Category Archives: open source

Better data, fewer customers

Here’s an amusing business tactic: lock out the customers. You know the drill. You visit the website, log-in, and the vendor inserts an extra page forcing you to provide your missing zip code, or what ever. “Our data quality is more important than your time.”

So this company, a health club, locked their patrons out of the club. If they went to the desk they were told that their account was missing their email address.

It’s always good to keep things neat and tidy, but it’s impossible to get across how much this kind of thing drives customers away. Particularly because it drives off the most lightly connected customers. The ones that are hardest to model. The ones you desperately need going forward. There is probably some deep design principle here. You need to design the system to maximize the amount of chaos in your data. Homogeneity is a false God.

Meanwhile, if you enjoy keeping account data tidy you might want to drop by the Useless Account web site. Sign up! Edit your account profile to your hearts content.

The Smallest are the Biggest Customer

Quite a few times over the last months I’ve found myself talking to somebody with a lot of customer relationships to manage.  Actually it is more accurate to say a lot of relationships.  As a certified power-law nutter I presume that some of these relationships are deeper than others and the distribution is highly skewed.
There was a short period, years ago, when I was the benefit of Apple’s out reach to their high value developers.  Somebody from Apple would appear at my office door.  We were well fed while on nice junkets.

In the conversations I’ve been trying to tease out how various people and firms organize to address this highly skewed set of relationships.  My guess, call it my hypothesis, is that they do not treat everybody equally.  That what emerges as they adapt to the highly skewed distribution is a two headed strategy.  One approach for the high value relationships, and a second approach for the rest.    This puts, for example, a new light on Apple’s old slogan: “A computer for the rest of us.”    In many cases the strategy for the rest is a kind of populism.

Letting my hypothesis run out of control I assume that firms, as they grow are consciously, or more typically unconsciously, rebalancing the resources they devote to one or the other of these.  For example Google certainly began by having very very light relationships with millions of web sites, and then as they built out more traditional sales and marketing organization for relating to the largest websites.  Possibly they did that consciously, but it’s just as likely the environment they found themselves in forced that.  Presumably the same scenario happened to eBay.

The way you execute on these different kinds of relationship is obviously very different.  For the high value relationships you can afford to assign labor, travel budget, etc.  For the vast number that make up the rest you expend money making self service web sites, doing targeted advertising, and engineering effective, but cost effective, customer support systems.

This problem, how to manage the resource allocation across a highly skewed set of relationships, is scale free.  Individuals have this problem just as do huge firms.  The address book, the rolodex, and social networking sites are all schemes to give individuals tools to manage the rest of their relationships.

Any group has this problem.  For example open source projects tend to many tiers of contributors.  Ben Laurie recently was reacting to a common accusation we encounter from outside observers about open source that we “don’t care about users.”  That word “care” is about relationships.  The accusation is that the open source project fails, somehow, to do it’s part in the relationship with users.  I’ve often heard this complaint from product managers in traditional consumer software companies.

The product manager in a traditional consumer software firm exists because the firm needs and funds labor to manage the relationship between the firm and the vast diffuse pool of users.  I.e. the product manager is labor of the second kind – the long tail kind.

Ben who embraces the accusation by highlighting the deep relationship that open source projects have with their developers.  That’s right, but at the same time some open source projects develop a second kind of relationship management that is modern substitute for product management.  For example the editors at Wikipedia are that. Most open source projects learn, after a while, that they should devote significant resources in support of the vast number of very low value relationships.  But they tend to devote those resources to making it easier to download and install the software (easy on ramps) rather than to better customer support systems.
But in most cases the question reflects a category error about what kind of institution an open source project is.  For most open source projects there is a long tail only to the extent that the easy access to the resulting code acts as a shout out that may attract addition developers, i.e. high value contributors.  Rather than a well funded call center broadcasting that “Your call is very important to us.” your  more likely to encounter a “Eh what?  Oh, sorry, gotta run.”

Sharing Cell Phones

In Yochai Benkler’s essay “Sharing Nicely” about large class of institutions where people solve problems by sharing rather than market clearing or regulatory frameworks he blocks out a rough model of what enables that them; e.g. a large pool of excess capacity (empty seats in the car, idle cycles on your PC or your head) and ownership at the periphery.

With that model in hand you can begin to look for them.  And there are lots and lots: in the ride share space; the community wireless movement; around the P2P, mesh networking, craig’s list, freecycle, leave-one/take-one book exchanges, etc. etc.  There are lots of little examples of which the is a great one.  And given that you start to see them you can try to get to the next level and see if you can find opportunities to create new ones; e.g. entrepreneurial opportunities to create new sharing institutions.

This is fun! It’s like three other periods in my life when I developed an eye for a new pattern.  For example at one point I started to realize that marketing people had an eye out for empty niches in your house and tried to slip products into them: the fridge door, the medicine cabinet, your pockets.  That each of these was a competitive landscape.  For example at one point I noticed that there were components which were so widely used for one function that they created a near discontinuity in the price curve for things of their kind and that they then created options to repurpose them: the magnets in disk drives, or the motors and lasers in cd players are both examples.  The sharing nicely examples are analogous to both of those.

So, it looks to me like wifi/bluetooth equipped phones are an almost perfect example of a substrate for Yochai’s sharing systems.  If they were sufficiently open and sufficiently dense upon the landscape it should be possible to route around the Telcos.  That would be fun.  I don’t doubt this idea has already brought a smile to a lot of engineer’s eyes inside of the handset manufactures.  Makes me wonder, is Apple planning on doing just this to escape the relationship with AT&T?  Makes me wonder if you couldn’t to this today with some of the Linux based cell phones.

Bill starts a dating service

I had the fun a long time ago of being the first bidder on this auction:

Today Bill told a bit more of the story.

See, something else happened: During the sale dozens of people contacted me by email and telephone. They weren’t seeing it as a joke. They were anxious to bid. They regretted being unable to participate. The wanted to work with me on research, or with anybody on research, or have a chance to carry forward research they had started but lost.

They wanted to collaborate.

They were graduate students, and laymen, and people with Ph.D.s and M.S. and other advanced degrees in mathematics and science and engineering and humanities and social sciences and art. And they were busy, and focused, and full of ideas and every one felt disenfranchised.

For one reason or another they felt unable to collaborate in serious research, to follow ideas through to completion with colleagues. They were stymied by sexism (MIT-trained female math Ph.D., forced into industry by uncollaborative peers), by the burden of diligence (graduate and undergraduate students, or industrial researchers ordered to focus and pay attention on their immediate work), by the walls of the many-siloed Ivory Tower itself. Or they were smart academics in the right position, who had nobody willing to collaborate with them in a culture that over-values competition and secrecy and primary authorship. Some were full professors, fully-credentialled but held back by service or administrative obligations, or funding hardships, or some other oft-voiced complaint. Some were in small ivy-covered undergraduate teaching institutions, or community colleges, and just out of luck for chances to do some work.

Nobody seemed dumb. Nobody sounded like they were trying to scam a lightened workload by foisting the hard part of their project over to me. Nobody was trying to cheat on their homework or thesis. Nobody was a creationist, nobody was astroturfing. They all made it sound as if finding a colleague was the best thing they could imagine.

I make it out to be very general, very broad, almost ubiquitous. There was diversity in the character of response, but I’m not exaggerating: nearly two dozen people contacted me. This expression of disenfranchisement was a shared trait of a stream of email correspondents, and people who called me directly on my business line. They didn’t really care how good or bad I was, and maybe didn’t care too much about my credentials. The fact that I seemed capable, and serious, and willing to give my time and energy to thinking and talking with them about something they were interested in that was enough.

I have a catalog of insta-theories for Open Source, but that there is always a kind of desperate undercurrent of demand for quality collaborators isn’t in that catalog. I’ll go fix that.

Craft v.s. Art.

This is a very elegantly written posting.

Most people are not aware of the depths of the argument that between the fine craft establishment and the dominate fine art elite.  I used to think about that debate more; but I’m pleased to note something about it.

Fine art is at it’s core about scarcity; fine craft is much less so; and what has come to be called crafting hardly at all.  The fine craft movement, which weaves it’s way back through all of history and all nations, in it’s modern manifestation, I’m surprised to note, a lot like open source.

I hate to play that card.  The term open source has almost fallen dead for me.  So many people play that card in an attempt to grab a bit of legitimacy for what every scheme they are executing that involves sucking talent out of the vast pool of people on the other side of the internet; and don’t get me started on the neologism ‘democratizing.’

What is going on in the modern crafting movement, as manifested in the web, is the thing I think is coolest about the Internet.  First off it has a pool of people of common interest finding each other, like a giant pot luck dinner or a stone soup.  They are creating energy and knowledge that wasn’t there before; in an commons.  Secondly the energy of this movement comes from the periphery; the respect of the participants faces toward the periphery.

When this works you get the opposite of scarcity based activities.  In fine arts the entire community is polarized by the pervasive question of who’s at the top, who can command the premium prices, who’s hot, who’s not.  In a periphery facing community the tension, the anxiety if you wish, is where on the vast periphery the next insight will emerge, the next cool trick of the trade, the next breath taking bit of design.

Sharing as exercise

I hate most explanations for why people participate in Open Source. I care about this question.  I enjoy the game of puzzling out the answer.  In a reversal of the usual cliche I love the game and hate the players; the casual players who think they know the answer. After two decades of thinking about this question I love that I stumble upon new answers.

Owners of Capital Goods often have excess capacity that they might share.This morning I was attempting to read, yet again, Benkler’s essay on sharing nicely where in he argues that the usual dialectic framing of how to coordinate activities (hierarchy v.s. markets) has blinded us to a third scheme; i.e. sharing. He points out some huge coordination problems that are solved via sharing and he does the good and necessary work of constructing an economic model for why some problems are well solved by sharing.

Part of his model explains why owners have excess lying around, that is  suitable for sharing.  In that explanation I was excited to to notice a new motivation for sharing.

Benkler draws our attention to excess capacity that owners can not consume. Idle cycles on your PC or empty seats in your car as you drive hither and yon. He model for this is analogous to that seen in value pricing models – i.e. if you own a hotel full of rooms and as the hour grows late you should consider selling those rooms for less; since otherwise they will go idle an you will get nothing.

I found my self thinking at that point about the emotions an owner has about this excess capacity, for example the sense of of lost opportunity, leading to emotions of frustration, grief, guilt.  The hostess pressing left overs on her guests as the party wraps up is motivated by a horror at the waste shows how motivating this kind of sharing might be.

But the resource that drives open source is talent so the question naturally arises at this point does this model have something to say about sharing around the creation of these knowledge pools? This is delightful bit. If we think of skill as a capital good then talented people own building full of skills; and they lease out to earn their living. Of course most of the time they can’t find a buyer for all their skills.  The rooms are empty.  It’s not surprising that they are willing to share freely some of this capacity.

Skill, unlike capital equipment, can improves with use; creating an incentive for sharing.I had already noted many of the motivations outlined above for sharing one’s talents: countering the guilt for letting it go to waste, the positive emotions of generosity, the low cost of giving away the excess capacity. But I had not noticed something else: skills that are not exercised decay. While the hotel room left idle depreciates only slightly, a skill unused decays quickly. The skill demands that I exercise it, it’s survival depends on that exercise. If I horde it, it evaporates.

Personal Note from Richard Stallman

June 1984:

The Lisp Machine is a product of the efforts of many people too numerous to list here and of the former unique unbureaucratic, free-wheeling and cooperative environment of the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I believe that the commercialization of computer software has harmed the spirit which enabled such systems to be developed. Now I am attempting to build a software-sharing movement to revive that spirit from near oblivion.

Since January 1984 I have been working primarily on the development of GNU, a complete Unix-compatible software system for standard hardware architectures, to be shared freely with everyone just like EMACS. This will enable people to use computers and be good neighbors legally (a good neighbor allows his neighbors to copy any generally useful software he has a copy of). This project has inspired a growing movement of enthusiastic supporters. Just recently the first free portable C compiler compiled itself. If you would like to contribute to GNU, write to me at the address above. Restrain social decay–help get programmers sharing again

From the preface of the Lisp Machine Manual.

The Liablity of Sowing one’s Oats Widely

This is great…

In a sense, Google, in its ADD-driven style, is building up a sizable engineering liability here, one that it will eventually have to ‘fess up to.” — at Infecious Greed

Is it true? For the life of me I don’t know.

Network effect businesses depend on running as fast as you can to capture a large a network as fast as possible. This is amazinlgy risky balance between capturing share and avoiding “engineering liability.” Nobody knows the right balance but we do know the trends. The share v.s. low-risk dial has moved consistently toward share wins. Microsoft’s ship crap fix it later strategy got them thru the transition to GUI, and quite a few other company killing upheavals. Open Source’s ship early and often strategy has enabled it to capture installed base and hence set standards faster than more conservative tactics.

I suspect that the author of the quote above is just peeved that he’s locked into more and more Google offerings while being frustrated that they aren’t becoming the robust software he desires. If these products were open source he could join in common cause with his fellow travelers and fix them. But since his vendor is a monopolist his only option is to plead, shame, and otherwise use voice rather than doing to resolve the problems.


Yoav’s post on Nagios reminds me I’d been meaning to post about Selenium. He’s right, by the way, about Nagios.

The best open source emerges when a group of “buyers” have a desperate need and no patients or budget to wait for a vendor to show up and bumble around cluelessly trying to figure out why they are miserable and how to make money off that. OpenQA looks like just such a project.

If you develop web apps and your not aware of OpenQA then your not happy. Particularly Selenium IDE, a Firefox plugin that will record and playback automated tests.

This system is marvalously hoky, plenty of “worse is better” here! But the price is right and it works! In a perfect example of how open source is more likely to have the features you must have v.s. the features that would make the salesman happy this system has horrible horrible doc, but actually works in most browsers.

These testing systems work by exercising the web app. using java script. The tests can be stored in a few formats, but the original format was an HTML table. The testing harness steps thru the HTML table interpreting instructions on how to do the test found in the table rows. Starting from there you get assorted hackery to let you write and run your tests in assorted ways that you might find more comfortable.

Highly recomended.

Linksys opens: WRT54G -> WRT54GL

I think this is extremely interesting. Linksys has a new home wireless router model, the WRT54GL which is clearly labeled as having a Linux base. At the same time the WRT54G brand is accumulating a large number of models and versions running a closes source OS (VxWorks).

It has been something of a mystery to me why none of the wireless router hardware vendors has tried this. One the one hand there are a lot of vendors and the barrier to becoming a vendor looks pretty low. On the other hand it’s clear there is a vibrant community of developers building hacks that complement routers that are open. Finally the cost of software on these things must be a significant part of the cost to enter the market.

One story I’ve been told, more than once, is the manufactures – who are mostly (all?) in Asia – think that the software is what differentiates them. So the idea of open software is strikes them as bizarre.

Another story I’ve been told is that the cost of goods is so tightly managed that if you suggest adding a bit more memory everybody thinks your a idiot. I find this arguement to be lame; the cost of goods is a very small part of the cost at the point of sale.

To me, these arguments totally miss the point. There is a high probability that an open standard hardware platform on devices of this form factor can aggregate a huge universe of complements. The stuff already available around these devices is very impresive. Phone PBXs for heaven sakes!

What’s really fascinating about the Linksys move is you can see right thru to their product manager meetings. Obviously they argued and argued about how open their devices should be.

Open: Are you crazy. Give it away? Madness.

Open: We should close the loophole, asap!

We build ’em. We get it right. We make it dependible. We rule the channel. We add features users want. We will be rich!

Open: We must open the platform. Differentiate with complements. We will sit at the center of a new platform, this could be bigger than Microsoft! We will be rich!

Open: Look! Dudes. It’s already open. It’s already producing these marvelous complements. This goose is laying golden eggs!

Closed: Great! We don’t need to be more open. We can get the benifit without the bother and the risk of being open.

The open side then says: Yeah! If we don’t do it somebody else will. It’s easy, it’s obvious.

The closed side responds: Sure, but we rule the distribution channels to it won’t do them any good.

Open: Internet distribution.

Closed: Yeah right; someday maybe – but not yet.

… that debate goes on an on …

Finally they do what rich firms do when they can’t agree. They decide to do both. So now we have two platforms. One closed and one open.

It allows them to do discriminatory pricing. For example the L version could be shipped only via internet channels, with lousy software, at a lower price point. Or the L version could be shipped at a higher price point. Depends on what they want to achieve.

It’s not a risk-less move. It’s very likely to trigger other vendors, particularly small ones, into shipping a more open box. But if they do it gives Linksys a way to respond; they just lower the price of the L version to deny them way into the market.

So the L version acts a signal to competitors.

If the closed guys won the debate then I’d expect them to charge more for this version; and then use it as a way signal other vendors to stay out of the open platform space.

Very complex. Very interesting.