31 July, 2008

Weird startup names.

Something I've noticed in this latest internet 2.0 bubble is the confusing and sometimes unbelievable choices that are made by start up founders with regards to naming their businesses. Gone are the days when picking a name is done to hint or indicate the service or product that is sold by the business. Today we get absolutely Machiavellian contrivances that combine various words such as "plurk" or we get other astounding things like "phweet" , your guess is as good as mine as to how that is supposed to be pronounced and god help the person trying to recall the site name at a url field for entry. Here is a list of some of my favorites (sarcasm).


just to name a few.

It is as if the creators of these sites are more interested in releasing their pretty little thing than in actually making money from the products or services hawked at the site. I mean seriously , "phweet" ????? how does that indicate to me anything about what the site does (allows you to set up calls between your "twitter" friends)? As for plurk , I still don't know what the hell that name has to do with sending short messages, in fact "plurk" and "twitter" I guess could get away with the completely novel element in their names as the type of service they offer , called "micro blogging" by many these days, didn't really have any other name so they just made up a name for the action of sending a mini blurb to your friends or "followers". Still, there are many other sites that perform services that are already done by a thousand other players but rather than feel the need to call that out in the name to hopefully get some business, instead they go and name it something almost unpronounceable....say like Twerq , the search engine I commented on a couple of months ago. A site name should always relate to the service or good offered when possible, if the service is novel (like twitter) you can get away with something completely fabricated but at least make it easy to spell phonetically and easy to guess at the address bar if you have to type it in a browser!

I am having a little good natured rant here but many people are picking names out of novelty instead of thinking about the usefulness of the name or the branding and marketing potential of it. Even if it doesn't sound weird the name could be catchy enough to stick in people's minds and ultimately that is what getting the right name is all about.

It will be interesting to see how many more weird names pop up as the web 2.0 startup craze winds its course.

28 July, 2008

Face book plays "wack a clone"


The ready reproducibility of not only Facebooks "look and feel" but also its functionality is a direct consequence of the light weight technology that the site is built on. Any technologist knows that Facebook is a really well organized web site, the "well organized" part coming from using the built in hierarchical management of xml to collate messages from to users, to add entries to feeds to transform those xml files into rendered display elements for the site, it is quite a basic xml based publishing platform and nothing more. As such building a similar platform for anyone that knows a bit of xml , xsl and html and jsp is trivial. The "apps" that Facebook loves touting are more managed scripts cleverly categorized but nothing about that is patentable and is easily replicated so Facebook must resort to lawsuits to attempt to maintain its distinct advantage compared to other social networks, in the US where it was founded this works very well but internationally Facebook is pissing into the wind on this one. The local governments have no incentive to shutter domestic clones just so the traffic and ad revenue flies across the ocean to America.

I see Facebooks problem of "wack a clone" as one that many "I coded it in two weeks and I have no strong patents" business models run into, followed by scalability issues. No surprise really, if your design stage is a fraction of your implementation stage you will make mistakes during implemenation and those mistakes will go to production. This will of course necessitate costly re architecting, down time (twitter anyone?) and possible irreparable damage to your businesses reputation.

As I've said before the entire edifice of the current web 2.0 startup fever of getting the idea out and iterating it in production is inefficient. If you can protect your idea with impossibly high barriers to entry like true technological innovation that can not be easily copied before you launch and iterate, then you should take the time to do so after you have that power your ability to fend of competitors will have both a legal and a technological advantage behind it.

27 July, 2008

Recession signs...AMWAY commercials!

What is a good sign that the economy is not doing as well as it could be? A few weeks ago I was watching the boob tube and caught a commercial where the claim was made that their company helped people build businesses. Not a new claim but near the end the advertiser revealed themself as "Amway Global" and I chuckled. Amway is what I like to call a legal pyramid scheme. Anyone that knows how it works, you get recruited by an Amway "business owner" who was previously suckered...I mean recruited by another "business owner" at some time in the past, they sold you on the idea of having the "freedom" to work as you want to work in "your own business". Usually, as an initiate unaware of how they plan to help you start "your business" you are invited to attend a meeting at a hotel, if you don't have money to go don't worry usually the recruiter will offer to pick you up and drop you home. When you finally get to the "event" you realize within minutes that you are in for something cult like. Usually various individuals are paraded out and recognized as top business owners with various titles commensurate with their level of achievement in the business. As the meeting gets to the meat of the matter you realize that a) this isn't about starting YOUR business it is about you working on theirs b) it requires that you essentially become a sales man and c) Amway sits back happily taking a cut of every sale you make as their loyal low paid/relative to the profit you bring from product sales footperson. Well Amway is able to avoid being a true pyramid scheme by actually paying out some money to the ants at the bottom of the pyramid but by no stretch of the imagination is that amount the road to freedom that they promise. Doing well requires that you dedicate yourself to the sales business and to recruiting others (from whome you get a commission if they start selling) this makes you into essentially a zombie, biting others to keep the spread of death going...meanwhile none of you are doing the business YOU wanted to start but are making money for Amway.

I know about the details of the scam ...er business because when I was consultant at Chase I was approached by one of their agents who claimed to be an attorney (why he was doing this on the side I don't know) he offered to bring me to the meeting (the only way I was going) and within minutes I knew I had wasted my time doing even that. At the time I wanted information on how to start MY business (incorporation, taxes, marketing...etc.) but Amway as stated before is not interested in what you want, it is what they want you to do for them. This takes me back to the commercial which I've now seen about 4 times since the first time, indicates to me that the number of people who are having difficulty making ends meet is going up and Amway is targeting these people who think it is a good time to start a business (historically it is only good for a few niche businesses!) it appears the wolf is out on the grass lands ready to cull some sheep. I provide this story to those that may have been approached to attend a meeting only as caution, you may be able to make money but the "business" Amway is selling really is not about your personal dream fulfilled in the way you might have envisioned before hand.


11 July, 2008

T Boone Pickens gets wise to Wind...

A colleague recently sent me the link to T. Boone Pickens plan to get the US off of its dependence of imported fossil fuels. I'd been seeing the commercials on tv but didn't go to the site until after receiving the link.


I love the wind plan, that is part of exactly what we need but the fact remains, though we would definitely benefit from a "manhattan wind project" as proposed, would the oil companies unfetter Washington to allow the actions that will be necessary in their industry to facilitate such a huge initiative? After all, though a great deal of the oil money is going outside the country a lot of it is fattening the US oil companies. I am glad that as a giant in the oil industry Pickens is making a stand on the importance of a shift but will all those other guys (particularly the foreign importers with big money lobbies in Washington) tow his line? A good analogy that we've seen played out in the last 10 years is how the music industry reacted to p2p sofware eroding the CD business. They resisted embracing the technology to make the best of it (ala licensing deals with sites such as Itunes, Rhapsody) to the very end, to this day still trying to defend an indefensible and obsolete business model. We can no doubt expect the oil companies (to be fair it will be done for fear of investor wrath) to drag their feet when faced with the prospect of a clean and infinitely renewable source of energy enacted on such a large scale that directly competes with their very profitable business.

I'd like to read more about how Pickens plans to spur action among his industry colleagues to take action to promote something that will certainly reduce profits over at least an extended short term of 5 - 10 years. Are their investors willing to eat that penalty and facilitate the change? It won't be easy.

A bit about the technology, in this post I mentioned the importance of funding further research in the area of electrical storage, I mentioned the need for a real current battery using superconductivity. Imagine the position our country would be in if after implementing a wind plan on the scale indicated in Pickens Plan we are able to fund more research (with the money we are saving instead of exporting to foreign countries) and actually are able to create efficient superconductors for such batteries. We would then be able to store nearly unlimited amounts of generated current and can use that in a non real time fashion domestically and for export. We would be instantly in a position to be the "Saudi Arabia" of wind in the exact same sense they are of oil...having both a production and export capability. As it stands generated electric power must be created and used in real time, it can't be stored on a massive offline scale and delivery requires an established infrastructure, SC current batteries could be shipped like refrigerators loaded with "juice". Given the advances (ceramic , high temperature SC) that have been made on the paltry funding of such research thus far, we could be in a position to deliver a one two punch to world wide energy needs by targeting just this area.

Something to think about.

passive electrical storage using SC

[Post below was originally written as part of an email sent on 6/16/2008]

Ever wonder why the power grid always seems to go down in times of heavy use? It has to do with the requirement of power distribution that the power is generated and used on demand. We still (after almost 150 years of using electricity in a municipal capacity) have no efficient way to store generated electricity. This is not the same as a chemical battery which generates on load. Yes, we have capacitors and inductors but those store electricity either as charge or current respectively and both are amazingly complex devices for large potentials and currents, plus both can only store electricity for a limited time in a passive configuration (meaning disconnected from a circuit). They also have ratings beyond which excessive charge or current will destroy the device and thus propagate spikes through out the system potentially throwing those out (which is how black out cascades could take out entire sections of the United States) The answer to all our power storage and spike issues under load would be room temperature or lower superconductivity. Superconductors do something to electricity that is amazing, all the electrons essentially dance to the same tune, this harmony makes them behave like one giant quantum object. In such a state we could store arbitrary amounts of current in a superconducting battery without any efficiency loss or heat gain and then offload current as we need , this would allow us to decouple power generation from power utilization. Imagine being able to store all the current we need for the summer and then turn off the generators (many still using fossil fuels to get the energy needed to make the electricity) this is just one revolution that such technology would usher in. Imagine a superconducting battery the size of a regular 9 volt, that is filled with current from a power station with a years worth of current for powering your home that you can take home in your pocket. Unfortunately the number of researchers doing work on room temperature SC is limited to a handful of people across the world with minimal funding...it is a darned shame that this potential is not being minded by our government as a potential gold, no platinum mine. As I said elsewhere, we need to focus like a laser on these technologies that can change the game entirely if we put enough effort into it...I mean we built the atomic and nuclear bombs for cryin' out loud ON DEMAND, it took gathering the best minds in the world at the time to one place but they did it in little more than 4 years...we need to do something similar today to attack these problems.


08 July, 2008

Autorenewed for ....my convenience??? Part Deux

As mentioned in the last post, I really hate the slimy tactic of providing "auto-renew" on a subscription purchased for an online service. In that post I didn't want to mention the company name that I was going to cancel since I didn't think it was a big deal (other than the mention of the so called "convenience" of auto renew) well today I nearly bursted an artery trying to cancel the auto renew on the month subscription I purchased from hotornot.com. The problem is the cancel process is a draconian mess. I should not have to be forced to go anywhere else to cancel the subscription. When I purchased I used my credit card to buy the simple plan to try out the service, it was easy to sign up it should be just as easy to sign off, but it is not.

The first problem with the way their cancellation process is designed is in the complete ommission of a clear and ready button on the user profile page that says "cancel subscription" , this is common sense and is the easiest way to allow a user to cancel the auto-renew on an account. If it had such a button, I would have clicked it...it would have removed the pending evil of the auto-renew and all would have been well but no, that isn't how the hotornot designers decided to do it. Instead, there is no option at all to cancel the subscription on any pages viewed by a paying user viewing their membership info! Believe it or not...here's a screen shot:

So I figured that the cancel button would be provided after clicking the button pointed to by the green arrow above, titled "payment history". I could only hope right? Well, clicking on that button takes you to the following image:

Yet again, no clearly labeled "cancel subscription button" instead two options present, the first left facing green arrow points toward the links I missed the first time I entered the page (since they are so small and are of simple script) the second down pointing arrow points to the button I actually clicked on thinking it would take me to the cancel page. Of course when I did that , It took me to a summary of the subscription that I had (star membership) with no option at all to cancel it (though they did provide an option to upgrade it to a more expensive option) ...after navigating back to this page I noticed the link (left facing arrow) and decided to click it, which took me to the next page shown in the image below. Cancellation here I come!!:

Not quite. Amazingly, the designers thought I wasn't quite ready to see a cancel button...so they present me with this. A survey on the service, this is in the wrong spot...the survey should come AFTER I've cancelled...that is what I am trying to do after all. Displaying this page only got me even more perplexed and annoyed than I already was. I took a deep breath and decided to give a doozie of a feedback letter. The site is infested by automated accounts that make the meeting experience, useless. You get contacted by bot accounts that I guess are there to harvest email addresses if you send that info in the messages. In the month I tested the service I received several dozen matches but the majority were bots and the ones that were not, were not desirable. They need to seriously clean out the bot accounts to make the service useable. Anyway...I filled in the feedback form and hit the button indicated by the arrow. Finally confident that I would be able to cancel....

Wrong again! Apparently I have only just now earned the honor of actually seeing a button labeled "cancel membership". I was shaking my head in disbelief that they would try to upsell me when I am trying to cancel the service but oh well. Now I would finally get to do it...or would I????

Amazing, yet another attempt to upsell me!!! Just in case I missed the first page and the oversized "buy now" button. Now I am just vexed, and almost lost it completely when I didn't see any more explicit "cancel subscription" button until I saw the tiny "click here" link:

"If you do not want to take advantage of this one-time offer, click here"

This type of sales tactic may work on some but it only succeeds in insulting my intelligence, and fraying my patience to the nubs. What is most egregious about this statement is it totally neglects to mention that not taking advantage of the offer leads to the actual cancellation process that I invoked 5 page views ago!!!!! This is the worst type of disengenuous marketing , tied together with horribly bad UI design ....I don't know which is worse, if they designed this circuitous Gordian monstrosity on purpose to delay the cancel process or if they are just bad UI designers. At this point I don't know what will happen after hitting "click here" as the site has shown that they don't do what the buttons state on their face all the time. So I went ahead and clicked hoping I'd actually get what I asked for 5 pages ago.

Miracle of miracles. It is actually done. Congratulations hot or not you finally figured it out and in the process gave me a memory of bad design that I won't soon forget.

07 July, 2008

Autorenewed for ....my convenience???

I recently purchased a subscription to a some what popular dating site that will remain nameless in this post. ;) I could begin a discourse on the various dating sites online but that isn't the focus of this post. This post is about a particular aspect of their subscription service that I've noticed in other web sites that offer services on a subscription basis. Namely, the "auto renew" option that many offer after the term of your purchase are complete. Almost everyone automatically renews the subscription once the payment term is complete "for your convenience" ...this always pissed me off. It pissed me off because anyone who is aware of what is going on knows that "your convenience" is the furthest thing from the site owners mind in providing this autorenew feature. It works something like this. People tend to behave very impulsively online, they shoot from one site to the next, often you find yourself surfing for hours and at any given minute not quite knowing how you got to a particular website. Along with this comes a tendency to buy things that maybe you would not even come across had you not been bouncing around doing your random surfing. Coming across sites that offer subscription services , be it for dating or some other service and tempted to sign up just to test the service is something I've wanted to do many times...but always that auto renew "convenience" waits to bite you at the end of the month ...when you've completely forgotten about the site. This is what the site owners really want, by requiring that you explicitly cancel the act of automatically paying them on a recurring basis they ensure that if you forget you pay them anyway. Usually, they tie this with "no refund" statements in their terms of use which conveniently I am sure , gets them thousands of dollars of over month subscriptions from people that failed to "cancel" at the end of the month. Such a practice itself does have some benefit I am sure to some people but I've noticed that every implementation of "auto renew" I've come across doesn't have the delivery of a friendly email say to warn you that your term is about to expire and then autorenew, that's the least they could do if they are about to extract some money from your credit card right???

Recently I've implemented the payment processing for services that I offer on the collaboration web site I am about launch, I have no auto renew option on the site. Instead I let the term of the plans expire, the next time the User logs in they will be redirected to the terms page to purchase an extension to their existing account (no need to recreate a new one) ...this solves the problem that forcing payments from those user that may not want to resubscribe for additional terms, it also gives those that do the option of extending their plan the next time they come in to use the service. It turns out that omitting the option makes my payment processing logic easier as well, I don't have to store renew information with a payment processor (most third party processors offer this service) and that reduces the necessary communications between my servers and the payment processor that could cause some pathology during the payment and confirmation process. At the same time, and most importantly to me, I don't have to subtly lie to my customers , telling them that autorenew is for their convenience when really it would be mostly for mine. (to fish money out their pockets while they sleep)