Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Podcasts: What Are They Good For?

Apple is apparently getting nasty with some people who use the term “podcast”, claiming infringement on their iPod trademark. I’m not surprised by this: unless a trademark is actively protected the courts may strike it down, e.g. Aspirin lost its trademark status in the USA, though not in Canada. I’m happy about Apple’s activity, because the term “podcast” helps reinforce the dominance of the iPod, a closed-architecture and DRM-ridden music player. I hope the term gets replaced by, for instance, “audiocast” and “videocast”, as promoted by Robert Scoble among others. One particular advantage of these terms is that they distinguish between audio and video (duh), an important distinction when it comes to the experience of the listener/viewer (see?—we don’t even have a term that covers both, unless you want to stoop to something like “consumer”).

When do audiocasts get listened to? Usually when people play them on their digital music players while travelling. This includes all those commuters who want to get something out of a commute that they’d rather not have to put up with. I haven’t been a commuter for a while, so I listen to audiocasts only rarely, on my computer, usually trying to do something else at the same time but not succeeding. Audiocasts are primarily for people in situations where they can focus on listening without giving up anything significant, like sitting on a bus, driving or cycling in traffic that doesn’t require much attention, walking, or sitting in a waiting room. Those of us who don’t do that much of the above have little use for audiocasts. I can read much faster than I can listen to people talking. If you’re going to create an audiocast, fine, but please also supply a transcript. (Clearly I’m referring here to spoken audiocasts, not music audiocasts — but music audiocasts are generally just playlists.)

Videocasts don’t have the same set of use cases as audiocasts: you’d better not be watching video while driving, although it’s fine if you’re on the bus. The other big difference is that your portable video player probably has a small screen and you’d prefer to watch on something bigger. Putting these two factors together, video is much less attractive than audio for a portable device. But on a computer with a decently-sized screen (or a TV set that’s connected), it’s the opposite: video is much more attractive. I can watch videocasts “efficiently”, making good use of both my eyes and ears. (I’m fond of The Show with Ze Frank and Rocketboom, both of which appear every weekday, as well as one-offs such as Pancakes!.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Upcoming meeting with ICT Toronto

For those of you in Toronto, there is an interesting conversation taking place about ICT Toronto, an organization established to “improve the long-term competitiveness of the Toronto Region’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector so that it continues to be a leading source of employment and wealth creation”. ICT Toronto was established months ago and because there is no publicly visible indication of progress, concerns have been raised by a couple of people prominent in the TorCamp community: see blog posts by Joey deVilla and Mark Kuznicki. If you’re in Toronto and have an interest in this, please comment either here or, preferably, on those two other blogs which are far more popular than this one.

Mark has arranged an October 5th meeting between ICT Toronto and members of the TorCamp community, and I’ll be there. Below is my suggestion for what ICT Toronto could do. It’s based on my assumption that ICT-T is taking the typical business-booster approach and trying to attract companies to locate here. While I have nothing against encouraging a company to open an R&D centre here employing 1000 people, this neglects the small companies which I believe are crucial to achieving ICT-T’s goals, particularly now that in a Web 2.0 world a company often doesn’t need to be as big as it did earlier.

I suggest that ICT Toronto take a two-track approach that addresses the needs of the small separately from those of the large.

Specifically, ICT-T could create workspace(s) in good location(s) where very small ICT businesses could operate and share ideas and egg each other on, including the single-person outfits who currently work in isolation at home or in coffee shops. Obvious locations are the King/Spadina new-media zone and Liberty Village (perhaps starting with the latter, where there is reasonably cheap space available quickly). This would be an type of space. It would be somewhat similar to the existing Toronto Business Development Centre and MaRS Incubator, but those are pretty full already, and the new space would have some key differences:
- it would be specific to ICT businesses;
- it would provide only office and meeting/kitchen space (one TBDC tenant is a martial arts centre, while the MaRS Incubator's first listed feature is "Private outfitted wet labs with fume hoods, R.O. water, vacuum, benching, emergency power and MillQ"); and
- it wouldn't spend any money on training programs or advisory services (part of the idea being that businesses could help each other much more because they're working in roughly the same area).

If ICT-T did that, it would not only create a launchpad for ICT businesses but a launchpad for itself: a dialogue space where it could get some quick feedback on its ideas and activities, and enthusiastic input too, instead of creating plans in a semi-vacuum and sending them off in hopes of getting something back. Ideally ICT-T itself would locate there, instead of in relative isolation at City Hall or wherever. Furthermore, creating such a workspace would give ICTT a visible accomplishment much faster than ambitious larger-scale projects would; if ICT-T doesn't do something soon it risks fading into obscurity.

Comments welcome.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

"Secret questions"

Web 2.0 sites usually need people to log in, with a user ID and password. Many of these have a feature to deal with a forgotten password: the site asks you a question to which only you know the answer. (Sometimes they call it a secret question, though really it’s only the answer that's supposed to be secret.)

It’s a good approach, but most sites blow it by not actually allowing you to specify such a question. They give you a list of questions to choose from, and if none of the questions are suitable, tough luck.

Why might questions be unsuitable? Let’s look at an example, one of the worst I’ve seen: the new free AOL.

Here are the choices of question:
  • The last 4 digits of your Social Security Number: Lots of people have access to this kind of information. It’s not particularly secret (even if it should be).
  • Where were you born?: Not much help to someone who’s always lived in the same city.
  • What is your favorite restaurant?: If I sign up today and three years from now I forget my password, will I still remember what was my favorite restaurant on this particular day?
  • What’s the name of your school?: Yeah, it’s really hard for an impostor to answer this one.
  • Who is your favorite singer?: See “favorite restaurant”.
  • What is your favorite town?
  • What is your favorite song?
  • What is your favorite food?
  • What is your favorite film?
  • What is your favorite book?
  • Where was your first job?: I could pick this one and specify that the answer is “I.P. Sharp Associates”. But three years from now I might answer it “Montreal”. Besides, anyone with access to my résumé could answer this. Mine is online and I make it easy to find.
  • What is your pet’s name?: Usually not hard for an impostor to find out. (Oh, and my wife and I have five pets, not one.)
  • Where did you grow up?: Again, not hard for a miscreant to determine.
If you build a Web 2.0 site, please do the right thing: let the user type in their own question, and give a bit of advice as to what constitutes a good one. If you like you can include some stock questions to choose from, but please make them good ones. (And no, “mother’s maiden name” isn’t always a good one either. A lot of companies even use that as the only choice!)

HP and Web 2.0

Naturally I’m going to talk about a Web 2.0 angle on the mess at HP.

In a Web 2.0 world where anyone can publish, it’s much more difficult for a corporation to control a story than back when it was just the traditional media who had to be influenced. To some extent this is because spin doctors haven’t yet learned how to effectively influence bloggers etc., something I’m sure they’ll get better at, but there is also the speed and volume of public commentary. By the time a corporation manages to issue another press release to try to control the damage caused by the last one, it’s too late.

Corporate people are going to have to start thinking more like politicians, who worry about public opinion. It’s not surprising to me that senior officials at a megacorporation like HP were so insular that they only thought about the issue as an internal matter, and were willing to engage in questionable activities as long as they seemed to be “not unlawful”, in the words of Kevin Hunsaker, the HP lawyer who oversaw the project.

Hunsaker was also the company’s Chief Ethics Officer. Why on earth did that position go to a lawyer? Lawyers deal with law, not ethics. I think the answer is that “ethics” have become corporatized, something that I don’t think will prove to be sustainable.

Web 2.0 empowers the small, relative to the big. Big corporations would do well to recognize this and react. But those ships are too big to turn around quickly. And I think that corporate culture is the most difficult thing for a company to change.

When I was much younger I thought I’d like to work for HP some day; it was the only large company I really admired at the time. Now, not so much.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

One way that Web 2.0 is a positive socioeconomic force

In an earlier post I commented on how Web 2.0 can contribute to deflation, unemployment, etc. Now I’d like to mention one way in which it can help people economically. is a Web 2.0 site that brings certain borrowers and lenders together. The lenders are people who can spare a bit of cash, US$25 or more, and the borrowers are people in less-developed countries who need a small amount of money to establish or expand their small businesses. For instance, I just lent US$100 to Kukuya Kishil Nyare of Isinya, Kenya, as part of the US$450 she needs to buy 4 steers to restock her family’s farm. If you’re reading this on my website rather than through a feedreader, you can see her photo in a box on the left side of the page, together with a meter showing how far along Kiva is in reaching the needed $450. If you see someone else there, it’s because her whole amount has now been raised — while there are plenty more people who are looking for similar loans, including whoever is shown. (UPDATE: When I checked back less than 24 hours later, the whole $450 had already been raised.)

Microcredit” loans have been around for decades, and indeed all the coordination with Kiva’s borrowers is done by existing microcredit organizations. What’s new is that anyone with an Internet connection who has $25 to spare can now lend it — 100% of it, no administrative fees — to someone who can accomplish quite a bit with that money once it’s pooled with the $25 (or more) of a few other people.

In the past, an amount like $25 was just too small to be useful, even for such small loans as microcredit. The administrative overhead of dealing with large numbers of small amounts was impractical. Now, Web 2.0 and Kiva lower the barrier to entry of being a microcredit lender to just $25 and an Internet connection. As CNN Money put it, “Be a global financier...on a shoestring”.

Can you spare $25? You’ll almost certainly get it back, and instead of interest you’ll get the satisfaction that you’re helping Web 2.0 someone improve their economic situation.