Broadband’s killer app.

Werbach critiques the accepted wisdom that sorting out the digital copyright mess is a prerequisite to widespread broadband adoption. According to Werbach, it’s a mistake to think that video-on-demand will be broadband’s killer app:

“Real killer apps tend to surprise people. No one in the early 1990s thought that interoperable email would be the driver of the Internet boom. And who would have predicted that the most successful of the countless Internet startups was the one that made it easy for people to swap Pez dispensers? eBay looks obvious only in hindsight.”

Rashly ignoring Kevin’s warning, I hereby present my nomination for broadband’s true killer app. The app I’m proposing is fast and low-band — you certainly don’t need broadband to use it. But when you’ve got a DSL or cable modem connection, you don’t need to wait for modem dialups any more. Leave your computer on, and the Internet is as instantly and easily accessible as a dictionary sitting on the dining room table. And what do people turn to first when they want to look up something online? Google.

Broadband’s killer app.

RSS Validator

Mark Pilgrim and Sam Ruby have posted a useful RSS Validator on the Internet Archive’s site. It validates both RSS 1.0 and 2.0, which is nice and nonpartisan of it. It even detected that I was using Movable Type and provided me with templates to fix both my RSS 1.0 feed and to upgrade my old 0.91 feed to an RSS 2.0 feed within MT. Thanks, guys!

Now all I have to do is re-code the PHP that generates my old RSS 0.91 feeds for the recent articles I’ve written and for tinywords.com’s daily haiku feed. That’s a little harder than replacing an MT template, I’m afraid. Ive been trying to avoid actually having to learn about RSS 1.0 and 2.0, but it looks like I may be forced to, now. At least those two feeds, despite being based on an obsolete version of RSS, are still valid.

RSS Validator

Knowledge management isn’t

A paper by T.D. Wilson at the University of Sheffield tackles The nonsense of ‘knowledge management’.

Quote: “‘Knowledge’ is defined as what we know: knowledge involves the mental processes of comprehension, understanding and learning that go on in the mind and only in the mind … . Whenever we wish to express what we know, we can only do so by uttering messages of one kind or another … . Such messages do not carry ‘knowledge’, they constitute ‘information’, which a knowing mind may assimilate, understand, comprehend and incorporate into its own knowledge structures.”

This is why I’m more interested in ‘information management’ than ‘knowledge management’ — because knowledge can’t, strictly speaking, be managed. It’s inside your head.

The late Michael Dertouzos once quipped, upon meeting someone who said she was in charge of managing her company’s “knowledge assets” — So, do you also manage the company’s knowledge liabilities? And can you account for them on a knowledge balance sheet?

(thanks to Weinberger for the link)

Knowledge management isn’t

Sinead was right

Remember when Sinead O’Connor committed career suicide by ripping up a photo of the Pope on TV about ten years ago? She was protesting his position on abortion, right?

That’s what I thought, too — but I was wrong. Turns out she was protesting the Catholic Church’s complicity in covering up child abuse by priests. Salon has the story, but you have to be a subscriber to read it. Here’s a free interview with Sinead that covers some of the same ground.

Sinead was right

Santa Slam

It happens every December. The holiday season brings with it hordes of online shoppers, and — despite having months to prepare — many websites aren’t able to keep up. Learn how you can avoid this fate in my latest column for Business 2.0, The Santa Slam.

Santa Slam

How to beat the market

Vic Norton, a mathematician (and my stepfather), has published a paper on how you can use a weighted Sharpe ratio to optimize your investment mix and beat the market.

I don’t have the mathematical chops to evaluate Norton’s approach, but it looks pretty good: If you had used this investment strategy over the past eight years, you would have nearly matched the S&P 500 during the boom years, and your investment would have continued to grow during the 2000 – 2002 bust.

How to beat the market

The Santa Slam

The holiday rush is coming, and as usual, many sites won’t be able to handle the traffic. Here’s how you can prepare for this year, and beyond.


It happens every December. The holiday season brings with it hordes of online shoppers, and — despite having months to prepare — many websites aren’t able to keep up. Homepages are slow to load, images are missing, strange error messages pop up during checkout, and sites fail to respond entirely. The not-so-jolly result: lost sales.

Keynote Systems has measured the performance of top retail websites during the holiday period for the past several years. According to its studies, the average time required to complete a purchase gets longer and longer from Thanksgiving through December. The slowest sites can take as long as 13 seconds or more to complete a transaction (note that this is the average amount of time spent, on a fast connection, waiting for the site’s servers to respond). If your site is slow in August, chances are the increased traffic at the end of the year will overwhelm your servers and make it even slower.

It doesn’t have to be this way. After all, the holidays really shouldn’t surprise anyone. But preparing for holiday traffic (or other predictable surges in the amount of visitors to your site, such as the thousands of baseball fans who overwhelmed MLB.com and Tickets.com this week in search of World Series tickets) is about 50 percent computer science and 50 percent seat-of-the-pants management.

Mike Gilpin, research manager at Giga Information Group, says that the usual advice for website capacity planning is to look at the biggest peak in traffic your site has experienced so far and then build enough server and network capacity to handle five times that number of visitors. That would probably be a luxury for most IT departments, however (good luck convincing the bean counters that you need to buy five times as many servers as you’ve ever needed in the past). “Obviously that’s very expensive, and not everybody can do that,” Gilpin acknowledges.

A more realistic solution, if you’re concerned about how your site will hold up during the coming holiday season, is to rent extra capacity. Internet service providers can provision you with more T-1 lines, if necessary, or you could pay a Web-hosting service to supply you with extra servers. It’s temporary, but it can get you through the next few months.

A more long-term solution — admittedly, one you aren’t likely to get to before December — is to go through your site, page by page, application by application, and make sure it’s put together as efficiently as possible. Most commercial websites are on their third or fourth versions, so the quick-fix problems have probably been rectified already. Now, says Willy Chiu, vice president of IBM’s high-volume website team in San Jose, the biggest problem is coordinating the various technology and business teams. Websites have become increasingly complex, with multiple tiers of infrastructure: Web servers (to deliver HTML and graphics to customers’ Web browsers), application servers (to assemble webpages from various elements), databases, the data center’s network, and a connection to the Internet via an ISP. (See Business 2.0’s “E-Business Parts List” for a more detailed explanation.) Web performance problems could happen anywhere along this chain, especially if the various parts aren’t coordinated.

To help keep that from happening, IBM’s high-volume website team and Giga have a few recommendations:

1. First, when designing webpages, make sure they’re not so complex and eye-catching that they take forever to load. You need a budget for every page, spelling out the business value of each element (buttons, graphics, scripts, and the like), and you need to be sure that they’re not only necessary but worth the time they take to load in a customer’s browser.

2. A good rule of thumb is that you should try to keep each page under 64 kilobytes, with no more than 20 different items. Total time to download a page should be less than 20 seconds, or less than 8 seconds on a fast connection. (Business 2.0’s homepage, for the record, totals 110KB with a whopping 60 items, but it loads in about 7 seconds on a fast connection — not bad, though there’s room for improvement.)

3. Next, test your website in the environment where it’s going to be used. If the majority of your site’s visitors are running Internet Explorer 5 on Windows 98 systems and have dialup connections to the Internet, that’s what you should use to test the site. Too often, sites are evaluated using the latest and greatest hardware, plugged into a company’s lightning-quick Internet connection, which makes them seem faster than they will appear to customers.

4. Use caching or content-delivery networks to improve the speed at which images are downloaded. Such systems, made by the likes of Akamai, distribute copies of frequently used elements, such as graphics, to fast servers that are close to the end users, so they can be loaded faster. You can also boost your site’s performance by reusing images (logos, for example) throughout the site, so that the customers’ Web browsers can access the same files from the browser cache without having to load them every single time.

5. Build your infrastructure with growth in mind. For example, consider using servers with new “blade” architectures, which let you expand storage or processing capacity by plugging in special cards known as blades. You need new, blade-capable hardware for this to work (Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and Dell have led this market so far), but the advantage is that you can add power to your servers without taking up additional space in the data center.

6. Finally, realize that even if your site is running like a well-tuned dragster, external services, such as credit card processors, fulfillment services, application service providers, and ISPs, can still slow you down. And a frustrated customer doesn’t care that it’s not your fault — those services are transparent, so you’ll take the blame. To prevent this, you need to do due diligence on all your service providers, making sure they can rapidly process each online transaction. If necessary, sign contracts with two or more such providers so you have a backup in case one is slow or goes offline entirely.

Traffic surges — most of them, anyway — are predictable. And with a little careful planning, you can be ready when the next one comes.

Link: The Santa Slam

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

The Santa Slam

Oracle veteran reflects

Former Oracle business analyst Mei Lin Fung reflects on a bit of Oracle’s sales history, circa 1990.

“After five to eight years — with the benefit of distance, hindsight and detachment — it eventually worked its way to my consciousness that we had changed the way things worked in one part of the system. We had not realized, however, that if you expand the pipe dramatically in one section (sales) you have to make sure that you expand the pipe in the upstream AND downstream sections to accommodate the increase.”

Oracle veteran reflects