MySpace should be a social gaming platform

MySpace LogoA lot of people who are on the outside of social networking, blogging, twittering, etc. etc. looking in think that these tools are simply another online diversion or form of entertainment, and that they serve no other real valuable purpose. Their impressions make sense – people do spend a lot of time on these things doing nothing that adds any real value to themselves or to society as a whole. But the other reason is more subtle:

It’s that MySpace has been the model for a social networking tool thusfar, and it is optimized to waste time.

Recently, my brother gave in, having been a longtime user of MySpace, and opened up shop on Facebook as well. In an email following this emotional transition, I tried to bolster him by expressing why I think Facebook is superior and simply wrote that “Facebook is a more useful social tool.”

And it is – for managing a personal social network Facebook’s clean, consistent design, news feed orientation, and third party apps make it far more useful as a social tool than MySpace. MySpace can accomplish many of the same things, but for the things that are valuable (the non-wasting-time things) Facebook just executes them in a more usable, thoughtful way. LinkedIn is similar – it has proved itself invaluable as a tool to manage a professional network recently in my job search for opportunities in Austin. It does the valuable things, like job search and connecting your network to particular jobs, very well.

So where does this leave MySpace? Well, I don’t think they will ever catch Facebook or LinkedIn as a social tool for managing your personal or professional network. Architecturally they have painted themselves too much into a corner. I think MySpace should concentrate on what they’ve done well with so far – allowing people to waste some time and network for entertainment purposes only.

They should launch gaming features with original and third party games and turn their network into an online carnival midway. They should enhance the flirting/dating/meeting new people aspects of their network. People will always need a place to stay connected to their current friends and family (Facebook), they will always need to manage their career separately (LinkedIn), and they will always need a third place to meet new people and just blow off some steam. There is room in the market for winners in those three spheres.

This is their strategic sweet spot – they need to focus and make it theirs, while they still have the lead in users. The worst thing they could do right now is to try to play catch-up with their more practical competitors.

Bug labs wants you

Bug labs logoIn an earlier post I wrote about the maker movement, and mentioned some cool new products coming from Bug Labs. Mehrshad Mansouri, their person in charge of press and blogger relations, left a nice comment on the story today informing me that they are looking for Beta testers.

For now, the testing is software-only (they have an emulator that shows you what your real bug would be doing given how you programmed it) and they are looking for people with experience in Java, C, or web services programming to spend a few hours a week. I imagine if you get in now (you have to apply, of course) you could likely get some advance hardware as well down the line. Very cool stuff!

Austin bound

Sunrise over AustinThe “big thing” I mentioned in my last post was the fact that Megan and I have decided to move from Chicago to Austin, Texas. In the process I’m leaving a great job in one of my favorite cities, but we’re doing it to get closer to my family and pursue the kind of life that we want in the long term.

I’m jumping in first, with the plan that Megan will follow once the dust settles with me, so my big move happens the last week in September. As of October 1 I’ll be living in Texas again for the first time since I was 18. And even though it’s the state where I grew up (in Dallas), the new city and the fact that I’m older now make it seem like a brand new adventure. We’re really excited.

The move and the job hunt will suck up a lot of time (and even more spare brain cycles – those mental places where blog posts get written), so I’ll post as I can. In the meantime, bear with me.

And if you have any suggestions for places I should look in terms of a job, or great people you know who live in Austin that I should meet, by all means fire away.

[Photo Credit: Sunrise over Austin by Melissa M.]

Blackle is not the new green

Blackle screen shotThe recent move toward consumer environmentalism is all about us doing the little things to cut energy consumption – changing our lightbulbs out, recycling, hypermiling. Unfortunately, with any lifestyle trend there is born a group of questionable businesses that seek to make a quick buck off of our efforts to do the right thing.

Enter Blackle, the new website that is basically Google with a black screen (the developers of the site use Google on the back end) that claims to save energy by not projecting the all white background of the traditional Google screen. Your monitor saves energy, it adds up, etc. It’s like turning the lights off at home – it saves power. Logical, right?

Google responds recently saying that Blackle is a sham and that in many cases it actually takes more power to display a black website. This test from Techlogg seems to confirm that if you have less than a 22-inch LCD monitor – which most of us do – Blackle actually uses more power. Nice. But if you have a CRT monitor (apparently 25% of the market still has them) Blackle saves power, though it’s not that much, and certainly not what they claim.

Calorifica screen shot

Blackle was developed by Heap Media, a company founded in 2005 and “committed to developing and growing leading online services with global reach.” They have five other websites listed, including such “hits” as Calorifica, Red Ruby, and Mikibo. Strangely, ALL of them have bright white backgrounds (no not even grey, or tan). Calorifica is particularly ironic.

Of course, no one probably visits those other sites so we don’t really need to worry about their environmental impact. Techlogg suggests some other, more legitimate ways of saving power while using your computer.

Note to regular readers: I know the wicksite posts have been a bit sparse lately. I have something big in my personal life I’ve been working on that has been soaking up the blog time. I promise to come back swinging when that dies down!

Is it time to bring interactive fiction back?

Zork I Game CoverFrom the “whatever happened to” category I recently found myself looking for Infocom, a company that was on the cutting edge of computer gaming back when I was growing up in the 80’s. You might not remember Infocom, but if you were under the age of 30 (and above the age of 10), and/or particularly nerdy, around that time you might remember their popular “Zork” franchise of text-based adventure games for the Apple II, TRS-80, and later the Mac.

What was then a text-based game is now classified as a work of “interactive fiction.” The idea behind interactive fiction is that you inhabit the story as the main character, able to move through a fictional world and interact with it through simple typed commands like “turn key” and “open door.” Your adventure unfolds in front of you in rich written descriptions of the places you visit, and its progression depends on you solving puzzles and interacting with characters you encounter along the way.

Infocom was the pioneer of this genre of game, and had over 40 titles out at the peak of their success in 1987-88. I was a huge fan, and probably bought and played half of those. The interesting thing about Infocom is that they always thought of gaming as a side project – the initial purpose the MIT-grad founders had in founding the company was to develop cutting-edge database software. What led to the company’s demise was their decision, at the peak of their success in text-based games, to dump all of their resources into a database product named Cornerstone. It failed, and so they got into dire straits financially and eventually got acquired. Infocom titles continued to get published for a short time, but the founders were gone, and with them the magic of their storytelling.

Zork I ScreenThe thing that I like about interactive fiction is that it lets you participate in the story like any game would, while still triggering your imagination the way reading a book does. Graphical games don’t make you create the sights, sounds, and smells of a game in your head, they put it all right in front of you – resulting in a very passive experience.

I wondered, as I rode a train into work this morning and saw at least 4 people reading the latest Harry Potter book, if there isn’t a hidden market there, waiting for resurgence. Was the popularity of Infocom’s games just because the computers of the time couldn’t handle anything more engaging than text (i.e. graphics)? Or was it something deeper, the human need to be engaged by a story that demands human imagination?

Is it time to try to bring the genre of interactive fiction back into the mainstream?

More: The definitive Infocom post-mortem site, where you can download Zork I, II, and III to play, for free – and the interactive fiction archive

Realities of offshoring boom settling in

Global IndiaA recent article in Business Week asks, “Is the Party Over for Indian Outsourcers?” and points to some interesting trends that indicate a cooling in the offshoring boom that has been so prevalent for the past 15 years. India has led the vanguard by providing fertile ground for American and European companies looking to find cheaper ways to get services like technical support, testing, development, and internal corporate processes done without impacting quality:

Yet behind this show of supreme confidence lurks deep unease. A confluence of adversities is at play. They include an appreciating rupee that is cutting into earnings, a severe shortage of qualified talent at home, and a cap on H-1B worker visas to the U.S., along with pre-2008 election protectionism threats.

At my current job we offshore/outsource certain aspects of what we do to India, and are exploring expanding our efforts there. But the realities this article mentions are things we run into also – offshoring is simply becoming more difficult to pull off profitably, and India’s best talent is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to access (turnover is a big issue). Plus, our services firms here (Accenture, IBM, etc.) have become so good at the global game now that they are accelerating the market and making it harder for less skilled outsourcers (like my small marketing agency here) to go direct.

This pick-up in global efficiency is a permanent shift. India was the first, but other fast followers like China, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific Rim are already being jumped on by the likes of Accenture. That unique, long arbitrage of the past decade won’t exist again. The good thing for India is that they have built several billion dollar companies as a result of being first that will likely continue to be global players when the dust settles.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Well, the time will soon come when most firms stateside will need other reasons to offshore/outsource, such as exploiting the time difference (for 24/7 services) or particular regional or content expertise. Simply saving cash won’t be a good enough reason on its own.

[Photo Credit: Shruti Gaonkar]

The growing guinea pig

Guinea PigI heard once that a guinea pig’s size maintains a relationship with the size of its cage, so that it won’t grow much bigger than the room in which it has to live. Sadly, I don’t think this has any basis in science (at least, none that I could find) and is a suburban myth, but I have used it over the years to describe a phenomenon I first encountered in my mid-twenties – the ability I had to effortlessly adjust my personal costs and lifestyle upward when I would get a raise at work.

It seemed like my spending (the guinea pig) had no problem filling up the cage (my take-home pay), no matter how big the cage got. I recently picked up on a related blog post at Signal vs. Noise that actually reveals the intellectual axiom, Parkinson’s Law, which describes this phenomenon beyond just personal finances:

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” A more succinct phrasing also commonly used is “work expands to fill the time available.”

The context above is a work task (the pig) and the time allotted to complete it (the cage), which is also valid. The less busy you are, the longer everything seems to take. Understanding this leads to a lot of practical applications when it comes to managing your own time and workload, or other peoples’ time and workload if that’s part of your job description. Parkinson, a 1950’s management guru, has a lot of other wisdom to relate, including such gems as “Men enter local politics solely as a result of being unhappily married.”

Gmail campaign shows how marketing has changed

I am a longtime user of Gmail, Google’s free web-based email, and love it for many reasons that I won’t go into here (yet, at least). I remember Gmail’s launch a few years ago being one of the first web service launches that made use of the “by invitation only” marketing tactic (only your friends who use the service can invite you) to add cache to the service and build interest online.

Now Google has taken viral marketing a bit further, launching a “behind-the-scenes” video campaign to its userbase. Logging on to Gmail this morning, I saw a new option:

Gmail email screen

Clicking on the link took me to a campaign page:

Gmail campaign screen

The idea is simple and brilliant. You print out the Gmail M-velope (essentially the service’s brand mark), and then film a 10 second video where the envelope gets passed from left to right. After you upload the video, your clip might get selected and become part of the chain of clips that illustrates the email getting passed around the world. I’m sure once the final video is done, it will be heavily promoted through YouTube. Who knows, they may even pony up and air it on (gasp) regular television.

Developing this campaign will no doubt take very little investment from Google, and the end product will likely be fascinating – featuring creativity, scenery, and people from around the world. And it will be more effective because it will have been created by Gmail’s users, with an air of that word-of-mouth authenticity that people are starting to seek and prefer over corporate mass marketing.

The maker movement

Electronics ComponentsThis past March at South by Southwest Interactive, I stumbled across an interesting trend which seems to be gaining a lot of momentum. The first keynote conversation of the conference was hosted by Phillip Torrone and Limor Fried, two engineers/hackers at the forefront of the “maker” movement. The term maker is really just a hip description for someone who is a do-it-yourselfer, particularly in the realm of projects that have some sort of electronics/robotics component.

Makers have always been around, and you could easily distinguish them from other non-maker folks by the amount of time they spent in Radio Shack. When I was growing up as a nerdling (trading software for my Apple IIc with friends instead of baseball cards), I dabbled in the hardware world too but found that software/coding was a lot more accessible.

That appears to be changing rapidly, and largely due to a renewed interest in how automation is penetrating our home life. Torrone is involved with a new magazine called Make and an offshoot convention tour called the Makers’ Faire, which features work from makers and hobbyists. In his keynote, he outlined how the company iRobot, makers of the popular Roomba vacuuming robot, had found that so many people had started to buy Roombas and hack them (i.e. making them do much more than vacuum) that they released a special version of the Roomba just for “developers.”

Separately, a growing legion of hackers are spending time trying to work on taking the successful open source software approach into hardware. A few exciting startups are focused on building flexible open source hardware components that are easy to use (for those of us who pale at the thought of using a soldering iron) and allow for a great deal of creativity. Most notably, Bug Labs has been in the tech press with their “bug” components which will likely have a big 2008.

Could this be the resurgence of the local Radio Shack?