davebriggs + computing   17

Even Google won't be around for ever, let alone Facebook
In the world of internet technology a company can go from zero to hero in a very short time
Some years ago, when the Google Books project, which aims to digitise all of the world's printed books, was getting under way, the two co-founders of Google were having a meeting with the librarian of one of the universities that had signed up for the plan. At one point in the conversation, the Google boys noticed that their collaborator had suddenly gone rather quiet. One of them asked him what was the matter. "Well", he replied, "I'm wondering what happens to all this stuff when Google no longer exists." Recounting the conversation to me later, he said: "I've never seen two young people looking so stunned: the idea that Google might not exist one day had never crossed their minds."
And yet, of course, the librarian was right. He had to think about the next 400 years. But the number of commercial companies that are more than a century old is vanishingly small. Entrusting the world's literary heritage to such transient organisations might not be entirely wise.
Compared with my librarian friend, we have the attention span of newts. We are constantly overawed by the size, wealth and dominance of whatever happens to be the current corporate giant. At the moment, the four leading monsters are Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Yet 18 years ago, Apple was weeks away from extinction, Amazon had just launched, Google was still three years away from incorporation and Facebook lay nine years into the future.
At one level, all this proves is that in the technology world one can go from zero to hero is a very short time. (Or, in Apple's case, from hero to zero and back to hero again in 36 years). Some of the industry's greatest executives understood this very well. Andy Grove, for instance, who led Intel for 11 years, was famous for his mantra "Only the paranoid survive". For many years – when he led Microsoft and before he embarked on saving the world – Bill Gates appeared to have the same sentiment tattooed on his forehead. And in both cases they turned out to be right: though Intel and Microsoft are still significant companies, their dominance has ended. The processors that dominate the market for mobile devices are designed by ARM, a Cambridge company, not by Intel; and Microsoft's monopolistic grip on the desktop computing market turned out to be a wasting asset.
We understand pretty well the factors that determine the fortunes of companies that make things people buy – which is why, for example, one can predict thatApple won't be able indefinitely to sustain its huge profit margins on its iDevices. Likewise, it's pretty easy to predict where Amazon is headed: it aims to be the Walmart of the web, and is therefore likely to be around for quite a while. Google has a well understood and currently profitable business model and a huge technical infrastructure but ultimately is vulnerable to a well-resourced competitor armed with better search technology.
This leaves Facebook, a company that has one billion products (called users) and earns its living by selling information about them to advertisers. Given that holders of Facebook accounts don't pay for the service – and are therefore free to depart at any point – you'd have thought that its long-term durability would be questionable. And yet lots of informed and canny investors disagree. They appear to regard the company as a sure-fire bet.
The two key factors that will determine Facebook's future are the power of network effects and the "stickiness" of its service – ie, the extent to which it can dissuade users from leaving. A network effect comes into play when the value of a product or service is dependent on the number of people using it. A telephone network with a million subscribers is infinitely more valuable then one with only 10. In technological ecosystems, network effects are very powerful: they explain, for example, how Microsoft came to dominate the market for desktop operating and office systems.
In the early days of online social networking there were a range of different, incompatible networks – Friendster, Orkut, MySpace and Facebook. But, over time, Facebook won out by attracting more users and growing more quickly than the others. And the more quickly it grew, the more powerful the network effect became, with the result that it is now the de facto standard for social networking. In fact, it is now so dominant that millions of people around the world think that Facebook is the internet.
If you put your faith in network effects, therefore, Facebook looks like a good investment because it'll be around for the long term. If people want to do social networking, then it'll be the only game in town. Facebook users will constitute a captive market and will be correspondingly exploited. And the company will be regulated as a monopoly.
Which is where "stickiness" comes in. How much exploitation will users tolerate before they decide to quit? We know a lot about network effects but relatively little about this, which is why a new study by three scientists at the Swiss university ETH Zurich makes interesting reading. They examined several social networking services, seeking to identify what makes them resilient and what could cause them to decline. And they performed an empirical autopsy on a failed service – Friendster – using data gathered just before it closed. The key determinants of success or failure were (i) the average number of friends that users have and (ii) whether the difficulty of using the site comes to outweigh the perceived benefits. Facebook is doing OK on the first of these criteria but – in my experience – becoming increasingly vulnerable on the second as the company tries to "monetise" its users. If Mark Zuckerberg's empire can't square this circle then not even the power of network effects will save it in the long run.
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Facebook  Computing  Microsoft  Media  Social_networking  Technology  Features  Amazon.com  Internet  E-commerce  Google  The_Observer  Technology  from google
march 2013 by davebriggs
Kevin Barry: Checking my emails – 150 times a day
The cool thing now for arty kids in their early 20s is to go offline, but Kevin Barry is still hooked
I tend to wake a little before eight in the morning, and for a moment or two I listen to what the weather is doing outside our house in south County Sligo; on almost 300 days of the year it is raining, and I curse my fate. I then endure a moment of intense moral struggle. I know that I am going to get up soon and spend the morning attempting to write fiction, as Destiny says I must, and I know the last thing I should do now, because it will shatter my concentration before I even begin, is go online. But of course I reach to the bedside table and grasp the iPhone. My wife tends to be awake a little before me, and she will already be tappety-tapping at her iPhone, even as I listen to the counterpoint of the rain's snare-drum beat outside, and so my insinuation into the online world has begun even before I'm truly awake.
I check my Gmail. I read bits of the papers. I Google myself – and yes, shame reddens my cheek as I type that phrase. I would almost rather admit to lying in bed, mornings, and abusing myself, but my suspicion is that almost all writers, young and old, now perform Google and Twitter searches for references to themselves several dozen times a day. I flutter about from site to site. I may well (as in, I do) have a look to see how I'm getting on in terms of Amazon sales, so I'll visit the UK, American and Canadian versions. I have even been known to visit the Japanese version, because someone (a worried Murakami?) bought a book of my stories out there once. I go back to Gmail and refresh my inbox to see if anything has come through in the five minutes since I last checked, though it's not yet eight in morning, but maybe somebody I know is up late in San Francisco, and wants to make me fatally rich and world-renowned and has chosen just now to tell me about it; but I have no new messages (0) and another little knife is twisted in my nervous gut. I am not yet standing or even fully conscious but already I am in that impatient, flitty, online mode: I bound about like one of those neurotic petrol-sniffer hares you'll see at the Dublin airport car park. I stay nowhere longer than a minute or two, if that. I'll start to read a piece, but two paragraphs in I'll go yeah, right, blah-de-blah, and move on. You could not by force of will design a state of mind more unsuitable for getting up and attempting to make Literature, but that, hilariously, is what I get up and try to do.
Or after a fashion, anyway. Lately, I note, most of the essays and stories I write tend to be broken up into very short, numbered sections, because I can no longer replicate on the page the impression or sensation of consecutive, concentrated thought, because I don't really do that anymore.
Last year, I spoke with two other Irish writers after a reading in Paris and I asked them how many times a day, at an honest estimate, they checked their email. One of them, who is younger than me and much more connected, totted it up and blushed and said – "Maybe … 80?" The other, older than me and I would have thought much less connected, shook her head, and scoffed, and said – "Oh, at least … 120? Or OK, maybe … 130?"
Me? I don't turn the internet off while I'm writing, and I don't have that software that blocks it, so I'll check at least once every five minutes during the working morning. So that's probably about 50 checks by lunchtime. In the afternoons, I gad about the Sligo hills, often on my bike, but that doesn't stop me from fishing the iPhone out, though granted the checking will be at the more relaxed pace of about a half-dozen times an hour. So we're heading towards 90 checks or so by teatime. In the evenings, I tend to check my mail quite a lot, because the US is about its working day, and you never know what might come in from over there. So we're back up to maybe 10 checks an hour. By bedtime, I've checked my Gmail I would think at least 150 times, and this may be a conservative count.
On at least 140 of these occasions, my inbox will tell me that I have no new messages (0). That's 140 tiny ego deaths I suffer a day. The effect of these is minuscule individually, but significant cumulatively. Of the 10 or so mails I get a day, two or three will be spam offering me new tits, or a reliable erection, or investment opportunities in Lagos, and the rest will be dull and routine. I might get one or two mails a month of the type that I'm actually after – these are the emails that tell me I'm a wonderful writer of stories or scripts or whatever and there's money on the way. Each of these mails turns me into a more monstrous egomaniac – each to a tiny degree, maybe, but the effect, again, is cumulative.
The scene, late at night, in County Sligo: by the side of the bed there are, typically, between 20 and 30 books. Also, there are copies of magazines and literary journals. I am reading none of these. I am lying in the bed tapping at my iPhone. It is a rare occurrence for me now to finish a book. I search for reasons to stop reading rather than for reasons to go on. I flit and hop from book to book in precisely the way my brain has been trained to flit and hop from site to site – I have been neurologically rewired. If contemporary books have some tiny hope of being read all the way through, I believe that many of the classics have none at all – if you've been online all day, their pace just seems altogether glacial now; they can seem kind of ridiculous. I had a go last winter at Madame Bovary, and it took me three weeks to get through about 60 pages of the horrible thing before I flung it across the room. It just wouldn't move in the way I expect a narrative to move now. I fear that I will never be able to read such books again, and I fear I am not alone in this, that I am typical of the current multitude, and the coming multitudes will be worse again – they won't even try to read such books – and the classics will fade away, and disappear.
A few months ago, I spoke to some art students, and we talked about the internet and its effects. It appears that the cool thing now for arty kids in their early 20s is to go offline. They spoke happily of closing their Facebook accounts and giving up Twitter. The internet, they suggested, has become a bit of a Dad thing. They seemed to me to be much less excited about it than my own generation is. It was as boring to them as television was to me when I was in my 20s – I just wasn't arsed about it; it was what middle-aged people did – and I wonder now if the coming multitudes might not be so bad after all.
Or – what if it's a skin of anxiety that's pulled tautly across the entire surface of the world, over all the hills and undulations, and what if it has changed everything, forever, and for the worse, and what if we can never, ever escape from it?
• A longer version of this piece appears in Dublin Review #49
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december 2012 by davebriggs
Hackathon: where art and technology run wild
When a group of creatives and programmers gathered for a 48-hour 'hackathon', the idea was to take data and turn it into something magical
Hacking comes in three varieties. The first two that came to our collective attention are bad. One is an invasion of privacy practised mainly by middle-aged men on celebrities and the vulnerable; the other is carried out mainly by teenage boys on the military-industrial complex. Both are well-documented and often result in a court appearance. But there's a third kind, a good kind, so far unfeatured on Newsnight and mainly practised mainly by young men with enthusiastic smiles and creative facial hair who know their Python from their Ruby on Rails (they're programming languages, dummy). The good kind is about taking something apart – a computer, a line of code, a set of data – and rebuilding it, hopefully making it better, giving it a new function, or just doing something surprising and disruptive.
When these good hackers meet up it's sometimes called a hackday or a codefest, but more often it's called a hackathon. These events have been around for a while: the word was coined back in 1999. Since then hackathons have flourished. Hackers love to meet other hackers, team up and collaborate – and then show off the results.
Here in the break-out area of the donated London headquarters of Mozilla – the maker of the Firefox web browser – nearly 80 people have assembled for an all-weekend hackathon. It's Friday evening, and the event doesn't end till 9pm on Sunday: many of the participants have come prepared with sleeping bags, energy snacks and anti-perspirant. The majority are male and under 30, dressed in check shirts or tees with geek-joke slogans, such as "Señor developer" or "Munch my data".
The event's organisers are called 3 Beards, though it turns out there are four of them and only three have significant bristles. They also organise a Friday-night meet-up for technology types in east London called the Silicon Drinkabout; a Dragons' Den-style event for tech startup businesses called Don't Pitch Me, Bro!, and something called the Digital Sizzle – a tech event with a barbecue as its defining feature. This is Digital Sizzle number 6: the first one that isn't free (tickets are £45) and the first one to take the form of a hack.
Hackathons come in many varieties: they can be themed around a particular programming language; focused on creating stuff for a particular platform, such as Android; or a company might invite hackers to build new things using its content – Yahoo! has run an open hack day since 2006. The 3 Beards thought London hackathons tended to concentrate on creating startups. "They are mainly focused on creating a business idea, then pitching it on the final evening, along with all the relevant trimmings – revenue plan, target market, etc," says 3 Beards's Michael Hobson. "We thought that by making the output purely artistic, it would foster more creativity and allow people to really run wild with their ideas."
So this hack has a theme: art meets tech. The aim of the weekend is to encourage the hackers to take some of the masses of data living on the internet, or even create some of their own (in one case with goldfish), and present it in new, unusual ways, to make something from it – a piece of music, an artwork, a machine, a game – something that brings the data to life. Not everyone here has a computing background: a smattering of artists, designers, musicians have signed up to collaborate.
Some hackers have come prepared with an idea. About a dozen take turns to explain their plan to the rest of the group, hoping to fire imaginations and recruit fellow hackers to their team.
Rachel Taylor, an artist, says she wants to make a dress from the social media generated by London Fashion Week. She would like to remind the nerds of the age- old link between weaving looms and the computer.
Stef Lewandowski describes himself as a hacker and knows how to work a crowd of geeks: "What we need is lasers!" gets a cheer. He's booked time on Saturday with a laser-cutting workshop. His plan is to turn tweets into wearable jewellery.
Developer Gavin Clark says he has two ideas. One is a "death clock", which will use basic personal information to calculate when and why you will die – and use a projector to display an image of, say, a heart attack on to your body. He also wants to make a machine that will reproduce the weather from somewhere else in the world using lights, fans and a hose.
Other hackers say they plan to do work with football data, or make art from Transport for London information. Another suggests turning "emotional data into liquid".
For inspiration, the crowd watch a TED talk from Google data artist Aaron Koblin, whose team worked on the Arcade Fire/Chris Milk film for We Used to Wait, which allowed you to incorporate Google Street View images of your home town into the video – an exemplary instance of tech meeting art. Wrapping up, Benjamin Southworth an ex-3 Beard who is now deputy CEO of Tech City (what the government wants us to call Silicon Roundabout) implores the gathering to "take something that's raw and honest, turn it into magic".
Tonight the hackers have to go home, but, after they return at 9am on Saturday, they don't have to leave until Sunday night. The organisers have supplied everything a hacker could possibly need: powerful Hewlett Packard PCs, XBox Kinects, various bits of hardware they might need to add GPS, lighting and sound to their projects. There are mentors from cloud communication firm Twilo and social media monitoring specialists Brandwatch giving expert advice and access to their web services. There is a generous supply of beer, coffee, burgers and Mexican food. And there's one shower.
Yet participants aren't here for the new toys, diabetes-inducing diet and natural odours. A hackathon is about much more than that. As Michael Hobson explains: "The participants get an experience which is hard to find elsewhere. It's only in this high-pressure, time-sensitive environment that you can really come face-to-face with yourself, and see what you're capable of. People surprise themselves with what they can output over a weekend… At the very least, it can give them a thirst to be more productive in their day-to-day life."
There's also a brand of tech speed-dating going on. "As well as the 'inward' development," says Hobson, "they also form close bonds with the people they collaborate with. It can go either way – if you really get on with the person, you'll have a great friendship, but, if they get on your nerves, then it will come to the surface much quicker."
By Sunday, the sense of bonhomie is palpable and rather surprisingly the sense of body odour is not: these are clearly quite hygienic people. The 20 teams are given three minutes to present their hacks to the audience. Judges are going to select a number of the works for a one-night-only show at the Whitechapel gallery, who, like the Observer, are sponsoring the event.
Rachel Taylor and her team present their dress made entirely from Instagram and Flickr pictures, a mask made from faces, and a hat made from tweets – all grabbed from London Fashion Week. The death clock was jettisoned very early on, but Gavin Clark and his team have a rudimentary weather machine to show the crowd. It works like this: the audience vote by text for the city weather they would like to witness (Jakarta, New Delhi, Rio, Cape Town and Beijing are on offer), then, with the help of a lamp, a fan, a strobe light and pond pump that streams water down a plastic sheet, they get to see 10 days' worth of weather in 100 seconds. Beijing wins, and each time it rains there's a big cheer.
Stef Lewandowski (who worked alone; he calls this a "solo hack") asks for six women – which is most of the women in the room – to model his data jewellery. Some is in the form of coloured acrylic strands that hang from a necklace, some cut from felt and sitting on the collarbone. His wife's past 3,000 tweets are visualised as a necklace ("The length of the strands corresponds with how chatty she is in a given period"), while a "necklace of death" uses red acrylic strands to visualise how many people are talking about death on a given day, and includes an engraving of the name of someone who appeared in the Guardian obituaries that day. After some deliberation, the judges decide on three winners: Stef's necklaces, the See-Thru Planet iPad app, and the RSVP Network.
Ten days later, 600 people turn up to see the projects at the Whitechapel gallery in east London, not far from Silicon Roundabout. The teams have had a chance to polish their work and get it ready to show off in the gallery's vast white spaces.
Stef, a veteran of many hackathons, tells me that that is what made the Digital Sizzle hackathon unique. "This event raises the whole thing. Instead of making something that only my fellow hackers see, I'm making something that is worth someone else's time to look at."
Some of the projects have already attracted commercial interest. Stef has had orders for his necklaces, and "the wife of someone famous" has expressed an interest in investing. If that doesn't work out, he's thinking of raising funds when Kickstarter launches in the UK. The weather guys have set up meetings with Virgin Atlantic and Emirates, which are both interested in the idea of machines in airports that simulate the weather in travellers' destinations.
The tech-art culture clash has pleased Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel, who says: "We have been so impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit as well as the sheer speed at which the techies work. Everything is possible! The results demonstrate how the collaborative power of artists with technology experts can make us see our world with fresh eyes."
3 Beards's Bryce Keane is sipping on a well-earned raspberry beer. Plans are already being made to turn it into a annual event with a longer two-week exhibition. "I don't think we imagined it would be this successful, but we'… [more]
Digital_media  Social_media  Computing  Programming  Technology  Features  Internet  The_Observer  Hacking  Mozilla  Technology  from google
september 2012 by davebriggs
The BBC Micro can still teach us a lot
"The BBC Micro taught a generation of teenagers the joys of programming. It's time to re-engineer such a revolution"
bbcmicro  bbc  basic  programming  education  computing 
march 2012 by davebriggs
The State of the Internet Operating System - O'Reilly Radar
"Ask yourself for a moment, what is the operating system of a Google or Bing search? What is the operating system of a mobile phone call? What is the operating system of maps and directions on your phone? What is the operating system of a tweet?"
2.0  2010  analytics  article  blog  cloud  computing  culture  data  internet  future  operatingsystem  o'reilly  os  teaching  trends  web  work 
april 2010 by davebriggs
A Democracy of Netbooks
"We have produced a democracy of netbooks. And the geek in me can't wait to see what happens next. "
netbook  2010  access  acer  computing  gadgets  knowledge  shopping  hardware 
january 2010 by davebriggs
IBM takes on services in Essex as part of £5bn privatisation deal
"A Conservative council has signed a pioneering deal with IBM worth up to £5.4 billion to manage and provide public services in a new wave of privatisation supported by David Cameron."
e-government  tories  computing  ibm  enterprise  it  opensocitm  socitm  outsourcing  council2.0  government2.0 
december 2009 by davebriggs
BBC - dot.life: Computing for older users: Patronising or practical?
"Whether or not Simplicity Computing succeeds will be a big test of two things - the appetite of older people to get online and the attractiveness of open source software as a means of dealing with digital exclusion."
technology  bbc  interactive  education  usability  accessibility  computing  useful  digitalinclusion  digitalengagement 
november 2009 by davebriggs
The US Government Is Going Google
"It looks like The White House has copied a page from Google’s playbook and is now advocating that federal agencies move to the cloud."
google  government  apps  computing  business  politics  news  government2.0  cloudcomputing  cloud 
september 2009 by davebriggs

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