Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reading Dan Bricklin on Technology

I’ve been fascinated by a new book, Bricklin on Technology. I’m not the only one. The omnipresent Scott Kirsner tweeted that reading this book “is like downloading a few gigs of Dan directly to your cerebral cortex.”

Rather than concentrate on one review, I think I will work some of his thoughts into a number of posts, this one stressing the importance of Apps for the PC and the Smart Phone. Then again, perhaps these are my thoughts, but he provoked them.

VisiCalc, introduced thirty years ago this month at the1979 West Coast Computer Faire by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, went on from there to change forever the computer industry. For the arrivistes among us, VisiCalc was the world’s first spreadsheet, progenitor of today’s Excel and many programs in between.

Personal Computers were available in 1979 (though not the IBM PC), but, before VisiCalc, there was no compelling reason to buy one. VisiCalc’s ability to update rows and columns in real time not only gave the user a way to revise financial statements but provided a superior solution to that offered by alternatives such as mainframe-based time sharing systems. Typically, a mainframe would have to upload an entire screen from a remote terminal, perform the update, and then rewrite the entire screen, far less timely and user friendly than VisiCalc on the Apple II.

Moreover, VisiCalc was a tool that could be adapted to many purposes, such as developing a complete financial model of a business. And, as a business tool, the purchaser could likely deduct the cost of VisiCalc and a home computer from his income taxes.

The other general purpose tool introduced at the time was word processing. The Apple II was never a great word processor, due in part to the keyboard and display. The preeminent word processor of its day was the Wang Word Processor, a cluster of microprocessor controlled screens sharing a disk drive. This product line was so successful that, at its peak in the 1980s, Wang Laboratories had annual revenues of $3 billion and employed over 40,000 people.
Enter the IBM PC (1981) with spreadsheets and word processing; exit Wang and the minicomputer companies, DEC, Prime, Data General, Nixdorf, and more.

The great strength of computers is that they are general purpose machines. As such, they don’t really solve any specific problem; it is the software that provides the solution. PC manufacturers understand this. Before the Apple App store, cell phone makers tended to develop proprietary software that served a few purposes, all related to being a cell phone, not a general purpose problem solver.

My conclusion: in the marketplace derby, the general purpose programmable device always comes from behind to overtake and defeat specialized (and therefore arbitrarily limited) implementations. Cell phone manufacturers, beware.

How VisiCalc and the early word processors evolved into Excel and Word is a fascinating story, a business and legal story as well as a technological one, but to tell it would take a big book, not a blog.

Historical footnote. Dan Bricklin received his first IBM PC prototype from my former colleague at the IBM Cambridge Scientific Center, Fritz Giesin. I had left IBM in January, 1981, and never knew this. It was a circuit board on a piece of plywood with sockets to plug in a keyboard, etc.

Monday, May 25, 2009

New England Innovation Month

A flock of unnamed local activists has conspired to designate June as “New England Innovation Month,” complete with a web site. Check out the Innovation Month homepage for a list of events and happenings.

I consider this a great idea, and early responses are encouraging. “ New England’s innovators and innovative companies, we believe, will be key players in economic recovery and the long-term economic strength of the entire country. And forging new connections between diverse people with fresh ideas is a critical part of the innovation process—and a fundamental part of Xconomy’s mission. So we’re proud to be part of a month in which there will be so many opportunities to do just that,” says Rebecca Zacks.

One session I’ll attend is on June 25, moderated by Scott Kirsner: "What's Next in Tech: Exploring the Growth Opportunities of 2009 and Beyond."

“The idea is to provide a picture of the tech clusters that are going to drive the next waves of growth here in Massachusetts, from cloud computing to robotics to videogames to energy efficiency to social media,” says Scott. “Speakers include venture capitalist Bijan Sabet from Spark Capital, iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, Brian Halligan of HubSpot, and Tim Healy, who runs the publicly-traded EnerNOC.

“One goal leading up to the event is to start some blog conversation about the high-potential areas in tech right now... a discussion we'll obviously continue at the event on June 25th.”

My colleague Don Dodge and others have already joined the conversation. Don sees the next big things in tech as Cloud Computing, Mobile Applications, Social Networks, and what he calls “Hyper local News, Search, Community.” Don explains his reasoning in his blog. Read Don’s post here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cell Phone Design, 1983 to 2009

Guy Kawasaki sent a Tweet this weekend about the evolution of Cell Phone Design between 1983-2009. The collection of photos is most impressive.

I was introduced to the first of these phones, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, by Al Berkeley, then a General Partner at Alex. Brown. Alex. Brown, who had unwritten the first IPO in America back in 1808, brought public some of the most exciting growth companies of those times, including Microsoft, Oracle Systems, Starbucks, and United Healthcare. Al himself was instrumental in creating a public market for software stocks and, later, cell phones.

That day, we were looking for a cab to the airport; Al took us outside and called the dispatcher of an empty cab that was driving by. I’ve never forgotten this particular demonstration.

If this was my list, I would have included the recently announced Nokia 6216 since it is the first commercially available cell phone with Near Field Communications capabilities. You can read about it in Gerald Madlmayr’s blog.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Videos, humor, Ballmer disses the iPhone

It being a dreary Saturday, I’m looking around for amusing items. This brief video poking fun at iPhones, iPhone Apps, and social networks uses language no worse than my Granddaughter uses on Facebook, so it must be OK.

I’m less amused by Steve Ballmer’s recent comments. “There’s still, in my opinion, more venture capital than there are good ideas to support the venture capital,” Ballmer said in a speech to Stanford students studying entrepreneurship as part of the school’s “Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders” series. As the worldwide economy contracts, fewer mediocre business ideas will get funded, he said. That will result in a healthier startup environment than exists now, when “too many companies can hang on for almost too long with too much money.”

Of course, the flaw in his argument lies in our imperfect ability to separate the good ideas from the bad in their early stages. If you would like see an amusing but significant example, look at this video from 30 months ago, Microsoft CEO Ballmer laughs at Apple iPhone. A sample, “We’re selling millions and millions and millions of phones this year, Apple is selling zero.”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Parking, FasTrak, and Wireless Payments

Whereas payments are central to business Apps for smart phones, I thought I’d describe some wireless methods that are currently under consideration. I was inspired to do so by the following news from the left coast.

Parkers at San Francisco's International Airport can now use their FasTrak transponder to pay for their parking. They have been testing it on a few lots at the airport and get about 200 transactions a day. This month, the system will expand to all the parking area at SFO. If it becomes popular the concept will be extended to Oakland and San Jose.

California’s FasTrak system, typically used for highway and bridge tools, is called the E-ZPass here in the East, and goes by other names in other regions. Think of it as an RFID chip used for Transportation payments.

“This is the beginning of the end of cash usage at parking lots, opines John Van Horn, founder, editor and publisher of Parking Today Magazine and blogger at PT’s Parking Blog. “ Soon (five years) cars will have transponders and they will be linked to your credit card, and queuing for entry tickets or exit payments will be a thing of the past. It may be even reasonable some day to not have gates at all, like on many toll roads.”

At least three payment methods are currently being considered for smart phone implementation.

FasTrak (E-Zpass). These and similar systems rely on a transponder in the car and a reader located at the tollbooth, both typically provided by Mark IV Transportation Technologies. The transponder consists of an RFID chip packaged with a battery. When the transponder comes within range of the reader, the ID is transmitted and verified at the reader. Processing is offline. When the motorist purchases the transponder, funds are deducted from her credit card ($30 here in NH) and transferred to the FasTrak operator. Tolls are deducted from this amount until a minimum threshold is reached, when another $30 will be charged to the card by the operator.

Tap and Go.
An RFID chip with an antenna is embedded in a credit card. When the card comes in close proximity to the reader, an electrical current is created and the ID (credit card number) is transferred. Further processing, including authorization and payment, takes place online as it does with any credit card. The official name for this is Near Field Communication, as described in my earlier post.

Stored Value. Funds are actually stored on the card, in memory, and the amount is reduced as the card is used. One good example, from the pre-RFID days, is the Parcxmart Card used to pay for parking and miscellaneous small dollar purchases in New Haven and other Cities. Cards are sold and funds are added by participating merchants, paid by either cash or credit.

Smart phones have batteries, have processing power, and have far better transmission capability than any of the methods described above. Smart phones are user programmable, so major portions of the application could be shifted to the phone itself. Moreover, smart phones could allow direct two-way communication between the parking operator and the consumer. So why don’t we have better payment methods for smart phones? Watch this space and ask me later.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Nokia App Store This Month?

Forbes is reporting today that Nokia is preparing an App Store second in size only to Apple's for roll out later this month, thus opening up vast opportunities for a new group of independent developers.

Though Apple, Research In Motion and Google already offer similar services, Nokia's launch promises to be the biggest app store opening yet and could re-shape the mobile applications market writes Elizabeth Woyke,

The store, which the company is calling Ovi Store after the Finnish word for "door," will debut with a catalog of 20,000 items. In comparison, Apple and RIM launched their stores with a few hundred apps, although Apple claims 35,000 apps today. Google's store opened with a few dozen.

“Users can access the store two different ways. It will ship pre-loaded on the company's new flagship handset, the N97, before July, and be included in phones released in the future. Consumers who own other, recent Nokia phones will also be able to download the store from the Web onto their handsets. The idea: People will buy more Nokia devices if they are paired with great services.

“The store is so large because Nokia is stocking it with a broader selection of digital content. The company says there will be lots of entertainment and media files, including an entire category of short videos and "mobisodes." The store's 20,000 items will be across all of these categories, not just apps.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Making Money Selling Free Apps?

How much money can you make from a free iPhone application? Quite a bit says Jason Kincaid, writing in TechCrunch.

A report from AdWhirl says that applications that crack the top 100 in the Free Apps list make $400-$5000 a day - a wide range, but even at the low end that works out to around $12,000 a month. And while applications that do reach the top positions in the App Store eventually lose steam, after the initial dip revenue tends to remain consistent over time. Of course, making it to the top of the Free Apps list is easier said than done, and most developers make far less than $400 a day. But the same is also true of the vast majority of paid applications - in fact, there’s actually less competition on the Free side of the store.

As for AdWhirl, the company allows developers to tap into multiple iPhone ad networks at once. It is obviously in AdWhirl’s interest to promote iPhone advertising, since that’s their business. But it’s clear that there are definitely quite a few free applications making good money.

Anyway, cheapskates such as myself no longer have to feel guilty about selecting free Apps. And when Blackberry and Nokia open their own App stores, it will certainly unleash the creativity of lots more application developers.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Smart Phone as your Mainframe?

The emergence of the Mobile Computing Cloud (McCloud) may lead to surprising innovations; here is one effort to give superpowers to your smart phone. Researchers at Intel in Berkeley create a supercharged clone of your smart phone that lives in "the cloud" and lets it do all the computational heavy lifting that your phone is too weak to handle.

CloneCloud uses a smart phone's high-speed connection to the Internet to communicate with a copy of itself that lives in a cloud-computing environment on remote servers. The prototype runs on Google's Android mobile operating system and seamlessly offloads processor-intensive tasks to its cloud-based double.

Of course, one could imagine an alternate implementation including smart phone and cloud based VM hypervisors that shift the workload automatically, no double required.

“But CloneCloud wouldn't just make smart phones more efficient: it could also make them more capable. A test application developed by Chun performs face recognition on photos. It required 100 seconds of processor time on a standard Android phone, but it finished in only one second when run by a clone of the phone running on a desktop computer. Because the software runs on a cloud-computing platform, it can be scaled in terms of the amount of both memory allocated and processing power, both of which increase performance on computationally intensive tasks.”

This work, developed by Byung-Gon Chun, a research scientist at Intel Research Berkeley, and his colleague Petros Maniatis, was recently reported by Christopher Mims in Technology Review and will be presented HotOS XII conference in Switzerland later this month.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Choose the Cloud, Lose Money, Who Says So?

Shortly after blogging about the MIT Symposium featuring Amazon’s approach to cloud computing, I found a report , McKinsey: Adopt the cloud, lose money, in the Register, which I put aside for additional thought and later comment. I had opined that victory in the Cloud market eventually goes to the low-cost producer.

When virtualizing private data centers, a company takes a powerful server and subdivides it into many servers to increase efficiency. This consolidation provides the necessary cost justification for the switch to virtual machines, leading to the current great success of VMware and others. This is the approach favored by McKinsey. Google, in contrast, does the opposite by taking a large set of low cost commodity systems and tying them together into one large supercomputer. At this level, the Amazon and Google approaches are similar.

Recently, the Official Google Blog helped clarify the issues. “While most discussions of cloud computing and data center design take place at the hardware level, we offer a set of scalable services that customers would otherwise have to maintain themselves in a virtualization model. For example, if a company wanted to implement a typical three tier system in the cloud using virtualization, they would have to build, install, and maintain software to run the database, app server, and web server. This would require them to spend time and money to acquire the licenses, maintain system uptime, and implement patches.“

In contrast, with a service like Google App Engine, customers get access to the same scalable application server and database that Google uses for its own applications. This means customers don't have to worry about purchasing, installing, maintaining, and scaling their own databases and app servers. All a customer has to do is deploy code, and we take care of the rest. You only pay for what you need, and, with App Engine's free quota, you often don't pay anything at all.”

My view so far: the benefits of the Cloud cannot be beat for new companies and new applications. For legacy applications McKinsey may have a good point, but the data is unclear. So for now, I agree with this approach:“As companies weigh private data centers vs. scalable clouds, they should ask a simple question: can I find the same economics, ease of maintenance, and pace of innovation that is inherent in the cloud?” asks Rajen Sheth, Senior Product Manager, Google Apps.