Category Archives: Internet

Incredible start-ups, impossible goals and inspiration

Today I thought I’d write about a nice phenomenon we’re starting to see around the world concerning successful entrepreneurs, specifically in the tech area. As technology enthusiasts and future-focused people, successful tech entrepreneurs have a healthy disregard for the impossible. That, coupled with the fact that a lot of technological innovation is accomplished through (initially) abstract thinking makes for a special type of entrepreneur that simply doesn’t see the limit. What is new, however, is that after these entrepreneurs have had their first big tech success they go straight for the next, biggest possible challenge they can find and simply decide to tackle it. Following are a couple of examples which came to be recently and clearly show the trend.

Calico (Google) and defying aging

Calico is a Google venture, spun off into a separate company to have full autonomy. It’s goal: not making people immortal per se, but increase the lifespan of people born 20 years ago by as much as 100 years…

When you stop for a minute and think about that, it is HUGE. This is one of the biggest companies in the world, committing to making people live 100 years longer… and that’s definitely something I could get excited about (please, please, please Google include 25-year-olds, I’m only 5 years off! Smile with tongue out).

Gates foundation and eradicating Malaria

Everyone knows the enormously successful and richest-man-alive (for many years) Bill Gates. He made his fortunes through founding and guiding Microsoft to where it is today: dominating enterprise IT. A few years ago he decided he had had enough and, instead of taking it slow and deciding to sip off some of that 50 BILLION $, he thought of something else. He decided to change the world, AGAIN, but in a more fundamental way this time, by eradicating Malaria. His fortune and contacts at his side, he simply decided it was enough and that big challenges should be face head-on. He has publicly stated this is now his life goal and I must say, it puts a whole new light onto what many would consider the emblem of a capitalist system Smile.

Elon Musk, SpaceX and a Mars Settlement

Elon Musk is the CEO & CTO of SpaceX and CEO & CPA of Tesla Motors. He made his fortune through previously co-founding PayPal. After PayPal, he decided that electronic cars were a cool and necessary idea for the future and due to the market dynamics, current car manufacturers did not have enough incentive to do it themselves. For this reason he founded Tesla Motors which is aiming (and very close to succeeding) to become the first fully electric car made for the general consumer (under $30,000). Although that is a completely honourable goal (and many would say an enormous challenge on it’s own), it doesn’t seem to be enough for Elon Musk, as he decided to found another, even more ambitious project: SpaceX.

SpaceX develops and manufactures space launch vehicles with focus on advancing the state of rocket technology. It was awarded a $1.6 Billion NASA contract on December 2008 (for 12 flights to of their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station) and in seven years, it has designed the family of Falcon launch vehicles and Dragon multi-purpose space crafts from the ground up. The goal of the company: Expand life beyond the green and blue ball we call earth (in more recent interviews, this was more precisely defined as creating a human settlement on Mars)… Now that is a pretty exciting goal!

Impossible goals and inspiration

As a tech entrepreneur, there are 2 things I really love about these examples:

  1. It promises an enormously bright future ahead, with too many interesting things to count and adventures to take. It has been a while since we have had these big challenges taken-on by people who actually might make it.
  2. It sets a clear example to follow, milestone to reach and moon-shot to better. It’s as-if we’re starting a challenge of “who can make the biggest impact, with the most amazingly impossible project and succeed”… and I love the idea of it!

Personally, I am really optimistic and feel inspired by the examples these people put in place. They’re showing the way to a “culture” where people simply try the impossible and that can only be a good thing Smile

Online storage solutions for start-ups (& why dropbox or box aren’t the only players on the market worth considering)

Recently I had been tasked to find an alternative to our company network drive that was running out of storage (don’t ask, this was before my time Smile). Initially I thought of Box and Dropbox of course, as everyone knows about them, they are solid, have mobile clients and present most bells & whistles you would want. However, in my case I didn’t think this would suit the need of the business very well for a one main reason: The documents still physically stay on your machine, meaning your disk space continues to fill-up instead of “moving” it to the cloud (personally, my disk starts to fill up quickly). For this reason, I started my search and was really surprised to find out it was pretty hard to find anything that perfectly suited my needs.

What I wanted

In my case, the perfect solution would include the following:

  • Backup of files on all our computers
    • Partly common disk that everyone could access
    • Enable for private folders that are also backed-up
  • Enough storage to not have to think about it
  • Opt-in to sync instead of opt-out (in essence, unless you decide to sync a folder, it is only in the cloud) – saving space on disk
  • Share files easily with third-parties
  • Manage all users from a single interface (not have to create separate accounts for each user, without a management console)

Initially, I thought this would be a pretty straight-forward set of requirements, but for some reason the “Opt-in to sync instead of opt-out“ was really hard to come by.

What I found

After quite a bit of searching, I ended up at RackSpace, whose costomer support directed me to JungleDisk (a subsidiary) and LiveDrive.

RackSpace & JungleDisk (www.jungledisk.com)

JungleDisk has two editions: WorkGroup or Server. The workgroup edition allows you to share your files, sync and back them up for teams between 2 and 100. It sells itself as “Shared Online Drive”. The server edition allows for secure, robust automatic backups, specifically designed for servers. It was clear that I was looking for option number 1.

After a bit more research on the workgroup edition, I found it managed to fulfil all of my requirements so I decided to give it a go.

Credit card details for trial

This is where everything went wrong and I hope someone will read this one day: credit card requirements for a FREE trial don’t make it a FREE trial and put people off… I went through the first screen asking my details and was all ready to try out the solution before I got to screen number 2 asking for my credit card details: FAIL. I turned around and never looked back, going with a competitor instead. That’s how much it annoys me…

LiveDrive (www.livedrive.com) — UPDATE: DO NOT TRY (End of article for details)

LiveDrive promised to be part of what I was looking for : Cloud storage as a shared network drive. Although because that was my main concern, I opted to give them a try and after reading some more and fiddling around a bit, I found out they do much more than a cloud network drive. They also include backups, sync, file sharing and all the other features you have come to expect from Box.com or Dropbox.com. The reviews were mixed, going from 5 to 1 star, but my personal tests were very favourable. On top of that, their pricing is a lot lower than their competitors and they provide a whole range of features that are “nice to have”, which come with it for no extra charge.

Conclusion

I’ll be trying out LiveDrive for a little while longer, but am pretty confident of it’s feature proposition. The only thing to find out now is just how reliable it will be and if it’s good enough to rely on for the entire business. Please let me know if anyone has tried other services that suit these needs and if you liked them / disliked them !

UPDATE: LiveDrive has proven amazingly unstable, to the point it has CRASHED MY PC multiple times over a couple of days… I guess I’m still on the lookout for a good solution!

A developer / entrepreneurial Windows setup (Part 2)

This is the second post where I detail my current setup under Windows, as a comparison to my previous Ubuntu Linux one.

Visio

It’s been a while that I was looking for some good modelling software to draw pretty pictures both for my software development & for my business process mapping. Visio is expensive for sure, but with a student license it is free! Smile. Now I realise that means it’s not for everyone, but depending on the kind of job I will be doing, it might be worth the occasional couple of hundred £. It just makes UML modelling fun again, which goes a long way towards making my day a lot better.

DestroyTwitter

I always loved the Gwibber client under Ubuntu and never managed to find anything similar under Windows, until DestroyTwitter. It’s exactly the same as Gwibber, with the difference of being purely based around Twitter (which is still a little bit of a pain, but better than nothing). I use it every day now and because it’s so lightweight, it’s a really good client to always have running.

Evernote Application & Plugins

I am getting so used to Evernote that I put more and more stuff in there. It has become my second brain and it’s really useful they have an official Windows client. On top of that, they have all sorts of plugins to easily store notes on any of my web browsing, which is enormously useful for future reference.

KeePassX

Under Ubuntu, I was using Revelation Password Manager and I needed an equivalent under Windows. Luckily there is a very good one (a better one than Revelation even) which is called “KeePassX”. It’s free to download and really does the job.

Microsoft Office & Outlook

One of the reasons of my switch was simply because I realised more and more of my time was spent with Open Office. Now I like Open Office a lot and I think it does a great job of providing a MS Office alternative. However, I still think MS Office is quite far ahead. As I am a student, I got a rebate on the price and am happy I went for it in the end. Put on top of that the way Outlook handles e-mail (compared to Thunderbird) and I must say I’m a lot more comfortable.

 

That was it for me. If you have any questions on how I made this switch, please feel free to ask !

Working from home, taking time to think and Star Wars hover bikes

I spent half of this month in Spain and even though I had full internet available, the rhythm over there simply isn’t the same. However, that still leaves the other part of the month, so here is what I deemed interesting :

Working from home

Freakonomics had a very interesting podcast about the benefits of working from home. Not only does it reduce costs to business (no need for office space, etc.), but it also seems the average productivity goes up ! You can listen to it at : http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/freakonomicsradio/~5/plvU4eoPPKc/freakonomics_mppodcast082212.mp3

Is there such a thing as too fast ?

A very interesting podcast on how, in a world where information is available faster and faster, it might be worth it taking your time to make the right decision. They have a very nice example of an automatic trading system that did better by increasing it’s latency. For more information, you can download it here : http://traffic.libsyn.com/hbsp/314__In_a_Fast_World_Think_Slowly.mp3

I guess we’re here

Anyone who knows me, knows I am a pretty public person and that I am a fervent defender of most of today’s tracking technologies (as long as you get some benefit out of it). However, this article showed me just how far we’ve gotten and really rang the bell saying “yup, we really know everything you do, whenever you do it”. A scary, but interesting read : http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/15/new-totalitarianism-surveillance-technology

Star Wars hover bikes !

If I ever get my hands on this, it will be the end of my productivity : http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/video/2012/aug/23/star-wars-hover-bike-float-video?CMP=twt_fd :)

Facebook IPO roller coaster and investment

I thought it was time to actually write something down about this, as it is taking proportions that I really would not have predicted : Investing your money in shares is very risky ! If you didn’t know that before you invested, then you were simply reckless and if you did know it, then you do not have a right to complain.

Short term fluctuations in share prices are driven by speculation and not real company results. Facebook didn’t dramatically decrease their revenue over the past few days, nor did it release an amazingly bad feature that scared all of it’s users away. The only reason the share price is going down is because analysts are revising their optimism over the future of the business and their revenue potential.

In the long run, however, the share price will reflect actual results and the performance of the business compared to what people expected of it. If in the long run, Facebook under-delivers, you have a right to complain : they sold you a vision that was either wrong or badly executed. However, for this you have to give them some time : they have no control over the current fluctuations.

I bought a few shares in Facebook myself, simply for the sake of being “in the game”. However, I didn’t invest my life savings or anything I couldn’t lose because I didn’t want to risk it. If you don’t want to risk losing your money, then don’t invest but do not turn around and blame the company for a share price they only partly control.

What obstacles do you see to the widespread adoption of the Semantic Web in automating useful tasks, and how could these be overcome ?

The semantic web, as described in an article of the Scientific American, seems a wonderful prospect. The possibility of computers being able to aid us more specifically in our daily tasks of gathering, reading and selecting relevant information is one that would save humans of a time-consuming task. However, there seem to be multiple difficult hurdles to get past in order to make this idea a reality.

First of all, for Semantic Web agents to be able to automate any task, it will need information readily available to work with. Today, this information is not yet available on the web, which means something has to be done to get the information out in the open (for the semantic web agents to use). The problem is, web developers today do not really have a reason for putting any information available in some sort of RDF format, as this is much work for little result (not many people are using Semantic Web agents, nor would those agents be able to link the information with many other resources, as they are still scarce).

However, this is not an “unknown” problem and one that is very similar to the problems today’s big websites have had to deal with and seems to have found an answer to : start small, specific and then add parts on top of it. The most known example of this is Facebook. There is no interest in Facebook if none of your friends / contacts are on there to talk / relate to or follow. However, by starting small (in this case, Harvard University), people quickly found most of their friends on the website and got interested. Once that was established, it was a matter of not opening-up the access too-fast, to keep this effect alive.
The same thing can be done for the Semantic Web, starting with a specific use, a specific user group and then adding on top of that, little-by-little.

A second obstacle for the Semantic web is that a clear revenue model will have to be developed for everyone. Websites like a doctor’s office, making available it’s opening hours, have a clear gain to making that information available to their customers (People would show up in time and get less frustrated and the doctor loses nothing). However, this is not true for everyone. Take pure content websites for example. They make their money with advertising and want people to come to their websites. If a Semantic Web agent would simply use the website as a proof (gather the information to come to some sort of conclusion) to get the user an answer to the question it seeks, the user will never see the advertisement and the content creator will not get paid (which, in turn, discourages him to write more and expand the web as a whole).

One way of countering this issue would be to incorporate ads within the RDF response that an agent gets from a website. An example of this could be : The Semantic Web Agent browses a website for “Opening Hours” and gets back “Monday’s 10h00 – 12h00” + “Café du soleil is giving 2£ off for their menu before 12h that day !”. This way, the user gets the information he needs and the Web Agent can decide if it wants to pass-on the advertisement as well (even if the user didn’t ask for it), depending on how the user configured his client. Maybe the website could even force the Agent to pass on the advertisement if it wants the rest of the information (the information the user is actually looking for).

The last obstacle, but not least, of the obstacles I see for the Semantic Web is technology-fear of the end-user. Today, we are starting to see more and more examples of people or government drawing lines to what information should be publicly accessible and what information should stay private. One big example of this is the Google Street View project that has caused major discussions all over the world. Technically, all it does is making available information that is already public, but in a more convenient way (browsable on the internet). This fact has made more then just a few people think twice about what they consider “private” and what they would not mind to share with the world. The same problem is going to be faced by the Semantic Web : although the information it will be based-upon will be publicly available (if not, it would be infringing the law directly), the fact that it makes it accessible in a more related manner, drawing the connections between different elements without the user having to figure it out on him self, will spark a new wave of debate on what we consider “private” information.

This issue, in my opinion, even though it is a mere technology-phobia experienced by people who do not really understand what is going on “behind the scenes”, is not to be underestimated. As in most large-scale technology projects, the users can easily end-up to be the largest obstacle.

However, if approached from the right angle and at the right speed, informing the people of the technology before implementing it and trying to explain it in a way that users really understand what is happening will go a long way. The rest is simply a question of time for people to accept that technology is moving forward, whether they want it or not.

We can see that many challenges lay ahead of the Semantic Web. However, as we have discussed in this document, there always seems to be a way around it. If we use the right approach and evolve at the right pace, not out-running the users, the Semantic Web simply seems like the next logical step to the internet. On top of that, I have never thought there was a real way of stopping evolution. Evolution will always find a way, like water, continuing it’s route to where it wants to go.

Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler and Ora Lssila – Thursday, May 17th, 2001

WebOS & Android tablets, Facebook U-Turn

These last two days, we’ve seen some nice new developments in the technology world and I will try to lay down the most interesting (in my opinion) :

WebOS and Android tablets

We’ve had some nice news about the up and coming HP / Palm’s WebOS Tablets. Engadget has photos and some information about the possible release dates (which seem to be aimed at the second half of this year) -> http://www.engadget.com/2011/01/18/exclusive-hp-palms-webos-tablets-pictures-plans-and-mor/ . All-in-all this seems to be an awesome tablet from the looks of it (and the fact that WebOS itself is pretty cool already), but I do not like the deadline at all. I do not think I will be going for a WebOS tablet if I get to choose between that and an Android 3.0 (Xoom or something else that will have come out by then) or the iPad 2 which is rumoured to come out not too long from now.

Android tablets had some nice surprises with Acer announcing work on 3 new tablets based on the Sandy Bridge processor (Intel), probably running Android 3.0. Three form factors that will give consumers and even wider choice as to which size is best for them. I personally cannot wait :) . On top of that, we are going to see a Triple-booting “Evolve III Maestro” triple booting Android (update : 2.2, sorry) , Windows 7 & MeeGo ! Engadget has some more information and a video : http://www.engadget.com/2011/01/17/evolve-iii-maestro-slate-triple-boots-android-meego-and-windows/ .

Facebook turns around on data sharing

You might have followed that there was quite a bit going on about the fact that many Facebook applications managed to have access to much more of your information then you were actually aware of. Initially, Facebook decided just to ignore the issue once it got out, but it seems they are going back on that decision and have frozen the data sharing for now. They are saying that it will stay frozen until they have figured out a better way to handle the issue. The BBC has a nice article that explains all of this in more detail : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12214628?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Chrome defends drop of H.264 codec support

Chrome drops H.264

A few days ago, Google announced they were dropping H.264 video support for their browser : Chrome.
This has come as a pretty big surprise to most of the industry and people had different opinions about it. Some said it was “short-term pain for long-term benefit” and others said it was plain stupid. It is important to point out that this change only effects the HTML5 <video> tag, which is only available in the latest browsers.

Google’s argument is three-fold :

  1. H.264 is not open, nor is it free. A license fee has to be paid for every product that ships with the codec. Hence, this is not possible for any open-source project (their revenue being as small as it is, cannot go into licensing other code).
  2. This is not a “move on it’s own”. Many open-source communities are behind this move, not the least being Firefox and Opera.
  3. The <video> tag in browsers such as Opera and Firefox (two of the other big browsers) do not support H.264 either. This means that publishers will have to encode their video twice in any case (which means that Google is not causing that situation by dropping support now).

I myself think it is a good move. If Google is smart (and presumably it is), they will re-encode all Youtube videos with their native WebM format. Youtube being the largest video-sharing website around, they can make this move for the better, getting rid of the patent loaded H.264 once and for all :) .

Sources : http://blog.chromium.org/

Dishonest Internet commerce practice (ServerPronto.com)

serverpronto-logoThis is a story that has been going on for a long time now, but it has blown to proportions that I thought were no longer tolerable. I hope that by writing this article, other people will be able to benefit from it and avoid the same mistake I made.

About a year ago, I rented a server with ServerPronto.com. The subscription process went pretty good, even though they gave me a server in Panama in the first place (although I asked one in the USA specifically). I wanted to be able to watch some US shows over the Internet, by streaming through that server, so the fact they gave me a panama server was a problem for me. They did move it pretty quickly though, so I must say I was OK with that.

After trying it out for 2 months, I did not manage to make it work correctly. The power of the computer was just not enough to get a normal streaming video going (the Flash videos were way too laggy). I forgot to resign the contract, so I got stuck another 3 monts, which is completely my own fault. Then, however, I sent a support ticket saying I wanted to cancel my account after the 3 months paid were finished. This is where things got nasty.

They told me that in order to cancel my account, I had to fill-in a form, sign it, send it to them by mail (not e-mail, regular post mail) and attach a photocopy of my credit card and my passport !

This had never happened to me before and I surely didn’t trust the company enough to send them a complete copy of my ID and credit card so I told them I did not want to proceed this way. They simply answered that during my sign-up, the conditions of sale (CoS) stipulated exactly these terms and that I agreed with them.

The simple fact that they accept the creation of an account by using my e-mail and credit card and then ask for 10x more to cancel it is purely dishonest business. I live in Geneva, Switzerland and sending a photocopy of my passport to the other side of the world is NOT something I want to be doing, especially when I have no idea what will happen with it.

I called-up my bank and decided to block my credit card and ask for a new one. This happened without any problems and I thought everything was finished from that point on.

That was not counting on the fact they sent a copy of the conditions of sale to my bank, stating that I signed them, agreed to them and that they would be billing my account until I actually went through all the steps as detailed in the CoS.

I am currently talking to my bank to figure out what my next step would be and if all of this is actually legal, but in any case, it has been the worst business I have ever done over the Internet (and I have done a lot).

I would advise anyone against using their service. Many other services exist on the web, are better and honest about their business. I hope that by writing about this, I managed to save some problems to others that might be considering their servers.

Green Zone : The illusion of the information age

Internet image

Internet image

A few weeks ago, I went to see the movie « Green Zone ». The film itself is very nice and makes for a good night out, but it touches on some very important topics. The one I want to elaborate here is the illusion of transparency and information in today’s society

As a « tech geek », I grew up with the Internet (first generation). I am used to Google, Wikipedia and, as a programmer, spend most of my day behind a computer and on the Internet. When I need an answer to anything (and I really mean anything), I simply Google it or look it up on Wikipedia (depending on what kind of information I am looking for).

This kind of research has helped and taught me a lot. I have completed my school reports, read book summaries (instead of reading books completely) and even learned how to program (I did not take a single class in programming to date, everything I know comes from the web and some books). The fact I was able to do all this on the Internet created a very strong image in my head : I can do and learn anything on the Internet.

However, after seeing the movie “Green Zone”, I got a wake-up call back to reality. If you think about it, all the essential information today (the critical kind) is as inaccessible as ever. Do we know exactly what happened September 11th ? Do we know what the real reason was for America to invade Irak ? Do we know if company X knew of toxic components in their product Y ? The answers aren’t that simple. Of course everyone has their own fair idea about these questions, but only a few have to privilege of actually knowing what is true.

The problem today is that we have the impression everything is accessible and transparent. Movies like “Green Zone” do a good job of reminding us that we should think a little more and not totally rely on information that is given to us (in this case, the Internet in general).

What do you people think ? Are we coming closer to a “transparent society” or are we practically at the same level as 10 years ago, the only difference being the quantity of information exchanged on a worldwide level ?