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Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Archive for August, 2007

Saving the Web: Should we sacrifice generativity for safety and security?

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Generativity - or the ability for all people, some with no qualifications at all, to use and share a technology - is the both the best and worst thing about the PC and internet combination. This open access allows for unparalleled participation and innovation but it also means the system is vulnerable. Let’s open up by taking a look at the good side of generativity.

Disruptive innovation is crucial. Without it human progress stalls. For disruptive innovation to happen the innovators need to be able to reach users with their new products. With PCs and the internet the user is easy to reach since the user controls what programs they will run and what products they will use. This leaves the door open for crucial new technologies and applications of technologies to permeate.

Generativity also allows smaller firms to emerge and grow. Without generativity there would be no start-ups since large firms, who would own proprietary systems in a world without a generative internet and generative hardware, would effectively be able to block out smaller entrants into their markets. Without those smaller entrants - a.k.a. the disruptive innovators - progress is stalled.

In a June 2007 Harvard Business Review article (I am telling you, you need to read HBR - very, very good stuff) entitled “Saving the Internet” written by Jonathan Zittrain uses some great examples to describe the disruptive innovation made possible by a generative system.

For example, Zittrain looks at online auctions and posits that the market would have been ripe for the picking for someone like Christie’s or Southeby’s but eBay beat them to the punch. There are also a host of other applications (web based e-mail, personal web pages, IM software, etc.) that may have never been born if the internet and the PC were not generative.

Of course that is what is so exciting about technology, and in particular, the internet. A level playing field (systems wise) has been created where a few guys in a garage with an idea can disrupt large corporations who, by nature, are typically unwelcoming of new ideas created by outsiders or even their customer.

While it is great that the system is open and users can try new things at their leisure the issue remains that there any many computer and internet users who do not know enough about PCs and the internet to know they are doing something wrong or harmful. Essentially users are in control of what code they ultimately run which leaves them vulnerable to unknowingly running bad and harmful code.

Due to this unfortunate byproduct of open and generative systems we have experienced a large influx of what Zittrain refers to as “appliances” - or devices and systems that are not generative. Some examples of appliances are TiVo, hand held devices, etc.

Users enjoy the fact that these devices are convenient and will limit the damage the user can inflict. That said, it seems that users are not valuing the ability for them to modify and add new functionality to these devices like they can with their PCs. As Zittrain mentions, this turn toward appliances is a slippery slope. Once the PC goes out in favor of devices the ability for new software, like skype, to emerge is far less likely.

Zittrain also mentions that:

A shift to smarter appliances, ones that can be updated by - and only by - their makers, is fundamentally changing the ways in which we experience our technologies. They become contingent: Even if you pay up front for them, such appliances are rented instead of owned, subject to revision by the maker at any moment.

Unfortunately this is also true of APIs. While they are an agent of generativity their generativity is at the sole discretion of the company that created them. It makes complete sense that a company who created something and put APIs in place to allow for generativity would want to control the APIs use in some way. However, the company that built the API is not the only thing standing in the way of the APIs generativity. Back to Zittrain (he uses the Google Maps API as an example):

But this puts within the control of Google, and anyone who can regulate Google, all downstream uses of Google Maps - and maps in general, to the extent that Google Maps’ excellence means other mapping services will fail or never be built.

Zittrain goes on to make another interesting point this time around Web 2.0 and generativity:

… what some have applauded as Web 2.0 - a new frontier of peer-to-peer networks and and collective, collaborative content production - is an architecture that can be tightly controlled and maintained by a central source, which may choose to operate in a generative way but is able to curtail those capabilities at any time.

Of course this situation has been covered before. The MySpace and Photobucket example comes to mind where MySpace temporarily disabled the ability for Photobucket widgets to run on their platform. Facebook is another great example.

Facebook is a closed system which recently opened up by allowing people to create applications that live inside Facebook. However, those applications have to be built in Facebook’s framework and Facebook could potentially limit the applications they accept at any time including turning off applications like MySpace did to Photobucket. I hope Facebook will remain open but we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.

Back to the question at hand: should we sacrifice generativity for safety and security?

I would argue based on all of the information above that we absolutely should not. What we should do is look for create ways to create security without compromising generativity. Zittrain lists four things in his article that we can do to keep the web and PCs generative while working to better secure them from threats.

Netizenship: Allow small groups of people to moderate (i.e. Wikipedia). It’s like neighborhood watch for the web.

More help from ISPs: The end points - ISPs - can become safety valves.

Network neutrality for APIs: The network should of course remain neutral so disruptive innovation can happen but the companies who offer APIs should also allow the APIs to remain neutral in that anyone who wants to can build on top of them (of course their are cost implications to the company offering the API that would need to be considered).

Virtual Machines: Technology that allows mission critical apps to be cordoned off from other apps essentially creating two separate machines in one is on the horizon. This will allow for a test bed to be created on a PC and that test bed, if infected, would not be able to harm the other crucial apps on the PC.

I’d like to jump into a little more detail on the last item - virtual machines. I just read yesterday in the latest edition of MITs Technology Review about an even more interesting idea around virtual machines. Ivan Krstic, one of the 2007 Technology Review Top Innovators under 35 (he’s only 21! - I feel like such a slacker), developed a system for the OLPC project called Bitfrost. Here’s TR’s explanation of the system:

Instead of blocking specific viruses, the system sequesters every program on the computer in a separate virtual operating system, preventing any program from damaging the computer, stealing files, or spying on the user. Viruses are left isolated and impotent, unable to execute their code. “This defeats the entire purpose of writing a virus,” says Krstic.

Fascinating stuff. The system is not quite ready for consumers yet but Krstic is working on helping programmers write “wrappers” for their programs that will allow them to communicate with the Bitfrost system. That is the first step toward getting something like Bitfrost out to the general public.

I’ll close with a quote from Zittrain’s HBR article that I think is quite fitting:

… for the generative Internet to save itself, it must generate its own solutions.

Fortunately it looks like we’re well on our way to doing just that.

Side note: Zittrain’s book on the generative Internet will be released this fall by Yale University Press and Penguin UK.

Written by Eric Olson

August 31st, 2007 at 11:04 am

Is Failure the Norm in Business?

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In the June 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review Gardiner Morse sat down with theoretical economist Paul Omerod to talk about Omerod’s new book Why Most Things Fail. Considering how many entrepreneurial ventures fail I figured covering the topic here would be very useful.

While I have not read the book (yet) I learned from the HBR interview that Omerod’s essential argument is that failure is the the defining characteristic of biological, social and economic systems. Seems pretty glim doesn’t it? Omerod doesn’t think so.

Giving in to chance, expecting failure, and reacting flexibly, [Omerod] says, is essential to success.

As the interview continues Omerod compares businesses to biological entities in a couple interesting ways.

Patterns of Extinction: The extinction of companies, like biological entities, happen periodically rather than continuously (i.e. you will observe a sudden extinction of many companies or species followed by time with very few extinctions - plays right into the web bubble burst back in ‘99/’00). What’s also interesting is that large extinctions of companies and species happen at the same relative frequency.

Random Evolution Rules: Omerod feels that executives overestimate the control they have. He thinks that executives believe they are more like the “rational man” that economists always talk about when the influence they really have over outcomes is more a kin to a randomly mutating biological entity that proceeds without strategy. This of course leads us back to the point that reacting flexibly to new situations is more important than crafting strategy.

I think quoting the second half of Omerod’s closing thought here makes sense:

Companies should embrace the inherent randomness that drives success and failure and that no amount of cleverness or information can overcome. The companies that are most able to explore and innovate - something akin to random mutation - and then rapidly and flexibly adapt when an innovation succeeds or fails, will do best. I know the New Coke story is told too often, but it’s relevant here. Coke reacted rapidy and flexibly to the disaster, abandoning its meticulously crafted strategy. Imagine if Coke had stuck rigidly with its plan because that was its carefully considered, predetermined strategy?

What if Coke stuck by New Coke? There is no doubt the business would have suffered far more than it did by abandoning New Coke and going back to the original.

It seems that business, like biology, is all about adapting quickly when you need to. In the entrepreneurial world you could look at this two different ways. The first way being that you want to adapt in your current venture to keep it moving forward and growing. The second way being that you should “know when to fold ‘em” and simply move on to your next idea.

The second way discussed above brings me to another meme that has been discussed at length in the ‘ol blogosphere and that is the meme of age and entrepreneurship. Marc Andreessen had the best post on this subject in which he analyzed a paper by University of California psychology professor Dean Simonton that discusses age across many different fields.

What was most interesting about Marc’s analysis and what relates to subject of failure in business is this:

The odds of a hit versus a miss do not increase over time. The period’s of one’s career with the most hits will also have the most misses. So maximizing quantity — taking more swings at the bat — [has a] much higher payoff than trying to improve one’s batting average.

While failure does appear to be the norm it seems that with more failure will generally come more success. So there is a bright side to all of this failure talk after all.

To be a successful entrepreneur it seems that one must do two things well:

1. Be agile and create agile organizations that can react quickly to failures.

2. Try, try and try again. Continuing to push forward with new ideas will increase the odds of success.

Don’t be a afraid of failure. Embrace it and adapt accordingly.

Written by Eric Olson

August 30th, 2007 at 10:40 am

Posted in Business

Movie Review: 300

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300300, an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, was one heck of a movie. I’ll admit when I originally saw the trailers I figured this movie was going to be completely over the top and cheesy while being also being very visually stunning. At least I got the second half right…

Director Zack Snyder certainly created a visual masterpiece that is worthy of much acclaim. The style and coloring/lighting was very impressive and effectively added to the mood of each scene. Honestly, it is hard to describe the visual nature of this film. It is simply one you have to see. That said, the visuals weren’t the only enjoyable thing in the movie. The story was also well laid out.

The story of 300 is based on the true story of the Battle of Thermopylae that took place in the month of August in 480 B.C. In the battle a group of 300 Spartans lead by King Leonidas along with some other small groups from other Greek city states held off a Persian army of over one million. The Persians were invading Greece with the intent to enslave the people of Greece and claim the Greek lands for the Persian Empire.

The 300 Spartans and others were able to defend against such a large army by being well trained, well prepared and by using the terrain to gain an advantage. The terrain based advantage they employed took the form of blocking the Thermopylae Pass, a road that sat between two large cliffs, which was the only route King Xerxes and his army could take to get to all of the Greek cities.

Although the 300 eventually fell their bravery and valor lived on and became known throughout Greece. In fact the story of the 300 was what no doubt inspired the rest of Greece to stand up and defeat the Persians. In fact, in the months after the Battle of Thermopylae the Greek city states really began to come together and fight as one which had never before been the case.

I find it interesting but not surprising that some have chastised the film for it’s historical inaccuracies. However, I am not sure that should be an argument against the film. In fact, I don’t think the filmmakers ever intended the movie to be be taken as historical fact. They simply wanted to blend the story of the 300 into a entertaining film and I think they did that very well.

The bottom line is if you’re looking for a movie with a great story and some outstanding visuals than 300 won’t disappoint. However, be prepared for the battle scenes. The film is rated R after all but I thought that even the battle scenes were done in a very artistic way and aren’t simply gory and bloody.

Written by Eric Olson

August 22nd, 2007 at 10:11 pm

Posted in Movie Reviews

Book Review: Daemon

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DaemonWow. Rick was dead on in his review of this book (read his review as he said essentially everything I wanted to about the book) and I owe him one for making sure I got a copy of Daemon in my hands.

Rick started off his review by likening Daemon to the Matrix which is pretty high praise. As Rick says, you probably remember when you first saw that film and just knew that you witnessed movie history. It was different. It was important. It was fantastic. It was everything you could ever want in a movie.

After reading Daemon you’ll feel the same way (except replace movie with book in the above statements).

Comparing apples to apples I would have to say that Daemon was the most thrilling read I’ve had since the DaVinci Code. I really couldn’t put it down and I am dying for the sequel.

The premise of Daemon, while it may sound outlandish, is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. A genius computer programmer has developed a daemon (a computer program that sits in the background waiting for a certain trigger which will cause it to execute) which continually scans the news for his obituary. As soon as the daemon finds his obituary it starts executing commands and society as we know it starts to fall apart very quickly. In a short period of time the Daemon has corporations, packs of people and even governments under its’ control. It’s becoming a new world order.

Of course the whole story and the great storytelling could be completely ruined without top notch research and the author, Leinad Zeraus, doesn’t disappoint. In fact, Rick likens him to Michael Crichton (who also happens to be one of my favorite authors of all time) and even says that Zeraus goes a lot further than Crichton in his research. I have to say I think he’s spot on in that comparison.

So there is impeccable storytelling, fantastic research and the weaving of technological detail into the plot in a near perfect way. What else could you want? Probably nothing more but Zeraus still comes up with just the little bit extra in that he works with technology that, as individual pieces, all exist in some shape or form or could at least conceivably exist soon. The weaving of the pieces together into the perfect storm that is the Daemon may never happen but the fact that it is remotely possible is chilling and causes you to be sucked in even further to the story.

Honestly, this review could have been one line that read:

Go buy this book.

But, hey, I had to geek out a little bit right? I mean, what did you expect?

Go pick up a copy of Daemon as soon as you possibly can. I figure your best bet is amazon so click here to order if you’d like to take that path. Also, for more interesting tid bits and news stories that talk about the technology Zeraus uses in the book please visit the book’s site. Enjoy the journey. I know I did.

Written by Eric Olson

August 15th, 2007 at 10:54 pm

Posted in Books

The Big 2: Olson’s Observations Turns 2

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2nd BirthdayI can’t believe it has been two years since my first post. Back then the blog was called “The Wannabe Venture Capitalist” and I was still working at Cambridge Associates in Boston as an Analyst focusing on the VC space. A lot has changed since then… (picture some wavy lines and a then some grainy footage coming into view)

I got my big break when Dick, Rick and the rest of the team gave me a shot to work in Business Development at FeedBurner. We put in some long hours, I learned a lot and we all made FeedBurner happen in a big way. When I joined I believe we had about 50,000 publishers and that is now getting ready to top 500,000. That number also includes just about all of the top media companies in the world. Not too shabby.

Google must have thought so as well since, a little less than two years after my first day, they snapped us up and that is where I currently spend my days.

Working at FeedBurner has been incredible. The amount of talent crammed into our old loft was truly astounding and I happy to say that those smart and talented folks are all now close friends. What a ride!

Now, for some fun. Hop into the wayback machine and check out what this blog looked like when it first started and was not only a blogger blog but was even hosted on the blogspot domain. It screams newbie.

Ready for some more fun? Let’s look at what topped the news on August 15, 2005 (via CNN and the Wayback Machine):

Sporadic violence hits historic gaza pull out

NASA launches Mars orbiter

McDonald’s diet? Some say it works

Gas prices surge to all-time high

Dow was at 10,600 and NASDAQ was at 2,156

OK, that wasn’t too exciting. All the news looks pretty similar to today. Ah well… How about that McDonald’s diet though?

Well, I would like to thank you all for a great two years and I am looking forward to many more. I hope you are all still enjoying my posts and I have to say that it still amazes me that so many people enjoy reading what I write. I am truly humbled. Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog posts.

Written by Eric Olson

August 15th, 2007 at 9:28 am

Posted in General Thoughts

Movie Review: The Number 23

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The Number 23Always up for a creepy movie based on some sort of mystical belief or beliefs I knew I had to see The Number 23 as soon as I first saw the trailer but due to lack of time I ended up waiting for the DVD. After watching the DVD on my small screen I found myself wishing I took to the time to see it on the big screen because it would have been well worth the price of admission.

The Number 23 is a very character focused story that revolves around a book relating to the “23 Enigma.” The 23 Enigma is the Discordian belief that all events are connected to the number 23 but of course we all know that, with enough ingenuity, numbers can say whatever we want them to.

Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey), a mild mannered Dog Catcher is the main man in 23 and he takes quite a journey in the 98 minutes of the film. After receiving a copy of a book with the same name as the film Sparrow slowly becomes obsessed with the number 23 and the storyline of the book as it seems to parallel his own life.

This obsession leads Sparrow into the tangled web of a murder where the body was never found and ultimately to a realization that shatters his world.

** Spoiler Alert **

The Number 23 follows a similar path to The Machinist wherein the main characters in both films have selectively forgotten killing someone. In the case of the former the killing was a deliberate and brutal murder and in the latter the killing was accidental. However, in the end of both films both main men end up turning themselves in after a brutal and haunting journey into their own minds.

** End Spoiler Alert **

The Number 23 is a fantastic psychological thriller that will keep you thinking to the very end. Don’t start thinking too much about the number 23 though lest you be sucked in as well.

Written by Eric Olson

August 13th, 2007 at 7:32 pm

Posted in Movie Reviews

TECH cocktail Boston: The Official Announcement

with 4 comments

TECH cocktail BostonI just made the official TECH cocktail Boston announcement over on TECHcocktail.com and I have to say it was pretty exciting. Ever since Frank and I founded TECH cocktail in Chicago back in May 2006 I have always hoped it would eventually lead to one back in my home state and specifically my favorite city on Earth and now it is only a few weeks away.

Below is the rest of the post from the TC blog. Looking forward to coming home and TCing it up in Boston!

Here are the details:

Venue: Tequila Rain on Landsdowne (right behind the left center field wall of Fenway)
Time: 6:30pm -9pm
Date: Thursday, September 6th
Cost: $0 plus free drinks - yup, it’s free!

RSVP here: http://techcocktailboston1.eventbrite.com/

Yes, you read right. The event is free and will include free drinks and other great stuff which is all made possible by our outstanding sponsors that include (in no particular order):

Compete.com - Geezeo - ZoomInfo - Northbridge Venture Partners

I would also like to send a big thanks over to the guys on the ground in Boston who are getting things done for TC Boston. Again, in no particular order, they are:

Peter Glyman - Geezeo

Shawn Ward - Geezeo

Jay Meattle - Compete.com

Brian Balfour - ZoomInfo

These guys have really done it all including raising the money, choosing the venue, negotiating the deal with the venue, etc. Without them TECH cocktail Boston would not be possible.

So, there you have it. We’re bringing TECH cocktail to Beantown and I am have no doubt it will be wicked awesome! See you in Boston on the 6th.

Side note: You must RSVP and be 21+ to attend. Space is limited to RSVP as soon as you can.

Written by Eric Olson

August 13th, 2007 at 2:39 pm