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May 09 2013

Where will software and hardware meet?

I’m a sucker for a good plant tour, and I had a really good one last week when Jim Stogdill and I visited K. Venkatesh Prasad at Ford Motor in Dearborn, Mich. I gave a seminar and we talked at length about Ford’s OpenXC program and its approach to building software platforms.

The highlight of the visit was seeing the scale of Ford’s operation, and particularly the scale of its research and development organization. Prasad’s building is a half-mile into Ford’s vast research and engineering campus. It’s an endless grid of wet labs like you’d see at a university: test tubes and robots all over the place; separate labs for adhesives, textiles, vibration dampening; machines for evaluating what’s in reach for different-sized people.

Prasad explained that much of the R&D that goes into a car is conducted at suppliers–Ford might ask its steel supplier to come up with a lighter, stronger alloy, for instance–but Ford is responsible for integrative research: figuring out how to, say, bond its foam insulation onto that new alloy.

In our more fevered moments, we on the software side of things tend to foresee every problem being reduced to a generic software problem, solvable with brute-force computing and standard machinery. In that interpretation, a theoretical Google car operating system–one that would drive the car and provide Web-based services to passengers–could commoditize the mechanical aspects of the automobile. If you’re not driving, you don’t care much about how the car handles; you just want a comfortable seat, functional air conditioning, and Web connectivity for entertainment. A panel in the dashboard becomes the only substantive point of interaction between a car and its owner, and if every car is running Google’s software in that panel, then there’s not much left to distinguish different makes and models.

When’s the last time you heard much of a debate on Dell laptops versus HP? As long it’s running the software you want, and meets minimum criteria for performance and physical quality, there’s not much to distinguish laptop makers for the vast majority of users. The exception, perhaps, is Apple, which consumers do distinguish from other laptop makers for both its high-quality hardware and its unique software.

That’s how I start to think after a few days in Mountain View. A trip to Detroit pushes me in the other direction: the mechanical aspects of cars are enormously complex. Even incremental changes take vast re-engineering efforts. Changing the shape of a door sill to make a car easier to get into means changing a car’s aesthetics, its frame, the sheet metal that gets stamped to make it, the wires and sensors embedded in it, and the assembly process that puts it together. Everything from structural integrity to user experience needs to be carefully checked before a thousand replicates start driving out of Ford’s plants every day.

So, when it comes to value added, where will the balance between software and machines emerge? Software companies and industrial firms might both try to shift the balance by controlling the interfaces between software and machines: if OpenXC can demonstrate that it’s a better way to interact with Ford cars than any other interface, Ford will retain an advantage.

As physical things get networked and instrumented, software can make up a larger proportion of their value. I’m not sure exactly where that balance will arise, but I have a hard time believing in complete commoditization of the machines beneath the software.

See our free research report on the industrial internet for an overview of the ways that software and machines are coming together.

March 25 2013

The media-marketing merge

I ran across a program Forbes is running called BrandVoice that gives marketers a place on Forbes’ digital platform. During a brief audio interview with TheMediaBriefing, Forbes European managing director Charles Yardley explained how BrandVoice works:

“It’s quite simply a tenancy fee. A licensing fee that the marketer pays every single month. It’s based on a minimum of a six-month commitment. There’s two different tiers, a $50,000-per-month level and a $75,000-per-month level.” [Discussed at the 4:12 mark.]

Take a look at some of the views BrandVoice companies are getting. You can see why marketers would be interested.

BrandVoice exampleBrandVoice example

BrandVoice exampleBrandVoice example

An arrangement like this always leads to big questions: Does pay-to-play content erode trust? Is this a short-term gain that undermines long-term editorial value?

Those are reasonable things to ask, but I have a different take. When I look at BrandVoice posts like this and this, I’m indifferent toward the whole thing — the posts, the partnerships, all of it.

In my mind, these posts don’t reveal a gaping crack in The Foundation of Journalism. Nor do I have an issue with Forbes opening up new revenue streams through its digital platform. Rather, this is just more content vying for attention. It’s material that’s absorbed into the white noise of online engagement.

Now, if a piece of content earns attention — if it has real novelty or insight — that would change my view (I’m using the word “would” because this is all theoretical). I’d still need to know the source and be able to trust the information, and see clear and obvious warnings when content is published outside of traditional edit norms. But if all of those must-haves are present, is there anything wrong with interesting content that comes through a pay-to-play channel?

Heck, TV advertisers pay to spread messages through broadcast platforms, and from time to time those ads are entertaining and maybe even a little useful. Is that any different?

I’ve been neck-deep in media and marketing for years, and it’s possible my perspective is obscured by saturation. That’s why I’d like to hear other viewpoints on these media-marketing arrangements. Please chime in through the comments if you have an opinion.

Disclosure: O’Reilly Media has a blog on Forbes. It’s not part of the BrandVoices program, and there’s no financial arrangement.

Sponsored post

August 24 2012

Building conference programs: it’s about the attendee

I’ve chaired computer industry conferences for ten years now. First for IDEAlliance (XML Europe, XTech), and recently with O’Reilly Media (OSCON, Strata). Over the years I have tried to balance three factors as I select talks: proposal quality, important new work, and practical value of the knowledge to the attendees.

As the competition for speaking slots at both Strata and OSCON reach intense levels, I wanted to articulate these factors, and the principles I use when compiling conference programs.

How the program is made

My guiding principle in putting a program together is value to the attendees. They’re why we do this. By putting out quality content and speakers, we attract thinking, interested attendees. In turn, our sponsors get a much better quality of conversation and customer contact through their presence at the event.

Here’s the process in a nutshell: proposals are invited through a public call for participation, and then reviewers, drawn from the industry community of experts, will grade and comment on each proposal. I and my co-chairs use this feedback, along with editorial judgement, to compile the final schedule. For keynotes, and a small number of breakout sessions, we will augment the review process by inviting talks we think are important for the program.

Sponsors and the schedule

No company’s industry position (sponsor or not) means they get an easy ride through the proposal vetting process. That would undermine the trust the attendees place in the chairs and program committee. In the past, I’ve been tough with even the very biggest companies, and it’s not been an easy process for me or them. It is however essential, and I am grateful to those companies and others who respect the process.

A conference schedule decided by sponsor-driven talk placement will soon fail to meet the needs of the attendees, because nobody will reliably have attendee interests at heart.

Sponsors have a vital part to play. Their support enables the event to exist in the first place, and they enable many aspects that make the conference experience great. Sponsor companies are a core part of the technical and business ecosystem on which the conferences are based, and many sponsor employees contribute great technical talks that are part of the editorial tracks.

Attendees make real buying decisions and want to hear from sponsors about their products. O’Reilly conferences have a place for product talks, and those talks are marked as sponsored. Because of our ethos of good content, and our practice of advising sponsors on their talks, most of these talks are also excellent, and on a par with the quality of the rest of the program.

We can always do better

Sometimes, we miss the mark. With hundreds of proposals and a fast-moving field, building a program is data-informed, but still an art. As conference chairs we decide an editorial strategy, which sometimes means great talks are left out because they don’t fit the story we think the attendees will value most.

I recognize and lament that it’s not always a pleasant process. Rejection stings, and with over 1,000 proposals it’s an unfortunate fact that something like 850 talks won’t get through.

Recently, with so much competition in the big data industry, I’ve received more heat than usual about program choices. Some proposers know how to create great presentations, and others don’t. If we select more from those that offer great presentations, it’s with the audience in mind, not bias. I’m always willing to offer advice to help people do better the next time around.

Tips for success

With the call for papers for Strata 2013 coming out, I’d like to ensure we do a good job and have the best options for our attendees. Somewhat masochistically, I want my job in deciding the program to be harder than ever because of the quality of incoming proposals.

I think it’s worth spelling out a few guidelines that will help proposers, especially those from industry vendors:

  • Read the submission guidelines three times over, and take them to heart
  • Think about the audience and the problems they’re trying to solve
  • Talk to us. The chairs and program committee are listed on the web site and we can offer guidance (though no guarantees) before you submit your proposal

Submit your proposal on time

I’ll close by reiterating my recommendation to communicate. We have a process designed to maximize the quality of the conference. That process isn’t perfect, and we can and do make mistakes. To minimize mistakes, you can help. As a chair, I prefer to cultivate ongoing relationships with people in the field. Talk to me and brief me about your technology before the conference program is set, not afterwards. It would be unfair for me to do anything to disadvantage those proposers who followed the guidelines and submitted on time.

Finally, thank you. For reading this far, and helping me, my co-chairs, and the program committee in creating the best program possible. We value each and every submission, whether it makes the schedule or not.

I am always happy to offer advice. You can reach me at

March 15 2011

What has Twitter become?

TwitterAt O'Reilly, we've long believed that one criterion for long-term success is creating more value than you capture. When you do so, you create the possibility for an ecosystem that's larger than you are. You create a healthy environment in which you, your partners, and even your competitors can thrive.

Twitter, long one of my favorite companies, has turned the corner. After creating a very healthy ecosystem of third-party apps (standalone, web, and mobile), they've decided they need to shut down the market. In a post to Twitter's developer forum, Ryan Sarver (@rsarver) clarifies Twitter's terms of service and says new Twitter clients are unwelcome and existing clients ought to watch their backs. Further down in the thread, Raffi Krikorian (@raffi) steps in and does some damage control. While Raffi does a good job of moderating Ryan's heavy-handed statements, I don't think the position changes much. "No" becomes "it's a bad idea to create a business where you would have to bend at the whims of another organization." Exactly. When you create an ecosystem, you have a responsibility to that ecosystem. Perhaps it's an ethical responsibility rather than a business responsibility. But that ecosystem is as much responsible for your growth as you are for its, and subjecting it to your whims isn't prudent.

I'm personally saddened, at least in part because I've used Twitter as an example of how to build a successful data ecosystem. It's a system that has contributed substantially to Twitter's success, in a way that can, and should, be emulated. If you build the ecosystem successfully, the opportunities will come.

But now, Twitter has decided that it would rather not compete with its many children. Why? The reason given is that consumers are confused, and Twitter needs a consistent user experience. This reasoning strikes me as wrong-headed. Consistent user experience is a red herring. Is anyone confused by the diversity of user experience that's out there now? It's a throwback to the time when Word files only worked with Microsoft Word and WordPerfect files only worked with WordPerfect. But that was a pre-web world, and that's not how the web works — never has been. If that's what the future holds, we've got much bigger problems to worry about than net neutrality.

Are users stupid, silly, weak creatures who are easily misled? I don't think so. As I've argued elsewhere, the proliferation of bad software guarantees that we'll get some good software and occasional brilliant software. Twitter is ultimately a data publisher — and the many ways that data can be used is what makes the data publishing business interesting.

Twitter states that 90% of their users use an "official" Twitter client at least monthly. I'm sure that's true, but it's also misleading. I easily use a dozen Twitter clients, including clients built into other apps. While I use an "official" client daily, it's probably under 10% of my total use. And that's certainly part of the problem. I'm sure that Twitter is feeling pressure to find a viable business model to justify billions of dollars of valuation and hundreds of millions of investor capital. Promoted trends, tweets, and follower recommendations might be viable, though my reaction is often "You're kidding; why would you even think I'd want to follow X?" Offered a choice, I'd rather not see them — and the clients I prefer don't force me to see them. Is that the real issue? Other clients aren't displaying "promoted" topics or users? Other clients give users choices that Twitter would rather they don't have?

Are other business models for Twitter conceivable? Of course. In Twitter's early days, I suggested to Blaine Cook (@blaine) that supporting private corporate Twitter networks was a possibility — a route that was latter taken by Yammer, and where there's probably still a significant opportunity. Selling the "firehose" is also a possibility, and something that's already happening (with Gnip the preferred reseller). Analytics services, facilitating customer service — these are all legitimate opportunities for Twitter. I've been surprised that they haven't gone after them.

I am not saying that Twitter has no right to enforce some rules on the playing field it has created. Specifically:

  • I have no objection to Twitter enforcing rules protecting the privacy of users, or restricting the proliferation of spam and malicious content. A client that edits tweets, changes profiles, or does anything else without the user's permission should expect to be barred from the service.
  • I also have no particular problem with Twitter competing with its ecosystem. There was some angst about Twitter "eating its children" when it rolled out the "new Twitter." Tough. For a long time, Twitter's own clients were sub-standard. Twitter has every right to build the best client they can, and to get as many users as possible to use it, as long as they maintain a level playing field. They only cross the line when they say "we won't tolerate any more competition."

  • And I have no problem with Twitter saying that there are perhaps too many clients (I wouldn't disagree), and suggesting areas in which developers who want to do something unique can experiment. Sarver offers a few such areas: publisher tools, tweet curation, realtime data analysis, etc. But here's the rub: if you're building publisher tools or selling analytics data, what's to prevent Twitter from deciding they want that business three months from now, and shutting down the competition? Given the way Twitter has behaved toward its client ecosystem, I would certainly be nervous about starting an analytics business based on Twitter data, or funding such a business. Will the rug be pulled out from under me a few months down the road? I don't know. Quora analytics, anyone?

But while Twitter can enforce rules on their playing field, they shouldn't say it's our field, it's our ball, everyone else go home. And while there are plenty of uninteresting, dull clients, there is plenty of possibility for innovation. A year or so ago, I saw a Twitter client that displayed all incoming tweets on a map. Last night, I came up with several ideas for interesting, useful clients: threaded clients, clients that display tweets in the context of the user's social graph, clients that use artificial intelligence techniques to find tweets that will be relevant and interesting. (Sort of like my my6sense, but for Twitter.) There's no shortage of ideas. As Raffi says, developers ought to think big, not just come up with dull clones that simply display timelines. But he and Twitter are missing a fundamental law of innovation: you can't tell people where (or how) to innovate, and where not to. Innovation just doesn't work that way. The best way to prevent "think big" innovation from happening is to cut off the small ideas.

Twitter's limitations on research (specifically, whitelisting and redistribution of raw data) are also troubling. While I understand their restrictions on redistributing data for commercial purposes, and perhaps a desire to prune the number of users who can pull a large datafeed, it seems — as Inside Higher Ed argues — that these changes hurt academic research more than anything else. Twitter has been an enormously useful channel for finding out how history unfolds. has a wonderful visualization of the progress of the Egyptian revolution through Twitter tweets, and I've seen much similar work. Is this kind of research still possible, without buying a datafeed that a student or an underfunded department might find prohibitively expensive?

Screenshot from's visualization of Egypt tweets
Screenshot from's "The Egyptian Revolution on Twitter."

Again, I see no problem with Twitter restricting commercial access. If you're making money from the Twitter stream, you shouldn't expect the stream to be provided as a free service. It isn't difficult to write terms of service that distinguish between research and commercial use. Pure research is symbiotic, not parasitic: that research is one reason that Twitter has its multi-billion dollar valuation. In addition to informing us, it demonstrates what you can do with the Twitter timeline, and shows opportunities that Twitter (and others) can cash in on. We're only now realizing what Twitter can teach us. Is it time to shut down further experimentation?

We have seen many companies thrive by creating more value than they capture. Twitter was one of the best. But once you've given something away, it's hard to take it back, particularly if it's something as fundamental as the right to create innovative software or to do academic research. Has Twitter said that developers can't innovate? No, but they've demonstrated that they might tell you your innovation is out of bounds somewhere down the road. It's disappointing to see Twitter undermining the ecology that made it valuable in the first place. Twitter would not be the company it is today without Tweetie, TweetDeck, TweetGrid, and many, many others. Likewise, Twitter won't become the company it could be if it cuts off scholars' ability to learn from its timeline. It remains to be seen whether a company that captures more value than it creates will inevitably stagnate. But if so, Twitter will be an unfortunate lesson, and we'll all be the poorer.

Related books:

Related coverage:

January 12 2010

Creative commons license, 2010-01-12

The Value of nothing - This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

"The opposite of greed isn't thrift, it's generosity" says Raj Patel, author of the new book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. Patel looks at why we value certain things, how consumption and greed became goods, and the problem with profit. He'll be appearing on GRITtv soon to talk about his new book, but meanwhile, enjoy this preview.
Reposted by02mysoup-aa 02mysoup-aa

Raj Patel on “The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy”

Patel-dn Democracy  Now 2010-01-12: Author and activist Raj Patel joins us to discuss his new book, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. “We’ve come to believe that the only way we can value things is by sticking them in a market,” Patel says. “The trouble is, as we’ve seen through this recession, that markets are a tremendously bad way of valuing


RAJ PATEL: Well, what—I mean, the latest Nobel Prize in Economics was won by a woman called Elinor Ostrom for her work on what’s called “the commons.” Now, the commons is a way not only of delineating a set of resources, but also of governing those resources together. And the way that commons are governed can be tremendously successful.

In a recent study in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, over eighty forest communities were examined, and those forest communities that were able to common together, to work autonomously and to have enough forest to sustain the community, well, those communities did much better. They were able to provide better development for their—for the members of the community. And they were able to sequester more carbon. They were able to take care of the forest much better than communities that had governments or free markets come in. And so, what we see is that there are ways in which we can value the world without free markets. And those commons are well worth looking at, because historically they’ve worked quite well, too.

And historically, commons have been venues for—actually, for struggles for justice. And in the book, I talk about how those struggles for justice look today. And, in particular, since I’m particularly concerned around issues of food, I’m very interested in the success that the International Peasant Movement, La Via Campesina, is having around food systems and food justice, and particularly their vision of food sovereignty, which is about communities having control over the food system. Well, that vision of food sovereignty is tremendously exciting for the principles of justice that lie at its heart. And there’s a slogan about food sovereignty that I think is very exciting. One of the slogans for food sovereignty is that food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women. Now, to have that slogan, you know, to start off with thinking about food and ending up with violence against women shows the trajectory that this organization has gone on to understand the root causes of injustice that lie behind capitalism. And what they’re offering is a way of valuing that involves equalizing power relationships everywhere, from the household to the international level, when it comes to exchanging food. And that kind of comprehensive, thoughtful strategy is something I think we can all be inspired by.

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