Saturday, July 31, 2010

The value of placement in software and the web

Anybody who has studied marketing will tell you that the experts divide the black arts into 4 P's: product, promotion, price, and placement.  I've always wondered about the value of placement in software and web products.  Unlike physical tangible products like food, toys, and furniture, there are little to no barriers for purchasing/accessing software either distributed or hosted on the web.  Put another way, the big win for many a product manufacturer in the past was to get distribution in Walmart.  That would guarantee you a large number of sales, just because so many customers would pass by your product as they shopped.

No such advantage really existed on the web.  Oh, it existed for promotion: the value of being slashdotted or techcrunched was huge for getting the word out.  But it didn't exist for placement; you don't make it big simply because you're available for download both at and, on top of your own website.  Mindshare was always much more important than distribution channels in my mind.  Once people knew about you, if you were worth using or buying, people would come (especially in the techie/geek demographic, which comprised most of the market on the web anyway for a huge number of years).  Products were able to compete on merit and didn't need to rely so much on placement strategies as did physical products (but they still obviously required highly intelligent product, price, and promotion strategies).  I remember downloading every updated version of Netscape Navigator because I preferred it for the longest time over Internet Explorer.  They had over 90% market share for a reason.

But then something happened.  Internet Explorer got better.  I started getting interested around Internet Explorer 4.0, but only really jumped on board at Internet Explorer 5.  Coincidentally, Microsoft at the same time had been bundling Internet Explorer with Windows for a while.  This was the core of the antitrust investigation and DOJ lawsuit against Microsoft back in 2000.  David Boies played a starring role in showing that Microsoft had abused its monopoly power by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows to run Netscape into the ground.  Boies was masterful (check out Breaking Windows: How Bill Gates Fumbled the Future of Microsoft for a really interesting account of the whole philosophical struggle inside Microsoft), but I always did think that the ruling was a load of crock.  In my opinion, Internet Explorer had just simply caught up to Netscape, and Netscape had never figured out a way to make good revenue with its products.  There was no reason to download Netscape anymore, and even if Internet Explorer hadn't been bundled with Windows, a lot of people would probably still have chosen to go with Internet Explorer anyway.  I'd always conceded that bundling was probably enough to allow Microsoft to gain market share, but not enough to become the market leader.  Internet Explorer was simply getting to be pretty good and Netscape was starting to lag.

So even after the the DOJ antitrust win against Microsoft, I never really believed in the significance of placement strategies for finding that winning edge in web-distributed software.  Maybe I do now.

For my latest project, my friend and I are using Google Docs for all the documentation.  You may be surprised to note this isn't a discussion of comparing Google Docs with Microsoft Word.  Nope.  Here, I want to compare Google Docs with Zoho Writer.  Just the word processors, since that's what we've been using the most.  I remember when I first signed up for Zoho Writer to check it out.  It was awesome.  It seemed like it gave me almost all of the functionality of Microsoft Word, but online in the cloud, and for free.  I was of the firm belief that it would become my main word processor, based on the sole thought that merit is what counts for creating mindshare and thus usage.  Google Docs paled in comparison, both in terms of features and user interface.

Yet, I can't remember the last time I've logged into Zoho.  Every major collaboration document (and even independent documents) I've created in the past couple of years, I've made using Google Docs.  It only just occurred to me.  Despite the fact that I consider Zoho functionally and aesthetically superior, I'm using Google Docs exclusively.  Why is that?

I can only conclude that it's because Google Docs is so easy to access.  My gmail is open all the time (gmail is the new Outlook, huh?), so Google Docs is always just a click away.  It's just so much easier than opening a new tab, going to Zoho's website, and logging in.  With Google Docs, I'm already logged in and can get to any document in a flash.  Plus, the collaboration capabilities are dead easy when other people also have gmail accounts.  And if my collaborators have the same lethargic bent, maybe the mindshare effect is actually exponential.

Realizing my actual behaviour, as compared to my thoughts and intents, I've been forced to rethink my thoughts on the value of placement strategies in web-distributed (and now web-hosted) software.  Maybe placement strategy matters after all.  Maybe all those people stopped using Netscape truly because Internet Explorer was bundled, not because it became better (in all honesty, it was probably a little of both).  Maybe even I was in that category and was just deluding myself.  I don't know.

I do know that I continue to use Google Docs over Zoho Writer (and definitely over Microsoft Word), despite the poorer functionality in Google Docs.  It's simply good enough, even though there are some deficiencies I'm unhappy about.  And it beats having to open a new tab, go to a new website, and log into a new system just to access a document.

And for the record, my favourite web browser right now is Chrome.  Makes me wonder how Opera's survived as long as it has.  Will mobile continue to be their sugar daddy, or is webkit destined to take over that world as well?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Crying for Truth

Wow... an old post that had never been published, was in draft mode all this time....  @@  This is from like... 2 years ago, I think?
How do we feel, how do we feel
My generation is aching for real
Dyin' for love, cryin' for truth
My generation is aching for you
~ Starfield: My Generation
Today I saw a movie with a friend at the Vancouver International Film Festival called Adoration, directed by Atom Egoyan. I'm not sure how, but it seemed to express exactly everything that's been going through my mind through the past few months, and the conversations I've been seeing and hearing for the past few weeks. Adoration now ranks among my favourite movies for sure.

I won't try to describe the plot here. Plot is a strong word, as the director himself explained in the post-screening Q&A that he finds plots too restrictive in movies where he did try focusing on the plot. I will say that the movie deals with a variety of themes, including the cultural and ethnic tensions that exist in our increasingly polarized world, societal prejudices, the difficulty of making ends meet in difficult times, the different kind of life kids growing up experience today, the way they try to make their voices heard, and the difficulty of discerning truth among the maelstrom of voices heard through the media, web, educational institutions, familial traditions, and other social constructs. Ultimately, it leaves me very troubled because I fear for where our world is headed, and our ability (or lack thereof) to progress positively as a society. Well, I've already feared my fears for a while, but this movie really hit it home.

The Internet has been a fantastic boon for our lives and economy, through its ability to make asymmetric information a bit more accessible, knowledge a bit easier to disseminate, and dialogue easier in which to engage. One of the many corresponding unintended negative consequences is of course the ability to easily disseminate misinformation. And with our increasingly busy world, it's become apparent that our world likes speed and quantity, not quality, when it comes to information and knowledge. Despite the initial euphoria I experienced through the concept of an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and how the wisdom of crowds can contribute excellently to our society, Wikipedia cannot be taken as the final word on most subjects; and yet it is. At least, it's considered a final authority on many matters by many people in my generation, and the generation following mine, without considering what other sources have to say. Except for maybe whatever's on Page 1 of a Google search query. Take my word for it. I am of this generation and dialogue with it regularly. In fact, I am guilty of it as well.

But with a culture that so easily accepts statements without thinking about them, do not truth and knowledge die? I always had a problem with post-modernism in that the whole concept ignores reality and contradicts itself. It is not possible for everything to be true. We may not be able to determine what is true, but that does not mean that we should be willing to accept all opinions as valid and true. If this were the case, then there is no need for debate, and therefore no need for even dialoguing on the matter. If you dialogue because you want "better" truths, what does that say about the "truth" you were believing before? Just believe what you want, when you want, how you want.

I've seen that subconscious attitude for everything from climate change to war to the current global credit crisis to the US presidential election. It's a perfect storm, yeah. People seem to be taking one side or the other because of rhetoric, not logic. And for those who say they've done their research, how am I supposed to know what research to believe? There is too much information out there to analyze; sifting out the misinformation and then making sense of what's left is a full-time endeavour that I simply don't have the time to do. So instead, I find myself increasingly indifferent to the issues, but rather annoyed that the people participating in the debates spout conclusions and supposed factoids without examining the cogency of their own arguments, nor the hypocrisy of their own statements.

I've heard plenty of people that want to save the planet from global warming (which I would argue is a fairly unimportant and even invalid environmental issue compared to resource sustainability), but they don't want to give up the convenience of their own carbon consumption. Still more people tell me about their disdain for Palin for slamming Obama's experience as a community organizer, but then they themselves go and slam "stupid redneck states" for always voting Republican. And perhaps there is a possibly correct stigma that these "stupid redneck states" don't think about who they're voting for and just vote based on backwards ideologies. But it seems to me that this is just a case of the pot calling the kettle black. We are increasingly living in a society where truth is difficult to find and understand, so members of society fall back on ideologies more and more. It's just easier that way. Just take the facts that support your position, don't even bother examining the evidence since you can't find most of it anyway, and you have your answer.

The core of the whole issue seems to be comprised of our society's tendency towards impatience and instant gratification. The lifestyle that's been ingrained into our mindsets through countless years of fast food, excess material wealth, and lack of respect for what hardship entails. Except now, the newer generations have a stronger sense of entitlement because the stuff that catches their attention is free and easy on the web. Free e-mail, free instant messaging, free knowledge, free music, free movies, easy friends, and easy money. Why should we have to pay for anything, when it's readily available? It's the laws that are backwards, not me.

OK, it's true that legal systems in general can have difficulty keeping up with society, especially in areas affected by technology. The law is reactive by nature, not proactive. However, my point is not that the laws are outdated for many areas of our society (and I'd say that's an invalid overarching statement in most cases). Rather, it's that we've somehow bred this mindset that whatever we want is right, whatever someone else says to the contrary is wrong, and everyone should be able to get whatever we want. And I see this mindset in the People want to stand up for the rights and welfare of others, but they don't want to share or admit their own fallacies.

Facebook and Facebook Books

So that new movie, The Social Network, is coming out, right?  If you haven't seen the trailer yet, you can watch it here:

Given that the movie is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires, I thought it should be cool to go read the book before I actually see the movie.  Given that The Accidental Billionaires is written by Ben Mezrich, the same guy who wrote Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.i.t. Students Who Took Vegas, on which the movie 21 was based, I had two thoughts: 1) This guy Mezrich must make a ton of cash on his books; 2) I should try to get a balanced perspective.  See, any movie that gets picked up to be turned into a movie may have a bit of over-dramatization, no?  From various things I've read on the web, The Accidental Billionaires is actually a very negative and condescending perspective of the Facebook story.  So I also looked at getting a copy of The Facebook Effect, which is apparently overly positive; if I read the two of them, maybe I'll get a balanced picture.  ;)  I purchased my copy of The Accidental Billionaires at Coles for $20, but they didn't have any copies of The Facebook Effect.  They recommended I go to Chapters, where my discount card would still be in effect.  So I go there and discover that it's $34!  No way, I'll wait, thanks.  Funny thing is, I see on the same shelf a copy of Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America.  The most popular website in America?  My, how times have changed.

Lucky for me, I discovered that The Facebook Effect was being sold by Amazon for only around $20.  :)  How wonderful.  I also ended up purchasing a copy of Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos.  Amazon is just so easy, efficient, and cheap for products like books, how do brick and mortar guys compete?  I wonder when I'll join the digital revolution and finally use the Kindle or iPad for all my reading....

Having flipped a bit through The Accidental Billionaires, and then The Facebook Effect at Chapters, I think I understand why The Accidental Billionaires is becoming a movie.  It really does seem to read like a sordid story of lies, sex, and drugs (well, I exaggerate a bit).  Meanwhile, The Facebook Effect seems to read very much like an encyclopedia.  Mind you, I haven't actually read the books yet, so I don't know.  If you want to purchase the same books I purchased, see below.  :)

Perhaps more importantly, I wonder if Facebook is really being overhyped.  I don't mean to say I wonder if they'll eventually become insignificant due to their own failings.  I mean I wonder if Facebook will ever be overtaken by someone else (Foursquare?  Google?  A company that doesn't exist yet?).  I mean, look at the title of that other book: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America.  What the heck happened to MySpace?  Heck, what the heck happened to Friendster?  They're all insignificant now, even though they used to be known as the future.

Look, I'll admit it again.  I thought Facebook would be a fad.  But Facebook is probably for real.  After all, they have accomplished things that previous social networks have never been able to accomplish.  It's probably true they're going to get over a billion dollars in revenue this year.  It's true that they have developers creating applications and games on top of their proprietary platform (hello Zynga, the fastest growing venture in the history of investments by Kleiner Perkins), enabling a developer ecosystem the others didn't even think of attempting to create.  It's true that they've drawn the line in the sand about trying to take over the Internet by extending their functionality outside of their network and trying to get it integrated into websites around the world.  They've created their own ad platform so that they don't need to rely on Google's AdSense to drive revenue.  And they've created a sticky product, as per Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  So Facebook is definitely being a lot more innovative than their predecessors; they're not standing still, which is what Friendster perhaps did too much of (MySpace, well, we can just chalk up their failures to a lack of entrepreneurial vision after being bought out by News Corp and being subjected to big corporate politics).

Finally, this was an interesting test of the new Amazon Affiliate Program integration with Blogger.  :)  I really should blog more.