Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fallout from the Google Bomb

Paula's been doing most of the posting lately, because I've been writing a lot of articles on the TOWER Software corporate blog. I've tried to be careful about letting work articles bleed over to this blog, but I couldn't resist this topic.

Simon, in a gutsy, possibly career-limiting move, publicly questioned the reason for TOWER Software's existence. The question he posed is: With search tools like Google available, why bother to organize or file anything? Just let the algorithm find it for you.

This is one of the "big three" strategic challenges that my company faces. I've got it and the other two written on my whiteboard at the office. (No peeking!) We've been thinking about how to address these issues at TOWER Software for quite a while, but it's been an internal discussion.

Not any longer. It's in the blogosphere now; Gordon has already posted his response. Here's mine.

Google is not magic

When Simon titled his controversial article "Why Bother Organizing?" he stated that you could dump all your electronic content into a big pile and have Google sort it out for you later. This is true. But he also implied that organization itself is unnecessary. This is absolutely false.

Google organizes things all the time. That's what it does. "Organizing the World's Information" is Google's mission statement. Google is nothing but a gigantic indexing and organizing engine -- and it has plenty of help.

Google deploys an untold number of automated spiders, crawlers and bots to find information and index it. Google employs a small army of software developers and mathematicians to tweak and maintain the PageRank algorithm. Companies and individuals notify Google when they create their websites. There's an entire industry devoted to helping Google find things.

We're part of it, too. Every time we click on a search result, we're voting on how high Google should place the webpage in its index. Every time we make a hyperlink, we help Google relate information. Every time we write a webpage that includes title and meta tags, we're helping Google organize the web.

Without this massive amount of support and assistance, there's no way that Google could present the results it does. Google search results don't spontaneously appear. Creating order out of chaos requires organization, and organization requires work. That's not a slogan: that's the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

What Simon's really talking about in his post is far more personal: "Why should I have to organize this information?" The magic of Google is not that it creates something (search results) out of nothing (a big heap of disordered junk). The magic of Google is that it has so thoroughly abstracted the hard work of organizing from the end user that technically savvy folks like Simon don't see it happening. Brilliant!

When you look at it this way, the challenge that Simon posed is not really an existential question for TOWER Software and other players in the ECM industry. It's an execution question. The challenge is to dramatically improve the design of ECM solutions so that systems appear to organize the information without human intervention.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Always trust your audience.

I was recently reading an article about comic Phyllis Diller in Smithsonian Magazine. She recently donated a 48-drawer card catalog of one-liners to the Smithsonian.

Card Catalog

I thought the archive was an outstanding example of a personal knowledge library. The information age accelerates the need for a personal library, but the problem has been around long before the computer. A card catalog may be a low-tech del.icio.us, but the problem they solve is similar.

I also thought Phyllis had an insightful metric for what stayed in the files and ultimately the success of a joke: If the audience laughed, it was funny. "You never blame the audience" she says. Period.

That seems obvious, but how often do people cling to bad ideas that flop? Bad designs that users don't like? Documents that do not make their point clearly? Training guides that confuse? It is human nature (and, human ego) to assume we know better. If our audience doesn't understand or appreciate, they must be wrong. Sometimes we do know better - sometimes innovated ideas are not recognized by the greater public until later. But a majority of the time it is as easy as the Ms. Diller's audience test: The definition of funny is making someone laugh.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Internet Radio finds

I love my Sonos. ahem, I mean Dean really loves the Sonos I got him for Christmas.

One of the unexpected benefits of the Sonos, besides having music playing allover the house 24/7, is the internet radio stations that come with the Sonos system pre-loaded. When our computer is not connected, The Sonos can still play from the Internet radio list. The list has some hits, some misses, but amongst all that I found a pretty cool little internet radio station: Martha's Vineyard Radio.

They play an eclectic mix of 80s and 90s that ranges from REM, U2, Elvis Costello to Blues Traveller, Wallflowers, and Belle and Sebastian, then randomly they throw in stuff like a evening blues show and some other random but good genres. It makes a nice alternative to the iTunes library.

Dean is busy engineering a way to hook in our Sattalite radio (XM) stream, so prety soon we will be able to play any genre of music, any time, all over the house. Heaven. I'm willing to go on a starvation diet to buy more Sonos parts, because there are still parts of my house that I don't yet have covered in music.

Which reminds me of a post that Gordon blogged about - some products invoke emotional attachment. iPod was one, but I've found a new love - Sonos. If only all products were that huggable.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Yesterday our closet light bulb burned out. This managed to coincide with a current news item - California legislators are proposing to ban the incandescent bulb in favor of energy efficient light bulbs.

I have to agree with the desired end state - use the power of government influence to control energy consumption and reduce the power hungriness of the average California household. But the means are all wrong. They shouldn't be banning incandescent light bulbs, they should be taxing them.

My closet light bulb demonstrates the challenge. The ceiling fixtures in our townhouse have a decorative glass cover around the light bulbs. Dean was all excited to replace the current incandescent bulb with one of our newfangled energy efficient bulbs. (Not necessarily out of environment concern - more that I can never again make him climb a ladder to change the light bulb....). Unfortunately, Dean's plan was adverted - the energy efficient light bulbs are actually a fraction larger than their incandescent counterparts. The glass cover doesn't fit. And so instead of an energy efficient bulb, an energy hogging incandescent went in.

Which led us to conclude that the right answer is taxation. There are always those for whom aesthetics (or, engineering necessity) requires a standard incandescent bulb. The market driver now is to by the old bulbs, because at the point of sale they are cheaper. Even if their lifetime cost is less, consumer behavior is very sensitive to upfront cost. So to change behavior, instead of enacting an outright ban, California should just tax incandescent light bulbs at 200%. Most consumers would buy the energy efficient bulbs, but those who needed the older bulbs for a specific cause could still purchase them. Ultimately supply and demand would also influence price, and the less-demanded incandescent bulbs would be more cost more. This would eventually also replace the need for incandescents for old fixtures - consumers like us would realize that it may in fact be cheaper to replace old closet light fixture than to pay the incandescent tax.