Amazon Showrooms

Amazon caught a lot of heat over this past holiday season over some improvements to its shopping app.  It made it easier than ever to find out that you probably don’t need to buy that blender at Sears, when you can get it for 30% less on Amazon and don’t even have to carry it home.  There were cries that small businesses can’t compete with this and would all be dead soon.

There is nothing at Best Buy or Barnes & Noble that you can’t get on Amazon (or many other online stores).  It’s rare that it will not be cheaper online, even during a sale (which typically just brings the price down to a normal online price).  Is it sustainable to have a store where I can go and hold something, and then order it from somewhere else?  No.  Should we feel bad for the big box stores?  No.  Should we feel bad for the shopkeeper who sells a particular niche at a high markup without adding value?  No.

Stores that only sell commodity products are a recent innovation to take advantage of a temporary imbalance.  They will eventually go the way of dodos, video rental stores, and record labels.  We’re still going to have a few, because there are enough “need it now” purchases to sustain the Targets and Wal-Marts, and we’ll probably still have a few high-end ones where excellent service matters like Nordstrom, but most of the stores out there are turning into showrooms.

What if Amazon bought BJs?

(BJs is a consumer warehouse/bulk goods store, like Costco and others).  My Prime membership takes the place of my BJs membership.  Instead of walking around with a giant shopping cart and driving home with mass quantities of things, I simply browse the aisles for products I like.   When I see one, I scan it with my phone, and it’s on my doorstep the next day.  There are a few people on staff that might help, and there’s a hotline to specialists that understand the products and can answer my questions.  No need for a massive loading-dock infrastructure, or inventory control, or 50′ tall ceilings to heat, or many of the other overhead expenses that yield the current retail markups.

What about the little guy?

I’d like to see our shops go back to actually making things and/or adding value.  Custom products, not “regional dealers”.  There will definitely be less of them, but this will make more space and lower rents for the people who just want a spot where they can sell their craft, or for people to provide useful services instead of distribution.

affinity.txt

SEO sucks. It’s a fun little game to play for a while, but at the end of the day almost everyone loses. The searchers lose because they can’t find the best stuff any more. The search engines lose because their searchers see worse results and are less happy. Legitimate creators and business lose because they have traffic siphoned off by spammers and scrapers. They’re forced to waste brainpower and money on this ridiculous game that, from where I’m standing, they’re losing.

I’m not pretending that there was some golden age without spammers, they’ve always been there, and they always will be. Originally we had straight-up content matches, then keywords. Search quality was approaching unusability before Google came on the scene. They did a good job, PageRank put a trust network in the mix, and worked great for a while. Eventually that well was poisoned too. They’ve done many things since, and I bet many of them helped. The new site blacklist is a good step but certainly a tricky one to use. The rise of Bing is actually a good thing, I think Google is in a much better position to take risks and change things when they’re at 70 or 80% of the market as opposed to 95%.

So let’s stop talking about SEO as a black art. Let’s stop making our sites worse to prolong a losing battle. Let’s take that energy and put it into something else. Put your content out there in the best format you can. Forget code-to-content ratios and maximizing internal link structures that don’t benefit your users.

Instead, let’s think of ways that we can help explicitly affect results. Here’s one: Think robots.txt meets social graph meets PageRank. site.com lists other sites in it’s /affinity.txt file, and defines some coarse relationship. Something like this:

widgetfactory.com/affinity.txt

www2.widgetfactory.com self
*.widgetwiki.org follow
*.widgetassociation.net follow

So we’ve got the “self” tag that basically says “this is another version, or a related version, of me.” If www2.widgetfactory.com/affinity.txt has a “widgetfactory.com self” entry, you’ve got yourself a verified relationship. We’ve also got something like a follow tag that says “we like these sites and think they’re valuable, you should go there (and follow links from us).” It’s basically a vote. Unidirectional votes are useful for quality, and mutual votes are a big clue about transferring trust.

How many votes do you get? No idea, I don’t see any reason to limit it. I think those things will work themselves out. I don’t see regular sites managing thousands of links in there, I think they just link to enough to make it meaningful. Or maybe there is some hard limit, so there’s less of a guessing game on how to pick who goes there. 100 per site? 1000?

Now you might think, “this is just pagerank” but it actually is different I think. First, it’s much easier to spot foul play. There are far fewer domains than pages, so the graph is much smaller and easier to traverse. Junk sites are going to stick out like a sore thumb. A spammer can’t really use this channel by making artificial networks of trust because it would be so easy to kill them en masse. It’s also difficult to mask or overwhelm like linkfarms.

Does this hurt the little guy? Not any more than spammers, I think. I think even though the expression of the data is simple, the interpretation of it can be very complex. If you’ve got a little blog that just blathers on about computer stuff and doesn’t even have any ads on it, you may not need much trust to rise up on specific content searches. If you’ve got a site with 3 million pages that look an awful lot like wikipedia pages, and your only votes are from other similar sites, and your whole cell has no links from the larger graph, well, maybe, despite your flawless, compact markup and impeccable word variances, you’re not really adding much value, are you?

I’m not saying this particular idea solves all of our problems,, heck, I’m sure there are some problems with it as described, but I think approaches like this will not only affect the quality of our search results, but they will ultimately affect the quality of the web overall.

Software that isn’t afraid to ask questions

An area that user-focused software has gotten better at in the past 10 years or so is being aware, and protective of, the context in which users are operating. Things like autocomplete and instant validation are expected behaviors now. An area that software is really picking up steam is analytics, understanding behaviors. You see lightweight versions of this creeping into consumer software with things like Mint.com and the graphs in Thunderbird, but most of the cool stuff is happening on a large scale in Hadoop clusters and hedge funds, because that where the money is right now.

But where software has not been making advancements is in being proactively helpful, using that context awareness, as well as those analytics. If that phrase puts you in a Clippy-induced rage, my apologies, but I think this is an area where software needs to go. I think Clippy failed because it was interfering with creative input. We’ve since learned that when I user wants to tell you something, you want to expedite that, not interfere. Google’s famed homepage doesn’t tell you how, or how to search. They’ve adapted to work with what people want to tell it.

I’m talking about software that gets involved in things computers are good at, like managing information, and gets involved in the process the way that a helpful person would. We’ve done some of this in simple, mechanical ways. Mint.com will tell me when I’ve blown my beef jerky budget, Thunderbird will remind you to attach a file if you have the word “attached” in your email. I think this is a teeny-tiny preview of where things will go.

Let’s say you get a strange new job helping people manage their schedule. You get assigned a client. What’s the first thing you do, after introducing yourself? You don’t sit there and watch them, or ask them to fill out a calendar and promise to remind them when things are due. No, you ask questions. And not questions a computer would currently ask, but a question like “what’s the most important thing you do every day?”. Once you’ve gotten a few answers, you start making specific suggestions like “Do you think you could do this task on the weekends instead of before work?”.

Now, we’re a long way from software fooling people into thinking it cares about them, or understand their quirks, but we’re also not even trying to do the simple stuff. When I enter an appointment on Google calendar, it has some fields I can put data in, but it makes no attempt to understand what I’m doing. It doesn’t try to notice that it’s a doctor’s appointment in Boston at 9am and that I’m coming from an hour away during rush hour, and maybe that 15 minute reminder isn’t really going to do much. It would be more helpful if it asks a question like “are you having blood drawn?”, because if I am, it can then remind me the night before that I shouldn’t eat dinner. It can look at traffic that morning and tell me that maybe I should leave even earlier because there’s an accident. It can put something on my todo list for two weeks from now to see if the results are in. All from asking one easy question.

Now, a programmer who got a spec with a feature like this would probably be speechless. The complexity and heuristics involved are enormous. It would probably get pared down to “put doctor icon on appointment if the word doctor appears in title”. Lame, but that’s a start, right? I think this behavior is going to be attacked on many fronts, from “dumb” rules like that, to fancy techniques that haven’t even been invented yet.

I’ve started experimenting with this technique to manage the list of ideas/tasks I have. In order to see how it might work, I’ve actually forbidden myself to even use a GUI. It’s all command line prompts, because I basically want it to ask me questions rather than accept my commands. There’s not much to it right now, it basically picks an item off the list, and says, “Do you want to do this?” and I have to answer it (or skip it, which is valid data too). I can say it’s already done, or that I can’t do it because something else needs to happen first, or that I just don’t want to do it today.

If it’s having trouble deciding what option to show me, it will show two of them and say “Which of these is more important?”. Again, I’m not re-ordering a list or assigning priorities, I’m answering simple questions. More importantly, I’m only answering questions that have a direct impact on how the program helps me. None of this is artificial intelligence or fancy math or data structures, the code is actually pretty tedious so far, but even after a few hours, it actually feels helpful, almost personable.

If you know of any examples of software that actually tries to help in meaningful ways, even if it fails at it, let me know!

Idea: DropSteam

Valve Software has a distribution platform called Steam. It’s very simple, and very nice. You buy a game through Steam, and download and install it. When you get a new computer, you sign into steam, and re-install all your games. Don’t play a game much anymore? Delete it, you can always go back and get it. No CDs, no need to back stuff up, etc.

Dropbox is a relative new service that let’s me have a folder on my computer at work, and at home. I can put a PDF I want to read later in the folder from work, and it automatically uploads it, and my home computer automatically downloads it. Dropbox also lets me share folders and is starting to integrate with other services.

Both of these services have other features that are nice, but what I’d like to see is something that would basically let me buy a new computer (or reformat my current one in the wake of a virus or spyware or disk failure), and just go through and download the things I want on it. It would also keep things in sync, maintain checkpoints and versions. So my photos are in a folder, but they’re also on Flickr. Changing it in one place changes it in another. My music is there, and can be streamed when I’m at a friends house. The possibilities are pretty open.

It’s basically the benefits of an X-windows remote environment I guess, though that could even be integrated if it had a thin client into a virtualized box you paid by the hour for… I’ve seen lots of pieces of this out there, but nobody that’s really working on the basic central component.

Missing Java Annotations

@SelfExplanatory – I’d love to be able to turn on JavaDoc warnings in Eclipse, but I can’t. Why? Because 90% + of the code is self explanatory. Do I really need to see that getName() “Returns the name”, or that setName(String name) has the utter audacity to “Set the name”? No, I don’t. Put a @SelfExplanatory and JavaDoc can create these braindead comments without cluttering up my code, while Eclipse can reserve its warnings for the more interesting methods.

@NotNull – Other languages may have solved or avoided this problem, but I’d like to be able to dictate that a variable can be set to anything except null, and also that a method will never return null. It would just save so many headaches (of the onerous Runtime variety, no less), as well as lots of “if (foo == null)”…

The ulterior purpose of this post is to test the upgrade to WordPress 2.6.

Ideas: Animal Background for Zoos & Aquariums

Tony the River OtterA recent post at Seth Godin’s blog reminded me of an idea we had discussed a few weeks ago. Zoos and aquariums often have signs that give some basic information on the species of the animals they house, but almost never any information the actual animals themselves. You will only see it done now for major attractions like pandas, and I wouldn’t expect it for every prarie dog or lobster, but I think it could be done much more often.

In this day of easy and on-demand printing, it seems like it would not be a big effort to put up a little placard for each one. The names, birthdates, and birthplace of the animals, with a picture and perhaps some notes on the lineage or personality of the animals would make the whole experience much more engaging, and I might even say that it would boost donations or visitor involvement. This information exists, and you can get it if you opt to bother the staff, but they are always very busy and do most of their work before and after visitor hours.

This could even be taken to a new level if the information is online, editable by volunteers in a wiki-esque format and available as news feeds or email alerts when something happens involving your favorite/sponsored critters.

Ideas: 2 Flickr Features

I often, as most people do, think up things that products/services that I use “should” do. Sometimes I even send these ideas in, if the company has made it easy to do so. I think from now on I will still send them in, but will also post them here, because ideas beget ideas and maybe someone will see mine and come up with an even better one.

So, as any reasonably regular reader can tell, I’m a fan of Flickr. I don’t really use the social features much, I find them a bit unweildy, but I do like it’s organization tools, overall UI, storage of full-size images, unlimited upload quota, and many other features. I don’t derive any direct value from the general public having access to my photos, but maybe the public does, or will someday, get some value. There are two features that I’d like to see added:

1. Virtual Cropping – I lack the time, patience, and/or skill to go through every photo and adjust levels and crop it properly before I upload. Flickr resizes photos to fit the various templates. I’d like to be able to draw a box (like they do with notes) that will be what people see, with the sole exception of the “original” size. This way I can keep the original intact but crop things on the fly as I’m organizing online.

2. Cross-User Sets – I recently went on a couple of trips and took alot of photos. A friend of mine, also a Flickr user, also took alot of photos. Some of his photos are ones I didn’t take, or better than ones I took. When I send someone a link to my collection/set of the trip, I’d like to include some of his photos inline, rather than telling people to look in multiple places. Technically this could be accomplished with groups, but these are typically one-off things and more geared towards collaboration than curation. Basically “Add to set” should be enabled for anyone’s (public) photos, especially those by contacts/friends.