So last night was the Barcamp Singapore 2 event. It was hits and miss.
The first item for the night was a presentation by Google. Initially I thought it was boring. But, it wasn’t boring because it was bad. Everything related to maps was covered by Andrew the Product Manager from Google and covered well. It was just that I would have thought that most of the people in the crowd would have known about Google and its offerings to make what Andrew said redundant.
I guess it is about expectations. I was hoping that Google would have surprised us by announcing something like Street View for Singapore. Or some initiative unique to Singapore and South-east asia to get more mapping data.
However, after the session, Bernard from Singapore Entrepreneurs tempered, what was on hindsight, my pretty unreasonable expectations. The ubiquity of Google in my life made me not realize that this was actually the first time Google was doing anything to reach out to the local developer community in Singapore and because it was the first time, no assumptions were made and proper introductions (apparently they practiced the presentation) were done.
You know, if I ever meet Jessica Alba in real life, and instead of allowing me to shake her hand and introducing herself and allowing me to introduce myself before I prostrate at her feet, she had gone, “You should know who I am, I am after all Jessica Alba”, I would have been pretty put off, although still thankful to God for letting me see the ultimate gift to man in real life.
But, the point is this, if I don’t expect and even like people to expect familiarity and demand recognition without proper introductions, why should I do any different with a company and its representatives.
The second item was a presentation by Bak2u. Ok, this one was a total unredeemable miss. The presenter talked to us like all of us have never owned a phone before. I mean, seriously, the first couple of slides, if not the majority of them, could have been cut. Losing phone bad. We know that. Data important. We know that. The most interesting and dare I say important part of the presentation like the technology/products of the company and how it helps us mobile phone owners were not covered enough. The presenter should have jumped straight into the meat. More demo!
What was worse is that a competitor (or at least I think they are one) tenCube did a pretty good job in showcasing their WaveSecure product. Now, I know jackshit about assessing which is a better mobile security offering but Bak2u’s presentation didn’t make it any easier. Actually, wait, it did. Because Bak2u didn’t seem to offer a credible alternative in its presentation.
Now, I guess Bak2u might not have wanted to seem to be doing a sales pitch, and I can appreciate that. But it does seem pretty unfair to me if one presenter constrains himself when a competitor is going to be speaking next.
Ok. I just want to say that Harish showcased a webapp he built in 4 hours. Total hit. Simple, usable app. Awesome.
Just want to say one thing – I wish I could use it to communicate with people not using their platform.
I heard they did videos for the night, so wait for them to come out to see the rest of the presentations.
Firstly, Wikipedia didn’t really excite me when I first discovered it. I thought it was cool that there was an online resource I could use for information but having grown up with my World Book encyclopedia set since Primary School and having a really good library in school which I knew how to search effectively, Wikipedia didn’t strike me as a particularly breakthrough piece of work.
However, now, as I come to understand it more than just an online resource of information but an artifact of social interactions unique to this period in human history, I have come to appreciate it more. And actually go whoa when i think about it but it didn’t have that effect on me in the beginning.
Maybe Powerset is going to be another Wikipedia to me. Maybe. For now, I can’t seem to get excited about it. I like the way they have represented the data from Wikipedia and the user interface to discover and learn more information but that is about it. Using Google or using the Wikipedia page of any topic of interest as a starting point works just as well or rather it works just as well for me.
To borrow a bit from Seth Godin, the problem, at least to me, why I can’t seem to get excited about Powerset is that it doesn’t tell the kind of story that Google did when I first used it. Google told a really simple yet effective story when they put this short message at the right of search results:
Results 1 – 10 of about 1,240,000,000 for friends. (0.22 seconds)
The story was simple. There is too much information out there. Google is able to tell you which is the top ten places to get the information for a particular query. And they did it in less than 1 second. Of course, time was spent indexing the web. That’s not factored in. Time was spent developing the algorithm. That’s not factored it either. But the consumer doesn’t care about all that. The consumer cared about the simple story of how fast Google managed to produce the right sort of results after the query was made. That simple message at the upper right of results became the base for people to share about Google.
Powerset has nothing like that. Looking at the way the data is presented, I can’t find a story to tell. Sure, the algorithm is able to understand the indexed content and query. Sure, the information returned is supposedly more relevant to my query. Sure, the techies are all getting excited about the technology powering the service. Sure, there is the story the people responsible for the service are telling at conferences and investor meetings.
But where is the story told on the site. There isn’t one. Yet.
There is already one similarity between the search engine which will win A*STAR’s competition to find a next-generation multimedia search engine. Their first funding will be of the same amount – USD$100,000.
Andy Bechtolsheim, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, was used to taking the long view. One look at their demo and he knew Google had potential – a lot of potential. But though his interest had been piqued, he was pressed for time. As Sergey tells it, “We met him very early one morning on the porch of a Stanford faculty member’s home in Palo Alto. We gave him a quick demo. He had to run off somewhere, so he said, ‘Instead of us discussing all the details, why don’t I just write you a check?’ It was made out to Google Inc. and was for $100,000.”
I think this is where the similarities end.
I’m a strong believer that the nature of the beginning of any endeavor will have a strong influence on, if not determine, the outcome of that endeavor.
While Gandhi was probably not referring to the endeavors of science or business when he made this quote, I find it apt with regards to what A*STAR is trying to do. Gandhi’s quote:
The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.
I believe that starting a business and developing a technology are two different things and their beginnings thus should not be the same and their paths should not be combined as one.
When starting a business, there are some things you should or rather could do. You identify a market. You understand the current market and its limitations. You spot a potential gap between demand and the supply to meet the demand. You plan on how to fill the gap. You start a business to address the gap.
This approach is an objective-oriented approach to starting a business – you decide on where you want to be and then work backwards planning on how to get there.
Reading A*STAR’s press release on the competition, this is what I understand. The current search engines have limited capabilities in searching multimedia material online. They rely on metadata associated with video and audio to provide relevant search results. So, there is additional work that needs to be done in the supplying of metadata. There is potential for disruption in this area of search if there is a search engine that can understand the multimedia material themselves. This competition is to spur the development of such technology.
As usual, this is the objective-oriented approach that Singapore is famous for.
Then, there is the Google way. Reading about their history on Wikipedia, we learn that Google began as a research project to explore the World Wide Web and understand its link structure as a huge graph. Google didn’t begin as a company to create disruptive technology. It started as a company to understand something already in existence. From that research to understand came the theories which led to the disruptive technology in search that made Google the business it is.
I won’t be presumptuous to suggest that there is only one way that disruptive technology can come about. What I would like to question is the effectiveness of making finding disruptive technology an objective.
Like someone once said, there is no happiness in forcing something to happen.
The last thing is to highlight another disruptive technology called ‘tagging’ which basically changed the way we looked at how information can be organized online. Technology Review (published by MIT) has an article on how Joshua Schachter founded del.icio.us – by starting with writing an application just to help himself manage his own bookmarked links.
I’ve also been thinking about how we as Singaporeans react to the news generated by our organizations such as A*STAR. It is one thing to go ‘WTF were they thinking’ and laugh at them and then stop. It’s another thing to go on and try to understand how things could be different and hopefully better. And then it’s another thing to actually make it better.
For the past two weeks, I was in camp having my reservist training. Managed to follow some of the tech news via Techmeme. Learned that Bebo established their own platform that was similar to Facebook’s to embrace Facebook application. Today, I managed to log into Facebook and I saw this post. Whoa! Ever since Google launched OpenSocial, there has been speculation if Facebook would open up and join Google’s initiative or even be allowed to join. Well, I guess Facebook just decided to start their own club. OpenSocial is a work in progress and Facebook already has all those developers and applications, so would it be Facebook that makes Social Open? Well, Facebook might be in a better position to ensure that applications for social networks can be written once to run anywhere (i.e. standardization) but would the resulting social network landscape really be open especially since it seems social networks would have to license the Facebook Platform methods and tags.
It would seem that Facebook’s strategy is to control the other social networks’ platform efforts to ensure their Platform’s relevance while Google is trying to create the environment for collaboration between social networks to establish a standard for applications on social networks.