Monday, September 20, 2010

The Multiparty Line (over and again)

Suddenly more and more of my friends and family of the "not-early-adopter" personality type are signing up for Facebook.  They think I am a digital technology early adopter, so I am flooded with "how to" and "why" questions. 

We must have reached the tipping point in social media. In most of he country it is now presumed that you can read and write, watch plenty of TV, own a personal computer and a cell phone AND that you "are on Facebook". If not, you'll feel that you have to explain why not: After all, if you want to hear from your children or get photos of your grandchildren you better be on Facebook.  Furthermore, many of your friends probably have given up email and switched to Facebook, social gatherings will announced there - be there or be square.  The more hip only "do Twitter" and text from smart phones.

As I look at how most people use Facebook and Twitter I see a similarity with past chapters in the evolution of telecommunications: The tolerance for multiparty line communications and loss of privacy swung as follows:

Telephones between 1930 to 1960's and even beyond for outlaying rural communities: Seniors still remember that in those years, presuming to have private telephone conversation in a small town was a joke.  Either your neighbor(s) or a bored switchboard operator was presumed to be listening on. 
Automatic switchboards and sufficient telephone lines brought privacy back.

CB radios became popular, not only with long distance truckers, but also with aunt Mae and cousin George from 1972 (because of the First OPEC Oil Embargo and resultant gasoline shortage) until the early 80's.  With some planning (for a trip in convoy) you might manage to talk to someone you knew, but by en large it was the "first Twitter" where you told strangers what was on your mind or "in the road" - listeners "followed you" and you were "Buddies" only because you had in common the same piece of interstate highway at the same time:  10-4 Good Buddy...
Cell phones eventually brought an end to CB radios and brought privacy back.

Computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) created the first multiparty communications for computer users around 1975, their use exploded with personal computers in the early 80's until supplanted by the internet in the early 90's.  Again you could "talk" (type) on an open line to all those that had a similar interest: computer software,  computer games (text-based, before-video), dating services (professionals or lonely hearts), etc. 
The first user friendly Internet Browser (Netscape) in 1990 opened the Internet to the masses and with email, privacy was back. By 1999 you had better be ready to explain under what rock you lived if you did not have an email address. 

Web2.0 Social Media Arrives
Social Media  could be said to go as far back back to the PLATO system (1973) at University of Illinois, but in its current Web2.0 form it started with Friendster in 2003, followed by the explosion of  MySpace (driven by the high school crowd), Linkedin (the professional crowd), Facebook (the college grads crowd) and Twitter (the short comments crowd). 

All provide a choice of communication channels that vary from open-line to private-line telephone emulation. In Linkedin and Facebook anyone known or unknown can be friends by invitation and mutual agreement. Friends of friends can be more or less shared depending on user choice and the fee paid for one's account. In Twitter anyone can be anyone's friend, just because they are there.  With something valuable to say and consistent effort nurturing the audience one can garner 200,000 followers or more. In Facebook, with a "poke" you can be "friends for 3 days" and show a little tease (A "poke" is intended to get someone's attention allowing them to see your Facebook page for 3 days, so they can know who you are, and hopefully add you as a friend).  

Those who bother to manage their privacy can hide their Facebook friends, but most users are pretty open, by accident or by design.  Some do not know any better (instructions for adding friends are jammed down your throat while those to manage privacy are far from clear), so they have all their friends visible to all friends of friends. Then they write on one friend's wall a private message (trivial or important) only to discover they were shouting on the town's party line.  
We are back to telephone privacy circa 1945, but this time the technology is not to blame. 

The psychology and sociology of multiparty lines
At this point you can go on to something more productive than reading the remainder. Following are my speculations and opinions on the subject, and you know what they say about opinions.

I always interpreted the user's tolerance of a multiparty line as the price to be paid in the early stages of a new technology introduction: When the resource is limited, the price of privacy is high and beyond the budget of most, but eventually mass adoption scales the system to where privacy is affordable to all.  

Today, however I see the commonplace use of open communication channels for private matters, seemingly with little concern, when means to achieve privacy exist.  Why?

Is there a group psychology in play here, similar to that found in American high schools or colleges: The dynamics of wanting to belong, wanting to be heard, wanting to be included, wanting to be popular?  It would surely explain why the first big successes by social media sites were with students in high school  (MySpace) and college (Facebook), whereas the membership process and the chatter in Linkedin (business leads and job hunting professionals) have been far more private and resulted in slower growth.  

Is this why some feel compelled to announce to the world "I at the airport waiting for a flight to London" (as if we would care) or "Stranded in Paris on the way to Moscow" (it happens to everyone that changes planes in Paris), or "traveling from A to B stopping at C to walk the dog" (as if we all were waiting for them), or "standing in line to buy my iPhone tomorrow morning" (so you are one of a million)?

It's easy to say - just stop following them, drop them from your friends lists, etc. But that is not the point. 
First, those same people at times make public announcements of value ("iPhone proven to lose call" - Good to hear, I am not crazy, "X just released a multitasking xPad" - Good to hear, now I can skip the iPad). 
Secondly, the riddle I wish to unravel is why private comments aimed at a single person find instead their way into the chatter of the public town square. Has the need for privacy been abandoned?  If it is evolving we better understand why and how, because the public town square is changing and we cannot stay away from it - it is the new language we must learn to use correctly.

Please, comment with whatever insight or guesses you care to share (BTW, not just with me but with all my followers!).

Marco Messina

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    User Interfaces, Arrogance and Opportunity

    In the interest of full disclosure I'll admit to some personal and painful experience with User Interfaces (UI).  They probably colored my perspective to this day.
    The first UI we learn as humans is language which allows us to interface with mom and other humans. In the US in particular, most people learn the "language UI" only once - English.  As an immigrant from Italy in 1970 (before English had became the world's global language) I suffered the cost of confronting my UI (Italian) abruptly obsoleted and I had to waste a whole semester studying English as second language before I could start full speed with my real courses (not an inconsiderable penalty considering that I still completed a BA and MBA in 4 years).

    Looking back, then I chose to almost completely abandon using Italian in favor of English (the former I would not forget while the latter is still a work in progress). I distinctly remember that bargain: Pay a price to get something valuable for the rest of my life.  The alternatives were to go back to Italy or to limit my future to an Italian language neighborhood: both were easier, neither had ROI.

    The cost of UI changes
    I think all UI changes reflect the same ROI calculation I did back then. The fact that, despite all the push for Vista and Win7, XP still has a 70+ % market share, in my view, reflects that same calculus:  Why invest effort and incur the cost of disruption (personal or organizational or both) to change to a UI that does not have a compelling, demonstrable unquestionable advantage?  70% so far say NO.

    Furthermore, to follow Microsoft into the promised land we'd have to trash perfectly viable PCs that just happen to have an engine insufficient for the new OS.  It is like GM offering you a car that carries no more people, goes no faster, saves no money and requires you to learn to drive with a joystick sitting backwards and looking at the road through a mirror - eventually you'll like it.

    Arrogance as a strategy
    Todays' announcement that the miraculously uncluttered, minimalist new-design Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) will not run on XP is the reflection of an arrogance we would not tolerate from automakers.  It's tantamount to GM announcing cars wider than the lanes in our roads, for awesome benefits to be sure, like improved cornering stability, or all passengers sitting in first raw, and replying to our objections with "build new roads" (a "let them eat cake" attitude comes to mind).

    In the days when most (low power) cell phones can sport an effective web browser, one has to wonder the necessity of dumping viable PCs just because they cannot run Win7 and IE9 - has anyone heard we are in a recession?  Yet the me-too desire for IE9 will prompt many to "eat cake": buy new expensive hardware with a new OS and IE9 to do no more than an iPhone or Android phone would do.  Arrogance may pay off after all.

    Opportunities abound
    Arrogance however always carries a price to be paid when the American public abruptly switches to alternate suppliers more responsive to their needs: see the experiences of GM and Toyota, Internet Explorer and Firefox/Chrome, Motorola and HTC/Nokia/et al., United/USAir and Sothwest/JetBlue, and so on.

    One would be tempted to add to the above list Microsoft and Linux/Ubuntu, but we cannot.  It may be a sea change in the making with Android (an Ubuntu skin), but is not yet here.  Why after 10 years of Linux has it not happened?  It's not the economy, stupid; it's the UI.  Yes, the UI.

    Linux in all its incarnations can run better than XP on old PCs (as on new cell phones) and can deliver equivalent or the exact same applications (through WINE) but pigheadedly keeps coming out requiring the user to adapt to a  new UI. If there were a benefit to that UI change users would do it, but since there isn't they just don't change - 70% market shares says so.

    Geeks and Linux fans spend much effort touting the greater elegance and whatever many other strengths, but seem to be totally oblivious to the fact that Toyota can pull customers away from GM and Ford ONLY BECAUSE THE UI IS THE SAME and the technical improvements/advantages require NO learning curve.

    In the business parlance of the day the saying goes: OUR (business/product) value proposition is...  That's great because it means we understand that a value proposition is key, but we should strive to phrase it in terms of THE BUYER, not in our terms.  Perhaps: FOR CUSTOMERS THAT WANT X we offer Y that does..  It would set the right frame of mind for OUR mind.

    So, in closing here is a thought for all of you innovators out there looking for ideas: Produce a Linux that looks and feels (the UI) identical to XP, so that "XP migrants" have NOTHING to learn, make it run like Ubuntu on old PCs (those obsoleted by Win7), with a minimalist looking IE9-style web browser that requires no new PC and OS (Firefox/Chrome?).

    Beware - The window of opportunity is closing fast. Android, a garden open to all, will soon deliver a uniform UI from cellphone-to-tablet and eventually to PCs (as Apple promises from pad-to-phone).  If a new option with an XP-UI appears, it can still capture the transition moment, and you can capture a market, else the UI consistency from phone-to-PC promised by Android will be the David's stone that slays the arrogant Goliath.

    Either way it will be the UI, not the power, not the features, not the economy, the UI.

    P.S. I loved my birth language UI, I changed it because of the ROI, but cannot forget the price I paid
    Marco Messina

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    The Magic Ten

    Sales are the only unquestionable proof that anyone on the planet values and wants what you make (or plan to  make).  Therefore it is the only proof that your business has any potential of being a viable,  even a successful venture for you and your investors.
    Of course your business may still fail for a thousand reasons some related to you (management skills), some beyond you (timing and economic cycle).  But if no one wants to buy, it is proof that there is no potential - change what you make or go invent something else.
    The trouble is that this sales "acid test" is almost never performed soon enough.  Innovators waste untold  resources on whimsical notions that  the world needs X because they thought so and without ever asking anyone if it is true, except perhaps for overly sympathetic family and friends.  The genetic make up of the inventor/innovator is to instinctively seek solutions to perceived problems, then develop total belief in the solution found, often with smug disregard for the opinion of the less innovative.  Unfortunately, those less innovative folks are the customers that should buy your product (BTW they probably innovate in their domain just as much, just do not appear so to you). Because their focus is elsewhere, almost always they will have different perceptions than you. BUT, if they do not like your offering, your product is crap: beautiful, genial, elegant perhaps, but business-wise it is still crap.

    Before investing a great deal of energy developing prototypes, let alone finished products, do yourself a great favor:
    1  Get out of your office or garage
    2  Look for 10, TEN, not two, TEN prospective buyers of your product
    3  Find a way to explain in 45 seconds: what you offer, and its value proposition 
    4  Continue to search until you have found ten that say they would buy whatever you intend to make
    5  After TEN people say they will buy at the price you envision, go prototype your product.
    6  Then go back to validate with your ten prospects if they would still buy it.
    7  If less then ten would, use the feedback to explore design modifications and
    8  go back to searching for prospective buyers until you are back to ten
    9  Repeat the loop for every prototype iteration
    10 If you have less than ten fans or buyers go back to look for more - Remember TEN

    Clearly this formula calls for good walking shoes and door knocking stamina far more than an MBA.  The latter in fact will give you countless excuses to stay in your office to over analyze your own questionable notions of reality until, eventually failure will lead you to forget the textbooks and fancy formulas codified years ago, then get good sneakers and go talk to customers about what they want NOW.
    It is a simple formula: TEN

    Oh, and you can bet heavily on this outcome:  If you can show your prospective angel investors that you have done this field market research, or better yet you have actually sold something to somebody, you'll be in a class apart from all the funding seekers they see - you will have the beginnings of a proof of market

    Marco Messina