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Make the Web, Cloud Do Your Work So You Don’t Have To


Photo by Balleyne

While perusing around the web yesterday (after sifting through my email post-vacation), I came across this Ars Technica article discussing the new Firefox upgrade timeline. It actually follows a similar upgrade timeline that WordPress adopted after WordPress 2.0 was released.

The new policy outlines a 3-4 month window for new major releases with limited security updates for releases outside of the current stable release.

The Ars article goes on to describe the angst that has come out of the corporate community as they have been lulled into a process of having to test new releases of software to ensure compatibility with their internal firewall’d webapps that have, in no small part, been created for a specific browser – usually Internet Explorer 6 or 7.

Browser Stagnation Caused IT Stagnation

A few years ago, the stagnation of browser support was broken as Firefox and Opera started a race to implement CSS3 features that were not necessarily status quo, as a result of Internet Explorer, and were not even blessed as part of an official spec. The browser makers just started doing it.

Notably, some of these browser-specific “add-ons” to CSS dealt with things that had been desired but only usable with browser hacks: rounded corners, opacity, etc.

Apple came on the scene, particularly with iOS (then iPhone OS), and put a tremendous amount of development efforts into WebKit. WebKit is a browser framework like Gecko, the framework that Firefox and the old Netscape are built on was. Apple’s take on WebKit was Safari. Google followed suit with Chrome awhile later, also built on WebKit.

What we end up with is a browser war with higher stakes than the famed Internet Explorer-Netscape war of the 1990s. We also see a lot more innovation and one-upmanship… something that can only be good for consumers.

The Ars article describes a tenuous balance for enterprise customers. That balance is the need to support internal firewalled applications while giving users access to the public web. The money quote from the article sums up the balance nicely:

The Web is a shared medium. It’s used for both private and public sites, and the ability to access these sites is dependent on Web browsers understanding a common set of protocols and file formats (many corporate intranet sites may not in fact be accessible from the Internet itself, but the browsers used to access these sites generally have to live in both worlds).

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If developers could be sure that only Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 5, and Chrome 13 were in use on the Internet, they would be able to make substantial savings in development and testing, and would have a wealth of additional features available to use.

But they can’t assume that, and so they have to avoid desirable features or waste time working around their absence. And a major reason—not the only reason, but a substantial one—is corporate users. Corporate users who can’t update their browsers because of some persnickety internal application they have to use, but who then go and use that same browser on the public Internet. By unleashing these obsolete browsers on the world at large, these corporate users make the Web worse for everyone. Web developers have to target the lowest common denominator, and the corporations are making that lowest common denominator that much lower.

As someone who has worked on the web for more than 10 years and who has also worked in Enterprise, I agree.

I remember when I worked for the Navy and the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) was in deployment. It was a massive headache for everyone involved because the assumption with that contract was that systems could uniformly be tied together and standardized. By my understanding, they finally achieved that last year, but not until after being years late and hundreds of millions over budget.

I don’t know the final deployment as my contract with the Navy ended back in 2004. I know that proprietary systems were in place that were designed to a function and not to a standard.  When standards were introduced as necessary requisites for any system in that eco-system, the implications were huge.

This is the world we live in today where, as the Ars article points out, browsers that must live in a world of compatibility and still access the public web drag the rest of us down.

Outsource Your Shit and Focus on Your Core Business

But Ars already makes that point. I’m not making it again except to highlight the validity of their thoughts. My point is more intrinsic to startups, small businesses and entrepreneurs and I make it delicately as it has, in some ways, countered some of my thoughts in the past.

Why should you worry about building applications to a function when you can build them to a standard? Or better yet, why should you build from the ground up to a function when you can use external, cloud-based services built to a standard.

Take Microsoft’s just-announced Microsoft Office 365. Now, I don’t know anything about this product so don’t take my commentary as an endorsement in any way. We use Google Apps at WP Engine (another good example of exactly what I’m saying here).

In Office 365, you have a common piece of line-of-business software (Microsoft Office) available for a subscription and hosted in the cloud. This eliminates IT Administrators requirement for testing on the internal network. It’s on the web! Everyone has the web! And it doesn’t need (and in fact, cannot work) with non-standard browsers. And you don’t even need Microsoft’s browser to use it.

Suddenly, IT Administrators along with Microsoft have saved the Enterprise tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in man-hours testing and re-resting for OS compatibility. And suddenly, IT Administrators along with Microsoft have taken the chains off users to have freedom of choice in their browsers (which, by the way, is more than a pie in the sky idealistic thing… it’s also a cost-saving efficiency thing). And also suddenly, Microsoft has released the web to be able to thrive and not be retarded by corporate requirements.

This kind of thing makes perfect sense. Why re-invent the wheel? Why put resources into something you don’t have to? Why not let a third party, like Microsoft or Google, worry about the compatibility issues in line-of-business software.

After all, your company isn’t in the core business of building these applications. You are in the line of business of doing something else… building a product, a social network, a mobile app, a hosting company, etc. Your software should not define the cost of doing business. Your people and your product should.

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The iPhone is to Smartphones as IE6 was to Browsers

A few years ago when Apple stormed on the scene with their new, revolutionary phone that they called the iPhone, a moment in history occurred that would change the mobile space. It suddenly became possible for rich web browsing from a mobile phone. It became possible to listen to music in a natural way on your phone. Touch screens became the norm.

A year later, Apple announced their second generation phone, the iPhone 3G. With it, they opened up the ecosystem even more by allowing developers to build third party apps that could run on the iPhone. 50 million apps later, it is still the best thing about the iPhone.


Apple made some mistakes during this process, as it would naturally be assumed they would as a relative newbie to the phone manufacturing world. They took too long to open up the device to third party apps and when they did, they employed draconian and inconsistent rules that were undocumented, uncommunicated and, generally frustrating to companies building apps for the iPhone.

When their third generation phone, the iPhone 3GS emerged, there were some improvements (such as cut and paste, video and voice control), but the more frustrating aspects of the device remained unchanged. The iPhone still doesn’t provide a flash for its camera. It still doesn’t support Flash. It still can’t be tethered as was promised (at least in the United States under AT&T).

Worse, the inherent failure of the iPhone (undoubtedly expected to be it’s greatest appeal) is the restriction of the operating system to a single Apple device. I get why. But now let’s flip the card.

Google today announced the Nexus One, a new Android-powered phone that, in the words of Good Morning Silicon Valley, is “a worthy iPhone competitor“. Actually, that’s a tame phrase. Let me give you a piece of this article titled, “Google vs. Apple: There Will be Blood”:

No single device is going to “œkill” the iPhone, and that’s not really Google’s intent anyway, iPhone users being the heavy Web traffickers that they are. But Google does have a strong interest in fostering enough competition to keep Apple from dominating the mobile market, which is why it chose the strategy it did “” providing a strong and improving platform that could support multiple manufacturers offering multiple models to multiple demographic segments across multiple carriers. Google doesn’t need to tear down the iPhone; it just needs to make sure there are plenty of attractive alternatives for smartphone shoppers who for various reasons don’t feel compelled to join the Apple-AT&T axis. As an Android flagship, unlocked but initially aligned with T-Mobile, the Nexus One fits as part of that plan.

And now it might be time to note that Google is winning this battle. Besides last years flop G1 launch with T-Mobile (I’ll be honest, the thing was a brick and ran on a very early version of Android so not surprised it really didn’t go anywhere), Verizon Wireless has just launched the Droid by Motorola and the Droid Eris by HTC. They are promising three Android phones in 2010. T-Mobile is now launching with the Nexus One and Verizon Wireless should get it this spring.

AT&T will not get an Android phone as long as they have an exclusive relationship with Apple.

The road to victory is very clear and Google has the advantage. Despite Android being open source, it’s patron saint is Google. Therefore, Google has distribution interest. The more Android phones that can be sold and made – of multiple varieties – on multiple carriers – possibly including Netbooks, the more they control the market. The more Apple fails to radicalize their roadmap with the iPhone, the more they lose the market.

Let’s go back a few years. The great browser wars of the 1990s were dwindling down as NEtscape was acquired by AOL then turned into a bastard half-breed of itself. Firefox, under leadership of the Mozilla Foundation, was blazing new paths in the browser market. Microsoft had largely cooled its heels standardizing around Internet Explorer 6. No further browsers were expected to be made. The battle had been fought, the war had been won. Microsoft ruled supreme.

That was what they thought. Meanwhile, Firefox kept making progress gradually stealing market share here or there like a rogue flitting through shadows snatching purses and wallets.

This opened the door to other browsers – Opera, Safari, eventually Google Chrome – to enter the marketplace. Microsoft realized they had sat on their heels too long and finally began building Internet Explorer 7. Internet Explorer 8 would soon follow. Internet Explorer 9 is around the corner. All of the sudden, when competition increased, Microsoft ran heavy and ran hard to keep up.

This is where Apple is going.

In about 6 months, if history teaches us anything, Apple will launch their 4th generation iPhone. Conventional wisdom suggests that the fat days of Apple and AT&T operating in lockstep are over. Conventional business wisdom suggests that the iPhone must radically alter the playing field with this release to stay competitive in the market. While the iPhone still has market share, so did IE6. While Apple sits back and does incremental enhancements and call them major releases, the scrappy Android will take market share if given the opportunity.

What are your thoughts on this extremely interesting business environment?

* Photo by ColorblindPICASSO

The Dickensian 2008: A Look Back

This year might be the strangest year ever. It roared in with news of Robert Scoble having his Facebook account suspended for utilizing scripts to sync data between Plaxo and Facebook in violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service. Of course, the year ends with Facebook opening up fbConnect in a way to share that same data with anyone who so chose.

We started 2008 with CNETs Caroline McCarthy reporting that MySpace voters preferred Barack Obama on the left and Ron Paul on the right. As we know now at the end of 2008, there was one group of netroots voters that managed to be successfully heard and we now have a new President-elect. On the other side, the GOP demonstrated their complete ineptitude tapping into the grassroots by marginalizing the candidate that would have fired up their internet base. At least at the end of 2008, there are some pockets of common sense on the right, but those pockets will likely not be heard or heeded.

In the first half of 2008, ridiculous acquisitions, funding rounds and business plays flourished. An example was when job search site, Monster.com acquired San Francisco-based Affinity Labs for $61M. On contrast, companies receiving funding or valuations at the end of 2008, are doing so on devalued terms while other companies are laying off workers and cutting back contract costs in an effort to extend their runways as far as they can into the second half of 2009 or beyond.

In every way, 2008 ends in a Dickensian way, highlighting two sides of a very different coin and leaving investors and entrepreneurs with a scared and tentative look in their eyes.

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We made our annual predictions early in the year, and wanted to review those predictions for those keeping track at home.

Macworld/Apple

We said: Since Macworld is right around the corner I don’t think we will see any real new products but rather a grow what they have to meet their projections. This means upgraded iPod Touches, iPhone 2.0, iPhone SDK, upgraded Apple TV, patches to Leopard, improved Cinema Displays and upgraded Macs/Macbooks. The only thing I could see would be integration of their multi-touch technology on laptops (like the rumored sub-notebook).

What actually happened: Apple announced Time Capsule, an iPhone SDK for developing Apps for the iPhone (now available through the iTunes App Store for the iPod Touch and the iPhone 3G), iTunes movie rentals, Apple TV 2, and the now famous Macbook Air.

Accuracy: We accurately projected the iPhone SDK, Upgraded Apple TV, and the Macbook Air with multi-touch. Later in the year, we would see the iPhone 3G, improved cinema displays and the release of the new Macbook/Macbook Pro lines. We consider 100% accuracy here in 2008 with a 50% accuracy for Macworld 2008.

Microsoft

We Said: Let’s face it, Vista blows. It’s slow, doesn’t have any real innovation under the hood and takes more horsepower to run. I predict they will continue forcing it down people’s throats and in revolt people will continue to order machines with XP. On the other side of the coin, the Xbox is rocking and I predict they will announce an integrated Windows Media Center/IPTV version with HD-DVD to compete with the Playstation 3. They have a real opportunity to own the living room since Apple TV has flopped.

What actually happened: Some manufacturers, including Dell, decided that based on actual customer demand and trends (wiping pre-loaded Vista systems and installing Windows XP), computers could be shipped with XP instead. In addition, the Xbox did receive a much-needed face lift (called Xbox Experience) that we talked about here, though it did not go as far as we expected. We did not predict the emergence of Apple TV/Xbox Experience/TiVo challenger Vudu at the beginning of the year.

Accuracy: We consider our predictions to be mostly inline with actual results, but we missed or misjudged several things along the way. We claim a 60% accuracy rating here.

Web 2.0

We Said: Ok, hype over. Game over. Most “Web 2.0″ companies will go into the dust bin of history because their marketing strategy or ideas just didn’t pan out. Also, as more companies adopt these technologies into their “œEnterprise 2.0″³ strategy there will be less of a rush to create another social network or AJAX-ified web site unless it has real value. Side note – kill the term Enterprise 2.0. The enterprise hasn’t changed, the apps have just gotten easier to develop.

What actually happened: We feel that this was an overly-generalized prediction. It could have been more specifically Enterprise 2.0, as opposed to Web 2.0. That said, there was an actual push and adoption into the Enterprise space. Most notable of all Enterprise 2.0 companies was Yammer which is build as a standalone Twitter for Enterprise. Yammer won the top award at Techcrunch50.

Accuracy: Though there certainly has been more focus in recent months on utility over “bling” (Ajaxified sites, as we put it), we don’t necessarily believe that corporate Web 2.0 has advanced far beyond “Corporate blogging”, but with Yammer like companies popping up, we’ll claim a 40% accuracy rating.

Twitter

We Said: Twitter will get bought – it is a cool tool but not a lot money to made behind it. It needs to be part of a bigger whole. They also need better infrastructure because they crash whenever there is a big tech conference. CES will be a big test for them.

What actually happened: Twitter did not get bought, and in fact, took a third round of funding. It may have been their failures of June/July that prevented an acquisition, and there certainly were rumors of a Facebook acquisition of Twitter recently. The company seems to have turned a corner on reliability, and have a business model in mind, even if it hasn’t been outlined. In addition, Twitter development continues to proceed with a release of an all new Twitter API in 2009.

Accuracy: 0% – hands down, we were wrong. The company continues to confound even the experts.

Pownce

We said: Pownce will die – Twitter won this battle. Game over.

What actually happened: Pownce died.

Accuracy: 100%. ‘Nuff said.

Digg

We said: Digg will get bought – After rumors of a sale for the last 18 months, they finally get bought by a media behemoth. Sale price? $300 million.

What actually happened: While Digg did not actually get bought, they are bleeding money as reported by TechCrunch this weekend. According to the TechCrunch, the Microsoft search deal which was supposed to bring in over $100M over three years is clearly not doing that at all.

Accuracy: We want to take some credit for seeing the dark side of Digg, but clearly cannot based on our actual predictions. 0%.

Yahoo

We Said: Yahoo will continue to struggle and have massive layoffs – Yahoo didn’t change much with their executive restructuring and they have really sucked at integrating their products. They are going to get hit with lower stock prices and will have to cut the fat out.

What actually happened: What didn’t happen, might be the more accurate question. We had the Microsoft-Yahoo deal that was on, then off, then on, then off. The forced resignation, by all accounts, of CEO Jerry Yang, the hostile board takeover (“hostile” in the loose sense, not the SEC sense) by Carl Icahn, and the devaluation of Yahoo stock to approximately half of what it opened the year.

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As for the predicted Yahoo layoffs… Well, it’s such a bloodbath that sites like this exist to track the chaos.

Accuracy: Can we score a 110%?

HD-DVD vs Bluray

We said: HD-DVD and BluRay will not have a winner, still – This year is just going to continue the fight with hybrid drives getting cheaper so by 2009 the choice will be irrelevant.

What actually happened: Bluray won.

Accuracy: 0%

Google and Wall Street

We Said: Google’s honeymoon with Wall Street will end – With the acquisition of DoubleClick there is more of a chance for Google to fail. Along with it trying to change to many sectors, Healthcare and Energy to name a few, it will need to shore up its core competencies before people start to trash it and the stock will be worth half what it is today.

What actually happened: Everyones honeymoon with Wall Street ended with the collapse of the economy. Google has lost over 60% of it’s value, falling from a Jan 2 open of $685/share to the current trading number of $298/share.

Accuracy: We will claim 75% accuracy on this. We can’t claim 100% because the reason for the value loss is not similar. It’s just the nature of the market at this time.

Facebook

We Said: They are a necessary evil right now and their beacon debacle will need to be fixed in order for them to go IPO. They will be the new IPO darling as analysts are ready to trash Google.

What actually happened: Facebook did not IPO in 2008, though they had a significant investment from Microsoft at a highly questionable valuation of $15B. Experts like Kara Swisher don’t expect an IPO until 2010. I might add that with the economy the way it is, pre-collapse predictions of 2010 might still be ambitious. I personally doubt Facebook will ever IPO.

Accuracy: 0%

Bringing 2008 In for a Landing

It’s always tricky to really predict a year in advance. With the economy and turbulence in the various sectors and markets, 2009 will be highly tricky to predict. Predict we will do, early in the new year, though so stick around.