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Archive for the ‘Take-two’ Category

Decentralized Social Data Framework: A Modest Proposal

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Twitter being down is no longer funny, nor is it even news anymore and the same is the case with Twitter-angst, where loyal users fret and fume about how often it is down. One of the interesting suggestions that have come out as a result of this is to create a decentralized version of Twitter – much on the lines of IRC – to bring about much better uptimes for the beleaguered child of Obvious Inc.

I would take the idea a lot further and argue that all social communication products should gradually turn into aggregation points. What I am proposing is a new social data framework, let us call it HyperID (since it would borrow and use heavily ideas and concepts from OpenID), from which social media websites would subscribe, push and pull data from.

Essentially, this would involve the publication of the user’s social graph as the universal starting point for services and websites to subscribe to, rather than the current approach where everyone is struggling to aggregate disparate social graphs as the end point of all activities. Ergo, we are addressing the wrong problem at the wrong place.

The current crop of problems will only be addressed when we stop pulling data into aggregators and start pushing data into service and messaging buses. Additionally, since this data is replicated across all subscriber nodes, it should also provide us with much better redundancy.

Problem Domain 

Identity: Joe User on Twitter may not always be the same as Joe User on Facebook. This is a known problem that makes discovery of content, context and connections tricky and often downright inaccurate. Google’s Social Graph API is a brave attempt at addressing this issue using XFN and FOAF, but it won’t find much success because it is initiated at the wrong end and also because it is an educated guess at the best and you don’t make those with your personal data or connections.
 
Disparate services: Joe User may only want to blog and not use photo sharing on the same platform, unlike Jane User who uses an entire gamut of services. In an even worse scenario, if Jane User wants to use blogs on a particular service provider (say, Windows Live Spaces) and photo sharing on another (Flickr, for instance), she will have to build and nurture different trust systems, contacts and reputation levels.

Data retention: Yes, service providers are now warming up to the possibility of allowing users to pull out user data from them, but it is often provided without metadata or data that is accrued over time (comments, tags, categories etc). Switching providers often leaves you with having to do the same work all over again.

Security: Social information aggregators now collect and save information by asking you for passwords and usernames on other services. This is not a sane way to work (extremely high risk of phishing) and is downright illegal at times when it involves HTML scraping and unauthorized access.

Proposed solution

Hyperid Layout

Identity, identity, identity: Start using OpenID as the base of HyperID. Users will be uniquely addressable by means of URLs. Joe User can always be associated with his URL (http://www.joeuser.com/id/), independent of the services he has subscribed to. Connections made by Joe User will also resolve to other OpenIDs. In one swipe you no longer have to scrape or crawl or guess to figure out your connections.
 
Formalize a social (meta)data vocabulary: Existing syndication formats like RSS and ATOM, are usually used to publish text content. There are extensions of these formats like Media RSS from Yahoo!, but none of them address the social data domain. 

Of the existing candidates, the Atom Publishing Protocol seems to be the most amenable to an extension like this to cover the most common of social data requirements. Additional and site-specific extensions can be added on by means of custom namespaces that define them.

You host your own social graph: With a common vocabulary, pushing, pulling and subscribing to data across different providers and subscribers should become effortless. This would also mean that you can, if you want to, host your own social graph (http://www.janeuser.com/social) or leave it up to service providers who will do it for you. I know that SixApart already does this in part with the Action Streams plugin, but it is still a pull than a push service.

Moreover, we could extend the autodiscovery protocol for RSS and use it to point to the location of the social graph, which is a considerably better and easier solution than the one proposed Social Graph.

Extend and embrace existing tech: Extend and leverage existing technologies like OpenID and Atom to authenticate and advertise available services to users depending on their access levels.

What this could mean

For companies: They have to change the way they look at usage, data and their own business models. Throwing away locked-in logins would be a scary thing to do, but you get better quality and better-profiled usage.

In the short run you are looking at existing companies changing themselves into data buses. In the longer run, it should be business as normal.

Redundancy: Since your data is replicated across different subscribers, you can push updates across to different services and assign fallbacks (primary subscriber: twitter, secondary: pownce and so on).

Subscriber applications can cache advertised fallback options and try known options if the primary ones are unavailable. 

For users: They will need to sign up with a HyperID provider or host one on their own if they are savvy enough to do that. On the surface, though, it should all be business as usual, since a well-executed API and vocabulary should do the heavy lifting behind the scenes.
 
The Opportunity

For someone like WordPress.com, diversifying into the HyperID space would be a natural extension. They could even call it Socialpress. The hypothetical service would have a dashboard like interface to control your settings, subscriptions and trusted users and an API endpoint specific to each user.

Risks

Complexity: Since data is replicated and pushed out across to different subscribers, controls will be granular by default and across different providers this could prove to be very cumbersome.

Security: Even though attacks against OpenId has not been a matter of concern, extending it would bring with it the risk of opening up new fronts in what is essentially a simple identity verification mechanism.

Synchronization: Since there is data replication involved (bi-directional like any decent framework should do), there is the possibility that lag should be there. Improperly implemented HyperID compliant websites could in theory retain data should be deleted across all subscribed nodes.

Traction: Without widespread support from the major players the initiative just won’t go anywhere. This is even more troublesome because it involves bi-directional syncing and all the parties involved are expected to play nice. If they don’t, it just won’t work. We could probably get into certification, compliance and all that jazz, but that would make it insanely complicated.

Exceptions: We are assuming here that users would want to aggregate all of their things under a single identity. I am well aware of the fact that there are valid use cases where users may want to not do that. HyperID does not prevent from doing. In fact, you could use different hyperIDs, or even specify which services you don’t want to be published at all.

Feedback

The comment space awaits you!
 
p.s: Apologies for the crappy graphic to go with the post. I am an absolute newbie on Omnigraffle and it shows! 
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Written by shyam

February 4, 2008 at 1:46 pm

First Impressions: Netvibes Ginger

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I was able to barge into the new (beta) release of Netvibes, called Ginger, thanks to Techcrunch’s invite codes. While I have to say that it is a pretty nifty piece of work, I don’t quite see the point to it. That said, I will readily admit that I am not your average user of online dashboards and desktops, so the basic premise of this post itself maybe flawed.

The loading time for the basic framework is quite fast, but actions that require data to be updated is sluggish. As it is to be expected with the beta label that Netvibes goes to great lengths to point out to you, it is a bit buggy and some of the links like featured widgets and top blogs did not load.

The Features:

Universe: The Universe is the public profile where the widgets the user has chosen to share turns up. I am a bit perplexed by what purpose the universe serves, other than to gun to be the preferred profile page for the user at a later stage.

Now, the “send to universe” feature kind of got me confused with the “share” feature, which happens at the item level of a widget. I still have not figured out where the share turns up. i assume it will show up a la Google Reader in your friend lists.

Themes: This is pretty much in the juvenile vein that iGoogle has managed to do it. But, unlike iGoogle, this does not get in the way of readability as much as the Google offering.

Activity Map: This is the online dashboard interpretation of the social graph (paging Scoble!) showing off what you shared last and what did your friends share last. And like any self-respecting web 2.0 website that makes social engineering by phishers a cakewalk, Netvibes too allows you to raid Gmail accounts to see which other friend of yours is a member of the website.

And that was just about all I could find on the website. At the end of it, the question that remained on my mind was this: What was the fuss all about anyway?

Written by shyam

January 22, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Posted in Take-two

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Outlook for 2008 (Part I)

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I won’t try and predict what is to come this year. I have always sucked at making predictions and I think it is a silly business anyway. So I’ll write about things I’d like to see in the year 2008.

First, a bit of background. It is no great secret that the US economy is progressively slowing down to a level where it is no longer possible to get a whopping rate of returns on most forms of investments. What this means is that there is money to be invested in the country, but there are no decent investment destinations where it can be plonked into.

This pile of cash sitting in the hands of VCs, hedge funds and investment bankers need to be invested somewhere for it to bring in the returns that justify their existence (and huge commissions). So it is likely that eventually a fair chunk of this will end up in China, India and other emerging markets.

Now, everyone loves the China story, but China has a major weakness that is not there with India. The Chinese economy is propped up largely by exports. Exports to the US, to be more specific. Any slowdown in the US economy eventually spills over to China, cutting down their own prospects for 2008 and the years to follow after that. This is the reason why you see interesting things like a Chinese bailout of an American institution, which would have been unimaginable a couple of years ago.

India, compared to that, has a degree of exposure which is considerably lower than China to the American (mis)fortunes? This is where we have actually benefited from not having a whopping trade surplus like what China has with the US. The coming couple of years will be entirely about companies who have limited or dynamically fixable exposure to the US markets doing well compared to companies that are dependent on the US economy for their daily bread and butter.

Most of India’s exports are service-oriented: basically software and a bunch of other trades like garments. Software will primarily take a hit on margins on existing contracts due to the exchange rate equation and an even bigger hit on margins on newer contracts. They still can afford, though, to look at ways to make through a couple of years of this slowdown. The garment trade, though, has been decimated by the downturn and the weak dollar, with many players raking up crores in losses just over a couple of months. Then again, of the entire garment segment, India still does not account for much.

Which brings us to the important point: India’s economic activity is largely internal. We can’t seem to produce enough of stuff for ourselves and with time all this economic activity is bringing an increasing number of new participants to the middle class segment that did not exist before. Of course, the trickle down is not happening fast enough, but if you consider how huge and how varied our nation is, this would come as no surprise.

But, essentially, we have a market that is looking good to grow well for the next decade (or even further), a vibrant democracy and a strong enough country that has been able to withstand and easily overcome terrorist attacks. Of course, there is much wrong with the country too at the same time, but that won’t disappear overnight. Such changes take time and we won’t see spittle-free walls or even marginally better politicians for a long time. But what we do need to appreciate is that it is improbable that even with any party coming into power, the development and economic agenda will be changed much. We will see sops and instances where politicians will play to their favourite gallery, but the larger economic agenda will keep going.

Now to the list:

Innovation: India will be one of the hottest destinations for investment in 2008, which will again be only the start of something much bigger. That said, investable properties in India are far and few, especially in the digital sphere. VCs and other players in the innovation ecosystem will need to find newer ways of finding companies and products that are worth investing into.

A lot of our products these days come from the copy-paste school of doing products. “It worked there in the west, so it must work here!” as a product peg needs to disappear. Use cases have to be considered as a must-have, alongside projections that are valid and current usage levels which is not inflated. It would be nice to see a bit of honesty within the system, just to begin with.

We have holes in our entrepreneurial system that have to be plugged. Instances like this won’t happen if the VCs step more into a mentoring role and help them along. I know the norm is that VCs like to limit their meddling in the company to the board meetings, but at least short term funding in this heavily commoditized times is not a major issue for people, VCs have to change the way they approach the business and their portfolios. If they play it right, there is a considerable amount of leverage they can exercise in terms of scale and in a scenario where the cost of replicating is product is peanuts, compared to the cost of finding a differentiator, that could be a killer point which makes all the difference to their portfolio.

You can make a decent killing in any segment by being lucky, being there first or by being plain smart a few times. Longer term profits and sustainable product lines, though, are derived from one thing: innovation. The kind of money that will flow into India will need a thought process and a product development stream that is better than what we have now.

This, mind you, is a long term change. It is something that will take years to precipitate. It is a habit that is acquired, one that needs to be forced upon ourselves before it becomes a force of habit. I think that soon enough we will be forced along that path because the volume of investment will demand that kind of effort. 2008 could be the year when we see the start of that process.

Mobile: We need to get over our fascination for SMS and the slew of value added services as the conduit through which the amazing growth is going to come. Of course, the market is constantly expanding, but with the dismal average revenue per user, the margins are not exactly mouth watering. This, in turn, will affect the telcos’ ability to move into the relatively unexplored rural markets. What they need for 2008 is a new product. They need to push out the first sub INR 5000 mobile internet access device out into the market.

As my friends know only too well, such a device is one of my pet themes and this is how it works. A Nokia E50 phone costs around INR 8500 in the market these days. This is a phone that does EDGE, has the lovely Series 60 browser that works on pretty much every website that I use on a regular basis and is rugged enough to survive India. Slap on to it the unlimited GPRS deal from Airtel (INR 500 per month) and you get a mobile internet device that has an initial cost of INR 9000 and a recurring cost of INR 500 per month.

Now, if a telco were to order this handset in bulk from Nokia, it would get them a significant discount and if they subsidize the cost further themselves, it could even be brought down to INR 5000 to start off with. You could also make it even easier by spreading out the start up cost in terms of installments (INR 50, 100 or any other amount), that could be added on to your monthly bill to beef up adoption.

It should ideally be a win-win deal for Nokia, since there is no additional development to be done on the device and they will get to move such vast numbers that the volume itself should bring in decent margins. Or, we could take the harder route, re-engineer the device, strip it down and change the orientation to bring more width than length to the screen and give it a full QWERTY keyboard.

The bottom line is that a pervasive internet experience is the thing that will save the telco soul. This will also allow them to price services and content that are not limited by what SMS and IVR currently limits you to. And if you consider how restrictive and artificial the interactivity are on those services, offering the internet experience on your handheld device can only be a winner, whichever angle you want to look at it.

And, before I forget it, did I say that it breaks the entire penetration issue?

I think this is a long enough post for now. I will post the second part a day or so later.

Written by shyam

January 9, 2008 at 8:23 pm

Opinion: Kafka on the shore

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The first feeling you get after finishing Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the shore is akin to stepping out of being in a deep and delicious trance. Beyond the intricate detailing of events and characters, when you step out of the often-crazy world that Murakami sets up, you feel wrung inside-out, having been dragged along with the characters on their respective amazing journeys.

The most distinct thing about Kafka on the shore is that judgment is flung firmly out of the window from the first page. If you are the types who work overtime to make moral or any other type of judgments, this book is certainly not for you. On the other hand, if you love your fiction like if it were the best Tiramisu you have ever had in your life — multi-layered and mutli-flavoured — this is certainly the book for you.

The story has a pace that is quite unexpected and does not let off till the end and it covers grounds and cultures that is very obviously beyond what the Japanese isles — where the story is set — can account for. At the same time, it does not shut you out, even if you are not the average ‘intellectual’ and keeps you firmly interested and involved till the end.

The best thing about the book is that there are so many different ways in which it can be interpreted, but the overbearing theme is of a constant search for the self, which is the thread that joins together everyone involved in the book.

I guess that is what makes the book so special, that there is a little bit of yourself in every character, without it being entirely about you. The work stands equally tall, even when you don’t identify with it.

The only question that remains is if anyone would dare to make a movie. Rest assured, it will never be a commercial hit, but writing a screenplay for it and later translating it with a camera should be an adventure that very few would dare to start on.

Written by shyam

December 26, 2007 at 6:32 pm

Posted in Books, Take-two

Tagged with , ,

Online Networking: Opportunities and challenges

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Why is everyone in the online space running crazed rolling out one social networking product after another these days?

Has technology suddenly found out the real altruistic reason for its existence — to bring all of humanity under a single digital umbrella that will allow everyone to easily communicate and identify with each other? Cheap potshots and the silly sarcasm apart, the reason why everyone is falling over each other is quite simple: the industry has gotten a whiff of its ultimate elixir in online networking: the end of the perpetual quest for ‘sticky’ content and users.

So, how exactly does online networking differ from other regular content properties? Let us take a look at a couple of the distinguishing factors:

Discovery: Unlike regular online content, online networking helps you find much more than a piece of text to read or pictures to ogle at. It helps you find new people with similar interests, new things to do with people who share the similar interests and also find new communities that will help you enrich yourself alongside people who share similar likes and themes. The Facebook News Feed is one of the best examples of this, even though it had a very controversial debut on its network. Till then, in other popular networks, you had to manually go and track each community joined by a contact and any other action performed by him/her. It is now next to impossible to evade the river of context that flows all around you because of the News Feed.

Context: The above-mentioned discovery element is encapsulated by containers of context that help you find them. You can find them through music you may like, through photos you like clicking and other numerous common themes. Even in the PhD paradise called Google, there are limits to context that is determined by the algorithm. For instance, even Google News can classify the data only into a handful of categories and most personalized and suggested content on the internet (like Findory) are still not up to scratch when it comes to discovering related content at the individual’s level. Even with an extremely good element of artificial intelligence in your system, you still can’t beat the quality of linked and contextual linkages that is generated with actual intent by human beings.

In an online networking scenario, every single connection is led by context. I am connected to (or I identify with) another person on my network in a variety of ways: geography, interest, work place or something else. That kind of sanitized, structured and relational data beats the pants off what any algorithm can do. Instead of being led by the algorithm and its vagaries, the connections can now be refined by it. If data in massive networks like Facebook can be mined, you can predict, with good enough probability, things that I or you would be interested in and the people you or I are likely to hook up with. None of this is possible on a regular news website or on a discussion forum, where you just consume the data and go home. There is hardly any way to connect or engage another person who has a lot of similarities with you. Hell, you can’t even know if there is another person with similar traits who has read the article at the same time or any other time.

Sticky != icky: To build any good and successful online property, you need a healthy mix of repeat visits and new visitors. Organic growth in traffic and usage is the lifeline of any online property and a steady percentage of it in your total traffic is always a sign of a property in good health. If this recipe is seasoned with more than 50% of return visits and a good page view per user number, the chances are that you would have by now on your hands a very successful website that has oodles of sticky content. What this essentially enables you to do is to grow on both counts: in terms of existing usage and in terms of new usage, with and new users steadily being converted to regular users.

The trouble is that this is a hard one to pull off with generic content sites, which tend to have a high number of regular visits, a low percentage of new visitors (the one hit wonders and the even-driven flash mobs) and low-ish page view per user number. Every time you check your Facebook inbox or your Orkut scrapbook what it does is to add another page view to the website’s page views and chances are that most online networking users are more likely to refresh their profile and message pages a lot more, compared to their actual email inboxes or a news website. And this lust for the page view love fest is from which the many new online networking love children are born.

The opportunity for new players

Uniquely addressable users: Unique users are like legendary golden geese in the online trade. And well-established networking communities are like mosquito larvae infested catchments of standing water filled with these users: they buzz with feverish activity and multiply in every possible manner and more rapidly than what you could ever imagine. Moreover, to make your profile work in such scenarios, you need to provide information that is every advertiser’s endless wet dream. You are voluntarily providing the kind of information to help profile yourself that collected otherwise would result in the companies doing that being dragged to court.

For example, if you check my profile you can see that I am currently part of the India network, that my location is uniquely identified as New Delhi, that I am single and you can also figure out my tastes in music, books, movies and political views. This is all structured and uniquely addressable data, broken down to the most granular of levels. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what Fox Interactive Media (FIM) has been up to recently. In an interview with Silicon Alley Insider, Mike Barrett, Chief Revenue Office of FIM, says they have figured out improved delivery methodologies for targeting based on such data and are looking to price these ads at a 20-30% premium, compared to regular banner ads. That is the kind of number any business person with half a business brain would find hard to say ‘no’ to.

The Indian online Godots: Yes, we revisit the pet target audience of every new product launch these days, the part of the billion who are not yet online, who probably won’t even know what online is at this stage of the game. We are constantly waiting for them to come and make us all rich. If you ignore such niggles that tend to rudely invade our digital fantasies, there is a fair bit of merit in the argument/expectation. We are diverse in ways you can’t even start to imagine. You can address the whole of India in terms of a nation, regions, language, caste, religion: the list is endless. Ergo, the opportunities to slice and dice the market are also endless. That is, once it manifests. So a lot of this is a punt on the future. Who knows whether it will pay off or not.

The social operating system: When Facebook launched F8, their platform to let third party applications interact with their users, it changed the rules of the game in such a way that every other online networking website is now falling over each other to release a similar product. Other than the nice positive for Facebook of shoveling off the burden of building a stream of new features to gullible souls who now do it for them for free, it has also now established a virtual operating system within the Facebook context that is now a decent launch pad for new sites and products. Once networks like Facebook become the start page/OS of the future it is going to be a hard ask to launch a new product without spending insane amounts of money (example: the bigadda.com creatives).

The Risks for the new players

Targeted advertising on such profiled networks are still not up to scratch and the technology is still being developed. Current delivery technology is based on either IP geo-location or tracking cookies, neither of which are right now in a condition to exploit an extremely finely defined profile like a 27-year-old girl who likes Harry Potter, lives in India, with a soft spot for Archie comics. The point is made more elaborately in the Mike Barrett interview and is surely a cause for concern, but I am also sure it is something that will be fixed over time. But till it gets fixed, advertisements on these networks tend to end up being seen as irritants and not a patch on the contextual advertisements that Google has spoilt everyone with.

Low Yield: On a related point, while online networking websites account for huge page views, the CPMs, click throughs and conversions are abysmal on the inventory. When you have pages and pages of content resembling lolcat lingo on some of the more popular networks, it is not surprising that even Google’s engines put up their hands and admit defeat. I can’t remember or find the story, but someone (from Google?) had once commented that a lot of impressions on Myspace was junk and did not amount to much. So it is kind of obvious that traditional methods of advertising are not going to work too well in this segment and the way Facebook is going about it, by inserting them in the News Feed, is bound to help them accumulate bad karma at a rapid rate from the users. In short, the page views are there, but a fair percentage of it is not really worth much.

Switching costs/exit barriers: The value of any network is directly proportional to the connections you have on it. Existing users have a lot invested in terms of their connections, ratings, groups etc in the older networks. Half the grunt work in switching to a new network is to find the old contacts once again. The problem is addressed to a minor extent by the email account-based importers, but that in itself creates more problems because it requires a one-to-one mapping between your profile email address and the profile email addresses of your friends. It is a problem that can only be solved by true interoperability and that is a pipe dream of the most unrealistic kind.

Identity: Bill Gates on Myspace need not necessarily be the same Bill Gates on Orkut. For that matter, neither the Myspace Bill Gates nor the Orkut Bill Gates are likely to be the famous Bill Gates from Microsoft. At some point, our core digital identities will be consolidated into a single space, much like how Openid works, but none of the networks support Openid as of now and as a result, since identities are not portable, it will eventually create yet another high exit barrier for the users.

On a final note, there would arise the obvious question as to why do crazy deals like Google gulping up Myspace’s inventory and Microsoft signing a deal with Facebook on similar lines happen? A lot of that has to do with volumes and the rest of it with presence and Google did goof up terribly with not buying out Myspace when they could have earlier for a tiny sum compared to what they are paying FIM now. Even with the junk page views, the volumes these networks pump in terms of sheer page views are enormous and if you are in the advertising space you’d want a bite of that, even if that bite feels a bit empty once it hits the stomach.

This is a space where everyone — content creators, sales people, advertisers, content distributors — can feel where the action is going to be. But how it will unravel is something that will be only revealed with time.

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Written by shyam

August 13, 2007 at 7:27 pm

A Brijj too far

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When I started writing this sort of a review, I honestly wanted to rip Info Edge apart for releasing such a sham of a website. Having read a lot of what Sanjeev Bikhchandani has written and said over time and having seen Naukri grow into the robust company that it is today, I had considerably greater expectations from Brijj. But I’ll hold my horses, tone down the criticism and look at the larger picture, that the blame is almost universally spread out among the Indian internet landscape. Our idea of innovation is to look at the hottest 50 websites out there in the west, pull elements from each of them and promise to do everything, including an unconditional end to global warming, and hope nobody notices that beyond the stellar messaging (email for body builders, email for stupid people, anyone?) the product is the same wine in the same bottle.

Of course, a lot of Indian internet companies are profitable and in a good shape and at least in theory that should drive innovation across the board. But we seem to be happy to wait for the next big thing to fall from the western landscape, lap it up, spit it out and hope the audience here picks it up and voilà, you have a shortcut to near-instant profit. The strangest thing is that even here where there is hardly a decent business model online beyond the traditional banner spots, you get to hear almost endlessly about Web 2.0 and the like from within and outside the trade almost like it is the gospel that fell straight off the money tree.

What nobody will tell you is that most Web 2.0 companies in India today are neither successful nor feasible in both the long and the short run, including the latest string of Ruby on Rails-powered monstrosities, which often don’t have user bases that don’t extend beyond the developer’s immediate family and a string of former and current lovers. From that point of view, the ‘copy from west and paste here in the east’ routine may sound like a good and easy idea, but it is a malaise that will end up leaving us behind like cheap clattering Chinese imitations before soon. I think someone has to wake up, ground some good beans, brew some strong stuff and smell a whole lot of it.

Now to the product at hand: Brijj

On the surface, Brijj picks out the best of Facebook in terms of presentation (the squeaky clean lines, funky Javascript, Ajax etc) and marries it with the best of Linkedin (references, plug ins for Outlook, Outlook Express etc). But that’s where the similarity and the theory ends. Neither does Brijj have the stupendously awe-inspiring backend data wizardry that is the hallmark of Facebook, nor does it have the professional-friendly feel of Linkedin. For existing users of people networks, the lack of what are considered as standard features also stick out like a sore thumb.

For example, there is absolutely no granular privacy settings in terms of who gets to see what and how much. I am assuming that a lot of it is controlled by who you are a friend of and who you are not a friend of, but there’s hardly any easy way to figure it out. Beyond a few clicks and a handful of links, there is nothing to discover about the website. There is just no surprise factor. It looks and feels like a low cost carrier and the killer blow comes in when you see the best done page: product comparison — where you get to see what the different membership options are. And that is a dead giveaway of the shortcut to profit route, when you are crystal clear about your pricing options and are relatively clueless about the rest of the website.

On the technical front, the site is a bit rough around the edges. The server signature is the standard “NWS” or Naukri Web Server, which is actually Apache under the hood, running PHP and possibly one of the MVC frameworks. There are some duplicate meta and doctype declarations all over the place (UTF-8 or iso-8859-1? Make up your mind!), possibly due to some unfortunate soul including a default editor template in some controller file. There is almost certainly only a limited amount of QA done on it (other than a basic copy check) and page titles and meta tags are the same all over the place. And at least in the logged in home page, there is an invisible DIV with a certain Sonal Mehta’s (apparently, an HR manager at Infy) email and phone number hard coded into it.

So what’s the verdict? I am afraid unless Info Edge puts some real hard work into it and revises/refreshes the product, this will end up in the dustbin before soon. In any case, I can imagine the company having real pressure on it to diversify, especially after their successful listing. With 99acres and other properties not doing too well and still being huge cost points that gnaw away at Naukri’s healthy constitution, this won’t come as a relief in breaking the one hit wonder curse. Positioning-wise, I can’t see too many existing users moving over to this. The switching costs are way too high and the features are way too less and honestly, it all feels a bit too amateurish.

Info Edge is also making critical mistakes like not having a common registration database among its properties. Who on earth wants to maintain yet another login in an already troubled world of products where there is almost nothing that goes by the name of interoperability. I am assuming that at some point Info Edge will roll into Brijj, the muscle of Naukri’s database, but they have again erred gravely by not having it on from day one. It would have stood out as a major differentiator to any other similar product and this is again made considerably difficult because of users having to maintain two different identities on Naukri and Brijj.

Written by shyam

August 9, 2007 at 8:33 pm

How I got into technology

with 3 comments

image Ethan Kaplan is one non A list blogger who has over time become a favourite of mine. Other than him being 28 and getting emotional in planes, he writes with a degree of lucidity and comfort that’s all too rare find these days. Today, he has posted an entry where he’s asking us to look back at where we come from:

Lets reverse that and see what technology did to us. And how we as people are defined by the machines at our disposal.

So here goes:

How I got into technology was mostly driven by necessity. I was not one of those gifted geeks who could magically figure out the difference between a transistor and a capacitor, understand circuit diagrams and make sense of how things work out. I grew up in a country where it was a huge thing to have a television set (that too black and white!) at your home in the 80s. As a kid, the exposure to technology started with the transistor, initially the huge brown valve-based ones that was later replaced by the solid state ones. This does not mean that I had a proclivity for opening them up. I used to leave them alone because I could not make much sense of them and I was more interested in what came out of it: the yearning to listen to something more than the run-of-the-mill state-run crap. In fact, I could say my dalliance with technology has always been led by the quest to learn and know more, but that was not necessarily tied to knowing more about the technology itself.

There were short-lived flirtations later, with DIY kits, rigging up small (and illegal!) FM stations, trying to cook up fancy antennas to first tap into the first generation (which most still are, even to this day) cable networks that we were not allowed to subscribe to at home and pick up any kind of weak RF signals and bounces on the radio. My first run in with a video gaming platform was when somebody gifted me an funny version (or a copy?) of the early Nintendo Gameboy. It had the classic game where you, as an ambulance guy, had to catch people jumping off buildings on fire at either ends of the screen. After living through many three lives and considerable thumb play, it broke down somewhere along the way, but that was all I needed to get hooked.

Unlike most fellow geeks, I did not grow up with computers and I have never seen a PDP. In fact, I had minimal interaction with computers through school and a fair bit of high school. It was more the VCR and corresponding technologies that used to keep me busy and at that age and time, VCRs were used almost exclusively for one thing: to watch porn. My first home computer was a Pentium I with 16 MB of RAM and a 4 Gigabyte hard disk drive that had Windows 95 pre-installed on it (yes, I started THAT late with computers). I had no prior experience in fiddling around with one and after changing considerable file type associations and even deleting a couple of DLLs or two, I at least had an idea of what not to do with the silly white box than what I should do with it.

It was around this time that the word ‘Internet’ began to worm its way into my conscience. I was then dabbling a lot in 3D animation (on the ancient 3D Studio for DOS, since I could not draw anything in 2D) and VRML was more hyped than Kentucky Fried Chicken in the country. Since India had terrible restrictions on internet use at that time (dial up and only shell access), I had no clue about what it was, other than this idea that it was a vast amount of information that I could dip into. That, coupled with the 3D ambitions, led me to believe that one day we could virtually walk into any library anywhere on earth and read whatever I wanted to if the internet dream were to come true for me. Everything I wanted to figure out was a gateway for more knowledge. It was just a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Somewhere along the way I had finished graduating in Economics and being the clueless sort I had no ambition of my own. The 3D animator career did not go anywhere since the big boys were playing with SGI systems and Maya and I could not bring myself to wring out that kind of money out of the parents. After getting a couple of robots to kill each other in two minute movies, the fascination pretty much came to an end. Time now was spent playing RoadRash and other assorted games, the names of which I can’t remember much about and there was still no internet on the horizon.

It was around that time that a friend gave me a CD which had something weird called ‘Linux’ on it. Since it was something new that I had no clue about, I had to know about it. Being one of those who don’t ever RTFM I’d struggled through an entire night, with rawrite and lilo for company, trying to get Redhat 5 installed on the poor Pentium I. Finally, with some help, I did mange to get it running along with X windows, but it had trashed the Windows 95 install and as you could imagine, my dad, who used the system to get real work done, was not mighty impressed by that.

Since the graduation was of no great help in getting a career, I decided to become one of the hordes who got into the ‘software engineer’ line of work. In a matter of 16 months I was supposed to have become someone who knew Core Java (Corba, anyone?), Oracle (Form Designer, anyone?), UML and many other bits of technology. Lofty course targets apart, the truth was that I was struggling with basic pointer logic and arrays (screw mutli-dimensional, even simple ones ended up giving me the creeps) during the 30 days for which that I attended the course. What it do for me was to give me access on a true multi-user system (an AIX box since the facility was affiliated to IBM), where I found the magical pleasures of ‘wall’ ‘talk’ and shell scripts.

Eventually, with good help from two buddies, I managed to write a simple program in C (no frame buffer crap, Iz loved mes ASCII text ) that in theory was intended to help fishermen with their catch and scripts to track when root was logged in and the commands he/she was using. Somehow, eventually, we managed to stage a DoS attack on the poor box that brought it down eventually. But the real breakthrough was that the facility had an ISDN line that we could hook up to every now and then. That was the first time in my life I actually saw a web page from a remote server in a web browser. It was nothing like the walk through library I used to dream about, but I don’t think that was the intended purpose of www.ftv.fr  at any point in its existence in any case.

As fate would have it, I had, quite by accident and by unrelated events in my personal life, ended up in Delhi doing my Post Graduate Diploma in Journalism from here. Through 9 months of the course, I had my first run in with the Mac OS and free-flowing bandwidth via a VSAT hook up, most of which was spent in trying to circumvent various access policies that were set in place by the administration. You cannot keep a man away from his ‘education’ for too long, can you? The fun and games ended when the time came to find gainful employment following the course and thankfully (considering how messed up the media industry was in India at that time), I got offers from a major print publication and a web solutions company that was also running an online magazine. And you could guess which way the ‘thirst’ took me.

The job was back breaking, but it also allowed me to trawl the internet at will and I could not really complain about that. What I did complain about was the content management system that the company used to have. It was awful to use. You could only add articles, there was just no delete or edit function. To edit an article, you had to manually delete the record from the MSSQL Enterprise Manager and enter the modified copy all over again. About the time I’d left that job, I had helped the guys design an edit form and in the meantime I also figured out the basic SQL syntax, since it was terrible to have to call one of the tech lads to just delete an article again.

The second job was with these guys who were running an even more archaic system that was based on Foxpro, FTP and untar. Right after my joining them, things happened in such a way that we had to make radical changes to the operations and figured it was not possible because nobody had the source code for the Foxpro programs. Thus started the move to a new CMS based on JSP and Oracle (the boom years, remember?) that just refused to scale up beyond 10 concurrent sessions. To show that such heavy lifting (and expensive software, since we were using JRun) was not required, I started replicating the system using PHP 3 and Apache on a Windows 98 machine with 16 MB RAM (Oh noes, not againz!). It was the first bit of code I’d written after a very long time (since the C days) and strangely, what I learnt at that time slowly started falling into place.

The next two years I picked up a fair bit of technology (the first run in with Postgresql), operations and product development. Which was followed by a stint here raging against the system, launching blogs and RSS feeds in the process after which I switched to where I am these days. I could go into finer details of what exactly do I do here, but that would quite not be about what technology did to me, so I’ll spare all of you that torture.

As I’ve repeatedly said, it has always been the urge to know more that has driven me to technology. Knowing it helps you do things better, it allows you to function more in sync with the technology team. The strange thing is that in pursuing all of this I’d started out being a journalist, moved from that into technology later and eventually ended up at the operations and business end of the deal. A major part of what I am today, I owe it to technology, without which I’d not have been able to access and amass the knowledge I have today.

Feel free to spread the meme.

Written by shyam

June 2, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Posted in Take-two