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Archive for April, 2008

Prominent VC Blogger Wonders if “Social Enterprise Software” is an Oxymoron

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 30, 2008

Fred Wilson wonders if “Social Enterprise Software” is an oxymoron.  There are a variety of startups out right now, some new, some established that are focused on variations of this idea.  A good example is nGenera (formerly known as BSG Alliance).

I’m surprised that Fred is even asking the question, though by the end of the post he seems to retain an open mind about it all.

Why am I surprised?  Fred says it best himself when he indicates that the heart of social software is the formation of a community.  Why is this so antithetical to the enterprise?  Every customer-focused organization’s dream would be to have a vibrant community.  Yes, there are fears about what that community might do and whether it can be controlled, but these are largely fears from old school social Luddites who aren’t going to be the initial audience anyway.  These are the guys that first fought having to have a computer (“my secretary can take a memo”), then fought email, and will continue to fight anything that interferes with their command and control mindset. 

Enlightened organizations have already moved away from that mindset.  They realize that there will be a community of their customers regardless of what they do.  It may be a Yahoo or Google Group.  It may be a LinkedIn association.  It can be an alumni group.  Or it can be on some forum somewhere.  It’s out there, it’s only a question of whether you want to hide from the community or foster it.

There are some great existence proofs already of what can happen when you foster community for some purpose.  Take Salesforce.com’s IdeaForce, which Dell has also adopted.  These are communities provided by the vendor to actively solicit input from customers.  The emergent behaviour there has been fascinating to watch.  In one case, a group used the community band together and convince Dell it needed to offer Linux on its machines.  This is one of those glass half full/half empty moments.  Did we conclude the community was a bad thing because it forced our hand, or was it a good thing because we learned what was important to customers more quickly and could respond?  I’d rather be playing the latter hand than the former.  Customers never force your hand because the customer is always right.  Your challenge is to understand what they’re trying to tell you.  If that’s not Social Enterprise Software, I don’t know what is.

Take Rally Development, a company whose web site I’ve lately become enamored with.  They do a wonderful job of bringing their community right to the forefront and using it both to inform their decisions, keep the community happier through participation, and even turn it back out into the world as evangelists on their behalf.  Another example is Helpstream, which is working hard to meld community and customer service.  See, for example, CEO Tony Nemelka’s blog post on how to Listen To Your Customers.

Does this mean communities have to be completely open, unmoderated, and not subject to any rules?  Certainly not.  Anyone who participates in a community knows there are fine lines to moderation.  Too much is stifling.  Too little is an open invitation for Trolls and other undersirables to ruin it for everyone.  Most communities, like gardens, benefit from some proficient pruning.  I posted recently about how judicious content pruning allowed HubPages to accelerate its growth and catch up to competitor Squidoo.

What will be interesting is to watch how the Enterprise evolves.  The goals for Social Enterprise Software should not be controversial.  The ability to execute, will be new.  However, the combination of new generations coming up through the ranks who are very familiar with these new communities and a new breed of startups that help out in this area will combine to make it easier for any Enterpise that wants to embrace the opportunity to move forward.  I expect the leading companies will choose to do so.

In fact, I would expect this trend to change the very fabric of Enterprise Software.  In the past, it’s always been highly workflow (business process) oriented:  “We want to precisely control the process to Six Sigmas if we can.”  The next step is to do completely the opposite.  That’s finding ways for people to process lots of bursty activity, do what they do best, interact in the style they’re most productive with, and generally change the way the game is played instead of just being perfectly controlled cogs in the machine.   Cogs are fine when everyone needs to be treated exactly the same both inside an outside the organization, but the Internet brings personalization and the Long Tail.  Another way that this can play out is to marry Business Process with community.  That’s another aspect of what Helpstream is doing.

Take advantage of the idea that everything is not the same.  We want a repeatable quality of experience, not a repeatable process.  Build a community.

Posted in saas | 1 Comment »

Startups Buying Startups…

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 29, 2008

Lots of news lately about startups buying startups: Strands acquires Expensr,  Zyb bought Immity, BuzzLogic acquires ActiveWeave, yada, yada.

Why do it?  Why would a startup want to be acquired by another startup?  Where’s the liquidity in that?  Why would a startup want to acquire a startup?  Isn’t that eye off ball?

Increasingly, one hears about these transactions, and the VC’s are quite interested in talking too.  And why not?  Startups are companies too, and they can use acquisitions to gain most of the same advantages big companies gain through buying other companies.  Let’s look at just a few of the reasons it might make sense:

Liquidity

Let’s dispatch this issue up front.  Immediate Liquidity is usually not on the agenda for a startup acquiring another start up, but it may be greatly accelerated and it may beat the alternative.  If a struggling startup is having a hard time getting to the next stage, it may be easier to merge with a stronger startup than to keep going it alone.  This is particularly true in this age when many companies are building products that are more like features or modules of a larger suite.  If their market is hot, they can make it all the way to buiding their own larger suite.  If it isn’t, or if they’re too late to the party, they may have to join someone else’s game.

From the acquiree’s perspective, it’s all about it being better to have a smaller slice of a much bigger pie.

Talent and Technology

When I was working for Borland back in its heyday, this was the number one reason we acquired so many little startups.  Our ideal profile was to identify a team of brilliant technologists who had built a wonderful product but just couldn’t manage to develop the sales and marketing chops needed to hit it big.

Finding great talent was hard, and building out a great product even harder.  Acquiring a little startup that had already gotten critical acclaim from customers was a way to shortcut the need to start from nothing. 

Often such acquisitions make it possible to tackle new markets that weren’t in the original plans, or they may simply make it possible to accelerate the plan of record by not having to build everything from scratch.

Market Share / Critical Mass

This is another motivation for acquisitions that I’ve seen taking shape.  Momentum is everything, and if a couple of strategic applications can rapidly pyramid the momentum, it’s well worth it. 

Filling Out the Story

Very often customers are telling the larger firm they’re missing an important piece of the puzzle, and some smaller entity may already have the piece in hand.  It takes a lot of work to build out a big vision and all of its pieces.  If a smaller firm is available that answers a question your customers are asking that you can’t currently answer, why not do a deal so you can give it to them?

Expect More Startups Acquiring Startups

Expect to see more startups acquiring startups, it makes sense for many of the same reasons bigger transactions have made sense.  The real issue will be getting all the parties aligned on the transaction.  The critical issue in every acquisition is valuation.  Nobody wants to acquire a company that everyone agrees is worthless.  But, will the acquirer have an over-inflated sense of its own worth relative to the acquiree?  Can the respective Boards of the two companies grasp the vision for synergy and figure out how to do a deal that makes sense for everyone?

That’s the real challenge, and those who are good at it will have a powerful new tool to grow startups faster at their disposal.

Posted in strategy, venture | 1 Comment »

Integration and Expertise Matter More for SaaS

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 29, 2008

I recently had lunch with an executive one of the more successful SaaS startups in the Valley.  Our conversation ranged far and wide over many topics, but eventually I wanted to understand their product differentiation.  There are several players in the space, what had these guys been successful in emphasizing?

The answer was a surprise to me:  integration with other SaaS apps.  As he put it, “Our customers care a lot more about this than they used to when I worked for a perpetual software company in the same space selling to bigger enterprises.”

This was completely at odds with my logic before the lunch.  SOA and fancy integrations had seemed entirely a feature that catered to giant Enterprise IT that had to have things their own way and were willing to boil the ocean to get there.

After a bit of further questioning, it became obvious why the SaaS customers might care even more than their big company counterparts.  SaaS typical sells to SMB’s.  These smaller organizations have minimal IT staffs.  I once talked to a SaaS company whose professional services group had to deal with the CFO being the only IT staff that could answer questions and help get the software going.  That’s small!

When you have a large IT group, you can afford to, and indeed, may even want to dedicate some of them to building the integrations.  When you have a small group, if the vendor can’t do it for you, it probably won’t ever get done.  So it isn’t that the little guys care more, they’re just helpless to get any kind of solution if they care at all.

What does this mean for SaaS vendors?  In this case, having out-of-the-box tight integration with other SaaS vendors (or On-premises packages) was a big differentiator.  It lowered the deal friction (less to worry about on the custom install side) and increased customer satisfaction (hey, we could never get these two systems to talk before!).

Today, I read in one of Jeffrey Monaghan’s posts the following:

It is important to be viewed as the expert when you are selling a product…but it is imperative when selling a service. Customers are buying a promise from you. And an expert is perceived as someone who is most likely to deliver. Everything you do should scream “We’re experts!” Collateral material, websites, even the way your sales team dresses.

Jeffrey is making a slightly different point than the integration point, but it’s really the same story again, isn’t it?  Small businesses can’t afford to hire Accenture or somebody to come partner with their software or sevice vendor to help them out with “Best Practices” or “Business Process Re-engineering.”  The software itself had better have all that built in, and the vendor had better look like the experts, and be prepared to help educate the customer as much or as little as needed.  It can’t be an extra cost option.

This is just another thing I really liked about how Rally Development’s web site is set up.  There is that perfect mirepoix of product marketing, best practices (and in their University, clearly there’d be experts there!), and community.  Rally is just a site I came across by accident when two different people asked if I knew of them.  Their site really resonated with my idea of what a small company should be doing with the web to get the word out.

How about you, are you the experts in your area?  Shouldn’t you be?

Posted in Marketing, saas, strategy | 6 Comments »

Content Quality Matters (Enterprise 2.0 Take Note!)

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 28, 2008

No sooner did I pen Immediate Gratification Matters than I read Jason Menayan’s GigaOm post on 7 Things HubPages Did to Beat Squidoo.

HubPages and Squidoo are sites where people can write short articles about topics they care about.  Squidoo was founded by Seth Godin, a famous marketer whose blog I follow religiously.  Despite rapid initial growth, HubPages was languishing a year later, and trailed far behind Squidoo in terms of traffic as well as revenue generated for the company and its authors.

So what did HubPages do to beat Squidoo?  They list 7 things:

  1. Remove all adjult content:  At the time they did it, adult content was 1/3 of all traffic.  Clearly they had to choose to get rid of one audience in order to encourage others to step up.  Would you company give up 1/3 of its sales for the promise of much larger sales later?  Something similar keeps a lot of companies from going SaaS.
  2. Disallow spam:  No aggressively promotional articles were permited, and links to sites being promoted had to be toned down.  You couldn’t just publish your ads as pages.
  3. Purely personal articles (like blogs) were eliminated:  The feeling was they were less likely to be useful to readers or to attract search engine traffic.
  4. Copied content was penalized:  Ever come across content that is just a blatant republication of some other content?  Sometimes there is an issue of rights to use the content, but even if there is a right to republish it was felt that original content was more valuable.  Hence article scores were penalized though the article itself was not removed.
  5. Articles Linking to Questionable Sites Were Flagged:  If they could see that a site might potentially phish, display obnoxious popups, or redirect to a different site immediately, the site is marked as such.  I just noticed Google doing a bit of this too, and appreciate it.  It’s never been a pleasant surprise to land on one of these obnoxious sites after clicking on an innocuous-looking search result.
  6. Added a discussion forum:  This encourages real community and conversation, which was evidently lacking.  With a forum, users can help each other out, share advice, and socialize beyond simply publishing articles.
  7. Up front payments for very high-quality articles:  Great articles attract significant traffic and create success stories that are a good example for others to emulate.  I’m not sure how those success stories are propogated, but I would make the propogation in some way very easy to make this more viral.

These are all ways of increasing the quality fo content and incenting people to build a quality-focused community around the content.  There is a lot to be learned from this for would be purveyors of content.  What is your strategy to increase your content quality?

Somehow I find this message to be strangely ironic.  As I mention, I follow Seth Godin religiously.  The idea to focus on content quality is definitely one of his core themes.  His book “Dip” is all about finding out what you can be the best person in the world at and focusing on that one area.  Yet, a competitor has gotten more focused about it than Squidoo.

Seth recently wrote:

In the face of infinity, many of us are panicking and searching less, going shallower, relying on bestseller lists and simple recommendations. The vast majority of Google searches are just one or two words, and obvious ones at that. The long tail gets a lot shorter when you don’t know what’s out there.

Organizations that can help us manage the infinite are facing a huge (can I say it? nearly infinite) opportunity.

To the issue of getting yourself hooked into “shallower” ways of finding content, one should add that when there is infinite content, it can be particularly differentiating to have better content.  This is something that has always bothered me about the crowd that says, “Content is a commodity.”  This has been such a popular meme lately, but it is so hollow. 

The next time you’re going through pages of Google search results just trying to find one good read about you topic, ask yourself, “Would getting to quality sooner have mattered to you on that search?”  I’ll bet the answer was “yes” for most searches.

P.S.  Why should Enterprise 2.0 take note?  Because these folks are going to be particularly sensitive to the kinds of content that HubPages eliminated.  Does your Enterprise 2.0 solution have a way to do that automatically, or are you going to leave it up to your customers to police their sites? 

Posted in Marketing, strategy, Web 2.0 | Leave a Comment »

Immediate Gratification Matters

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 26, 2008

When your users access your service on the web, how fast do you gratify them?  Do you think about response time, or is your view that so long as it gets there before “too long”, it’s not a problem?

Google has made a business case for slamming down latency.  They invest zillions of dollars and IQ points trying to make their service respond faster when you hit the search button.  Why?  Because they’ve found it matters for the user experience.  Here is a graph of their recent experience with latency:

Fred Wilson recently tried Slideshare.  He liked it, but his primary complaint was that it took 12 hours after he uploaded his .ppt file to convert the slideshow to Flash.  As he puts it, “I went to bed before it finished.”  I had the same reaction to Animoto.  Loved the service, but I made one slideshow and then forgot about it.

The debate on whether startups have any business focusing on scalability rages in the blogosphere in the wake of the Twitter shakeup as we speak.  People like Ted Dziuba say essentially, “Scalability is not your problem, getting people to care is.”  The trouble is, as the two examples above show, getting people to care is at least partially a function of delivering immediate gratification from the software.  Scaling does matter for that.

Immediate Gratification matters most of all when selling.  If prospects can try your application out online, make sure it responds blindingly fast so they can get as far as possible in the evaluation while they are in the mood to look.  If a site doesn’t perform well on the trial version, my expectation is that it will perform poorly in production too.  That’s not what you want. 

Process matters too.  How often have you gone to a site, seen a white paper or demo you wanted to get access to, and had to answer 20 questions before you could get in?  Worse, how often did you answer 20 questions and then get told they’d get back to you?

They’re protecting the ability of their sales staff to control the process and making sure they capture your lead info.  But it’s a mistake because it just kills the momentum of an interested viewer.  What kind of customer wants to be kept waiting before they can give you their money?  It’s one thing to be kept waiting because of overwhelming demand for a private beta, that’s exclusivity.  It’s quite another to do one of these hurry up and wait sales wonders.

Gather the least information you can (name, email, and company?) and then give immediate access.  What are you doing otherwise, preventing competition from seeing your app and sales materials?  Balooney.  They’ve already seen it.  Trust me on this one.  Every customer that winds up choosing them instead of you, every friend of a friend employee that moves on, and a hundred other potential sources has eventually given them access to the 411 on exactly what you have.  If your lead is so fragile that the information you give any qualified process can sink your ship in the competition’s hands, you’d better get going on some radical innovation or you’re not going to make it.

I recently came upon Rally Development’s site.  Rally makes a SaaS tool for Agile teams.  I loved the site because of all the Instant Gratification.  In fact, it may be the best non-consumer startup site I’ve seen in a long time.  They touch every base– traditional product + marketing, education/learning, and community/evangelism –with a well-organized low friction and content rich offering that tells me what I need to know.

In an age of real-time scalability with services like Amazon.com, there’s no good technical reason to keep your customers waiting.  At the very least you should run some tests to see if faster response times improve your sales.  Once the scaling and infrastructure side is handled, the rest of it is in your hands in terms of the processes you force your customers to follow.

Immediate gratification matters!

Posted in business, Marketing, saas, user interface, Web 2.0 | 2 Comments »

This Message Will Self Destruct in 5 Seconds… (But Why Would You Want That???)

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 25, 2008

Stowe Boyd wonders what the point of Big String’s self-destructing instant messages are:

I don’t know why someone would want a self-destructing IM. And couldn’t someone simply retype an IM if they wanted to spoof what you had said?

I guess Stowe has never been deposed on a legal case by lawyers.  In business, this happens a lot.  If you are in business for long enough and are successful enough, you will be deposed.  The opposing side’s lawyers job is to find every bit of documented evidence they can and use it to make you look evil. 

Many financial institutions these days can use neither email nor instant messaging precisely because it creates a paper trail.  While it’s true they may feel they have something to hide, what’s more common is a fear things will be taken out of context.

While this idea may not be ultimately successful, it motivated by a big pain area among large businesses with paranoid corporate counsels.

Posted in Web 2.0 | Leave a Comment »

From TwitPitches to TwitQuiries…

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 23, 2008

Stowe Boyd is writing about his TwitPitches idea again.  This is his practice of using Twitter for people to send him their elevator pitch.

I didn’t like them coming in his blog RSS feed to me–as I wrote, it isn’t what I expected or wanted from that venue.  But I can see the value.  Stowe wants to get through a blizzard of incoming PR requests to pitch ideas to him quickly.  He doesn’t want to read lengthy PR releases or unneccesary chit chat from people he doesn’t know.  He just wants to evaluate as quickly as possible whether it makes sense to dig any deeper or whether he just wants to hit the delete key.

In many ways this sort of quick inquiry is what I’ve always used messaging systems for.  In one of my jobs my team was spread all over a building.  It was easy to use AOL IM (pre-Twitter days!) to find out if someone was busy or had time to meet if I headed over.  Messaging was faster and easier than the phone and it worked well.

Stowe is on to something here, but why stop at pitches?  And why put it all exclusively through Twitter? 

I’d love to have a “fast lane” for inquiries tied into my email account.  I’d love to have a special Twitter “channel” for these things.  It’d be great if I could be reached by either venue.  Ditto phone calls and voicemail.  The overriding consideration would be to keep it brief (Twitter’s 140 character limit is fine) and to the point.  Better, give some flavors.  a “yes/no” TwitQuiry has a built in Yes/No button.  Bang one and the sender gets their answer.  “Time” would be another goodie.  Works for, “How long until you can take a call from me?”  Or, “When will you be done with that preso you promised me?”

It probably makes sense to let people create their own Tweetlets (applets for TweetQuiries) that do these things.  I can imagine them being really useful even for certain kinds of business process, for example.  A tiny little bit of structure aimed at streamlining keystrokes will go a long way.  There are lots of tiny interpersonal transactions that could be facilitated in this way.

Could be something to this yet.

Posted in user interface, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment »

Bug or Architecture Flaw? (Fail or No Fail)

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 23, 2008

Blaine Cook, Twitter’s lead architect, has left the company.  Predictably, the blogosphere is flaying him pretty good.  Michael Arrington asks , “Amateur Hour Over At Twitter?”

Ouch!

Blaine, I feel for you.  People expect and are pretty tolerant of a few bugs, but the problems at Twitter have been going on for long enough that it’s clear there were deep-seated architectural flaws that were not going away very soon.  Twitter is taking the right steps–they’ve got a new VP of Engineering and Ops as well as two new scaling experts.  Cook, rightly or wrongly is firmly under the bus.

What follows next is important.  The new gang has a limited window in which to fix the problem.  This won’t be easy.  Fixing deep architecture issues on a live system that can’t keep up is one of those nightmare scenarios that’s painful beyond belief. 

What can we learn from this? 

First, Twitter is just the latest example of an important service that has all the ingredients for success except for the ability to scale properly. 

I gave up for the last time on Technorati not long ago for similar reasons.  For a long time it was my blogging hub.  I used it for search and to monitor how well my own messages were penetrating the blogosphere.  But it was wildy inconistent.  It was easy to switch to Google for Blog Search, after all, they are the search experts?  But that Technorati Authority seemed like it was worth hanging around for. 

And then one day my Authority dropped almost 100 points.  In one day I went from over 300 to just a little over 200.  What’s up with this?  I waited for it to come back–at various points in the past, something similar had happened and then corrected itself in a day or two.  No such luck.

Eventually, I stayed away long enough, that it was time to log in again.  I didn’t remember my account info, so I simply searched for SmoothSpan to find my blog.  There was my answer for what had happened:  I saw two SmoothSpans!  One had my old over 300 authority, one the new authority. 

But I could tell neither was really right.  In other words, the true authority was some mix of sites from one and some from the other.  Thinking about how this could happen revealed a classic architecture flaw: Technorati had created more than one record for the same thing and couldn’t keep them straight.

Twitter’s situation is similar.  Supposedly they were rolling out a new caching system of some kind when their latest troubles hit.  Caches create more than one copy of the data intentionally, to make it easier to scale.  The trick is to keep it all running smoothly and to feed the cache from the one true version of the data.

Second learning point:  It may be a bad idea to worry about scaling later.  This topic has been debated from time to time.  Some have advanced the notion that to worry about scaling up front is a premature optimization.  Scaling is not a premature optimization!  It is fundamental architecture.  The number of developers who can deliver a highly scalable web property is a tiny fraction of the number of developers who can get “almost there”.  The difference between having one architecture versus the other is a healthy heaping of FAIL.

My last company, Callidus Software, understood scaling.  We got it so well it became a major differentiator for the product.  We could literally go to customers where the likes of Oracle and SAP (who supposedly understood scaling) could not go because their systems wouldn’t handle the scale.  There’s nothing quite like being the only game in town for a big customer that has to have a solution.

Scaling is something the Cloud Platform world may eventually deliver for us.  So far, they are more about Utility Computing, which is the ability to add more machines quickly and easily.  That’s Amazon’s model.  Whether your software can use more machines (i.e. whether it scales), is up to you.  Teasing apart the aspects of an application that make it scalable and handing them over to a platform will be a ticklish business.  It’s likely to a good deal of rewriting.  But either way, your team can get it right the first time, do a rewrite under fire, or rewrite for a Cloud Platform that shows how its done.

Does your team understand scaling?  Really?  How do you know?

Related Articles

A recent interview with Blaine Cook.  Interesting note on eventual consistency: Twitter only allows API’s to update once per minute.  The team is 5 full-time developers and that includes 1 new person.  Tight team, but that’s good.

Michael Arrington mentions he read this post in a Seesmic video.  Scan down through the comments to see it.  He’s involved in a big slugfest over whether this was character assassination on Cook, whether the fault lies with Ruby on Rails, and so on and so forth.  It’s important not to lose track in all of that emotional content of the main issue here, which is that scaling matters, a relatively small set of developers have lived through it and know what to do, and it is hard to fix after the fact.

Despite the fact that there’s basically a flamewar on Techcrunch over this, others seem to reach a similar conclusion.  Larry Dignan has a good post over at ZDNet.

Posted in platforms, saas, Web 2.0 | 3 Comments »

Microsoft Mesh: All Your Devices and Data Are Be Ours

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 23, 2008

I’ll bet your blog reader is probably overflowing with posts about Microsoft’s Mesh announcement this morning.  Sorry to add one more, but it is an important announcement and there is some analysis I want to get out onto the table.

Mesh Product Director Mike Zintel sums up the Mesh vision well: 

“The coolest thing about Live Mesh is how it smashes the abrupt mental switch that I have to make today as I move between being ‘on the web’ and ‘in an application.”

“At the core of Mesh is [the] concept of a customer’s mesh, or collection of devices, applications and data that an individual owns or regularly uses. The Mesh Account Service persists the relationship among these resources and authorizes access to them. The mesh is the foundation for a model where customers will ultimately license applications to their mesh, as opposed to an instantiation of Windows, Mac or a mobile account or a web site. Such applications will be seamlessly installed and run from their mesh and application settings persisted across their mesh.”

Ray Ozzie adds to this that the Web is “the Hub of our social mesh and our device mesh.” And goes on to say that, “in scenarios ranging from productivity to media and entertainment, social mesh notions of linking, sharing, ranking and tagging will become as familiar as File, Edit and View.”

Mesh starts out for individuals, which I suspect is intended to minimize adoption friction.  Lots of cool sounding functionality has been considered and incorporated into the design.  There are objects that range from data to applications, and data is not limited to files.  There is some sort of role-based security around these objects, and objects can be stored in all sorts of places.  Most importantly, there is pub/sub synchronization, replication, and update alerts and feeds to keep people aware when changes are made.

At the moment, Live Mesh is an invitation only “Technology preview.”  The current version only does synchronization of Windows computers, but its intent is to extend to other devices.  Mobile and Mac are promised within the next year.

How is this really different?  Josh Catone mentions similarities with Dropbox, SugarSync, and Microsoft’s own FolderShare.  Interestingly, I’ve seen a demo of software that syncs across PC’s and mobile devices not long ago from SoonR as well.  It works today for a number of devices.  Their motto is “The Anywhere Workforce.”  I vividly remember a couple of years ago seeing a PowerPoint slideshow played back over a Motorola Razor at my home using SoonR.  How long before Microsoft has made it that far?

As Catone points out, the difference is that Live Mesh is intended to be a platform.  It is feeds of all shapes of sizes plugged into your data and applications.  These feeds are used to sync your data objects, and to keep you and others abreast of when these updates are happneing.  Since its a platform, the feed mechanisms are open and accessible to third parties.  There is a demo, for example, of Twitter tweets being synced to the Mesh Notifier.  Clearly Microsoft will want a piece of the burgeouning feed aggregation world.  FriendFeed and friends look out!  In addition, there is an offline component too, which provides one possible answer to the likes of Google Gears or Adobe AIR.

In a nutshell, that’s what Live Mesh is, now what does it mean?  Will it work?  What can we do to prepare for it?

Analysis

Scoble loves it.  A veritable toolbox of feeds going every which way.  Everything is a feed, including your, um, feeds.  I’m not surprised Scoble loves it, but his description doesn’t make it sound like the one highly differentiated must have thing that will keep Microsoft a vital part of all our lives.  In particular, if your promise is connectivity ala feeds between all things, how does that reconcile from this passage from Scoble:

Unfortunately they aren’t even close to being finished. Mac support? Coming in the future. Nokia support? Unclear. iPhone support? Ask Steve Jobs (translation: will be very limited due to Apple’s complete control of that platform). Firefox support? Yes! Linux support? What’s that?

Can a ubiquitous “operating system” to store all your data, manage all your feeds, and connect it all to every computer and mobile device you own succeed if it is owned and operated by a company whose reputation is to take unfair advantage of any access you give it?  Isn’t this the very poster child of what you would want to have be very Open Source and very Swiss in its dealings?

Phil Wainewright sees this issue clearly when he brings up “how the company seems to lurch from launching fresh, Web-savvy solutions one day but then falling back into its crusty old server-centric habits the next.”

Clearly such a platform will rely on third parties to get excited about supporting it.  Will Steve Jobs let it onto the iPhone when he hasn’t even allowed the Flash Player?  Will Sony support it wholeheartedly when they see the XBox team has a huge lead on them because of the usual Microsoft “our guys get all the early advantages” ploy?

Erick Schonfeld captures the flavor of a nagging doubt that has been in my mind.  He sees Live Mesh as a response to efforts to take browser-based apps onto the desktop and into Microsoft’s face.  Live Mesh is taking applications off the desktop and pushing them into the Web’s face.  They demo geneology changes being updated whenever a family member makes a changed, but Erick points to web-based Geni which already does this automatically.

Which one is better?  Do you want lots of copies of data being synced, or one copy being edited collaboratively by many?  This debate has been waged for years, but the general consensus has tended towards one copy with collaborative editing.  Desktop-think wants to keep going the other way.  And, it is very convenient if it’s just you in charge of your data–this blog with me editing it coming to many of you via RSS.  But, if many of us have to work on it, a Wiki is a better idea.

The Live Mesh vision is then useful, but probably overreaching.  It isn’t the “one great thing to restore Microsoft’s dominance.”  There are a lot of questions about whether Microsoft will reach a critical mass in getting others to play along with it.  Suppose they follow their standard playbook (and I see no deviation yet):

- Get their teams early exposure.

- Preannounce to freeze the market.

- By the time others can get there, the Microsoft apps are all doing it better than anyone else will be able to emulate for some time.

- Use this as the competitive edge to increase share for Microsoft apps and position the others as being “not quite up to the Windows standard.”

That strategy doesn’t work in the web world and will backfire mightily if they try it.  Imagine LiveMesh with nobody but Microsoft’s apps talking to it along with whatever files they can drag along and other open API’s that their own engineers tie into.  It becomes a modestly useful feature, not a platform, provided it is well implemented.

Here is my next concern.  There are 100 engineers at work on Live Mesh already, and lots of key functionality (like version control) nowhere in sight.  Aside from the Tactics of Monopoly, the other Fail mode is creating a giant monolith of software.  Vista is a painful example of how far things can go wrong.  Mesh is, at its core, another attempt to rework the document and folder file system.  Microsoft promised this in Longhorn for years but never delivered.  Now Microsoft is adding to that challenge the need to build something that (sorry!) meshes well with the web.  That’s no small order.

Many are saying this is all Ozzie and is his third iteration of a vision that started with Lotus Notes.  Groove is another one, lest we forget that.  Is this the right vision to be on?  Did the first two iterations demonstrate enough goodness that we want to build this stuff into the OS and fabric of every PC and device we own?  It doesn’t seem like it, but perhaps.  OTOH, what if we were all using an online backup service of one kind or another (Mozy et al), and we could access the backups from any device, publish an RSS feed of the versions, and so on. 

The world used to say Microsoft gets it right by the Third Try.  Microsoft is a little slow.  After the Third Try comes Fourth System Effect (with appologies to Brooks’ Second System Effect) where they go way overboard and manage to produce a Vista.

Lest I leave on that purely negative note, it’s always helpful to ask what they should have done or what they should now do.  It’s the “What would Google do?” sort of game, although it’s more like, “What do modern web companies in general do?”  Google’s recent AppEngine announcement is a prime example that touches all the bases:

-  Start small:  one language (Python), one application type (web apps).  You can build something small quickly without 100 cooks in the kitchen and make it tight.

-  Involve the community:  10,000 betas, first come first served, no special favorites and ramping up almost immediately to 20,000 betas.

-  Be open:  SDK was open sourced day 1.  It didn’t take long for the community to take the SDK and bring it up on Amazon Web Services.  Google doesn’t care, it’s all good.  It’s Open.

-  Piggyback on an innocuous beginning:  AppEngine is built on technology Google had created to do lots of other things internally.

-  No special advantages:  Google usually integrates after the launch of a new service so that everyone is on an even playing field and the service gets out the door faster.

There are lots of ways a service like LiveMesh could’ve followed this formula.  I’ll let you fill in the blanks, but consider this too:  there are a fair number of organizations out in the wild that can follow such a formula (and some are already far along the path).  We don’t really need Microsoft to get there.  That’s the piece Microsoft needs to wrap their heads around better.

BTW, the mental barrier between being on the web or in the application (going back to Mike Zintel) is already broken.  I don’t feel it a bit when I spend most of my day in the browser using web apps. 

I guess this is what Microsoft is worried about.

Posted in platforms, saas, strategy, Web 2.0 | 4 Comments »

Do You Belong to Any Micro Communities?

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 22, 2008

Recently, I was invited to join the Enterprise Irregulars, a Micro Community of thinkers, bloggers and doers that are focused on the Enterprise world and where it’s going.  There are folks that range from blogger Zoli Erdos to SocialText founder and president Ross Mayfield and many other fascinating personalities.  I was extremely flattered as I’d been following many of these people for some time. 

It’s a great community, and active discussions flourish among them.  Collective bargaining is also a possibility, as they work together to do a mass WebEx and interview call with companies they’re interested in understanding better.  A lot goes on underneath the surface, not visible to the general public.  EI is an invitation-only organization as are many Micro Communities.

Micro Community is the name I’ve just given to small communities created for a special purpose or interest.  I’ll bet you belong to several.  If you don’t, you’re missing out.  They are everything from groups on Social Networks, such as the the Oracle Alumni I belong to on LinkedIn.  They may be stand-alone special purpose Social Networks such as you can create with a service like Ning.  Ning excels at creating Micro Communities. 

Interestingly, the vast majority of Micro Communities are not on such whizzy new technology.  Most are hosted on Yahoo Groups with a few on Google Groups.  They just basic discussion forums that can feed your email.  Their ubiquity and the means of interacting with them is probably another reason why email is not dead yet.

If you’re not part of a Micro Community, you should inventory your interests and go looking for one.  If you can’t find one, maybe you should start one.  There’s bound to be others looking for kindred spirits too.  These days it’s easy.  Go the traditional “groups” route or fire up something more recent like Ning.

Given the popularity of services that search or aggregate blogs, I wonder how long it’ll be before we have Micro Community search and aggregation?  It’s probably already here and I just haven’t found it.

Posted in Web 2.0 | 1 Comment »

 
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