Thursday, October 26, 2006

Your business plan is wrong...

Every business plan is wrong. The moment an entrepreneur hits "save" or "print" the plan is out of date. Things change. In some cases you grow ahead of plan (like portfolio company Jingle Networks whose 1-800-FREE411 service has captured 3% of the US Diirectory Assistance market in one year) and are faced with the challenges of successfully scaling to satisfy user demand. In other cases you find that some of your initial assumptions are no longer valid. A competitor emerges. New technologies emerge. You are unable to build a team as fast as you had planned. Distribution channel deals take longer than expected. Customer adoption is different than what you expected.

Either way - it is critical for an entrepreneur to be able to listen to the market, their team and their customers and make changes to their plan as necessary. I've always said that I'd much rather bet on an entrepreneur who can adapt to change rather than an entrepreneur who is convinced that they have the ability to predict the future. But adapting to change is hard. How do you maintain flexibility yet still preserve a goal oriented culture? What do you say to investors who backed your initial plan? When is a data point an outlier and when is it a warning bell? Munjal Shah, CEO/Founder of Riya is doing a wonderful job blogging about his experiences in transforming Riya.

sent the packet out ahead of time and like a good CEO I called each member to brief them on the issue. I like to structure my board meetings around one big decision for us to make each meeting. I don't feel boards are best served by getting lost in the weeds, but rather focusing on the big company changing decisions and making them.

I presented two main options: Stay focused on face recognition and photo sharing or shift to Visual search. We discussed it for a while and people spoke up in turn.

Some said, "It is too early to take such a turn."
Others said, "Web 2.0 is all about social search are we sure we don't want to focus on that as a third alternative."
Another said, "Why do you think you can do image and face similarity? I thought doing anything globally was harder than local."
Yet another said, "This makes a lot more sense and is worth trying while we have the resources."

We spent almost two hours discussing it. Some of the board members had a major concern with the new strategy: what would people use the visual search for. They weren't asking, would people search, but rather, what were the use cases. Was it just porn, clip art, celebrities, and sporting events like people use Google and Yahoo Images for today? I believed that the applications would be emergent in that the new capabilities of visual search would allow new types of searches that traditional linguistic image search didn't. However, when asked for specifics I didn't have many good answers. Some folks were clearly uneasy about this and they spoke up. They were right. We needed to figure this out, but I intuitively felt that letting people search this way would drive a new class of searches even if I couldn't articulate them all today. Being seasoned board members, however, they stated their concern and backed off enough so that psychologically it became my issue to solve instead of my issue to defend the strategy to them. In the end, despite this concern all of the board members felt going in this new direction was better than staying where we were. We voted one by one and boom we had a decision. Let's do it.

I credit the board for making this decision and making it quickly.

They were supportive and realized that making hard decisions quickly is best. As a group of investors, they didn't hem and haw. They weren't tentative. They didn't let the politics of their firms interfer with Riya. They didn't say, "I told my partners Riya was X three months ago and now how am I going to explain this shift." This is critical and showed their own leadership. It was one of the reasons I chose John, Peter, David, and Neal as investors.

To all those entrepreneurs who look to take on venture capital, I advise you to find seasoned board members who are as supportive as these four. As wrong as it seems, a company is not insulated from the position and challenges of that board member and his VC firm. This is one of the reasons I strongly pefer to have senior guys at the table.

I haven't talked about my board and investors much so here some history.

John Malloy who had been the first investor in Paypal had seen Paypal change ideas three times. He understood better than I did that the most important part of a consumer Internet play was to get into the market and learn. He understood that Riya would take time to develop the technology but he still encouraged us to move fast and get to market. Once we did and we needed to listen and turn right, he was supportive without reservation. I've actually learned the most from John because he has skills in areas in which I know so little. My only regret with John is that I don't listen to him as much as I should and find I kick myself for it later.

David Hayden (who is the CEO of Jeteye ) is my strategic alter ego. He always challenges my core premise and makes sure I've thought it through. David was with me as a board member in Andale when I was a 26 year old CEO. He was the only non-VC on the board. I can't tell you how many times he provided me with aircover and taught what to do and not to do. Being a young CEO is one of the most frightening things you can do at 26. David helped me through it, including at times telling me to grow up and deal with it. Because of this trust between us, he is the most vocal and challenging of my strategies. It is great. I know he is challenging my ideas and not me because of our long relationship.

Peter is the fourth co-founder of Riya. He and I came up with the seeds of the idea. I was afraid he would be the most attached, but frankly he was already one step ahead of me. He was already thinking of the implications and challenges of the new strategy and starting all of talking about specific challenges with this strategy and what we had to do to meet them. I've talked about him a ton and care about him deeply.

Neal Dempsey is my newest board member. Neal and I were just getting to know each other. This was our third board meeting. I was most tenative about his reaction. Having just invested ... would he be pissed? Quite the contrary. You could tell that Neal had done this before and was a pro who had sat on many boards with many changes. He listened carefully watched the debate and weighed in. Neal Sadaranganey (who kept his promise to really dig in and help me build Riya) told me, "This is not a shift from our prespective. We always thought Riya had a bigger opportunity as a web-wide search engine. It was you (the mgmt team) who had said web-wide was not doable for recognition. We had wanted public search all along."

So the decision went forward.

I breathed a sigh of relief after the meeting. Most people think a CEO is at the top an can do whatever he wants. This is just not true. While I don't strictly report to these four, they are my biggest shareholders and it is important that I get their input and support. If they disagree it is important that I hear why and consider it.

That being said, I've realized that all too frequently CEOs, let a board drive decisions and then take no responsibility when it fails. For example, "I told the board not go that way, but they did and so now the disaster is their fault." Or my favorite example, "The board has decided we need to cut staff. Sorry team I fought but I lost."

Both of these are pure crap. A CEO should always keep the business focused on what he believes will make the most money for shareholders and what he believes is right. I realized when running my last company that the most important thing is to guide the company to success not to what you want or what the board wants, but rather what the customers want.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Adobe tries again with e-books

By Martin LaMonica

Story last modified Tue Oct 24 06:23:29 PDT 2006

Adobe Systems thinks it's time to revisit electronic books.
The publishing software company on Tuesday is scheduled to release a beta of an e-book viewer and manager called Digital Editions at its Max 2006 customer conference in Las Vegas.

The software is meant to be a stripped-down and more flexible e-book reader, compared with its current PDF-based reader, Adobe Reader, the San Jose, Calif.-based company said.

Digital Editions is a 2.5MB free download that works as an add-in to Adobe's Flash Player 9. The software can read PDF pages as well as XHTML-formatted content, which makes it suitable for both longer texts, such as books, and shorter texts, such as magazine articles. Digital publishers can combine text with Flash videos and animations.

Electronic books were touted in the late 1990s as a replacement for paper books, but they have never become widely used. Companies continue to create specialized digital text-reading devices, such as the recently released Sony Reader.

Adobe sees the potential for more mainstream adoption, mainly via laptop PCs or mobile personal digital assistants rather than via specialized readers. More people are consuming digital content online, such as videos, and more publishers are adopting digital formats, said Bill McCoy, general manager of Adobe ePublishing Solutions

"We see there are bright spots in e-book adoption. And consumers, especially the younger generation of digital consumers, expect to get content digitally," he said.

Digital Editions will be able to read PDF files but will not include all the features of the Adobe Reader.

The new format will be able to reformat text according to screen size, instead of keeping to the same pagination no matter what the device. For example, the software will reformat a page across three columns, as opposed to two, when the user expands the viewer size.

The first release of Digital Editions will be a beta test version for Microsoft Windows, Adobe said. It is expected to be released in a final version early next year.

A Macintosh version is due later this year. A Linux version is also planned, but it will not be ready until after the Adobe Player 9 for Linux is released in the first quarter next year.

Adobe expects to create versions of the software for mobile devices as well.

In conjunction with the reader software, Adobe is planning a hosted digital rights management service, called Adobe Digital Editions Protection Service.

The service, expected in a beta form later this year, will allow publishers to impose some access rights on content and give consumers the ability to read that content on various devices, McCoy explained.

Also next year, Adobe will add support for the Digital Editions format in its Creative Suite of publishing tools.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Immigrants Sending $45 Billion Home

Immigrants Sending $45 Billion Home
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006; A09

Immigrant workers are sending more money than ever to their families in Latin America, but two new studies show that only a small portion of the billions of dollars directed there has gone to economic development.

A report released yesterday by the Inter-American Development Bank estimates that immigrants living in the United States will send $45 billion to family members this year, representing a steady increase from about $2 billion in 1980.

That money, known as remittances, is five times as large as official development assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean. Remittances have grown as more migrants, often unemployed in their homelands, have come north in search of work. At the same time, governments and international development groups have busily debated how to leverage remittance flows to create jobs and lasting investments.

"We know that this is a very important poverty-alleviation program for 20 million families [in Latin America and the Caribbean]," said Donald Terry, manager of the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank. "The big question is can we turn this into a local economic development program."

About $3 billion in remittances will go to El Salvador this year, or about 15 percent of that country's gross domestic product and more money per capita than flows to Mexico, which will receive $24 billion from immigrants living in the United States.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, nearly 90 percent of immigrants living in the District, Maryland and Virginia regularly send money to their home countries, totaling an estimated $2.2 billion this year. World Bank researchers, who will release a report later this month, found that the overall impact of remittances on Latin American economies is modest at best. For every one percent increase in the share of remittances to a country's gross domestic product, the fraction of the population living in poverty is reduced by about 0.4 percent.

Humberto Lopez, who co-authored the upcoming World Bank report "Close to Home: The Development Impact of Remittances in Latin America," said the money sent home by migrant workers cannot be seen as a substitute for good economic policies.

"The countries that benefit the most are the countries with the better investment environment and the countries with the better-educated population," Lopez said. Remittances "are probably more an opportunity than any other thing."

To spur greater development and poverty reduction, the Inter-American Development Bank has advocated greater access to savings accounts for remittance recipients and participation in micro-finance institutions, which offer small loans to remittance recipients.

Most of the money immigrant workers send to their families is used for basic needs, such as food, medicine and shelter, but more than half of the immigrants surveyed by the Inter-American Development Bank said that they would like to invest a portion of that money. But the majority of Latin America's financial institutions don't have programs that help the families of migrant workers, who are often poor and rural, open savings accounts or start small businesses.

"Poor people save," Terry said. "Poor people will invest if you give them the opportunity to do that."

The development bank's survey put the percent of remittances available for investment at 15 to 20 percent, or about $12 billion. Nearly 30 percent of people who send money home have used it to buy property, about 1 percent have helped start a business, and less than 5 percent have opened a savings account back home.

Governments have had more success leveraging remittances sent home by community groups formed by immigrants living in the United States. Several years ago, Mexico started a matching grant program, which challenges immigrants to raise money for development and infrastructure projects in their home towns. The government matches the funds three-to-one. The Pan American Development Foundation has a similar program with Banco Agrícola SA, a Salvadoran bank. Next week it plans to begin school repairs in Intipuca, a home town to many Salvadorans in the Washington area. Comunidad del Esteron, a District-based group, raised $9,400 for the project and the bank put up the rest of the money.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Biggest Opening Weekend for Hollywood Simultaneous Release

A press release from IMAX

Biggest Opening Weekend for Hollywood Simultaneous Release

The First-Ever Hollywood Feature Film in IMAX(R) 3D Opens to Sold Out Shows and Record Advanced Sales

NEW YORK, Nov. 16 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ - The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience, the first-ever Hollywood feature film converted to IMAX(R) 3D, set the record for the highest opening weekend for a Hollywood simultaneous release with just over $2.1 million in box office in IMAX(R) theatres. The announcement was made today by Warner Bros. Pictures and IMAX Corporation (Nasdaq:IMAX; TSX:IMX). In the first five days, the film grossed $3.0 million in 59 IMAX theatres in North America, with an impressive per screen average of $50,847.

IMAX theatres in all regions of the country reported sold out shows, very strong advanced sales and an outstanding response from audiences to the IMAX 3D format. Some highlights include:

- National Amusements, which opened four new IMAX theatres timed to the film's release on November 10 (White Plains, NY; Buckland Hills, Connecticut; Louisville, Kentucky; Springdale, Ohio), experienced sold out shows in all of their IMAX Theatres as well as record group sales.

- The new release Comcast IMAX 3D Theatre at Jordan's Furniture in Reading, Massachusetts, which also opened timed to the film's release, was the number one performing theatre in the entire IMAX network with an opening gross of $159,000.

- The Henry Ford IMAX Theatre in Dearborn, Michigan reported sold out shows throughout the weekend, and every 10am and 12pm weekday shows through to the Christmas holidays have already sold out.

- In New York, the Loews IMAX Theatre at Lincoln Square grossed $132,000 in the first five days, and all of the 10:30am weekday shows are sold out to school groups through the end of December.

- The Navy Pier IMAX Theatre in Chicago, Illinois sold out every show throughout the weekend.

"We believe that this record-breaking opening weekend is a harbinger of good things to come. The audience response has been exceptional," said IMAX's Co-Chairman and Co-CEO's, Richard L. Gelfond and Bradley J. Wechsler. "In fact, based on preliminary research conducted at select IMAX theatres nationwide, audiences are reporting an incredible 96% satisfaction rate and an equally impressive 93% intent to recommend response, which are the most positive results we've received for an IMAX digitally re-mastered film to date. This is translating into strong box office results and strong word of mouth, which bodes well for the legs of the film."

"The reaction to The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience has been nothing short of outstanding," said Dan Fellman, President of Domestic Distribution, Warner Bros. Pictures. "The IMAX 3D element has brought in new audiences that may not have traditionally gone to see the film, and moreover, has drawn audiences in at a premium price for The IMAX Experience(R). Based on the box office success thus far, we are confident that the film's momentum will continue throughout this year, and become a holiday classic in years to come."

"We are so pleased to share another record-breaking film - our biggest one yet - with Warner Bros. Pictures," said Greg Foster, Chairman and President of IMAX Filmed Entertainment. "The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience was the ideal first film to be converted into IMAX 3D because it represents a convergence of the perfect elements for IMAX's format. With Bob Zemeckis' visionary approach, combined with the talents of Tom Hanks and a wonderful story with wide family appeal, this film delivers everything that The IMAX Experience should be. We believe this is the future of moviegoing as we know it, and is just the beginning of what is to come from IMAX."

The Polar Express has undergone a process by which the conventional 2D, computer-generated film is converted into 3D and then digitally re-mastered into IMAX's larger than life format using IMAX DMR(R) technology. Once the IMAX DMR process is complete, the film format for The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience is 10 times larger than its original. With special IMAX 3D glasses, the movie appears to have depth beyond and in front of the screen - adding to the already stunning visual clarity. When combined with the more than 12,000 watts of digital surround sound in IMAX theatres, moviegoers to The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience are guaranteed an immersive and extraordinary cinematic experience.

Castle Rock Entertainment presents, in association with Shangri-La Entertainment, a Playtone / ImageMovers / Golden Mean Production of a Robert Zemeckis Film: Tom Hanks in The Polar Express. Directed by Robert Zemeckis from a screenplay by Zemeckis & William Broyles, Jr., the film is produced by Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Gary Goetzman and William Teitler and is based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. Tom Hanks, Jack Rapke and Chris Van Allsburg are the executive producers.

The production team includes directors of photography Don Burgess, A.S.C. and Robert Presley; production designers Rick Carter and Doug Chiang; and editors Jeremiah O'Driscoll & R. Orlando Duenas. Senior visual effects supervisors are Ken Ralston and Jerome Chen. Co-producer is Steven Boyd. Music score is by Alan Silvestri, and original songs by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri.

The Polar Express will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company. Soundtrack album on Warner Sunset/Reprise Records. This film is rated G by the MPAA.

About IMAX Corporation

Founded in 1967, IMAX Corporation is one of the world's leading entertainment technology companies. IMAX's businesses include the creation and delivery of the world's best cinematic presentations using proprietary IMAX and IMAX 3D technology, and the development of the highest quality digital production and presentation. IMAX has developed revolutionary technology called IMAX DMR (Digital Re-mastering) that makes it possible for virtually any 35mm film to be transformed into the unparalleled image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience. The IMAX brand is recognized throughout the world for extraordinary and immersive family entertainment experiences. As of September 30, 2004, there were more than 235 IMAX theatres operating in 35 countries.

IMAX(R), IMAX(R) 3D, IMAX DMR(R) and The IMAX Experience(R) are trademarks of IMAX Corporation. More information can be found at www.imax.com.

SOURCE IMAX Corporation 11/16/2004 /
CONTACT: Media: IMAX Corporation, New York, Romi Schutzer, (212) 821-0144, rschutzer@imax.com;
Business Media: Sloane & Company, New York, Whit Clay, (212) 446-1864, wclay@sloanepr.com;
Entertainment Media: Newman & Company, Los Angeles, Al Newman, (818) 784-2130, asn@newman-co.com;
Media: Warner Bros. Pictures, Los Angeles, Jan Craft, (818) 954-2279, jan.craft@warnerbros.com;
Analysts: IMAX Corporation, New York, Cheryl Cramer, (212) 821-0121, ccramer@imax.com/ (IMX. IMAX)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Could a 30-in. monitor help you do your job faster?

Could a 30-in. monitor help you do your job faster?
Todd Weiss, Computerworld - IDG News ServiceWed Oct 11, 12:33 PM ET
Providing employees with 30-in. computer monitors can boost worker productivity at companies where 17-in. or 19-in. monitors are typically used, according to a French consultant hired for a study sponsored by Apple.

The study, which evaluated Apple?s 30-inch Apple Cinema Display, concluded that large screens can offer gains of up to 50 percent to 65 percent in productivity on a variety of specific office tasks and can earn back their extra costs in time savings over several years. The 30-in. display costs $1,999.

But other experts say those conclusions are wrong, arguing that the productivity improvement estimates are too high and that using two monitors side by side would likely be a better productivity booster than one larger monitor. The 40-page study was conducted by Andreas Pfeiffer, principal of Paris-based Pfeiffer Consulting, for Apple, which paid for the research.

Pfeiffer looked at a range of computing tasks, from moving data between Microsoft Word and Excel files to image manipulation using Adobe Photoshop. In addition to studying the 30-in. LCD display from Apple, Pfeiffer also did the comparison using a 17-in. Samsung SyncMaster 172x LCD monitor. The Apple monitor has an optimal resolution of 2560 pixels by 1600 pixels, compared with 1280 pixels by 1024 pixels for the Samsung monitor.

The productivity gains, he said, occur because workers using larger monitors can avoid repetitive tasks such as switching between overlapping application windows. Instead, they can have more windows open side-by-side on a larger monitor.

The time savings are for commonly performed tasks and not meant to indicate overall productivity increases for workers, Pfeiffer said. Using a larger screen will only improve specific tasks where data is moved or manipulated quickly.

Pfeiffer?s testing showed time savings of 13.63 seconds when moving files between folders using the larger screen ? 15.7 seconds compared to 29.3 seconds on the 17-in. monitor ? for a productivity gain of 46.45 percent. The testing showed a 65.09 percent productivity gain when dragging and dropping between images ? a task that took 6.4 seconds on the larger monitor compared to 18.3 seconds using the smaller screen. And cutting and pasting cells from Excel spreadsheets resulted in a 51.31 percent productivity gain ? a task that took 20.7 seconds on the larger monitor versus 42.6 seconds on the smaller screen.

?There?s a very, very clear and strong correlation between screen size and productivity,? Pfeiffer said. ?If you?re used to a having a 15-in. or 17-in. laptop and then go to a smaller resolution laptop, you can realize [the difference]. There are certain things that can really slow you down.?

A larger monitor is as important as higher resolution, which allows more of an image to be shown on the screen, he said. ?Of course individual behavior will impact productivity,? he said. ?A user who insists on using [program] menus will be slower than one who uses keyboard shortcuts, for instance.?

But several personal productivity experts who evaluate how hardware and work habits affect productivity disagreed with Pfeiffer?s findings.

?I can surf the Net on one monitor and do something else on the other,? said Peggy Duncan, an Atlanta-based personal productivity expert and principal of PSC Press. ?It all goes back to seeing more stuff at one time. But, in my opinion, productivity is increased more by using dual monitors.?

Laura Stack, owner of The Productivity Pro consulting firm in Denver, said Pfeiffer?s estimated productivity gains are way too high. She would estimate a maximum 5 percent productivity gain for workers using a larger monitor. ?But you?re not going to see the boost in productivity you?ll see by adding a second screen,? which could increase productivity as much as 30 percent, Stack said.

?People are not robots,? Stack said. ?It?s impossible to see those kinds of productivity gains? as measured in the Pfeiffer study.

Neen James, a personal productivity expert in Doylestown, Pa., who runs Neen James Communications, said a single larger screen could provide health benefits for workers such as less eye squinting, but she agreed that dual monitors would likely offer more verifiable productivity gains. ?Those sorts of claims are fabulous from a marketing point of view,? she said of the study, ?but you can make statistics say anything.?

Another productivity expert, however, said that either solution ? a single large monitor or dual displays ? could help workers, depending on what they do. ?I think it would be a very personal decision,? said Jan Jasper, principal of New York-based Jasper Productivity Solutions. ?There?s no contest to having more space [to work].?

Akilesh Bajaj, an MIS professor at the College of Business Administration at the University of Tulsa, reviewed the Pfeiffer report but said more research is needed before accurate conclusions are reached. ?There?s a lot of image processing [in the study] so it?s easy to see where [the larger screen] would increase productivity,? Bajaj said. But anecdotal remarks from colleagues estimated that they would not see substantial gains in their own work from having a larger screen, he said.

One multiple-monitor fan, Martin Doucet, owner of Vaixe, a small Montreal-based book publishing company, said he uses one primary 19-in. CRT monitor and two additional 17-in. CRT monitors to get his work done more efficiently in his home office. Doucet said he has been using the system for two years, with one screen for manuscript proofreading, another to follow the author?s story plan and the third for communicating via e-mail or instant messaging.

?Having that much room makes it easy,? he said. ?I have everything at a glance. It saves time because you don?t have to ALT-Tab all the time.?

Apple?s 30-in. display hasn?t had much competition in that size range since its introduction, but Samsung Electronics America will debut its own 30-in. LCD monitor later this month at an estimated $1,999, said Andy Weis, a product marketing manager at Ridgefield Park, N.J.-based Samsung. The company has not done any specific research on productivity increases tied to larger screens, he said

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Torvalds takes bite of Mac mini

October 11, 2006 1:16 PM PDT
Linus Torvalds has picked up one of Apple's new Intel-based Mac minis to play with, but the Linux creator still prefers Apple's old PowerPC architecture for his primary desktop machine.

"I'm actually still running a G5, but I also have a Mac mini," Torvalds revealed in an e-mail to ZDNet Australia.

The Linux creator has been running an Apple G5 since at least March 2005, switching from a normal x86-based desktop sometime before that. At that stage he attributed the switch to the importance of IBM's Power architecture as well as a desire to try a new system.

Since then, however, Apple has stopped using PowerPC chips, bringing its machines into line with other vendors by adopting Intel's new x86 multiple-core CPUs.

While Torvalds said he liked the aesthetics of the mini, he still had concerns about Apple's hardware, so the Intel machine remains more of a plaything than anything else.

"I like the design, and it's the right form-factor to be a replacement machine for my wife and daughter, but sadly, Apple screwed up the firmware in various stupid ways," he said.

"I'm not actually willing to really use it myself since it's the old Yonah-based set-up (Intel Core) rather than the newer (and better) Merom (Intel Core 2). So it's kind of a toy to play around with.

"Apple has Core 2-based machines too, but those all have better PC equivalents without the Apple headache, so I'm not interested in them."

Torvalds said Apple had introduced problems by designing its machines in a way that made them different from standard desktop PCs. This had created difficulty getting common open source software (eg X-windows and the GRUB boot manager) to work easily, even using Apple's Boot Camp software to allow multiple operating systems to boot on the same machine.

Apple's decision to use Intel's Extensive Firmware Interface (EFI) has proven particularly problematic. The technology is a replacement for the traditional BIOS PC bootstrapping system.

"They fixed some of it with the firmware upgrade, but it has had various really annoying stupid bugs in it, so quite frankly, I'd rather just have a regular PC in a nice form-factor instead," said Torvalds.

Monday, October 09, 2006

'Office 2.0' start-ups knock on business doors

'Office 2.0' start-ups knock on business doors

By Martin LaMonica

Story last modified Mon Oct 09 06:33:44 PDT 2006

Attempts to unseat Microsoft Office look more likely to come from an army of ants than from one giant foe.
Several start-ups are developing online services that handle tasks people typically carry out with desktop applications like those in the popular productivity suite. And at the Office 2.0 Conference, set to start in San Francisco on Wednesday, many of those companies will show off their latest crop of products.

One company, SmartSheet.com, is launching an upgrade to its online collaboration software, which is built around a hosted spreadsheet and e-mail. Instead of just mimicking Excel in online form, the company is using familiar tools to make project management better, SmartSheet's president said.

"We're trying to create a combination between the paradigms we all know (with e-mail and spreadsheets) and, where we get the benefits of Web 2.0 collaboration and improved processes," said Mark Mader, president of SmartSheet, which is based in Microsoft's home turf of Seattle. "We're not falling into the camp of simply replicating what there is today online, which doesn't improve things all that much."

Workplace use of Web 2.0--the use of wikis, Internet delivery of applications, and Web-enabled collaboration--is the key way these upstarts hope to distinguish their products, as they try to chip away at Microsoft's franchise. Another benefit they tout is that using hosted services, rather than buying applications, can work out cheaper for customers--or at less expensive up front.

In perhaps as significant a differentiator, many Office 2.0-style companies are steering clear of the traditional sales route used by Microsoft Office. Instead of trying to sell directly to IT managers within corporations, many of these smaller companies, which admittedly have limited resources, are looking to spark grassroots adoption by pitching their products directly at the worker who will be using them.

In a model shown to be successful by Salesforce.com, many hosted productivity applications aimed at businesses are cheap enough to be purchased using a credit card by individuals within a company department.

Paul McNamara, CEO of online services start-up Coghead, says that it's not just the viral marketing aspect of the backdoor sales approach that appeals to him. One of the ideas behind Coghead's approach is to let technically savvy end-users gain more control.

"There is a real groundswell for do-it-yourself Web applications, empowering people closest to the business problem to build the solutions," he said. "A lot of people see the Web delivery model and Web 2.0 as a key enabler to end users."

On Wednesday, Coghead plans to launch an open beta, or test version, of its service, which lets technically savvy people build their own workflow applications. It intends to launch its service in the first quarter of next year and to charge a monthly subscription fee.

Service providers as power brokers
SmartSheet's Mader previously worked at Onyx Software, a provider of customer-relationship management applications, where he saw firsthand how individual business users can have an impact on corporate decisions.

In one situation, Onyx was ready to close a large deal endorsed by the customer's IT department. But that decision was derailed at the last moment by people who were going to use the application.

"Teams will make decisions--if they see value, they will move. We had a wonderful plan, and business (people) overrode it, because they were bringing in the business," Mader said.

SmartSheet charges a monthly per-user fee, with a basic service starting at five users and 50 viewers. The viewers can see common documents and update them, but not author new documents.

Being quick and easy-to-use encourages people to try a new Web application. At the same time, however, it makes it relatively simple for them to try an alternative.

That's why, ultimately, many Office 2.0 start-ups will have to form partnerships with telecommunications companies or Internet service providers, said Ismael Ghalimi, the organizer of the San Francisco conference. Those partners can sell the online service to corporate customers and offer unified billing. Generally, business customers will not want to use ad-supported software, which is common in consumer applications. They would rather have a well-organized purchasing process, he said.

"Even if the Web lowers the barrier to entry, it doesn't mean that customers will come to you in droves. You still have to do marketing and build your channels," he said. "Most of the innovation comes from the smaller players, but they don't have the channel. Even if I'm Google, it's difficult to get people to give me their credit card."

Ghalimi noted that several Office 2.0 companies are selling both to large enterprises and to small and medium-sized businesses, which is a break from the traditional enterprise software business.

"Distribution is everything," said Frank Zamani, CEO of Caspio, an online database company. "With large companies, we could go after them ourselves, but reaching hundreds or thousands or millions of small and medium-sized businesses directly is not practical."

Zamani said that Caspio is seeing more large-scale use of its database application within businesses. He added that the company is looking to form distribution relationships with Internet service providers.

Finding niches
From a product-design point of view, many Office 2.0 companies are starting fresh. They are focusing on the benefits of hosted software, such as mobility, collaboration and easier installation.

SmartSheet is trying to address the management of team projects, a job that is often handled with spreadsheets. The problem is that versions of the spreadsheet get out of sync when people rely on e-mail, and it's difficult to audit the history of changes to jointly authored documents, said John Creason, the company's chief technology officer.

Rather than expecting an outside contractor to check a Web site, an e-mail-based form is sent to that person, which automatically updates common documents stored at SmartSheet.com.

Rather than overtake Office, Ghalimi predicted that many Office 2.0 services will continue to complement Microsoft's software. Over the next few years, businesses may use them more and more at the expense of installed versions of Office, as they experiment and find good uses for alternatives.

"The biggest impact these services might have on Microsoft is that it will make it significantly harder to justify the upgrade to Windows Vista and Office 2007," he said.

"What will happen is what we've already seen with e-mail clients like Gmail and Hotmail, which are very good," Ghalimi said. "They will creep in on an application per application basis."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Computers that read your mind

Sep 21st 2006

Software: Systems that work out what users are doing, and then respond accordingly, could help people to work more effectively

DO YOU use the internet while watching television, listen to music while working at your computer, or read e-mail while talking on the phone? According to Linda Stone, a former Microsoft and Apple executive, this is the era of â??continuous partial attentionâ?�. People flit constantly between technologies, yet never devote their undivided attention to any of them, she observes. The e-mails, instant messages, text messages, calendar alerts, telephone calls and the occasional, old-fashioned face-to-face conversation are all competing for their share of your awareness. Part of the problem is that today's technologies lack the intelligence to determine when to interrupt peopleâ??and, more importantly, when to leave them be.

Now a new class of technologies is being designed to help users to regain their focus and enjoy more lucidity and concentration. The new field is known as â??augmented cognitionâ?�, and it employs sensors to infer the mental state of someone using a device. Rather than trying to read the user's mind directlyâ??the approach taken in a different field, known as brain-computer interfaces (BCI)â??augmented cognition has a subtly but crucially different aim. BCI devices are used to control things in the physical world, such as a cursor on a screen, a wheelchair or even a prosthetic limb. Augmented cognition, in contrast, focuses on deducing a cognitive state with the aim of somehow enhancing it.

So when someone is overwhelmed with information, an augmented cognition system would try to help him cope by diverting some of it. Naturally enough, augmented cognition has captured the imagination of the armed forcesâ??the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is one of its biggest backers. That is because today's military personnel are bombarded not just by the enemy, but also by information, says Dylan Schmorrow, previously the founder and programme manager of DARPA's AugCog programme. (Dr Schmorrow, who now works at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia, will also chair an international conference on augmented cognition which takes place next month in San Francisco.)

Fans lift J-culture over language barrier

Special to The Japan Times
Global interest in Japanese entertainment continues to heat up. Quite literally.

A scanlator who goes by the name of DDRtatsujin is part of a community of fans whose love of Japanese manga drives them to take each page, scan it into their computer, then translate the material from Japanese into English and upload it to the Internet for a wider audience.
Hardcore manga fans around the world are taking their Japanese comics off the shelf and putting them into the microwave.

"They do that so the glue melts, which allows them to take apart the volume page by page so they can be scanned easily," explains Jonathan, 21, a journalism student at West Virginia University who did not want his last name published.

Why would folks do that to their precious and costly imported comic books? Because they are "scanlators," a growing community of fans whose love of Japanese manga drives them to take each page, scan it into their computer, then translate the material from Japanese into English and upload it to the Internet for a wider audience to enjoy for free.

But it is not just Japanese comics that have proven ripe for amateur translations. Homemade English versions of anime shows and Japanese television series (such as "Densha Otoko [Train Man]"), along with plenty of clips featuring comedian Razor Ramon HG -- Hard Gay as he styles himself, are increasingly popping up on the Internet via blogs (www.tvinjapan.com to name one), file-sharing programs known as torrents and especially the phenomenally popular YouTube site.

A little Net surfing is all it takes to suddenly find translations of everything from feature films -- like last year's hit "NANA" -- to annotated versions of ancient Shinto myths (found at www.sacred-texts.com ) readily available.

There are also subbed music videos by girl-group Morning Musume and boy bands like SMAP. U.S. followers of these acts often use the Internet to trade clips and communicate with like-minded fans in Asia in places like Taiwan and South Korea, resulting in translations that are truly international affairs.

Japanese-to-English translations of both professional and amateur varieties are nothing new. But the Net allows publishing, archiving, copying and distribution on an unprecedented scale. As a result, more Japanese pop culture is spread across the globe than ever before.

Even though suburban shopping malls in Middle America are filled with officially licensed J-culture items (manga and anime, especially), Japanese companies that own these products are not keeping up with increasing global demand. Followers want the latest thing from Japan now! The fan translation phenomenon not only fills the gaps, it also shortens the time it takes for Japanese pop culture to journey around the world.

For more:

Mr BlackBerry sends a message

Sep 21st 2006
From The Economist print edition

Mike Lazaridis, co-founder of the firm behind the BlackBerry, is a passionate advocate of fundamental scientific research

SOME pocket-sized electronic gadgets are merely successful, but an exalted few become household names. The Walkman, Game Boy and iPod are examples from the consumer market; and in the business world, the BlackBerry has attained a similar iconic status. During meetings and in airport lounges, managers can be seen furtively tapping out messages on this nifty device, which keeps them constantly updated with their office e-mail anywhere they can get a wireless signal. So compulsive is such “push e-mail� that the term “CrackBerry� has been coined to describe the addiction.

Yet just a decade ago, the whole idea that adults would happily type e-mails using a keyboard the size of a credit card seemed absurd. It was late one night in 1997, while sitting in his basement, that Mike Lazaridis suddenly glimpsed the future. In a paper he drafted on the spur of the moment, entitled “Success Lies in Paradox�, he asked, “When is a tiny keyboard more efficient than a large one?� The answer to his riddle: when you use your thumbs. Mr Lazaridis e-mailed his vision of a new device to colleagues at Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company based in Waterloo, Ontario, that he had co-founded in 1984 with Douglas Fregin, a childhood friend. A year later the BlackBerry was born.

Fortune favours the well-prepared mind, and for Mr Lazaridis, the preparation started at school, where he loved to tinker with electronics and ham radios. In a prophetic moment, an electronics workshop teacher told him that the person who combined computers with wireless would be on to something big. Of course, the BlackBerry is not unique in achieving that combination. Rather, it relies on a series of innovations, such as the keyboard optimised for “thumbing�, a clickable scroll wheel and menus pared down as much as possible—all of which are designed to please busy executives.

“We take a very measured, scientific approach to what we do—we're not just chasing what others have,� says Mr Lazaridis. His role at RIM, where he is co-chief executive, is to oversee the company's technology development; Jim Balsillie, a Harvard MBA who joined the company in 1992, handles the financial side of the business.

For more:

A rubbish business model

Sep 21st 2006
From The Economist print edition

Energy: The dream of turning worthless waste into valuable fuel is as potent as ever. But is the whole idea too good to be true?

WHERE there is muck, goes the old saying, there is brass. Several firms have taken that idea to heart and are seeking profitable ways to turn rubbish into fuel. Startech Environmental, for instance, based in Wilton, Connecticut, uses plasma conversion, superheating rubbish to break down its molecular bonds and create a “synthesis gas� which is then converted into ethanol or biodiesel. “We get 3.7 gallons of ethanol per 20lb tyre. That's serious output,� says Joseph Longo, Startech's chief executive.

The idea might sound far-fetched, but there are several ways to convert organic waste into various grades of fuel, at least in the laboratory. You can gasify rubbish by heating it and turning it into synthesis fuel, which is then fed into a reaction called the Fischer-Tropsch process. This technique for converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons using a catalyst was invented in Germany in the 1920s and was used by the Nazis to convert coal into fuel during the second world war. An alternative method involves breaking down cellulose using various catalysts to accelerate the decomposition of organic plant residues into ethanol.

Household rubbish presents special problems, since it is an unpredictable mishmash of all sorts of stuff. Allen Hershkowitz, director of the solid-waste programme at the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), says that no technology can take large amounts of mixed household waste and profitably convert it into ethanol or any other kind of fuel. He also notes that, although the country's landfills seem to be overflowing, America in fact produces only about 230m tonnes of municipal solid waste a year, compared with more than 2 billion tonnes of farm waste. The NRDC reports that much of the solid waste in landfills is made up of recyclables like plastic, or food waste that could be used as compost. Burning such things for fuel may not count as a gain for the environment.

By contrast, Startech's Mr Longo says he can produce fuel with almost no emissions and using only 10% of the resulting energy to power the process. Mr Longo is primarily a rubbish man—Startech was formed in the 1990s as a low-emission alternative to landfills and incinerators. Now he is hoping the ethanol craze will convince cities to strike deals with him.

Theoretically, a plant using Startech's process to vaporise 25 tonnes of tyres a day could create more than 8,500 gallons of fuel (the number would be less if it processed other forms of waste). True, America alone consumes more than 20m gallons of fuel a day, but some lucky cities could run their fleets of dustcarts from such a plant with fuel to spare. However, all the 74-year-old Mr Longo has to show for his efforts so far is a small demonstration plant in Bristol, Connecticut. No backer has been prepared to provide the $6m for a Startech system that could convert 10 tonnes of waste a day.

At least Mr Longo has his demonstration plant, though. Not so Masada Resource Group, which in 2004 signed a contract with Middletown, New York, to build a $300m plant to convert waste to fuel. Although the scheme promised 90% efficiency using a vaguely defined “OxyNol� process, the firm has yet to lay the plant's foundations. In July Green Power, a start-up from Issaquah, Washington, showed off of a technology for converting waste to oil. The company says it can process any waste that is not glass, metal or radioactive and, using a catalyst, convert it to fuel, with an efficiency of 90%. But the firm's claims were met with scepticism, partly because of a past conviction of Michael Spitzauer, its chief executive, for fraud in his native Austria.

The one American company that has succeeded in building and running a commercial plant to convert waste to fuel is Changing World Technologies. Even then, the company says that, although it can convert solid waste to fuel, the process is not yet economical. “People's waste material is unpredictable,� says Brian Appel, who heads the company.

His firm's first plant processes waste from a turkey slaughterhouse and pig fats, using “thermal conversion�—heat and friction—to break down the chemical bonds, followed by heat and water to hydrolyse the material. This mainly yields liquid and solid fertiliser, but also makes gas that is used to power an industrial plant, but could be refined into biodiesel. One problem is that it costs Changing World about $80 a barrel to make the fuel. Another is that the company has had to spend heavily to reduce the smell from the plant, which was briefly shut down because of it.

With oil prices high, Mr Appel and his fellow entrepreneurs must hope that their timing is good. Nancy Floyd, co-founder and managing director of Nth Power, a pioneering energy investor, says that her firm is close to investing in a company that converts waste to ethanol—though she declined to name it. Although the industry has a record of failure, she says, “there is new technology now, and we are seeing it applied.� So although profits are hard to come by, optimism is in plentiful supply.

The writing on the wall

Sep 21st 2006
From The Economist print edition

Technology and society: Is the mobile phone mightier than the spray can? New “digital graffiti� systems are being put to a variety of uses

TXTual Healing in action

AS IF text messaging were not already ubiquitous—over a billion messages a day flit between the world's 2 billion mobile phones—it is now moving from the private sphere into the public one. New technologies allow text messages to be displayed on the sides of buildings, on public screens in cafés or on vast digital displays at sporting events and festivals. Such “digital graffiti� can be used in various ways: to capture the mood of a gathering, boost a brand, or to spark public dialogue. Mobile devices are in a unique position to enable new forms of communication within groups and crowds, since almost everyone in the developed world now carries one, notes Linda Barrabee, an analyst at Yankee Group in Boston. “We are still in an early stage, but there is promise,� she says.

The earliest examples of digital graffiti appeared in Europe, where text messaging took off years ago, unlike in America where it has only recently become popular. In 2001, for example, at the Speaker's Corner building in Huddersfield, England, a tickertape-like display showed the results of a text-message poetry contest. Sponsored by the Arts Council England, the contest elicited some 2,000 poems, 100 of which were displayed on the constantly scrolling screen.

The latest digital-graffiti systems are rather more elaborate, thanks to the efforts of companies such as LocaModa, a start-up based in Somerville, Massachusetts. It has installed eight “Wiffiti� screens (a name derived from “wireless graffiti�—it has no relation to Wi-Fi networking) in coffee-shops in several American cities, sometimes with the support of sponsors. Between double espressos, patrons send text messages to the 50-inch screens. What they write is also mirrored on the web, so that visitors to wiffiti.com can remotely observe what's going on at, say, the Hurricane Café in Seattle, the Filter Coffee Lounge in Chicago or Half Fast Subs in Boulder, Colorado.

When Jason Hetherington, a 26-year-old exam instructor, was working in Dubai for six months, he often visited wiffiti.com to see what was up at Somerville's Someday Café in Somerville, Massachusetts, his old haunt. “It was a great way to get a taste of what was going on back home,� he says. Stephen Randall, the boss of LocaModa and one of the founders of Symbian, a company that makes software for smartphones, likens the result to a location-based blog. He plans to have sponsored screens capturing “the word on the street� in 10,000 places by 2009.

Some of the messages sent to the screens are remarkably banal, but things occasionally get spicy. In March one woman received a marriage proposal via the Wiffiti screen at Toscanini's café in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What is more, she accepted via Wiffiti—after a mere 29 minutes of contemplation. Although it might seem to make more sense to talk to, rather than text, the person sipping coffee nearby, “people are looking for a way to break the ice,� says Tamara Mendelsohn of Forrester, a consultancy. Furthermore, systems like Wiffiti are “noncommittal—you're not going to face rejection,� she adds.

For others, public texting is a chance to cause a stir. Paul Notzold, a designer based in Brooklyn, has rigged up a system to project blank speech bubbles on to public walls. He generally sets up after sunset for better visibility and passes out leaflets explaining how to send text into the speech bubbles. “There is an element of empowerment in being able to post a message,� says Mr Notzold, who just finished a master's degree in design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. He has done a dozen or so “projections� on to buildings: in Brooklyn, along the canals in Amsterdam, in a public square in Hamburg and even on to the Millennium Museum in Beijing. “The police were around, and when they came over I thought they were going to shut it down,� says Mr Notzold. In fact, they just wanted to know the phone number to send messages to.

As the photos on his TXTual Healing website reveal, most messages (“Where's my other sock?�) lack lyricism. But Mr Notzold expects gravitas will come with time. “The more I can get out there and do this, the more people are going to text politically and socially charged material,� he suggests. His text-message graffiti system gives people a way to stay engaged, he believes, “instead of just plugging into games or music on the phone, and disconnecting from society.�

Digital graffiti can have commercial as well as political uses. This summer Britvic, a British soft-drinks company, ran a “Court on Camera� promotion at the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Consumers who were queuing for tickets were encouraged to send photos from their phones to a giant screen adorned with branding for its Robinsons line of soft drinks. “It became a form of co-branding, where the consumers stamped their identity on the event,� says Daniel Conti, Britvic's new-media manager. VIP tickets to the centre court were awarded to the senders of the best pictures.

But text-based campaigns are more widespread. Last year Nike, a maker of sports gear, used text messaging to allow people to conjure up images of customised shoes on a giant screen in New York's Times Square. Anyone who did so received a text message in return that contained the address of a website where the design could be confirmed and the shoes ordered. And in July this year Procter & Gamble invited women to text their secrets to Times Square's giant screens, as part of a promotion for its Secret deodorant. (“I cut my sister's hair when she was younger and told my parents that she did it herself,� ran a typical message.) The messages were also displayed on the secret.com website. “Brand awareness has increased dramatically,� says P&G.

Similarly, MOVO Mobile, based in Sarasota, Florida, ran a spring-break promotion for Gillette, a maker of grooming products, in which college kids could send flirty messages to a large screen at a night-club. Sending a message, of course, opens the door to follow-up messages from the event's sponsor.

Digital graffiti even have their religious uses. Teen Mania Ministries, an evangelical Christian group based in Garden Valley, Texas, sets up huge screens at its “Battle Cry� events, which are attended by tens of thousands of teenagers. Those attending can text personal messages to the screens, or use them to ask the preachers questions. The idea is to train teenagers to use technology “for a higher purpose,� says Tocquigny, the advertising agency involved.

Secrets of the digital detectives

Sep 21st 2006 - From The Economist print edition

Computing: How fraud-detection systems combine dozens of clues to spot suspicious patterns in mountains of transactions
THE pleasure of reading a classic detective story comes from the way that the sleuth puts together several clues to arrive at a surprising conclusion. What is enjoyable is not so much finding out who the villain is, but hearing the detectives explain their reasoning. Today, not all detectives are human. At insurance companies, banks and telecoms firms, fraud-detection software is used to comb through millions of transactions, looking for patterns and spotting fraudulent activity far more quickly and accurately than any human could. But like human detectives, these software sleuths follow logical rules and combine disparate pieces of data—and there is something curiously fascinating about the way they work.

Consider car insurance. Every Monday morning, telephone operators at insurance firms listen to stories of the weekend's motoring mishaps, typing the answers to several dozen standard questions into their computers. Once, each claim form then passed to a loss adjuster for approval; now software is increasingly used instead. The Monday-morning insurance claims, it turns out, are slightly more likely to be fraudulent than Tuesday claims, since weekends make it easier for policyholders who stage accidents to assemble friends as false witnesses. A single rule like that is straightforward enough for a human loss adjuster to take into account. But fraud-detection software can consider dozens of other variables, too.

If a claimant was nearly injured (because of an impact near the driver's seat, for example), the accident is less likely to have been staged and the claim less likely to be fraudulent, even if it is being filed on a Monday. Drivers of cars with low resale values are proportionately more likely to file fraudulent claims. But that factor is less important if the claimant also owns a luxury car, which suggests affluence. And if the insurance on the luxury car has expired, the likelihood of foul play drops further, since this increases the likelihood a person will drive a cheaper but properly insured car. And so on.

For more:

Web gives niche interests a chance in the free market

The Japan Times: Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006

Special to The Japan Times
Economists right back to Adam Smith in the 18th century have exalted the concept of the free market, where all commodities can be bought and sold without tariffs or subsidies. In Western neoliberal political thought, market freedom had become viewed by the 1980s as an extension of personal autonomy. But the association operated almost in reverse by the end of the 20th century: With the rise of branding, people seemed to define their identity through what they chose to buy. Lifestyle decisions, political principles and ethical positions all become consumer choices.

In practice, though, consumer choices have always been limited by what the market has chosen to sell. In the late 20th century, retailers had learned that a small number of popular products aggressively marketed would sell in huge numbers. It became superfluous to stock or produce a large variety of products destined for low to moderate sales. The main casualty was niche marketing: The catering to such eccentric tastes as, say, a preference for Studio Ghibli animation over Disney. Instead of tailoring particular products to satisfy individual tastes, companies began to choose products that could be marketed easily, and to neglect the rest.

The growing popularity of phenomena such as "scanlation" and fansubbing is part of a reaction to this tyranny of company decisions. Japanese culture in the West has always been a niche interest. In the 1990s, its devotees were almost starved. Big companies only made available commercially safe bets: films by Akira Kurosawa, for instance. Technology has made this obsolete. DVDs can be burned cheaply; subtitles, often produced for free by fans, can be added at minimal cost; and the Net gives instant access to potential markets. Individual fans are choosing to release what they want to see. In the process, they are rendering the function of companies unnecessary.

The United States has been a fruitful field for amateur subtitling, perhaps because U.S. copyright laws, unlike those in most developed countries, specifically excluded films never before released there. Initially, online retailers took advantage of this fact to copy and release imported, subtitled DVDs, often from Hong Kong.

Increasingly, however, these retailers have begun to copy Japanese source material and to write and attach their own subtitles. Often these amateur releases look as professional as officially licensed copies and, like them, include substantial extras: cast profiles, explanatory essays and so forth. One even offers the option to alter the position of the subtitles to fit whatever size TV screen the viewer has, a feature which few official DVDs can match. The legality of some of these releases is questionable: for instance, films by Nagisa Oshima that once received distribution in the U.S. are now available on DVD. Still, one suspects that Oshima, with his revolutionary contempt for private ownership, might approve.

The main moral argument against this sort of private action is that while it benefits fans, it does nothing for the creators of the work. But in another medium, creative artists are actively exploiting the new weakness of the company, and alternative methods of distribution, for their own advantage.

Publishing has undergone a quiet revolution: the growth of private, once demeaningly termed "vanity publishing," now increasingly seen as a legitimate way to place work in the public arena. Again, this is a response to large publishers and chain bookshops increasingly choosing to publish and stock only likely best-sellers, plus a back catalog of reliable classics. Since new technology allows very short print runs to be produced economically, it has become possible for authors to recover their initial outlay with relatively modest sales.

A Japan-based example is Printed Matter Press. The wide-ranging catalog of this small publisher, covering poetry, fiction and nonfiction, is determined by writers themselves, rather than by commissioning editors. But instead of mediocre or desperate writers, its list of authors includes such illustrious figures as Donald Richie and Edward Seidensticker -- two of the most eminent Japanologists of their generation. Indeed, private publishing may be uniquely suited to such niche writers, who can depend on sales to a small, committed fan base. This makes initial printing costs modest; meanwhile, royalties are considerably higher than in conventional publishing, where the publisher retains most of the profits.

Chris Anderson, in his 2006 book "The Long Tail," has argued that the future of business is "selling less of more," on the basis that a large number of niche products will, collectively, outsell and generate more income than the handful of popular ones. The growth of amateur subtitling and private publishing shows that the future is already here.

Alexander Jacoby writes a monthly column for The Japan Times Weekly and is writing a forthcoming handbook of Japanese film directors.

NTT ensures brewers don’t become has-beans

By David Turner in Tokyo

Published: September 26 2006 02:01 | Last updated: September 26 2006 02:01
Little companies such as Yamakawa Jozo, a soy sauce brewer in Gifu prefecture some 300 kilometres west of Tokyo, could make the difference to how long Nippon Telegraph and Telephone remains intact as the world’s largest telecommunications company.

NTT is building out a network that will raise the share of the country’s population with broadband access from 80 per cent to 100 per cent by 2010 at a cost of more than Y1,800bn ($15.5bn).

Dude, That Is So Not Funny

Wired Issue 14.10 - October 2006

Eric Bauman made big bucks posting other people's homemade grossout videos to his Web site. Now the geeks whose clips he swiped on the way up are trying to knock him down.
By David Kushner

CLICK. AN OBESE NERD burps a tune into a soda bottle. Click. A gawky teen puts fireworks into his mouth and lights them. Click. A deer suckles a horse. Like millions of young drones, Kelli Rinaudo is spending the afternoon surfing dumb videos on her PC at work. With her next click, Rinaudo uncovers a shot of a dude passed out on a couch, his entire face covered in black Magic Marker by some prankster. "Hey, Eric," Rinaudo hollers, "check out this marker job!"

Over from another cube ambles Eric Bauman. A diminutive, unshaven 26-year-old in a T-shirt and khakis, Bauman has short, dark hair, bushy eyebrows, and a passing resemblance to a Baldwin brother. He expertly assesses the photo. It's original, way more interesting than the usual cock-and-balls and "bitch" scrawls that typically end up decorating the faces of people who pass out on a fraternity couch. It's clear, crisp, well lit. Heck, it's just flat-out hilarious; the dude looks like he crawled out of Bigfoot's ass, Bauman thinks. He pivots and gives Rinaudo the thumbs-up sign. The shot will be posted on eBaum's World, the insanely popular – and profitable – Web site for goofy home-brewed media that has made Bauman the king of dot-comedy.

A lot of people think the stuff on his site is sophomoric, tasteless, offensive, and just plain dumb. And it is. But everyone loves a good sideshow, and Bauman is the master carny of the online world. Every day, Rinaudo, Bauman's content manager (and girlfriend), sifts through thousands of online videos, animations, jokes, photos, and games. She looks for the crème de la crème of DIY lunacy – or, as she puts it, "idiots doing stupid things." Each week, Bauman carefully selects eight links to add to the site. Then he turns the idiocy into gold.

Viral media is all the rage these days, and Bauman runs one of the few viral sites actually making money. Without spending a penny on direct advertising, he's turned the high school hobby he ran out of his bedroom into one of the Internet's top-ranked humor sites, getting 1.2 million hits a day. There's a television pilot in the can, a book deal in negotiation, and a potential pact to bring eBaum content to cell phones. Annual ad revenue has doubled over the past year to $10 million, and the only overhead is bandwidth and salaries: Bauman is becoming a rich man. He has 30 employees who handle the coding, marketing, financial affairs, and assorted office details. He drives a shiny black Porsche Carrera. Besides gobbling up real estate around town and gas wells in Kentucky, he sponsors heavyweight boxing champ Hasim "the Rock" Rahman.

But Bauman's success hasn't just brought him riches and trips to Vegas. It has also gotten him mired in a messy brawl. His site has been hacked, his office vandalized, and his mug distorted on numerous online sites dedicated to attacking him. "Maybe Zeus and Thor will smite that whore," goes the theme song for the animated site EbaumsWorldSucks. "Oh, eBaum's World is going dowwwwwwn!" Bauman is not laughing. "We get death threats all the time," he says.

For more:

My Big Biofuels Bet

Wired Issue 14.10 - October 2006

The road to energy independence starts in a cornfield in Nebraska. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla explains why he’s betting on biofuels.

IT MAY SURPRISE YOU TO learn that the most promising solution to our nation’s energy crisis begins in the bowels of a waste trough, under the slotted concrete floor of a giant pen that holds 28,000 Angus, Hereford, and Charolais beef cattle. But for some time now, I’ve been searching for a renewable fuel that could realistically replace the 140 billion gallons of gasoline consumed in the US each year. And now I believe the key to producing this fuel starts with cow manure – because this waste powers a facility that turns corn into ethanol.

I’m standing on a grassy hill in the middle of an 880-acre commercial feedlot just outside Mead, Nebraska, which is a long way from my home turf of clean labs and wood-paneled conference rooms in Silicon Valley. In front of me are four open-air cattle sheds. Each is the width of a giant barn and a full half-mile in length. From up here, they look more like jumbo-jet landing strips than animal pens. Beyond the sheds are several hundred acres of cornfields, from which much of the animals’ feed is harvested.

It may look like a typical, if huge, cattle feedlot – but for the glittering white four-story structure below that resembles the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Indeed, until recently this operation just off Mead’s County Road 10 was not unlike any other finishing ground for Nebraska’s beef cattle: a last stop before the abattoir. But starting in November, Oscar Mayer will no longer be the marquee product here. A company called E3 Biofuels is about to fire up the most energy-efficient corn ethanol facility in the country: a $75 million state-of the-art biorefinery and feedlot capable of producing 25 million gallons of ethanol a year. What’s more, it will run on methane gas produced from cow manure. The super-efficient operation capitalizes on a closed loop of resources available here on the prairie – cattle (fed on corn), manure (from the cows), and corn (fed into the ethanol distiller). The output: a potential gusher of renewable, energy-efficient transportation fuel.

Of course, 25 million gallons of ethanol is a drop in the tanker when it comes to our 140 billion-a-year oil habit. And ethanol itself is a subject of controversy for all sorts of reasons. Many of the criticisms, while true in some small ways, are aggressively promoted by the oil lobby and other interested parties in an effort to forestall change. Most are myths. Challenges certainly exist with ethanol, but none are insurmountable, and – with apologies to Al Gore – the convenient truth is that corn ethanol is a crucial first step toward kicking our oil addiction. I believe we can replace most of our gasoline needs in 25 years with biomass from our farmlands and municipal waste, while creating a huge economic boom cycle and a cheaper, cleaner fuel for consumers.

For more:

Concrete possibilities

Sep 21st 2006
From The Economist print edition

Materials: It has been in use for centuries. But now, tired of being walked all over, concrete is ready for a high-tech upgrade.

THE Wizard of Menlo Park had a magic touch, but it sometimes failed him. In 1906 Thomas Edison declared that he had hit upon the “salvation of the slum dweller�—cheap concrete houses cast from single, reusable moulds. Though his Edison Portland Cement Company went on to supply concrete for New York's Yankee Stadium and the first concrete highway, the great man's dreams for concrete died amid complex, expensive moulds and 11 unsold demonstration houses.

A century later, materials scientists and their business partners have been picking up where Edison left off. In their search for more high-tech concrete mixtures, they have found a fast, innovative way to make cheap, durable housing for both the developing and the developed world. Other researchers have been extending Edison's asphalt altruism in new directions, trying not only to reduce concrete's environmental impact but also to use concrete to clean up the environment.

The recipe for concrete is simple and has been around, in one form or another, since the days of Ancient Egypt. The bulk of the material consists of aggregate—fine particles such as sand and coarse ones such as gravel or crushed stone. When water and a powdered cement are mixed in, they undergo a chemical reaction that hardens and binds the aggregates into a solid mass. To make the cement, materials such as limestone and clay are heated in large kilns to over 1,000°C. At such high temperatures, water and carbon dioxide are driven off and the limestone and clay begin to fuse to form new compounds. These are then ground into a fine powder that goes by the name of Portland cement. In America alone over 100m tonnes of the stuff are used each year.

But like good chefs, materials scientists have long known that they can tweak the basic concrete recipe to create any number of desired effects. For example, adding chemicals that encourage the trapping of tiny air bubbles makes concrete more durable, because it gives water room to expand into when it freezes, thereby avoiding tiny cracks. In the late 1990s researchers began to experiment with another additive—small amounts of electrically conductive steel or carbon fibres. Even though the fibres make up less than 1% of the concrete by volume, they have a large effect: the resulting concrete gains the ability to conduct electricity.

Electric avenues
Such concrete has a range of interesting properties. If you compress electrically conductive concrete, the fibres get slightly closer together, increasing the concrete's electrical conductivity. So if a road is made from conductive concrete, it will be able to monitor and weigh passing traffic.

That is not all a conductive concrete road can do. Passing an electrical current through a wire causes it to heat up, just like the filament in a light bulb. An electric current will heat a road, a bridge, or a runway made of conductive concrete in just the same way. For the past three winters, the Roca Spur Bridge outside Lincoln, Nebraska, has been warming itself using an electric blanket of conductive concrete. Christopher Tuan of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his former student, Sherif Yehia, have been carefully monitoring the bridge. Using electrical heating, they can maintain Roca Spur at a toasty 10°C above the ambient temperature, warm enough to keep it free of snow and ice throughout the winter.

For more: