Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The Open Business - An Oxymoron or The Future?

I routinely hear that businesses are not open enough. Even companies that were once renowned for their openness, say, Google, bump up to accusations of intransparency eventually. Then again, in a world where the openness poster child named Wikipedia is accused of being run by a secretive elite, who can be safe?

I happen to believe that these accusations have merit. Google is not as open as it should be. It withholds its search algorithm and its advertising revenue distribution formula. Is this for a good reason? Perhaps. But if you were to grade google on openness, these would be black marks on the score chart. How about Wikipedia? Well, its secret discussions in unofficial IRC rooms and mailing lists are no longer rumours. They are real. Are they serving a real survival purpose? Who knows. That is the problem with intransparency. Nobody knows what happens behind closed doors.

There are many voices that claim openness is a solution to many of the world's problems. The claim is that by increasing openness, all kinds of creativity are released and 'the community' provides solutions. On the other hand, attempts to build businesses on top of open foundations invariably bump up against a trade off. How much openness can we sacrifice without losing the community? How much do we need to sacrifice in order to become profitable? It seems the trade-off is exchanging profit for openness.

So my question is the following: Can there really be a completely open/transparent business or is this a contradiction in terms?

In order to answer this question, we need to answer some more elementary questions. What does an open business look like? Let's take things to extremes. Let's say all conversations between founders are publicly available. Let's say that all company e-mails are also available to the public, along with all chat logs etc. All employees are encouraged to have a blog and of course have no restrictions on what they can say. All code is of course open-source. (AGPL v3 or BSD?) Essentially everything the business does and thinks is out in the open. Anything anyone could imagine to ask about the company is already available. Every involved party of the business has active conversation with the community. It feels a bit like a reality show, but this is how a business designed with transparency as the #1 goal would look like. Nothing more for anyone to ask. Of course, while the past and present are open for anyone to see, future actions are still the monopoly of the owners. We are not discussing a democratic or crowd-sourced business. The public can communicate with the owners and contribute in ideas and code, but ultimately the leverage of initiative belongs to the owners. This of course is just my idea of an open business and not something complete or final. Let's consider it a working hypothesis.

The next questions are: What are the pluses and what are the minuses of a business like this? This is a much larger discussion. I would assume community input and support as well as trust would be much greater. Assuming the employees and owners are competent, this would be obvious to everyone who follows the dealings. The drawbacks are also many: Inability to surprise the competition, a lot of pressure by the community at all stages of development of an idea, difficulty in communication when everyone feels watched, etc etc.

However the killer question is this: Is there even one, small, tiny, extremely slim niche that a business like this could be successful and even advantageous? Remember, this is a for-profit business so profitability is still the goal. The open business just tries to accomplish this without maintaining the secrecy requirements. If a single idea, with a single business model can be found, where an open business could be successful, then the open business concept has a lot to teach us.

The concept is still in its infancy, it has just been expressed for the first time, so it will probably go through a lot of evolution. I am eager to hear your feedback. What is your definition of an open business? Would you become its customer? Do you believe it could ever be profitable?

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Tribute to Alan Turing

There are few people I would consider myself a fan of. The Beatles are great but it is demeaning to call myself a fan. Ditto Radiohead. I just can't see it happening. But there is one person whose fan I can easily declare myself to be.

What if I told you that someone laid the foundations for all modern computers, set the stage for artificial intelligence and also was the most important scientist in breaking the German cryptography in WWII? Doing any one of these things would surely be an accomplishment beyond the imagination of us mortals. But all three? Where do I sign up and get the t-shirt?

Unfortunately his life was not all fun and games. Convicted of having sex with a man, he was asked to choose between imprisonment and probation conditional on undergoing 'hormone therapy', which caused him several side effects including breast enlargement. As homosexuals were considered a danger for entrapment by the soviets, he was also stripped of his security clearance and therefore his ability to do the work he loved. He was found dead at the age of 42, apparently poisoned by a cyanide-laced apple.

Some say he was reenacting his favourite fairy tale, Snow White. Others say he was making a reference to the forbidden fruit. Others still, say he wanted an ambiguous way to kill himself so his mother would not believe he did. I just see the parallel with another great man who was led to suicide for the crime of being too far ahead of his own society, Socrates. Yet this being so close to our time, I cannot contain the level of ingratitude he received. The thoughts of his last moments, abandoned and disgraced, pondering his last moments touch some string deep inside me, one not commonly vulnerable in everyday life. This tragic failure of human society is so shameful that i cannot help but be filled with pessimism for this ungrateful race of ours.

This scar and thought and picture will always be with me, to what end I do not know.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The Advertising Immunity is upon us

So the BBC ran an article recently claiming that web surfers are getting more 'selfish and ruthless'. In disbelief, I read the article in search of the proof of our increased/increasing selfishness. Apparently we click on less ads. And we do what we want faster. I kid you not. Being efficient, immune to distractions (such as ads) as well as being more aware of how the web works and hence wasting less time is proof of our selfishness. Next thing you know, we will be clicking on the bloody banners as an act of charity to prove our selfless nature. Now, I wanted to write this article for a while, but then I saw this post in a blog somewhere which put things into perspective. Aside from the silly title of the BBC article, it seems to be pointing to a reality. Advertising is based on the assumption that we cannot control our focus, that if you put something in front of us users/viewers/passers-by, we will pay attention to it, even if it is not what we were looking for initially. However besides the tools that we can use to block advertising on the web, it seems that ads on social networks are not having much success selling ads either.

So what happens when in this arms race, the human brain responds with improved focus? It seems that whenever a flaw in the mind is found and exploited to death, the next generation grows up with a predisposition to avoid this pitfall. There will always be a vulnerable minority, but the mainstream masses seem to handle themselves against narcotics, gambling and other shortfalls in human perception, if not by pure genetic ability, then by learned cultural means.

So, will the advertisers simply increase their dosage on more potent ingredients such as, say, sex? Oh I wish they do.


No, no, you misunderstand me. I mean, I wish they do so we can finally develop an immunity to sex advertising as well. Given a few years of course. Objectification of women and men as a means of increasing sales is simply classless. But if it can be done, someone will do it. It is the way of the market, and the way it should be. The good thing is that our brains and culture will also similarly evolve to distinguish commercial sexuality from the real thing and dismiss the former as mere noise, which it is. In a way, for some people, it already has. I am hoping in more of that for more of us.

What about personalization? That's the next big thing, right? The premise is simple: If they sell us ads that we _want_ to see, we will _want_ to see them. The catch is that in order to judge what we want to see, they have to learn quite a bit about each one of us individually. And that reveals the ugly twin of personalization, which is surveillance. And these twins are joined at the hip. In order to personalize, they have to know who we are and to know that, they have to keep an eye on us. Now, assuming people may not mind some surveillance by a commercial entity, even disregarding that too personal can become creepy, there is another problem with the core argument for personalized advertising. When the advertisers say "Advertisements you want to see are almost like actual content", they are missing the part where someone has paid to have their advertisement displayed. If that was the best thing for me to see, I would have found it myself. I would have paid to have it found for me even. The fact that someone is making an expenditure means that there is some distortion happening. And this distortion will be corrected itself by the same mechanisms that have dealt with the other distortions mentioned previously. If these hypotheses hold, then the advertising game is a dead end.

What next you ask? Well, it just so happens that advertising is the engine of the professional web. Most professional websites are competing for what they call 'eyeballs' which is what they sell to advertisees. Even subscription based publications are abandoning that model and turning to ads. But it is not just content that depends on advertising. Google itself is a company that is built on advertising, which brings in 99% of their revenue. Take the advertising away and the world is back to a very primitive web, one that either has no professional input, or one that depends on subscriptions, or micropayments. Surprisingly, Google seems to be aware. Of course it should be noted that it is not the only option. Organizations such as Wikimedia (parent of Wikipedia and other wonderful ventures) are surviving just fine without advertising so that should be a very viable model as well. For the ones that are not charitable foundations though, there is one very good avenue to replacing them: decentralization.

Here is where I of course offer the usual disclaimer: Take my words with a grain of salt. This is what I want to see, so calling me biased is an understatement. Take my words only as seriously as my arguments permit you to. I welcome you to challenge me in the comments. If you have an element of knowledge that I do not, if you have noticed a flaw in the arguments or if you have attained an insight that eludes me, do not leave me in darkness, I beg of you.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

My Content Mess

So, I was making a diagram of all the services I use online, just to help myself better understand how things are connected. To start with the fact that I need a diagram to make sense should be cause for concern. I am a programmer and that should mean I am quite good at holding things and connections in my head. Still, I needed a diagram, so here it is:Now, while making the diagram, I made a number of observations:

For one thing, I use more services than I thought I was. There are 13 services listed here, and this is not everything.

Also, their interconnections change relatively fast. I repeatedly had to update the connections in the days I was making this, so I don't expect it to stay current for a very long time.

Another observation: I have followers in many of these services. Aside from my blog readers, my Google reader friends can see my shared Items, I also publish my starred items feed, I have a lot of connections in Facebook that can see my activity there, and also some connections in Friendfeed. In fact, since all these services offer open feeds, there are people who could be following me on any of them. There may also be overlap in these sets of people, and I try to maximize it by sharing content between services as much as possible.

Although this all seems a bit complicated, it is better than having one provider do everything for me. Yes, I could do most of these things with a combination of Facebook and Google Reader but it would not be nearly as easy, effective or enjoyable as it is now that I use the best of breed tools in each category. I do have a number of problems though:

1. Too many passwords and accounts. Please someone start using OpenID so I can log in everywhere with single set of credentials. I know it's not perfect, but it's the best we have.

2. Facebook is selfish. What can I say? In the diagram, you can see the little arrows going in, but nothing going out. Why? Because Fb does not let me take my data out of their walled garden. Apparently, what happens in Facebook, stays in Facebook. That's their choice, but that's also the reason I am moving my activity elsewhere. For me, Facebook is turning into a place where stuff gets posted automatically for my old-fashioned friends to see. I avoid posting original content inside Facebook. My cool friends are moving to Friendfeed, that apparently trusts its users more and traps them less.

3. Overlap. What if I write a blog entry and then share and star it on Google Reader, and Facebook, and FriendFeed? Well since I have linked all these together, It may end up 3 times on FriendFeed and 5 times on Facebook. But it is the only way it can get to the widest possible audience, all the people who are following me on all these services. Someone want to do a smart filter that merges all the identical entries? I have heard talk about something like this on Friendfeed, let's see.

4. Not only can I not merge overlapping articles, I also cannot aggregate comments. So what if I post something here, then share it inside Facebook and Friendfeed? There is a possibility that independent comment threads will start and I will have to follow them in three places. There are a number of new ideas coming up in this area, I will look into using them and I hope they generally catch on. (Of course, keep in mind #2)

5. Friendfeed and recently Facebook, are acting like aggregators. This is cool. I like it. But they don't let me integrate with any site I want. They offer me a choice. For the moment, FriendFeed offers everything Fb offers and more, but this may change. My problem is that I have other websites where I am or could be active. Examples are Zotero, Threadless and DeviantArt. The first website that makes it easy for its users to write the adapters themselves, is the winner. Less work for them, more capabilities for us. My money is on Friendfeed, but we'll see.

6. Status messages: there are just too many! I have status on Facebook, Twitter and Google Talk. They generally offer me the same utility. Someone make it easy for me to keep them synchronized? (Of course, keep in mind #2)

7. Bookmark managers. and Google bookmarks each have their own advantages. has a great firefox plug in and a nice social aspect, but Google Bookmarks makes my Google searches more relevant. So I want them both to have access to my favourites. I have found a way to transfer data from the one to the other, more or less, but I would like them to be synchronized. I also would like them to be synchronized with foxmarks which I use to keep my browsers at work and at home synchronized. Any ideas?

8. And now for my favourite complaint: Everything is centralized. Waaaaah! Why doesn't anyone build something where I can keep doing my work as I like without being tied to a single entity? Or many single entities for that matter. Perhaps then all the other problems would be moot since I would be able to solve them myself. Oh well, I guess my PhD work is relevant here, in the long-long term.

Overall my little content network is complicated but works mostly Ok. I wonder how many of these will be solved by next year. Maybe there is a ray of light on the conventional horizon called SwitchABit. It's still in development but sounds interesting.

Yet another blog post that I thought would be small but turned out huge. Oh well. I need more experience blogging.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

A Spam-less e-mail system

The last two posts have been quite different to each other. While the first one was an organized, principle-establishing and mature but rather basic article, the second one was more of a braindump, thinking out loud kind of post. Seeing this pattern that is forming, today I would like to introduce yet another category of posts I want to make: Ideas. When I say ideas, I mean technical concepts that can be turned into products or services. You may ask why I do not use these ideas myself, to make these products and profit. Why publish them in the open web to be 'stolen' by anyone? The truth is, and I don't mean to be pretentious, I have far too many of them for the amount of time I can expend on developing them. So while I am working on a big one for my PhD, I might as well hand the other ones out for adoption and hope to get visiting rights once in a while. And of course there is valuable discussion that can be made, and technical points that can be raised and a great educational experience for me all around. I do not pretend that all my ideas are valuable or that they do not need any correction. So without further ado, I present to you, thespam-less e-mail system, let's call it v-mail.

To set the mood, let me talk about the social network messaging systems. Many prefer them over e-mail. Why? because they have verified everyone who can send me a message and therefore have a very high signal to noise ratio. In fact, almost all the messages that reach my inbox are valuable and directed towards me personally. So it is easy to see why people may prefer this method of messaging. What are the problems with this system? Well there are quite a few. For one thing, centralization. Everyone needs to have a facebook orwhatever-book account in order to send me a message. Another is the difficulty in adding people on the go. If I meet someone and tell them to mail me, I do not want to have to go home and add them to my social network first. Also, I may have my mail address published somewhere and people I have never met before may want to e-mail me. This is impossible if I require prior approval for someone to send me e-mail. So how do we exit this seeming catch-22?

My answer is, by applying the best of breed solutions to each problemseparately. What I mean: Let's start with the social networking messaging system. So we have a mail provider, let's call them, that allows you to create an account and add a list of other addresses that you accept messages from. They may give you a standard e-mail address (say, but any e-mail from a source you have not added to your list gets dropped and never reaches you. So this would be an implementation of the basic social networking messaging system. In fact it is one step further, since it allows for multiple servers to communicate, much like the current e-mail system. All you need is an account with any provider of this new mail system. It does not have to be the same as mine, in fact, nobody is stopping you from hosting your own provider and becoming completely self-sufficient.

Next problem: Adding people is hard work, especially if you have to remember to add people later. For this we can use an sms-service that you can use your mobile phone to add people with. So when you add a new person, you may send a simple text message (e.g. add to your provider. This would instantly solve that problem. This person can now send a message that will get through. Of course to start your list off you could import contacts from various social networks, address books and e-mail applications.

How about anonymous people that want to send you messages? Well, this has been solved already. Go to any website that wants to get contacted by its readers. They will not publish an e-mail address for fear of spammers. What they do is expose a contact form with a CAPTCHA (these strange numbers you have to type in so that they know you are a human). This contact form could be available at my mail provider's website so that anyone can contact me as long as they provide a valid v-mail ID and prove that they are humans by typing the CAPTCHA. This could also be used to request that someone adds you to their allowed list.

So by merging social networks, e-mail, mobile phones and the web, we can create a composite system that guarantees we only get verified e-mail. Let's go over some of the benefits:
  • You could use a typical e-mail program and e-mail standards. Additional functionality such as list management would be nice but notnecessary to start with. In fact you could use this new e-mail program to communicate with traditional e-mail addresses, as long as you add the people you correspond with to your allowed list, which could be done automatically when you send an email to someone. In a sense, it's backwards compatible.
  • The user is back in control. If someone on your list starts spamming, you can simply remove them and never receive another e-mail from them.
  • Leaking your email is no longer a problem. The information of your e-mail address is useless to a spammer since they cannot send automated anonymous messages anymore.
  • This solution can work well in a decentralized environment. no need for the massive processing power required by spam filters, anyone can do it on their home computers.
  • It's good for the Internet since spam is a massive waste of bandwidth.
Ok, have to admit I enjoy creating all these scenarios and exploring the ideas in my head. So here it is, for your viewing pleasure. Let's think about it: Would such a service be useful to you? What downsides can you think of?