Saturday, January 30, 2010

On the rise of social eCommerce

Deborah Collier published her five predictions for social e-commerce in 2010:
  1. Goodbye to the Middleman
  2. The Year of the Deliver Company
  3. Creative Sponsored Advertising
  4. Mobile Commerce Revolution
  5. Free Culture Frenzy
Her predictions can't be anymore bang on, if these become a reality of 2010, then we are well on our way to reaching that stage of "Social eCommerce" in the first half of this decade.

As it stands today, our eCommerce networks are all rather isolated and built up silos. We have the Amazons, the Ebays, the Facebooks and the iTunes and App Stores to name a few. Social eCommerce requires these imaginary walls surrounding these walled gardens to come down - and I do expect them to. The reason they will is because as much revenue these networks generate, there is still much more left on the table. We just need to reach out for it.

The elimination of the middle man is a big step. Online applications that have carved themselves a small niche of the market have risen. Not surprisingly these bleeding edge, creative and unique applications are not operated by large corporations, but by the John and Jane Does that have operated them out of their home office or even basements. In today's online world a business does not need to provide a whole lot of services and products to corner the market - in fact focusing on your niche and a small set of products and services guarantees that you will provide better results. Amazon allows me to sell my books to other people, I can sell my old computer on eBay, or my music on iTunes. There is no middle man involved. I would say the middle man is mostly eliminated at this stage.

Delivery is an interesting service, as it increases with the growth of C2C markets, because the middle man does not exist. We are yet to see a creative, bleeding edge and unique process for delivery. Its a harder problem to tackle, but definitely still possible. I don't expect this advancement to come from the national postal services. Its tragic, but these creative solutions come out of the basements and dorm rooms of the World. The big corporations are too sluggish and paralyzed to move with the speed required for this sort of advancement.

Creative, seamless and relevant advertisement is a personal interest of mine. The future of online ads in the social eCommerce phase would be heavily wired with the abundance of data on today's and tomorrow's social networks. We have some creative advertisement solutions today such as AdSense that would push ads based on the content on the page. That was last decade's technology, the 2010s need something new that is even more seamless, more integrated, and finally more relevant to me. The only way I can see these advertising engines outdoing themselves is by personalizing these ads. The data to drive such personalization is present, just locked away in these individual silos.

Mobile. Mobile. Mobile. The iPhone has revolutionized this arena. When I went to highschool, not all the kids had cell phone, a good chunk did, but not everybody. I didn't get my first cellphone until grade 10 I think. Similarly with university, at least the earlier years. Slowly the mobile population grew, but at that time it was fairly uncommon to see a smart phone within the hands of a twenty year old. Today that is different. Now we spend more time with our iPhones, Blackberrys, and other smart phones than we do on our laptops or computers. This is just another bundle of cash waiting for someone to reach out. Those who don't keep up with these trends will surely suffer. Generation Y is closing in to their 30s and 40s, these are the future customers and they will naturally surround those that provide such services.

The freemium model. Another prediction that is directly tied to Generation Y. Unlike the preceding generation, this generation expects to get basic features for free. This generation does not tolerate the service charges and system access fees. I don't expect these old fashioned models to remain much longer. Take the service charge I pay to CIBC, what do I get in return for it? Absolutely nothing. On the other hand, they get to invest my hard earned money, make money off it, and then have the nerve to charge me a service charge or fee to take it out? They ought to be paying me a service charge! That model will change. On the other hand, I would gladly pay a service charge to get premium features for my online banking, as well as mobile banking - and by premium I don't mean printing my paper statement on my screen. Rogers mobile has slowly started introducing such free features to their customers. This includes the "My Account" Rogers iPhone app to monitor my usage, free Rogers OnDemand Online and the ability to tag phone numbers with names on my online billing. Not rocket science, but its an excellent step forward. Stop thinking of the web as e-paper.

In a perfect world, the data I publish on Facebook, could generate sales on Amazon, that will provide recommendations from Ebay along with tunes to match the occasion from iTunes in an experience that is seamless wrapped with personalized ads from Google.

Unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world, but these visions and ideas can' t be that far fetched. However, such ideas are a dime a dozen, what is important is how these ideas are executed, and not who is the first to execute them.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPad: Same Content, Different Form

After I got past the unfortunate branding fiasco of the latest and greatest from Apple, I can't wait to first get my hands on one (like millions of others) and then maybe even owning one (like millions of others will).

There are many pros and cons of this new device, just like there were many pros and cons of the first iPhone. When the first iPhone came out, all I thought back then was "Why?!" However, soon I realized that "because its Apple", and over the years - after the old colourful clamshell laptops were discontinued and the new generation PowerBooks came out, followed by the MacBooks - we became used to the idea that the latest and greatest will come first from Apple.

Back to these iPaddies...first I think they are a completely different breed of device, different from the Kindles. As far as I know, I can't have my pictures on a Kindle, nor can I browse the Internet, listen to music, play games, send/receive e-mails and pretty much everything else you can do on your iPhone except make phone calls. Sure you may ask yourself "So what? I can do that on my laptop" but there is a difference. Laptops are much bigger, heavier, and do far more than you may want to do lying on the couch.

The Kindle is an eBook/eNewspaper/blog reader; thats about it. If you have an iPhone, can you deny spending hours just fiddling around with it, browsing, reading, tweeting, listening to music, etc. ? Probably not. Now you can do the same but on a bigger screen, so what is the reason behind this public outcry?

Here's why I think that is. We - Apple's customers - became spoiled. We always expect Apple to release the greatest and latest, and we expect that to blow our minds away. For the most part, the majority seem to be undecided and equally amazed as frustrated due to the limitations. People expected it to be a full fledged tablet/laptop, but it couldn't have been. All the tablet PCs before it have so far failed. Why should Apple attempt going down that path? On top of that history, why should Apple create a product that would cannibalize their MacBook sales? Steve's diagram clearly set the expectation, it will be better than an iPhone without being an iPhone, but it also won't be a MacBook. Its a digital content reader.

The fact is, its just a new medium for content delivery, and it may be the holy grail for the newspaper industry. People don't pay for content, you can't own the content, but you can own the medium you purchased it on. Take the Davinci Code for example. I bought the book, I watched the movie, and I bought the DVD - others may have also bought the eBook. Each form has its benefits, and each form has its 'expiry date'. After reading the book once, I probably won't read it again, but what if I wanted to refer to a chapter later, how do I do that? how do I find it? Will I have the book on me to refer to that chapter?

You have a dinner party at home, and you want to share some photos with your guests. Either you load them up on your computer, or you plug your camera into your TV and show them. The content is exactly the same, the form is different. Showing them on your big screen is more convenient, but you need to find that silly cord first - which you can never find when you need it. You can huddle around your computer or laptop, but thats less convenient, and even less convenient is passing or rotating that laptop around. Oh wait, that iPad is on your coffee table. Same content. Different form.

Now we just wait, and see what happens between now and the launch. The use cases are endless, and are not just limited to content consumption. I definitely see use cases in at least education and healthcare, collaboration, and obviously entertainment. The Kindle and any other eBook reader just don't have this reach.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The agile kitchen

Last year I posted about why successful restaurant kitchens are more Agile than many software 'kitchens'. Tonight, I'm posting more about this topic.

A good software developer is disciplined, just like a good chef is disciplined. Both will put extra effort to make that application or dish 'hit that sweet spot' nom nom nom. Both will cook stuff up that will add value, and not just because they can. The average chef will say "Yes" to every customer request, the good chef will use common sense and say "No" to some i.e. "No I will not put extra sauce in your lasagna because blah blah blah" - after all, this chef knows more than me and I trust their judgement. Certain requests are accepted right away - no discussion - like "sure I'll hold the nuts".

Now imagine the restaurant owner, they're not a chef, they're a manager. At the end, they are concerned about making money; after all it is a business and they didn't open this restaurant to just provide this excellent chef with a job. If the customer wants extra sauce, the manager's response will most likely be "Sure, thats X dollars extra" - the famous "change request", but thats another day's topic.

A Waterfall kitchen

Consider a "waterfall kitchen". The manager needs to know exactly how many people are seated, what each one of them are ordering, how complex each order is and how many chefs are in the back before scheduling any one order. In reality, most kitchens don't operate that way because you can't keep everybody waiting until all the orders have been taken. Finally, when the orders come out, some may be cold because of waiting so long and will be returned for re-heating. While re-heating, chef will notice that the broccoli doesn't look fresh anymore and needs to boil some new ones. Other orders will come back because they were incorrect. The chefs held the nuts on the wrong order and now a diner is choking outside. Now, all the chefs are waving their hands over their heads that it wasn't their screw up, the Manager is looking at the wait staff and developers to find someone to blame. The wait staff can't remember the details of the order they took 5 hours ago and then the customer mentioned they are allergic to nuts 15 minutes after that. The chefs say they cooked what is on the ticket...

So, clearly this "waterfall kitchen" can't work, why would it? The other problem with this kitchen is that by nature it will resist change. Because dishes are cooked at the same time, and the head chef inspects them at the same time, and waiters serve them at the same time, a change will wreck havoc.

But when can it work? That model would work when food is delivered. A catering service can't send each dish down on its own - obviously that won't work. There is only 2 trucks and they have two parties to cater to so all the food for one party needs to be delivered together to save delivery time, gas, etc. As for change, this model still works here because there are usually different varieties of food, and if you are a vegetarian or allergic to nuts the responsibility falls on your host to have something available for you - not on the caterer or their kitchen.

Anyway, I'll leave you with Chef Ramsay now and one my favorite episodes of Kitchen Nightmares - the case of the authentic Indian restaurant that served french fries and do-it-yourself curry...

Kitchen Nightmares - The Curry Lounge (sorry embed disabled for this video, and can't find one that can be embedded...) My favorite part starts at 5:40.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Blast from the past - Team Athena

Back in 2005-2006 when I was finishing up my Software Engineering degree, we had to build an autonomous search and rescue robot using the Lego Mindstorms kit. Here is a video I found this morning of our robot "Athena" - the lean and mean machine - saving a poor, helpless, and yolk-less egg...

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Two Thousand & Ten

I'm going to go a little off track with what I'm going to post this time. I'm not going to talk about technology, Google Maps, web applications, software, photoshop, SEO, or how tos or any other "geeky" stuff. Its the start of a new year, a new decade, and hence I'm going to post about something different.

All in all 2009 was an interesting year, and good end to this decade. 2009 started out with a merger between the company I first joined - Pentura Solutions - after completing my masters and Thinknostic another company based out of Ottawa. Both companies have a very interesting past, they both are "re-births" of a previous company "Montage". I heard that name many times over the past 3 years, and today many of my colleagues were part of Montage in the past. Today this new company is known as ThinkWrap Solutions.

My start with Pentura was interesting. I was first interviewed in December 2005, and besides getting lost finding the office and arriving late, it went rather well I think. Unfortunately, at that time they were looking for someone to start right away, and I still had 6 months to go to finish my degree. Also, being an international student I couldn't just start working part-time without the necessary immigration papers. Fast forward to July 2007 and I completed a masters in computational engineering and thought of e-mailing Marc (the owner who interviewed me in 2005). Fortunately this time, they were hiring and I started that month. And that is my beginning with this great company; ThinkWrap. Its a great place to work, filled with talented people to work with and learn from. I think I'm one of the lucky ones who get a great job and a great place to start a career straight out of university. The funniest part is there is quite the McMaster alumni population at ThinkWrap - our ratio got a little diluted after the merger though. :)

2009 was also the year I finalized my immigration status in Canada and became a permanent resident. What does this mean for me? It means I have almost the same rights as a citizen, minus voting. I hear many Canadians don't vote so there you go. To me this means I don't need to apply for another study or work permit to stay in this great place called Canada. And in two years I get to apply for citizenship - then I'll vote for sure! I've been here since 2001 on numerous study and work permits. I really believe that over the years dealing with immigration, renewing papers, etc. I have gathered enough experience dealing with this to become just an average immigration lawyer - not that I would ever want to do it again, but my success rate is 100% : )
For 9 years I did it all myself, and haven't paid a penny to a lawyer to do it for me. Honestly, I never saw a reason why to, the documentation is there for you to read, the forms are online for you to get. Do it yourself.
However I do have to thank my student advisor at McMaster, my bosses at my jobs at McMaster, the guys and gals at Pentura and ThinkWrap for being there when I needed a signature or a letter, and my friends for maintaining my sanity. Without all these people, it wouldn't have been possible. Thankyou.

This decade is also an important one because I graduated high school in 2001, graduated from McMaster in 2006 and 2008. For that I have to thank my parents first for sending me half way across the world to study and supporting me throughout. I used to live in Abu Dhabi an hour or so away from Dubai, U.A.E - yes its a long way away from here. And second all my friends, without them I wouldn't have that many memories of this decade. Finally, as this decade is over, it means 2011 would be my 10yr highschool re-union.

Finally, this decade I also met this special somebody, 5 years ago. She bought me ice cream after a hiccup with my study permit. Now that I'm a permanent resident, she doesn't need to buy me ice cream anymore, but I'm still grateful I have her in my life. Thank you Carmen.

I'm a big Italian soccer fan, and when Italy is playing I'll be there cheering. This decade included the year Italy became the champs in the 2006 world cup. Last time they did that was the year before I was born - 82.

Y2K. Hey we survived what was hyped as doomsday. I think the only reason cell phones, phones, and even the internet hiccuped that night was because of all these people checking if we are still "online".

Here's to a great past decade, on to the next one. I just keep wondering, how will people refer to the past decade? The 20 zeros just does not sound cool enough.