A Theory On Technological Innovation

I’m currently taking an Economics course (ECON 222) at the
University of Alberta entitled “Economic Growth, Technology, and
Institutions.” I find it very interesting, which is hardly surprising
given my liberal use of technology and the number of economics courses
I have taken as part of my Computing Science degree. As a result, I
like to think that I know a thing or two about technology and it’s
relation to economics (though I am sure to learn more before this
course is complete). At the very least, I can make some educated
assertions and theories. So today when I came across Tony Long’s Wired
article entitled “Dark Underbelly of Technology
I felt the need to say something, presumably because I’m a blogger and
thus, in his words, “everything [I] say is so interesting it should be
shared with everyone.”

Besides that little swipe at bloggers, it’s actually a well-written
opinion piece. The gist of his column can be found in the second last
paragraph (incidentially, I’m also taking a Sociology course right now,
so perhaps I can touch on that):

Anything that diminishes the value of a single human being poses a
threat to a rational, humane society. When technology can cure a
disease or help you with your homework or bring a little joy to a
shut-in, that’s great. But when it costs you your job, or trashes the
environment, or takes you out of the real world in favor of a virtual
one, or drives your blood pressure through the roof, it’s a monster.

First, let’s tackle the issue of technology negatively impacting us
as individuals. Sure when the computer crashes, or something breaks, we
get annoyed. But if you really think your ancestors were not also
annoyed by their technology, you’re mistaken! I don’t imagine it was
very much fun to have to fix the farm equipment when most people lived
and worked in the fields. Technology is created by humans, and I don’t
know about you but I don’t know anyone who’s perfect, so there’s no
reason to expect that technology should be.

Then there is the very common argument that technology forces us to
lose touch with humanity; that technology negatively impacts society as
a whole. Being connected all the time but never interacting face to
face is “bad”, or so the theory goes. I think the claim that we’re
“losing touch with humanity” is pretty baseless. Most people who make
the claim overlook a simple fact of history – that has never been the
case. Here’s why.

Technology is not new! Since the dawn of time pretty much, humans have created technology. Take the printing press
for example, which was developed in the 15th century. There are a few
important things to note about its development. First, the printing
press took a while to impact society – it was not an overnight change.
Second, there were very few other “major” technologies created around
the time of the printing press. And while the printing press did put a
few people out of work (scribes, for instance), it created far more
jobs than it destroyed.

Why did I mention the printing press? Because it’s a good example of
something I learned in my ECON 222 class. To summarize what my
professor and the textbook said:

Before 1800, people figured they lived in a static world simply because
growth was too slow for them to be aware it was happening at all. While
some economists and historians will claim that economic growth prior to
1820 was 0%, this is most definitely not true and even though growth
rates were tiny, compounded they still result in significant economic
growth over time.

Technology is one of the major reasons we see economic growth, so
it’s not unfair to say that if there was economic growth, there was
probably technological innovation too. And as economic growth since
1800 has been much higher, it’s likely that there has been more
technology developed. And given that the year 1800 was only just more
than 200 years ago, it’s fair to say that the period of high economic
growth and technology development has been fairly rapid in the grand
scheme of things. And that’s what is forgotten in articles and opinion
pieces like the one I mentioned above.

Most people are too quick to say that technology is harmful, simply
because they see development and change a lot faster than their
grandparents or great-grandparents ever did. Does that make it bad or
harmful? I would say no. In the past, people were not aware that
technology was changing and improving, so they didn’t care if it
affected society negatively (sure a few individuals did, but nothing
like today). And as history has shown, it didn’t affect society
negatively – we are several times richer than our parents and
grandparents (in terms of money, standard of living, education,
productivity, all those things). So therein lies my theory:

In the long run, technological innovation will always benefit society.

If we didn’t pay so much attention to whether or not technology was
negatively affecting society, we would carry on with our lives,
technology would continue to develop, and everyone would end up better
off, just as in the past.

Xbox 360 Revealed

Post ImageThe November 22nd launch of the Xbox 360 is now in plain view, so naturally more and more details are emerging. Microsoft is opening up too, as evidenced by it’s recent press event that CNET News.com reporter Daniel Terdiman attended:

For all the talk about whether there will be enough games available when the Xbox is released on Nov. 22, few doubt that the games that will be ready will be a cut above anything available for current-generation consoles. And after seeing a handful of Xbox 360 games Monday, I can say with confidence that it’s true.

Over plates of olives, endives, red peppers and other snacks at Dogpatch Studios in this city’s somewhat rundown Dogpatch neighborhood Monday, Microsoft finally pulled back the curtains on the new Xbox for a small crowd of journalists and invited us to try our hands at 12 titles expected to be ready in time for the console launch next month.

Seems as though Daniel left the event feeling confident in the Xbox 360: “I’d tried about five or six games, and have no trouble reporting that the Xbox 360 was the best console experience I’ve ever had.” He also left wondering about the one question those in the gaming industry, and fans of games for that matter, rarely ask:

Yet in the end, I came back once again to wondering if it’s all really necessary. When it comes to enjoying a video game basketball experience, just how real does the sweat have to be?

There’s no question the new Xbox will produce the most realistic games ever. The question then becomes, do more realistic games make for better games? I’m inclined to say yes, but I suppose time will tell. I’m also willing to bet the answer will vary with each person, and each type of game.

Read: CNET News.com

Complicated Technology Makes It Simple

Post ImageInteresting post written by John Zeratsky over at To-Done! about living a simple life with complicated technology:

I will concede one point – computers and their technological brethren are enormously complex. But the best-designed gadgets and systems actually go a long way toward simplifying our lives.

He then lists a number of technologies that make his life simpler. I thought about it for a couple minutes, and then I realized what my “life-simplifying” technology is – my Tablet PC.

I am terrible for losing paper. If I have something on paper, chances are it will get lost at some point in time. Unfortunately, it’s just not feasible to type everything! That’s why my Tablet PC is so handy, I can type or write or draw or do whatever I need to as if I had paper. And the best part is that I don’t lose anything AND it becomes searchable! I spend a lot of time on the computer as it is, so being able to just write something down without changing “interfaces” (read: moving eyes and focus from screen to paper) is extremely useful. My Tablet PC is a pretty complex device, but it simplifies my life.

What complex technology simplifies your life?

Read: To-Done!

Happy Birthday Microsoft

Post ImageToday Microsoft rented out Safeco Field in Seattle to hold a company meeting with over 16,000 employees attending. In addition to talking about the incredible list of upcoming products, the company celebrated it’s 30th anniversary:

“As I think about the last 30 years,” said Gates, commenting on the anniversary, “I’m most proud of our making ‘big bets’ on technologies like the graphical user interface or Web services and watching them grow into something people rely on every day. And the long-term research we’re doing today on some of computer science’s toughest challenges – such as helping computers listen, speak, learn and understand – will lead to what I think will be the next wave of growth and innovation for our industry.”

Said Ballmer, “We’re more excited than ever about the opportunities ahead. We have an amazing pipeline of new products we’ll be releasing over the next 18 months. With our 30-year heritage of delivering low-cost, high-volume innovations, we’re in a great position to provide people and organizations with the software and services they need to achieve their potential.”

All of this just days after Microsoft announced a major reorganization. Here’s to another 30 years!

Read: Microsoft PressPass

eBay+Skype – What about Amazon?

Post ImageThe big story today in the world of technology (or M&A, depending on how you look at it), originally reported in the Wall Street Journal, is that eBay is in talks to buy Skype for, get this, $3 to $5 billion (yes billion). Seems like anything but a match made in heaven to me. Mark Evans agrees:

eBay purchasing online auctions houses overseas makes sense as do moves into new areas such as online rental listings. But spending $3-billion to buy Skype puzzles me. If anyone can explain eBay’s strategic thinking, I’m open to be educated. For investors, eBay’s interest in Skype could be an alarming indication management is concerned about the growth prospects for the auction business, which may explain why eBay shares have fallen today.

Skhype!

Skype has become quite the media whore as of late, with rumored suitors in the last couple months including Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, News Corporation, and InterActive. Yahoo, Microsoft and Google balked at the purchase price, no doubt because they could build their own competitor for far less. Talks with the other two didn’t amount to anything.

Skype is horribly over-priced:

Om Malik has a post citing a Swedish newspaper that suggests Skype has annual sales of about $70 million. Doing a little quick math suggests a $2-billion to $3-billion purchase would give Skype a price to revenue multiple of 30 to 45 times.

And even more importantly, I can’t see how Skype and eBay result in any synergies. They are completely different businesses, and I don’t think eBay needs a communication network to grow. Furthermore, adding Skype to it’s portfolio may only create new headaches for eBay, who had to jump through hoops at times to get PayPal where it is today. Dealing with financial regulators is one thing; dealing with communications regulators is quite another.

What about Amazon.com?

So the question then, is what does Amazon.com do if the rumored eBay-Skype marriage turns out to be true? Surely there’d be some pressure on them to make a move, as their primary competitor these days is most definitely eBay.

One scenario: partner up with Google in a real hurry. eBay would have both PayPal and Skype under it’s wing, so it might make sense for Amazon.com to try and get in bed with Google and it’s Google Talk and Google Wallet (rumored) services. The other advantage for Amazon in this scenario is that it could happen very quickly, as opposed to building their own systems. On the other hand, Google is a competitor of Amazon’s already with Froogle and Amazon’s A9.

Another scenario would have Amazon build their own communications system, perhaps using Jabber. I don’t think Amazon sees itself as a development company so it would be a bit out of character, but if Google can do it, why not Amazon right? This scenario would depend very heavily on whether Amazon sees any advantage to having such a communications system. I would imagine they are scratching their heads a little right now about eBay and Skype too.

Any other ideas? It will be interesting to watch this one unfold!

Technology and Education

Post ImageThe role of technology in education is growing at a blistering pace, in my opinion. Everywhere you look, the classic image of a classroom full of books is being antiquated. Take Joe Wilcox and his family for example:

Today is the first day of school in the county where I live. Middle schoolers arrived at 7:30 a.m. for the long day ahead. For my daughter, it is the first day of home school, where my wife will be the teacher. Among my wife’s growing cadre of teaching tools is a Windows Media Center PC, which role will be significant.

What place in education does a Media Center PC have?

My wife will record some TV programs from the likes of Animal Planet, Discovery and History Channel for use in some of the lessons. Rather than be bound by the broadcast time, she can play program segments at times most convenient to the lessons. The idea is to keep the curriculum lively and interactive. This morning, my daughter will get a science lesson on Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans earlier today

They also make use of Tablet PC’s (which I think no student should be without):

For art, my daughter will use a 6×8 Wacom Intuos3 tablet, which I have been testing. She may even use the tablet as part of today’s science lesson, being given a chance to draw the air flow for a developing hurricane.

That’s powerful stuff! You just can’t match that kind of education in a typical classroom. And it’s not just grade school that is using technology to its benefit – post secondary is as well, like the use of podcasting at Purdue University:

“Many universities are experimenting with podcasting, but I’m not aware of any other university that is deploying a podcasting service on the scale that we are,” says Michael Gay, manager of Broadcast Networks & Services for Information Technology at Purdue. “As far as I know, we are the only university that is offering both streaming and podcasting of lectures in this manner as a central university service.”

Another example of how technology can improve education. I have always thought that a room full of students furiously writing down notes is absurd. It’s much better to listen and let yourself be engaged by what the professor is saying, than to try and write down every word. Having a podcast of the lecture means you can easily go back and review it.

These are just two recent examples, but there’s many more. Makes me wonder what school will look like in 25 years.

When should you release software?

Post ImageWhen Dickson and I saw Google Talk the other day, an old discussion about when software should be released was renewed. The application was so basic and underwhelming that we couldn’t help but think they should have waited longer to release it. Usually Dickson thinks that software should be released when it’s more complete, whereas I think it’s okay to release sooner. So how do you determine when software is ready to release? Should you release very early, or just wait until the software is almost ready? What does the word “beta” really mean, anyway? Lots of good questions, and I don’t have answers for all of them. I do have some opinions though, and hopefully you’ll share yours too. Keep in mind that when I talk about “software” in this post, I don’t mean only things like Microsoft Outlook. Websites are software too.

It seems to me that the word “beta” has taken on new meaning in the world of software. In the past, releasing software as beta meant that you wanted it to have some real world use, to iron out the bugs that all software has. Lately though, I think that has changed, thanks in large part to Google. Take Google Talk, for example. The software “just works”. So why release it as beta? Well, for one thing, it has almost no features. And look at the discussion the release has generated in the blogosphere. It’s almost as if Google deliberately released software into the wild as “beta” to get some feedback on where to take it, feature-wise.

The meaning has changed in another way too. In the past, releasing something as “beta” meant essentially, “this is free because in exchange for you using the software, we’re going to get valuable feedback to improve it for eventual sale.” Now however, again thanks in large part to Google, that has changed to “we have no idea how to make money from this, so we’re calling it a beta.” Hence, why Google News has never gotten past it’s beta state. Lots of focus on Google, I know, but they are the new villain after all.

So what does “beta” really mean then? And more importantly, when has your software reached “beta”? Well, I think it depends in large part on what kind of software you have. Consider Microsoft Windows, for example. As we all found out the hard way with Longhorn, releasing an operating system too soon can be extremely detrimental. An operating system is too important a piece of software to release before most of the features are set in place. The Windows Vista beta that was released a couple weeks ago is a much better release – pretty stable, and very much focused on ironing out the bugs. Software like Google Talk however, is probably okay to release very early on, whether or not you call it “beta”, because at the end of the day it doesn’t affect nearly as many people.

Maybe what we have is not a question of what makes a release “beta” but instead, what kind of beta release is it? Consider tip #12 from Joel Spolsky’s Top Twelve Tips for Running a Beta Test:

Don’t confuse a technical beta with a marketing beta. I’ve been talking about technical betas, here, in which the goal is to find bugs and get last-minute feedback. Marketing betas are prerelease versions of the software given to the press, to big customers, and to the guy who is going to write the Dummies book that has to appear on the same day as the product.

Armed with that knowledge, maybe Google Talk and other applications like it are just different types of beta releases. Perhaps we should called Google Talk a “feature beta”, where the goal is to gather information on what sort of features the software should eventually have. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at software, as a series of different types of beta releases. Indeed a software application is never really finished, so maybe a “final release” is more like a “money beta”, where you start charging for the software. Of course, I could go on forever, creating endless types of betas. And there will always be anomolies, like Google News or even Flickr, which is in “beta” but costs money.

So let me try to answer the question, when should you release software? I think part of the answer is a question; what do you want to accomplish by releasing the software? If you want to gather information on what sort of features the application should have, release it early! The danger though is that you may create a negative image for yourself by releasing software that doesn’t really do anything, or which doesn’t meet expectations. If you want to iron out bugs, release the software later in what I would consider a “traditional beta”. And if you have software that you don’t know how to make money from, just release it as “free”. No need to confuse things by calling it a “beta”.

I also think releasing software is a very situational decision, in that no two pieces of software have the same set of circumstances surrounding them. While it may be okay to release one early, it might not be a good idea to release another so early. Deciding when to release software then, requires careful consideration of a number of variables, including what the goal of the release is, does the software work, who is it being released to, what other applications like this exist, etc. Once you’ve come up with a clear idea of all the variables, you can then decide to whether or not the time is right to release your software.

Happy Birthday Windows 95

Post ImageToday is a special day in the world of technology. It was ten years ago today that Microsoft released Windows 95 to the world, and what a launch it was, as Joe Wilcox remembers:

Windows 95 was an event. People lined up for blocks outside computer stores (like Egghead) at midnight to get their copy of Microsoft’s newest operating system. Rolling Stones’ song “Start Me Up” set the tone for the launch (Colleague David Card reminded that the band is on tour again. What timing!).

Funny that at the time, Bill Gates hadn’t yet issued his infamous “we get the Internet” memo. Many of the large companies we interact with on a daily basis were still in basements and garages in 1995, like eBay and Amazon. And who could have forseen the incredible path Microsoft and Windows would take following the release, sometimes bumpy, others smooth.

Some interesting things to note about Windows 95:

  • There were actually five different versions of Windows 95 released. One release added USB support, another added IE 4.0, for example.
  • The codename for Windows 95 was “Chicago”.
  • Windows 95 was billed as a 32-bit operating system, but portions of the code remained 16-bit.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Windows 95 is that it remains, essentially, the interface for computing today. Windows XP is far superior, but the look hasn’t really changed that much, nor the way you interact with the operating system. I mean, lots of things have been improved and simplified, but at the end of the day, you still click Start, switch applications on the task bar, look for files in Explorer, etc. Let’s hope Windows Vista makes some progress in those departments!

Read: Microsoft Monitor

Web Feeds or RSS?

Post ImageLots of discussion going on lately about whether or not Microsoft, and everyone else for that matter, should call RSS feeds “RSS” or “web feeds”. It all started with the first beta release of Internet Explorer 7, in which the term “web feeds” is used. Instead of delving into the complete history of this little debate, I’m going to instead point you to the excellent roundup by Ed Bott. Dave Winer, creator of the RSS standard, chimes in and says, “Don’t screw around with things you didn’t create and don’t understand.”

The debate is not much of a debate, in my opinion. There’s some really simple reasons that we should be calling them web feeds. When you ask your friend or co-worker about something on the Internet, do you talk about visiting an “HTML page” or a “web page”? Does your web browser (not “HTML page browser”) load up “HTML pages” or “web pages”? Clearly, you talk about web pages, and that’s what your browser loads. There are three very good reasons we use the term web pages:

  1. Saying “HTML page” is awkward. The masses like comfortable and simple, not awkward and complex.
  2. Calling a web page an “HTML page” is, technically, misleading. You’d be hard pressed to find any page on the Internet right now that consists of only HTML.
  3. Conceptually, a page that is only HTML, or combines HTML and JavaScript, or combines HTML, JavaScript, and CSS, etc., are all the same thing. When you load a web page, you don’t think about the technology behind it.

For the very same reasons, we should be using web feeds, not RSS feeds. The term “web feed” is comfortable and simple. It doesn’t exclude RDF, or Atom, or RSS with extensions, and so it isn’t technically misleading. And finally, a web feed is a web feed, regardless of the technology that powers it.

There’s other reasons “web feeds” is better than “RSS” too. For the technology to become as natural and invisible as web pages, it needs a simple name. And the technology is so very young – who’s to say that something newer won’t be created that does the same thing, but in a different or better way? Think Atom 1.0 here.

There’s really no reason to publish more than one web feed, and thus no reason to call them anything else. Certainly the applications which consume web feeds should support multiple technologies, like both RSS and Atom, but publishers shouldn’t really have to worry about what technology to use. They should, just as with web pages, pick the technology best suited to the task at hand. You don’t have separate browsers for HTML and HTML with CSS – same goes for web feeds.

If you’re reading this post on the web, you can no doubt see that I am pretty hypocritical. No where on my site will you find the term “web feed”, and I publish both RSS and Atom feeds. Well, my excuse is that until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the terminology I used. Heck, I even use the orange “XML” icon for my “RSS” feeds (talk about confusing!). Now that I have given it some thought however, I’ll definitely be making some changes. Look for a web feed button soon!

Tech Babe Asia

Post ImageEver see a beer commercial without a hot girl in it? It’s a rare occurrence indeed. So too is announcing a new gadget without booth babes! You know what I’m talking about right? The hot asian girls that show off the new gadgets at conferences, expos, and other excuses to have a booth with babes. Problem is, you would have to actually go to all of those conferences to see the girls gadgets, and that can be costly!

But fear not! Today I came across the tech babe asia blog, where booth babes and their gadgets are posted in all their glory. It’s one of those websites that makees you wonder, why didn’t I think of that?! Enjoy 🙂

Read: tech babe asia