27 Feb

Google, King of the Hill: How Big the Hill, for How Long?

In the light this BusinessWeek article published 2 1/2 years ago, it’s impressive (if a bit premature) to see Google’s founders now touted as billionaires in Forbes. Back in October 2001, Google ads were not syndicated on other sites, it was not even clear whether ads or intranet search appliances would fuel the company’s growth, and it made a few dozen million dollars of yearly revenue.
Congratulations to Google for building this big castle on top of what has become a (relatively) big hill. It took guts to know GoTo was the model to emulate, when everybody else was switching to more intrusive ad formats and bloated user interfaces. I’ve pondered the thought for years though, and I still don’t see what’s Google’s defensible competitive advantage. To unlock the grip Ebay and Microsoft have on their respective markets, you need to attract two communities at once (buyers and sellers for the former, users and developers for the later). It’s a chicken and egg conundrum for wanna-be competitors, and the incumbents can screw up in a lot of ways before serious competition will arise.
To replace Google on the other hand, you "just" need to attract users and advertisers will follow. Not a small feat, but still orders of magnitude easier. I gave the new Yahoo a try and won’t switch just yet because their toolbar is not quite as good, which seems like a trivially easy thing to fix, and as a user it wouldn’t be too much of an effort to change my habits (tremendously less than, say, changing operating systems or office suites). Yahoo’s search results themselves look competitive, so it’s already 80% there. (Then, like Brazil, maybe Yahoo has a bright future in front of itself and always will).

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26 Feb

Looking for a new Windows Server Host (Do Yourself a favor, avoid Interland)

I’m going to change hosts for SciFan as Interland is a bunch of braindead wazoos. Ok, I’m paying less than $50 a month and we’re talking about commodity shared hosting, but still, consider this to explain my use of profanity:

  • When they lower their prices on their site, it’s only for new business, not for their existing user base. I’ve had it confirmed by their billing service. Who’s the moron who put that policy in place? Hello, marketing 101, don’t give a blatantly better deal (there for all to see!) to your new customers. (Let me spell it out to the Interland Klingon marketers: this sends the message to your current customer base that they’re there to be milked and fund your company’s expansion.) I told so in no uncertain terms to their rep. Said rep, no doubt impressed by my congeniality, followed my gentle advice and escalated my complaint to his manager two days ago, but I never heard back from her. Ok, message received loud and clear, I hope you like this answer.
  • Their supposedly super-reliable BlueHalo service is flaky for days at a time without any proper explanation. Their support finally told me to just recycle my server’s application pool when problems occur. Dumbass, I might have something else do to than worrying about your rotten IIS setup melting down, you know. How about worrying about uptime yourself, since I’m paying you for that purpose? Explain how you achieve to get less availability out of Windows 2003/IIS 6.0 than I had for years with NT 4/2000 and IIS 4/5, considering that the most recent Windows Server platform is more reliable and scalable by all accounts.

I realize there’s no such thing as 100% uptime, especially in the price range I’m at, but I can recognize a bloated company that’s not only unable to properly execute its acquisitions (I was an Innerhost customer until they were swallowed by Interland), but more importantly, doesn’t care.
After some due diligence, the host I’ll most likely migrate to is CrystalTech. At $87/mo, their "semi-dedicated advanced plan" looks a good compromise, as I’m fed up with overloaded shared hosts yet can’t justify spending $150+ per month for that site just yet. Semi-dedicated means there’s a limit of 50 customers per server, instead of hundreds on the cheapo shared accounts.
Any opinions on CrystalTech or alternatives are welcome. I need Windows 2003 to run ASP/ASP.NET, MS SQL Server 2000 (100MB), 30GB of bandwidth per month, and decent stats.

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26 Feb

Microsoft commercial-search chief departs

CNet:

"Paul Ryan, the former chief technology officer at Overture Services, was hired at MSN on Oct. 20, 2003, just weeks after Yahoo finalized its $1.63 billion acquisition of the commercial search pioneer. Ryan’s appointment as general manager in charge of “the monetization of MSN Search,” according to Microsoft, was seen as a coup in the company’s efforts to build a formidable rival to No. 1 search engine Google and replace its current commercial search partner, Overture. Microsoft spokeswoman Crystal Duncan confirmed that Ryan left on Feb. 12."

So here’s confirmation. Last week I saw a couple Google queries in my referrer stats (because of this post) that mentioned his name as well as "Microsoft" and "fired," but I didn’t find any confirmation of his departure and I didn’t want to launch a rumor based on just that. It’s funny what you sometime learn from simple referrer logs.

24 Feb

What is the talkr.net proposal?

Erik Benson:

"talkr will be a distributed identity system that ties Movable Type to Flickr’s authentication service via an MT plugin, and allows people to comment on talkr-enabled blogs through their Flickr account […] This will allow you to maintain your identity in one place, while also enabling a couple much dreamed-about features such as:

  • Get notified of new comments on posts that you’ve commented on
  • Watch what your friends are talking about on other sites
  • PGP sign your comments without tons of hassle

[…] It’ll also be able to aggregate things and find “most popular posts your friends are commenting on” and provide rss feeds galore."

Apart from Flickr, is any other social networking site offering an API? This promises to lead to all sorts of lego applications such as Reviewr, whose FAQ tells it all:

"The key thing, you see, is that social software isn’t a product in itself. It should be able to supplement the relationships you have with people you see every day, as well as make it easier to make friends with people you don’t see too often (or maybe never at all). To do this, social software needs to be an enabling technology."

We’re going to see powerful applications mixing and combining calls to services such as identity and presence, (meta) blogging, search, mapping, shopping, and payment (yes, Paypal will get to it, and its parent Ebay should smell the coffee and stop their elitist policy – they charge developers – or they’re going to be shut off from emerging, grassroots apps). Speaking of which, Google should include News and Froogle in their API already. And is Yahoo under the illusion that everything is going to happen on their own web site? Where is their developer program?
Update: I’m still cleaning my archives following my migration to MT, and I found this related entry I wrote more than two years ago: Why open authentication matters.

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23 Feb

Will Search Engines Learn from Our Fumbling?

After quickly reading through Search Beyond Google, I wonder whether any search engine looks at subsequent queries within the same web browsing session to see whether you’re trying to refine the same core search because your first attempts failed. This could be done for instance to give more weight to new keywords added, or or combinations of words turned into phrases.
Let’s say my first query is trial by error query and my second query is “trial by error” query. The search engine would observe my behavior and order results differently than if I had started directly with query number two. (I realize that those two queries are not a good example because of the low number of results, but I hope my idea is clear.)

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23 Feb

Big Databases Are Big Challenges

InformationWeek:

"At peak workloads, the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection’s database processes 51,448 transactions per second, nearly twice its peak of 26,655 TPS in 2001. It has the distinction of being the hardest-working transactional database in the world, according to survey results released earlier this month. Experian Marketing Services Inc. has the busiest decision-support database, handling 887 simultaneous queries at its peak workload."

This article notes that MS SQL Server is now often used for the biggest and baddest databases. This happened in just the last four years, and there are probably very few computing tasks left that Windows Server can’t handle. Now that scalability is there and reliability is getting better, Microsoft needs to nail down security to be really credible as an enterprise platform vendor.

20 Feb

For Banks, is the Internet still a Differentiator?

Lauri Giesen, Banking Strategies:

"The eroding differentiation provided by online banking raises some challenging issues. Should providers redouble efforts to promote online bill pay and presentment in order to achieve the retention payoffs that this linkage seems to deliver? […] The other choice is to simply accept that online banking is a channel, like all the others, that must be maintained to keep customers. In other words, it’s just table stakes to stay in the game. Payoffs will come not from special customer responsiveness, but rather from potential cost reductions as customers are serviced online rather than through the call center, the branch or by mail."

NCR ATM

Now that the internet is a mass phenomenon, it’s harder to see basic online features as a way to differentiate from competitors, since everybody is “doing it.” A few banks rely on online bill payment to drive people back to their sites and raise their switching cost. They’re also realizing that there’s no such thing as an “internet consumer”, both because the population at large expects some kind of online service as a given, and because most customers are using a variety of channels (branches, ATMs, the phone), not just the web site.

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19 Feb

Is Trackback Obsolete? PubSub Enables the bi-directional web

Bob Wyman:

"While TrackBack is a useful tool, it isn’t used as much as many people would like. For TrackBack to be used, it must be supported by the blog that you’re “TrackingBack” to. It is also necessary that your blogging tool support TrackBack or that the other blog offers some form of “manual” TrackBack. […] There are many applications of subscriptions to “Referenced URI’s” and I’ll try to write about some of them in future postings. One that I’d like to mention now is the application of tracking discussions on a common topic across otherwise disconnected blogs. To track discussion of a topic using PubSub.com, all you need to do is create a URI that will be used as a flag to indicate that someone’s blog entry addresses a topic."