featured, General

Podcast Naming Contest

11 Nov , 2009  

Alan Shimel and I are back doing our podcast again. We recorded an episode last night and should be up in the next day or so.

We've started a podcast naming contest and we'd love your suggestions. The winner submitting the name we select will get a t-shirt with our new logo on it (including the name) and an appearance on our podcast.

Email me (mitchell at mitchellashley dot com) your suggestions or leave a comment on this blog post.

I'll let you know when the "Alan and Mitchell" podcast is up.

In the meantime, check out my Network World podcast about Microsoft Office Web Apps which has a lot of rich information about how Microsoft will delver their free and enterprise versions of Office in a web browser.

featured, General

The Year The Media Died

14 Jul , 2009  

Now, I'm not actually a subscriber to the theory that traditional media is dead to be replaced completely by digital and social media. Newspapers may be drying up while social media is ramping up but things are never as black and white as they may seem they'll be. But, I ran across this Mad Avenue Blues video on GuruOfNew and thought it worth sharing with you.

Enjoy the video.


featured, Product Mgmt

Generations Of Communications and How They Influence Business and Products

4 Jul , 2009  

Part 1: One of the reasons I enjoy creating software is that I'm fascinated by researching and understanding users of the technology we create. I sometimes refer to myself as a software anthropologist. That's part of why I also enjoy user interface design. So, enough about me… lets get on to the topic.

Over time, I've noticed how the form of communications we use is generational. By that I mean as time marches on, we create new ways of communicating and that tends to be the form users of that generation stick with. Some make the transition to the next generation, some have a foot in both camps, and others stick with what they've been comfortable with.

When I first started my career, business people communicated very differently than they do today. Besides the phone, communication was written, either through memos or reports, or personal letters between friends and family. There were no cell phones yet, and desktop computers were just beginning to make their way onto desktops. Yes, I'm really dating myself here.

But how I communicated was a bit different, a hybrid actually. I was a computer science student in college and had a side business writing medical software for the Apple II. I was exploring online bulletin boards and using word processing software (that's what we called it back then) to create my content, but few were doing this when I started creating software at the bank where I worked. Very soon after that, I was setting up my first LANs and starting to deploy email servers and email clients, something else that was also very new to the PCs in businesses where I worked.

So, with that as a starting point, I noticed that I was different from those around me in the bank and in the IT department. Everyone lived by pen, paper or a typewriter, while I was always on a computer. And over time I observed how our communication patterns tend to change with new generation of users and stay the same for others.

Here's how I break down the generations of communications and how users of that generation create and consume content.

 Non-computer – short hand, dictation, pen and typewriter. I collapse all of these forms together because they don't involve the use of a computer, matter of fact they largely predate computers. Content was handwritten or created verbally and either written down in shorthand or recorded into a Dictaphone type device, and then transferred via typewriter into written form. This is the generation my parents and grandparents grew up in. My grandmother was well known at the local hospital for her typing speed and accuracy at deciphering and spelling medical jargon dictated by doctors. That couldn't have been easy. Other than the use of the phone, all of our communications were written. (You could go back in history and talk about typeset, printing press and when everything was handwritten, but I'm not going there in this blog post.)

Word processing. When I officially joined the workforce (after college), word processing was making it's way through businesses. This was the Wang word processor era, specialized hardware and software just for word processing. I was using PC software for word processing, like ScreenWriter II (Apple II), MacWrite (Mac), WordPerfect, WordStar and eventually Microsoft Word (PC). I really only saw the tail end of dedicated word processor generation, as it was pretty short-lived from my experience. I recall on the first development project I worked how many people created content by writing it on yellow pads, and then the word processing pool (formerly typewriter operators) transferred it to typed pages. This was an odd period for me because I was using my own word processing software to create content and either printing it  on my own printer or handing it over to the word processing pool to retype. (Go figure.) As computers moved onto the desktop, thanks largely to VisiCalc and Lotus 123, word processing shifted to the desktop as well. Understand that ultimately what we're talking about here is content that's only consumed once it's printed. Creation of content is still written but it's being translated to the computer rather than being created at the computer.

Email. I'm largely of the email generation. I remember setting up one of the first LAN-based email servers in EDS where I worked. The email software was InterMail and it ran on the Mac (and I believe  later became part of ccMail.) Most in the email generation send, receive and consume content via email while they are at their computer. They do it themselves. (This probably sounds like no big deal to you because that's likely how you work and communicate.) An interesting side effect is that non-computer and word processing generations typically didn't fully make the transition to email. I remember countless managers and executives who had their assistants print out their email for them, write comments and responses on the printed page for their assistants to type up and reply back to the sender. That seems as uncomfortable to me as having someone act as a mediator between myself and a caller on the phone, but for those of the written communication generation, computers, mice, keyboards and email programs seem just as foreign or strange.

Instant Messaging (IM). A relatively collapsed generation are IM users. I say collapsed in that IM tends to be an extension of email users, not really a generation in and of itself. It doesn't replace email, but gives instant communications to individuals and groups. The audience of people who you IM is usually pretty small, such as co-workers in your immediate workgroup, some family members and friends. Except for a relatively few users on the extreme, I don't see this as a way an entire generation changed their communication patterns, giving up email in place of IM.

Texting. My kids are of the texting generation. They rarely use email (mostly to communicate with me) and they don't use email to communicate amongst their friends and social groups. They text, and they text a lot. They see email as something Dad does, but not them, though they use email for other purposes such as their school email account where information is delivered to them via email. Both my kids and I are hybrids, but at different extremes. I text, but use much more email while my kids' generation text and use a little bit of email. We're at that crossover point in this transition from email to texting in a variety of forms as we'll see in  a moment. People like myself who have adopted texting will better communicate with the next generation and may transition there themselves (I hope I do), and those who haven't will still require their audience cross back and forth between their preferred method and previous generation's methods.

Twitter and social networking. Clearly social media, with the exception of blogging, is designed around the same types of short messages we've seen from the texting generation. But it's different in   that social networking can reach one person (such as with a direct tweet or wall-to-wall message) and also go out to many within our social networks, both close friends and family or more distant observers. An interesting aspect of social media is how it has quickly crossed multiple generations. While mySpace was primarily a youth and music oriented community, Facebook is used by a much broader spectrum of age groups. Twitter is rapidly making its way into businesses as a new medium for reaching their audiences, but we're still largely in that early adoption phase.

One of the things I haven't addressed yet is mobile communications, i.e. cell phones. Clearly mobile technologies have enabled options like texting, while twitter, IM and email communications can be performed with and without cell phones. I won't go into mobile communications any deeper here as I think I could write a very similar blog post about how mobile communications has shifted from one land line phone per home to wide spread use of mobile phones and to a lesser degree SmartPhones.

Okay, that's the breakdown. In Part 2 of this blog post I'll discuss how thinking about communications in this generational context is important and how it influences our products, IT systems and methods of reaching customers and communities.

featured, General, Social

Social Media Is Building Schools In Africa $10 At A Time – Please Donate

17 Jun , 2009  

Earlier this year, a client I advise about social media and web technology approached me asking for help with a fund raising effort on Twitter. The idea was to raise enough money, $10,000, to set up a young Kenyan boy and his brother with a store they could operate and make a living. 

This situation was special because the boy had lost his arms after both his parents died from AIDS. He was so distraught, the village elders were worried he might take his own life, so they tied him up, cutting off the circulation resulting in him losing both arms. It was a tragic story but one with a happy ending. The www.boywithoutarms.org campaign raised over $10,000 to build the boy and his brother their store. Donations were raised over a 48 hour period, using Twitter and a web page, asking for $10 donations. A similar effect was sucessful at Thanksgiving last year, but frankly, the results amazed me.

Jeff Power, US Mobilization Director with Global Hope Network International, a non-profit and non-religious organization, is undertaking his next Twitter-based fund raising campaign to build two schools, one in Kenya and the other in Ethiopia. Same approach: Twitter, requests for $10 donations, and a web site, http://buildanafricanschool.org.

Social media is getting a lot attention, especially Twitter and Facebook. CNN, Dell, Microsoft, and countless other businesses use Twitter to reach their customers. Individual users Twitter to connect with colleagues, family and friends. But there's more to Twitter than just a short message, micro-blogging platform. 

Twitter can mobilize people, it can call them to action, and it can do good in the world, reaching even the poorest villages in Africa. Whether you're a social media wonk or a sckeptic, social media is having an impact on our society. I'd prefer it be a positive one, and the Build An African School shows us just how much of a positive impact social media can have.

Now… here's your chance to make a difference in the lives of a bunch of kids in Kenya and Ethiopia who can move from holding school under a tree, to school building and a classroom. Over the next two days (Wednesday and Thursday):

featured, General, Social

Video Interview About $200m Russian Facebook Investment

27 May , 2009  

Michael Arrington at TechCruch (a great site, btw) posted an interview on YouTube that he did with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner of Digital Sky Technologies, the investor who just plunked down a $200m investment in Facebook at a $10B valuation.

The interview focuses on the question of why Zuckerberg took the investment, how this investment was a bargain comparted to the Microsoft (and other) investment made at a $15B valuation in 2007, and opens the question of whether Facebook will be doing much more with acquistions this year.

You’ll find this interesting if you like to follow the investment and financial side of social media companies.

featured, General

Is Your Avatar Doing You Justice?

27 May , 2009  

In a blog post It’s All About The Faces, Brad Feld talked about the impact on his readers after changing from his normal portrait style avatar to a more artistic version. Followers commented how he seem so much less accessible, resulting in Brad changing back to his orginal picture.

That blog post immediately reminded me of a somewhat releted experience I had that same day. While creating a new group on Facebook, I ran into some challenges when trying to invite some of my Facebook friends to the group. For some reason my web browser would only display my friends avatars, and not their names, so I could only identify them by the avatar they’d selected. Many friends were easy to recognize, I was shocked by how many I was unable to recognize only having an avatar to go by.

Why? The friends I couldn’t immediately identify all had something other than a picture of themselves for their avatar. Examples included bears in a field, pictures of their babies and kids, scenary from a vacation or favorite location, far off shots that basically showed the person in sillotte, or they were just difficult to make out in the picture.

Now, I’m not saying it’s bad to be creative with your Facebook, Twitter or other social networking avatar. But the avatar you chose may impact friends and followers and the connection they feel with you. Some of my friend’s avatars have the person’s face front and center. I really like those because I immediately feel I know who I’m talking to, and in some esoteric way it refreshes for me a small part of the relationship I have with them.

The Facebook experience caused me to think about my own choice of avatars. I rotate primarily between three pictures; the first two are more “professional” in nature with one being based on the same picture you see in the heading of this blog, and another taken from a video interview I did a while back with Network World. The third is a little more distant shot of me playing my project Strat guitar, which I use for my music and personal posts. Those first two are pretty clear pictures of me, and should make it easy to recognize me from my mug shot. The third is not as easy to make out, though playing music is a deep passion of mine and I do enjoy showing off my guitar. I suppose showing me in that way does present my connection with music, and that’s something most who have non-professional relationship with me know if an important part of who I am.

In any case, I think the important thing here is to recognize that your choice in the pictures you use to represent yourself via an avatar does influence both people’s ability to recognize you, and more importantly, to establish and re-establish their connection with you. Unless you’re twittering under an account used for your business, your choice in avatars is more than just your badge or logo, it’s you we’re talking about. After all, isn’t that what social networking is all about… enabling interpersonal relationships, and building communities with others based on interests, topics, events, work, pop culture and social causes?

So take 2 minites and go check out the avatars you’re using. If they don’t help others relate or connect with you, maybe it’s worth considering a new avatar or dusting off that avatar you set aside in favor of some new, more artistic but less personal version. Remember that ultimately, social networking is about you and the connections you build with others. Some cool new Facebook survey you completed may say you relate to the world as a bear, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world should see you that way or that you want them to.

featured, General, Microsoft

This Is The Matrix… On Microsoft Windows

25 May , 2009  

   My editor at Network World Microsoft Subnet, Julie Bort, posted this video parody of the movie The Matrix that pokes fun at Microsoft Windows. No matter if you’re a Linux fan, Mac user or you use Windows regularly, I think everyone will enjoy this video.


Blog, featured, Social

Recession Accelerating Social Media Adoption

23 May , 2009  

“Crisis brings opportunity to change.” Keep that quote in mind for a moment as you read this blog post.

You can’t watch a cable news channel, particularly CNN, without hearing some reference to Twitter. Facebook has pretty much supplanted myspace as the dominant social networking platform, thanks in large part all of the applications, groups, social causes and the beginnings of businesses using Facebook to reach customers. It’s pretty easy to find a blog post or a site about tips and common mistakes when using LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogging and just about any other social media tool.

The activity I’ve seen lately seems to fall into six categories:

  • Folks who have been using social networking for some time now (experienced Twitter’ers, Facebook, etc.)
  • Individuals exploring the use of social media as part of an entrepreneurial, small business or “multiple streams of income” effort,
  • Business networking between professionals falling into business development, sales and professional networking,
  • Job seekers who have been laid off and are working to find their next position, or are proactively building up their network in case a pink slip event occurs,
  • Traditional media reaching out to readers and watchers through Twitter and blogging,
  • Spammers, lurkers, etc., using social media as an email replacement for lead generation.

I’m sure there are probably more classifications, but those stand out for me from my perspective. The social media topic comes up in the circles I operate in almost every day. Just as an example, I had lunch with a friend today and our discussion was all about social media, sharing experiences from blogging and social media, and how that applies to generating multiple streams of income.

The prior day’s lunch was with someone I work with and our discussion was all about using social media to more effectively start up and engage small, specific interest groups interested in volunteer activities. (Sounds like I must go out to lunch a lot, lol.)

At a business executive meetup group I attend bi-weekly, many of our discussion topics have been around social media’s application in business. All of this is representative of only a fraction of the conversations, projects (through my Converging Network business), email threads, and various inquiries I receive involving social media.

I have a theory about all of this activity — it’s being driven in part, possibly in large part, by the recession we’re currently in. Business has slowed across the board for most everyone. Everyone is trying to figure out how social media can help them network, identify new customers, find leads and business opportunities, get a lead on a job or increase our personal income.

I heard Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank) on Bill Maher’s show say, “crisis brings opportunity to change”. Muhammad was specifically referring to our over emphasis on making money and reform of our banking system, but that statement also applies to the growth we’re seeing in social networking.

People are reaching out. Some of it is for comfort… reaching out to old college friends, coworkers and family.  Part of it is driven by the motivations I listed above. But if in the end, one of the things the recession does is expand the relationships we have with other people, using social media or otherwise, then that is certainly one of the opportunities created out of crisis.

Blog, featured, Social

Blog Shoutout – Steve Baker

6 Apr , 2009  

I had the pleasure on Friday of speaking at a business breakfast about the topic of blogging. During the process I discovered that the group organizer, Steve Baker is a blogger as well. Steve's an entrepreneurial business guy with lots of wisdom and experience to share. He's sharing that by authoring a book, Pushing Water Up Hill With A Rake, and a companion blog. I have had a chance to read some of the posts and like what he's written.

So please check out Steve's blog at http://www.pushingwateruphillblog.blogspot.com

Cloud, featured, Microsoft, Mobility, Product Mgmt

Product Bistro: A Product Manager’s Dream and Nightmare (cont’d)

15 Jan , 2009  

Continued from a previous blog postThe Digital Age Will Save Us… Uh HuhIf you haven’t noticed our world of software is changing right from under us. We rarely receive CDs or DVDs when you buy software. All the Microsoft products I use in my business all come direct via the web, downloading an installer or the ISO image of the DVD to my computer. We buy and download our music through Amazon and iTunes. Now customers have much greater access to products, and we have instant delivery of online services and software products to our customers.Fall 2008 at the Microsoft developer’s conference, Microsoft announced Windows Azure, their strategy for bringing applications and infrastructure services into the cloud. It’s a bold step but nothing short of bold will do to be able to compete against the lead created by Google and Amazon. We’re entering an age where computing power, storage and network bandwidth are services we can spin up or wind down as needed. That’s a product manager’s digital dream, right? Well, it’s never that easy.Yes there are automated processes for provisioning services and bringing new servers online, and they work, but not always in peak situations. There’s always more to it than standing up a dozen or more servers and “bring them online”. Databases, load balancers, firewalls, application software, backup/recovery, bandwidth, failover schemes… it all plays into the equation.Microsoft was down for nearly a full day reconfiguring their service to be able to handle the huge demand for the Windows 7 beta. We don’t yet think of Microsoft as hosting thousands of computers like a Google or Amazon EC2 and S3 (Amazon’s hosting and storage services). But Microsoft runs a huge infrastructure that delivers MSN Messenger, MSN email, MSNBC site content, Windows Update service (all those patches you keep receiving), automated anti-virus updates for OneCare…. see there’s a lot. So, Microsoft’s no newb at the online services hosting game and it still took them a day to get back on their feet delivering Windows 7 downloads on the Internet.It’s Not A Successful Launch Unless The Order System Gets HurtI see a trend happening. It’s obviously not intentional but it may become one of the criteria for any mind blowing, gang buster style product launch. The trend: crashing the servers.Apple’s iPhone 3G was plagued with enormous problems which revealed a single point of failure in their online and SmartPhone strategy – the iTunes service. Yes, that nice little program you have on your Mac or PC to play songs, sync up you iPod and iPhone, and buy digital songs and movies. Behind your desktop app are the iTunes service which not only provide the online store for buying digital content, it also is crucial to provisioning iPhones and delivering software upgrades. Apple unwisely chose to bring out a new iTunes and iPhone software upgrades, and convert the .MAC service to MobileMe… all within a few days of each other. Busted. When demand peaked, the iTunes servers couldn’t handle the demands and customers were impacted on all fronts.Verizon’s Blackberry Storm was plagued with similar issues when their ordering system overloaded during the first day of product launch. Call me silly but I’m pretty sure they knew the demand was coming following several very public product launch date delays, tons of attention from online on technology sites and blogs (like mine) and Verizon’s own billboards plastered around town more than a month before launch. (A consequence of moving the launch date once too often.)Don’t Do It To Yourself… or Your CustomersWhat’s the second most under appreciated component of any piece of software? Answer: The installer. And what’s the number one under appreciated component of any software product? Answer: The upgrade.My mom used to say that you don’t get to go to kindergarten until you can remember three things. (I forget what the other two things she says are, but I digress.) My adage is a product team doesn’t really know how to ship a successful software product until they can reliably do software upgrades successfully at least three times consecutively. (And not just minor upgrades.)Apple is notorious for really bad upgrades, the consequences of which are bricked iPhone, wiped out data and pissed off customers. It’s not happened with just one software release, but occurs time and again. I’ve personally had two iPods blanked from Apple’s software updates, one of them was totally DOA and not recoverable without sending it to Apple. The most recent episode smacked down my buddy Alan’s iPhone, wiping it and causing him to wait while fix was tested and posted. That one experience moved him from being an iPhone advocate to an iPhone protagonist.In IT shops software upgrades might be something we do once or twice a year. They are well planned (or should be) and timed, and include a recovery strategy should something go afoul. But that’s become much different for consumers and PCs in small and medium businesses. An upgrade or patch to Windows or Mac OS X could happen at any time, resulting in our PCs being reboot overnight or creating a capability problem you didn’t have the day before.Upgrades are crucial to a positive customer experience. Their importance is drastically increasing. In my opinion, we’re not far from the day where every company needs to learn to do upgrades flawlessly or they get to go away.The Fundamentals & Learning FasterShifting to the age of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), online hosting, services on demand, and digitally delivered products are launch and delivery strategies we all are likely to consider and use at sometime. It opens up new possibilities, gives us access to new customers and markets, and drastically decreases the time to reach customers before, during and after the sale. It also means we need to be smart about learning from our experiences and the experiences of others in market.Jumping onto some new technology often means we forget or ignore the fundamentals. Who’s the customer, what really are their needs, what will create a satisfying experience for them, positioning, messaging, the 5 P’s, etc. If anything technology accelerates and shortens the window between a buying a experience and a satisfying product experience. That means we have to learn faster, plan better and be prepared for more contingencies. We have to be open and transparent with our customers because they see the magnitude of product issues we experience and the age of whitewashing problems through some fancy PR campaign of CEO slight of hand are gone. Ask Jet Blue’s former CEO who is Passenger Bill Of Rights won over unhappy customers who sat in the plane grounded for hours.Transparency. Something I’ll talk about at another time.