in 50 years?

Vint Cerf (of Google) also mentioned the problem of orphaned data as a result of filetype/application evolution when he spoke at the University of Toronto in late 2006.

Open formats to the rescue?
Jonathan uses a great example to make the case for ODF (which I know Bob Sutor and many others have been making for quite some time). The plug-in that Jonathan mentions sounds like a great idea; and maybe a reason for this Microsoft funded project to shut down :-)

Open formats can minimize the likelihood of orphaned data. But, your application of choice needs to implement the open format before you can open that 50 year old file (50 yrs from now). If your application of choice is an open source application, and just one other technically inclined person has the need to open a file of the same filetype, you should be in luck.

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