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Monday, December 6, 2010

Google's Fails and Successes

Even big companies fail.  Earlier this year Google came out with Buzz, a product that introduced Google to social media.  It failed epically; it didn’t have the success Google expected.  One of the obvious reasons why Buzz failed is because at the time of its roll-out, Google didn’t take sufficient account of privacy concerns and was widely criticized for this. Google took advantage of their user base on Gmail and made Buzz available from the Gmail inbox. The problem is that by default, Google Buzz publicly disclosed a list of the names of Gmail contacts the user most frequently emailed or chatted with. The flaw has since been fixed, but Buzz has lost a lot of users and gained a bad reputation.  Google’s capabilities and huge user base defined its disabilities.  They are able to reach a huge amount of people when a product is rolled out, but If there is something wrong with the product, the consequences can be detrimental.
Another reason why Buzz failed is that it offered something that most users didn’t need or didn’t want.  A similar service already existed through Twitter, a microblogging service that allows users to send and receive messages.  Although a fail, we can learn from Buzz and Google’s way to manage their company.  To develop Buzz, Google created a small group, a somewhat independent organization, which could focus on the product. An advantage of having a small group is that the group can get excited about the possibilities of what they are developing and that they don’t see themselves as a small part of the corporation, where their effort is diminished or given lower priority by other products. Another advantage of this is that the whole company didn’t have to focus on Buzz, in case they had to pull the plug, it would be relatively easily.  We can see this when Google Wave, a web-based platform and communication protocol, didn’t meet Google’s expectations and was terminated before the product made it out of beta.
Leaving Buzz and Wave behind, a reason why Google is so powerful and successful is that their products are simple, and offer what their users need.  Google is not controlled by the owners, but by the investors, the users and the developers.  One example of this is Gmail’s introduction of nested folders (or hierarchical labels).  For years other email services provided a way to organize your emails through hierarchical folders just like you would organize your files on Windows or any other operating system.  Gmail introduced the feature of labels, a more convenient way to organizing your email.  Many users, coming from other services, demanded the ability to have nested labels so Google worked on it and it now offers such feature.  A company directed by its users and developers is a successful company. Google will keep being successful as they listen to their users and don’t lose or abuse their trust.

The technology and media in our lives

Just this week I was talking to a friend about the secretary at his work place.  She has an online relationship with a guy that lives miles away from her.  Although she calls him her boyfriend, their relationship is far from being a “regular” relationship.  Online interactions with other people could seem to fulfil our own needs, but it is likely that they are just deceiving us.  These relationships lack the fidelity of relationships developed in real life, with personal interaction.  We must be careful that the time we spend online, or on video games, and the things we do there don’t inhibit us from receiving the blessings from spending our time on something more productive.  While these activities are not inherently bad, it is when we put them as our first priority and stop doing the things that matter most that we are in trouble.  As Elder David A. Bednar suggested, we have to make sure that the use of the various technologies and media invite rather than impede the companionship of the Holy Ghost and that the time we spend with them don’t restrict our capacity to live, love and serve in meaningful ways.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Children and the Internet

There are many parents who don’t take their children to school because there are bad kids there.  Over-protectiveness is not a good reason to keep your children home all the time.  Children need to go to school and they need to be taught how to deal with those kids who are bullies. They will find themselves in uncomfortable situations, but there will be opportunities to teach and to learn.  In the same way, you need to teach children how to deal with technology, especially the Internet.  Sadly, you can’t always be with your children to guide and protect them, but you can teach them correct principles. The prophet Joseph Smith taught, “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves”.  Not letting them surf the Internet at home doesn’t prevent or guard your children against the experiences that they will have surfing the Internet at school or at a friend’s house.  It is better to give them the opportunity to learn at home, where you can supervise them (looking at the browsing history, setting up filters, etc) than expecting them to do the right thing without having first talked about it or set down guidelines. There are a lot of things that you as a parent can do at home to teach and control your children’s use of the Internet.  A great guide to do this is the Internet Safety Project where you can find podcasts (audio/video broadcasts) on the subject, a wiki that includes tutorials on how to keep your kids safe from the dangers of the Internet and other useful information.  It is better to prepare your children now than trying to correct and teach them what to do later.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Open Source Advantages

Microsoft produces the most popular operating system for business and home computers.  Their release cycles vary from release to release.  While some releases are really popular, others are completely ignored (Windows Me and Windows Vista).  On the other hand, Ubuntu, a Linux distribution sponsored by Canonical Ltd., have release cycles every six months.  A lot of Ubuntu users are former Windows users who have migrated to Linux because it offers what they need in a more stable platform.  One of the advantages of Ubuntu is that is released under a GNU license where users have access to the code.  Windows is famous for being buggy and is known for being slow to patch bugs or updating new features.  During the last release of Windows (Windows 7), Microsoft launched a public beta program where they received a lot of feedback.  While this helped them get rid of lots of bugs, it is nothing compared to the testing system offered by a software where the code is openly available.  Ubuntu users don’t only report obvious bugs, but they are also able to find bugs that can only be found because the code is available.  These users act not only as testers, but also as debuggers: two roles that are strictly separated on closed platforms like Microsoft’s.  Another advantage of open-source software over closed platforms is that the software available is closely related to people’s ideas and needs.  Users start their own projects and are later joined by many other users, with different levels of experience, across the globe. On the other hand, Microsoft has to conduct studies and surveys to better understand the actual needs of the users.  Again, their last beta release helped them a lot this time, but is it enough? As open-source operating systems like Ubuntu become more popular, Microsoft will have more trouble staying up to date in offering what users need most. Microsoft has an advantage with the number of users, but how long can they keep them happy?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Organizing with Technology

Last week Google introduced a new site called Boutiques.  It targets people who buy clothes online. It allows you create your own curated boutique or follow a collection of boutiques curated by celebrities, stylists, designers and fashion bloggers.  Why would you want to create your own boutique? It gives you an opportunity to give other people a sense of your style and teach them about your taste.  People can follow you and expect you to update the content of your boutique.  You have the ability to display your expertise or talent. The number of followers you get could turn into something competitive for some people. You might get more followers if you are recognized by other users as a person with good taste and style, but one that is also frugal.  All this is something that new technology allows us to do.
Technology has removed obstacles that otherwise would stop us from interacting with other people.  It let us take collective action and achieve results that we couldn’t have before.  It has opened the doors for a lot of opportunities.  It let us become producers.  We have never been able to share, coordinate or act in the ways we can now.  This also increases our freedom.  For example, decades ago we had to pay for an Operating System and other software that didn’t always meet our needs or expectations.  Thanks to new technology, masses of people can collaborate together and come up with something that meets their needs.  This is how we now have many distributions of Linux, a free operating system that meets the needs and expectations of many users.  People can contribute to these kinds of projects, but if they don’t contribute they don’t get penalized either. Technology lets us move as a group and receive the benefits of a group without the effort needed years ago.
Years ago I used to participate at help.com, what used to be an online helpdesk by CNet.  People would go there and post all kind of questions related to technology and computers.  You were ranked according to the number of questions you answered.  It provided an opportunity to publicly display your knowledge and created a motivation to answer in public.  Every week it displayed the top-ten contributors on the home-page and my goal was to be on that list, public to the world.  People saved money and time by not having to go to an expert. The same kind of idea has evolved to online forums with more complex, but more effective systems that keep promoting the participation of ordinary people.  Just over the last couple of years I have saved hundreds of dollars (literally) by going to a forum and ask about my car’s problems.  Going to the dealer would require at least a couple of hundred dollars every visit.  This is an incentive for people like me to visit these forums.  Having saved this money has also motivated me, and the rest of the users, to keep participating.  When people ask about the same problems I’ve had, I’m more than willing to help them.  To help these other people, we don’t have to go out of our homes, we don’t have to pay a membership, no one has to spend time organizing the community and telling us what to do or not to do, it is a powerful way to get what we look for.  This is the power of organizing without organization as Clay Shirky puts it.  Technology makes it much easier.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Demanding a More Secure Web

A few weeks ago Eric Butler, a software developer based in Washington, released a free open source Firefox extension that allows the user to hijack other users’ sessions that are on the same wireless network.  When you sit down at a public place and use Facebook or any other social network over a public hotspot, the site sends a cookie (a file with information that identifies you as you) and stores it to your computer.  Another person on the same wireless network could use the extension, called Firesheep, and hijack your session pretending to be you on Facebook or whichever other sites you are logged on to.  This is a widely known problem that has been talked about over and over again, but websites continue to fail at protecting their users.  Many sites use HTTPS to log users in but then return the user to unsecure connections to serve the rest of the their pages.  An easy fix for this problem is to encrypt the network using WEP/WPA, but the extension’s developer is trying to make us aware of how vulnerable sites not using HTTPS are.  He writes “they’ve been ignoring this responsibility for too long, and it’s time for everyone to demand a more secure web. My hope is that Firesheep will help the users win.”  At the end we can expect sites to start using HTTPS over HTTP, instead of users having to change the wireless encryption or manually adding extensions that are supposed to force HTTPS , but that are not always reliable.  An interesting fact is that HTTPS does not produce an overhead on the sites’ servers, which is the reason many companies decide not to offer HTTPS.  HTTPS requires an initial handshake which can be somewhat slow, but the actual amount of data transferred as part of the handshake is about only 5kB. This can be a burden for small requests, but with the high speed internet that we have access to it doesn’t mean much.  Look at gmail, it’s been using HTTPS since January (before it was an option) and the access speed is not slow at all.  Hopefully the message sent by Eric Butler will catch on and companies will start protecting their users’ data using HTTPS.  It is time that we the users who control the internet demand security on the services we depend on.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Enforcing Copyright Laws: A Huge Challenge

One of the challenges about copyright laws is that the new generation is growing up thinking that they don’t have to pay for music or other intangible products.  They will pay for clothes and food, but won’t pay for music.
I remember reading an article in the Ensign magazine a couple of years ago.  In the article the author suggested to not distribute music illegally, and to be careful about copyright laws, among other things.  I remember sending the link to the article to one of my friends in a country where piracy is common.  He said that he did not want to read the article because he knew that he was not willing to follow the counsel given there.  That is just how he was brought up; that is how the new generation is brought up.
Companies can sue and go after companies and individuals, but they will not be able to shut down the network or the technology where file sharing operates.  The most effective way to solve this problem of infringement of copyright laws is trying to change how people think.  Just how you can say “no” to someone that is offering you a drug, you can say “no” to someone offering to copy copyright material for you.