Life is good

I’ve got a week in between my last job as a Software Architect / Manager with Webshots and my new job with YouService, a small startup. This has given me the chance to catch up on some personal relaxation time doing the things that I enjoy the most. Not having to think about work and letting my mind wander has been great. You just can’t beat sitting on the deck in the sun in Redwood City, CA with nothing to do but try out some of you latest ideas on the laptop while listening to digitallyimported.

Spending 2 hours a day driving into San Francisco wasn’t really conducive to keeping in shape either, so now I’m on a crash course of exercise. Trying to push as hard as the body will take without getting sick. It feels so good to move again though. Hadn’t realized how bad things had gotten until I got back into the gym. I won’t miss the commute at all.

I learned a lot a Webshots, but I think it’s good to change things up every so often. You need to take a step back and look at your life in a different way. I’m ready to start working on some new challenges now.

Mashup Infrastructure

While some of the mashups appearing on the web are very interesting, there are quite a few examples of people doing creative things with Google Maps. I’m left wondering if these ideas can ever morph into true business offerings. Can you make money by piggy-backing on another webservice. You’re adding value, so from a strictly theoretical point of view it should work out. But, what if the underlying webservice isn’t so cooperative? How can you offer any terms of service if you don’t control the whole software stack? How can you guarantee that you’ll be there tomorrow if you can’t guarantee that the underlying webservices will be there. While cool things can be done with Google Maps would you want to base your business on Google Maps being free, open, and available tomorrow? I don’t currently know of any commercial mashup offerings, I’d be curious to know if there are some out there that I’m not aware of.

A lot of the whole Web 2.0 system seems to be of the impression that the future will be built on these types of services. However, the coupling between these systems still appears too strong to make this viable to me. As an example, there was a neat trick where someone had combined crime reports in the chicago area with google maps to give a visual display of crime, a very useful service for people in chicago. What happens if Google decides to start charging for it’s mapping service? The overlaying service could pass the cost on to the user. But what happens if Google maps disappears altogether? There isn’t really a replacement service available to plugin. The overlaying service doesn’t have the capability to handle the mapping portion of the requests either. The service would have to shut down. Not a good risk to take from a business standpoint.

It would appear that for Web 2.0 to truly take off there needs to be a much larger infrastructure of underlying services with capability of easily swapping the services in and out. There are all sorts of web based productivity applications sprouting up these days. A lot of them are cute, but not really going to displace Microsoft products on the majority of desktops. However, if they were able to mature and make good on the promise of being easily swapped out then things could change. This would allow true competition for the best calendaring application, the best email app, and the best spam filters. The user would have the ability to mash these all together as a suite. Then the competition could truly push the products to the level needed to take on Microsoft or probably a more realistic near term goal of just being a sustainable business.

Cell Phone Pain

Last weekend my wife and I upgraded our cell phones. Jaimie’s was one drop away from death. The last time the phone was dropped it took about 30 minutes for it to recover. This is never a good state for electronics, hence the motivation to look at new phones.

Both of us are reasonably tech savvy and capable of understanding the nuances of tech features. Even so, the purchase experience for the cell phones was one of the most painful that I’ve ever encountered.

The multiple paths for purchase plans, requirements, and features are all extremely confusing and undocumented. I started the journey by talking with some coworkers about experiences with different types of phones. The two main choices boiled down to smart phone and not smart phone. I then went to cnet.com to start looking at some reviews of different phones to get a rough feel for how they compared. This narrowed the search down to the treo in the smart phone category and the razr in the not smart phone category.

Next to look at pricing. Here again things are all over the place. I was an AT&T customer, but my contract was now month to month, so that didn’t really figure into the equation. We would like to keep the numbers if possible, but it wasn’t a requirement. Looking at cingular’s site, the razr was $199 with a two year contract. A little shopping around though found that the local best buy was offering the same deal for $99. Of course the poor Best Buy salesperson, probably still in high school, couldn’t tell me which of three options I wanted, Two year plan, One year plan, or upgrade. She recommended that I call cingular and ask, so that’s what I did.

Of course the cingular guy wanted me to buy the phone from him. So I asked if he could match the price, but nope his manager wouldn’t allow him to do that. He finally was able to tell me that indeed I needed the Two year plan. So, back to Best Buy. At this point I found out that the same phone and plan was available for $69 on the Best Buy website. Of course the store couldn’t match its website price, so since I was already there I decided to go with the store option.

Now at this point I got into an argument with the Best Buy salesperson because they insisted that Cingular was wrong and that I could not buy the Two year plan, but had to get the upgrade for $100 more. Since I was already a customer I was rewarded by being loyal to Cingular by being charged extra for the same thing. Sounds like a really good plan to me. So then I remembered that there was now number portability. Since we were month to month with the contract we could just start up another contract and have the phone number transferred over. We could go to Sprint and have this work. Of course it turns out that only Cingular carries the razr and you can’t start another contract within Cingular and maintain your number. So, the extra $100 they wanted to charge us was just so that we could hold onto our cell phone numbers. Since my wife and I primarily use it for family calls and emergencies, it was an easy choice, sign up for a new number.

The whole process left me with a decidedly dirty feeling. If there ever was a mobile company that didn’t leave you feeling this way, I would pay to switch. In the ISP space there is a company that exactly fits this profile, Speakeasy. I pay top dollar for dsl from them because they understand what the customer wants. Now if only they offered mobile service I would sign up in an instant.

Class and Katrina

I was listening to the podcast of KQED’s Forum this morning and the topic was the long term health effects of Katrina. There were some comments made during the show that got me thinking about the differences between the hurricane and 9/11.

I don’t know if there was any measurable difference between the response to these two tragedies. I’m not an emergency response official and can’t accurately come to any conclusion with the amount of publicly available data out today. However, some comments about the role of the families in pressuring Congress and the President to launch the investigation into 9/11 got me thinking. From what I understand President Bush was very opposed to allowing this investigation to move forward, but was only swayed later on when the families of those killed in the tragedy were able to bring significant political and legal pressure to bear.

I’m very curious to see if in the aftermath of Katrina, as the rebuilding process begins, if there is a similar group of families that is able to bring pressure on the federal government. I’m concerned that because the majority of those who lost their lives were elderly or poor, unable to afford high priced attorneys, that we won’t see the same pressure. That a few months from now people will move on with their lives and forget about the mistakes that caused that tragedy to be worse than it could have been.

I don’t think President Bush would be callous enough to intentionally act differently against a city inhabited with poor refugees, but I do think that an army of attorneys can get him to do some things that he’d rather not. Without that pressure the President will focus on the politically easiest solution instead of the right solution and that is where the difference lies.

Independent Bookstores are missing the point

I spent the morning of my first day in between jobs at one of my favorite places, the Barnes & Nobles in Hillsdale mall in San Mateo, CA. I’m willing to drive to this bookstore from Redwood City simply because it has the best browsing experience. It’s a very large store with a little Starbucks outlet, but primarily it has the largest cushiest chairs I’ve ever seen. This makes it incredibly comfortable to stop in and check out the latest books. I usually try to do so about once a week and make at least one purchase per visit.

Since I’ve moved to California in 2000, I’ve spent thousands of dollars purchasing books in this one store. While I was there today I stopped to think about it a bit. Usually I’m a fan of supporting small local businesses. The problem is that none of the small bookstores in the area can compare with this one B&N for book purchasing experience. This is not limited to just the small bookstores. There is actually another B&N about a mile down the road from where I live, but I don’t prefer to go there because it suffers from the same issues as the small bookstores. The only places to sit are wood benches in front of a window that get awfully hot in the California sun.

So, examining this issue a bit it occured to me that the book business is remarkably like the coffee business. It’s not so much about the product that you’re buying it’s more about the actual purchase experience. If you can create a better experience then you’ll be able to hold onto more customers.

When I know exactly which book I want, I don’t even bother going to the bookstore. I order the book off of Amazon.com. Amazon usually can beat the local retailers at price and time taken to purchase. However, the browsing experience suffers with Amazon. 9 times out of 10, I go to the book store with no idea what I’m looking for. I enjoy walking and letting my mind wander. Discovering new areas and ideas to chase after. I like to walk up and down the aisles and look for new books that catch my attention. Sometimes I intentionally walk down aisles that I don’t really have any interest in just to see if there is something new that will catch my attention. This is just something you can’t do on a website, at least not yet.

Getting back to the independent booksellers it would seem prudent to me to follow the path of Starbucks, focus on the customer experience. As a small retailer, you’re never going to be able to afford the same size stores as Borders and B&N so you can’t win at total book volume. Amazon has all of them beat at that game anyway. The area that the small book store can win is in providing a higher quality environment, with better service. Bring in guest speakers and have book centered events.

Books are a commodity, the small book store will have the same exact book as the large bookstore. The only thing left to compete in is the purchasing / browsing experience. And this is what surprises me. The number of small book stores that are just packed with shelves of books. My office has the same feel and I’m sure if I invited people into my office to buy books I’d get about the same results.