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Tag: Tech

Index Firefox 3 Bookmarks in Launchy

image I’ve been wondering why my favorite keystroke launcher hadn’t been integrating well with the latest release of my favorite browser. Apparently, Firefox 3’s new and more sophisticated bookmarks and history engine doesn’t auto-export bookmarks to HTML, which is what keystroke launchers like Quicksilver and Launchy use to index bookmarks.

And, of course, someone out there in the wide world of the Internet has the solution. From hackcollege (hat tip: Lifehacker):

  1. In the navigation bar, type in about:config. And “void your warranty” — that’s a joke from the Mozilla folks.
  2. Start typing in browser.bookmarks.autoExportHTML until you find it. This is the setting for the Firefox-2.0-style bookmark saving.
  3. Toggle this setting to “true” by double-clicking or left clicking and selecting “Toggle.”

After that tweak, Firefox will export the bookmarks to bookmarks.html every time you close it.

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Google Reader Analytics

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion my love for Google Reader. And here’s another reason to throw into the mix: analytics. While this is a feature I don’t use very often, it’s nevertheless very interesting to look at (translation: I spent an hour looking at it, and feel like if I don’t blog about it, then it was a waste of an hour). You can access it by clicking on the “Trends” link in the Google Reader navigation box, or by typing “g” and then “[shift] t”.


The trends feature gives you a snapshot of two things: (1) your Google Reader browsing habits and (2) details on the blogs and RSS feeds that you subscribe to.

There is a block dedicated to showing how many items you read on a daily basis (I apparently read most of my posts around noon-time with an odd spike around 3-4 PM, and the number of posts I read on a typical weekend is less than half that I would read on a typical weekday):


The analytics also gives me an analysis of which feeds I read the most (I had no idea I read that much VentureBeat):


As well as an analysis of how often certain feeds update, as well as which of my feeds are the most “obscure” (as measured by how few Google Reader subscribers each feed has):


So, who cares? Good question. In terms of how I’ve used the feature, I’ve used it to cull subscriptions from my list — by singling out feeds which updated too frequently but which didn’t have consistently high quality content or by singling out feeds which I never read — and also to encourage me to post encouragements to the more “obscure” blogs that I follow, so as to encourage them to keep posting.

But, really, it’s just cool.

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Playing with Monopoly

imageWith the recent challenges to Google’s purchase of Doubleclick, Microsoft’s endless courtship of Yahoo, and the filing of more papers in the upcoming Intel/AMD case, the question of “why should the government break up monopolies?” becomes much more relevant.

This is a question that very few people ask, even though it is oftentimes taken for granted that the government should indeed engage in anti-trust activity.

The logic behind modern anti-trust efforts goes back to the era of the railroad, steel, and oil trusts of the Gilded Age, when massive and abusive firms engaged in collusion and anti-competitive behavior to fix prices and prevent new entrants from entering into the marketplace. As any economist will be quick to point out, one of the secrets to the success behind a market economy is competition – whether it be workers competing with workers to be more productive or firms competing with firms to deliver better and cheaper products to their customers. When you remove competition, there is no longer any pressing reason to guarantee quality or cost.

So – we should regulate all monopolies, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The logic that competition is always good is greatly oversimplified, as it glosses over 2 key things:

  1. It’s very difficult to determine what is a monopoly and what isn’t.
  2. Technology-driven industries oftentimes require large players to deliver value to the customer.

What’s a Monopoly?


While we would all love monopolies to have clear and distinguishable characteristics – maybe an evil looking man dressed in all black laughing sinisterly as his diabolic plans destroy a pre-school? – the fact of the matter is that it is very difficult for an economist/businessperson to really tell what counts as a monopoly and what doesn’t, for four key reasons:

  1. Many of the complaints and lawsuits brought against “monopolies” are brought on by competitors. Who is trying to sue Intel? AMD. Who complained loudly about Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer into Windows? Netscape.
  2. “Market share” has no meaning. In a sense, there are a lot of monopolies out there. Orson Scott Card has a 100% market share in books pertaining to the Ender’s Game series. McDonald’s has a 100% market share in Big Macs. This may seem like I’m just playing with semantics, but this is actually a fairly serious problem in the business world. I would even venture that a majority of growth strategy consulting projects are due to the client being unable to correctly define the relevant market and relevant market share.
  3. What’s “monopoly-like” may just be good business. Some have argued that Microsoft and Intel are monopolies in that they are bullies to their customers, aggressively pushing PC manufacturers to only purchase from them. But, what is harder to discern is how this is any different from a company that offers aggressive volume discounts? Or that hires the best-trained negotiators? Or that knows how to produce the best products and demands a high price for them? Sure, Google is probably “forcing” its customers to pay more to advertise on Google, but if Google’s services and reach are the best, what’s wrong with that?
  4. “Victims” of monopolies may just be lousy at managing their business. AMD may argue that Intel’s monopoly power is hurting their bottom line, but at the end of the day, Intel isn’t directly to blame for AMD’s product roadmap mishaps, or its disastrous acquisition of ATI. Google isn’t directly to blame for Microsoft’s inability to compete online.

Big can be good?

This may come as a shock, but there are certain cases where large monolithic entities are actually good for the consumer. Most of these lie around technological innovation. Here are a few examples:

  • Semiconductors – The digital revolution would not have been possible without the fast, power-efficient, and tiny chips which act as their brains. What is not oftentimes understood, however, is the immense cost and time required to build new chips. It takes massive companies with huge budgets to build tomorrow’s chips. It’s for this reason that most chip companies don’t run their own manufacturing centers and are steadily slowing down their R&D/product roadmaps as it becomes increasingly costly to design and build out chips.
  • Pharmaceuticals – Just as with semiconductors, it is very costly, time-consuming, and risky to do drug development. Few of today’s biotech startups can actually even bring a drug to market — oftentimes hoping to stay alive just long enough to partner with or be bought by a larger company with the money and experience to jump through the necessary hoops to take a drug from benchside to bedside.
  • Software platforms – Everybody has a bone to pick with Microsoft’s shoddy Windows product line. But what few people recognize is how much the software industry benefited from the role that Microsoft played early on in the computer revolution. By quickly becoming the dominant operating system, Microsoft’s products made it easier for software companies to reach wide audiences. Instead of designing 20 versions of every application/game to run on 20 OS’s, Microsoft made it easy to only have to design one. This, of course, isn’t saying that we need a OS monopoly right now to build a software industry, but it is fair to say that Microsoft’s early “monopoly” was a boon to the technology industry.

The problem with today’s anti-trust rules and regulations is that they are legal rules and regulations, not economic ones. In that way, while they may protect against many of the abuses of the Gilded Age (by preventing firms from getting 64.585% market share and preventing them from monopolistic action 1 through 27), they also unfortunately act as deterrents to innovation and good business practice.

Instead, regulators need to try to take a broader, more holistic view of anti-trust. Instead of market share litmus tests and paying attention to sob stories from the Netscapes of the world, regulators need to really focus on first, determining if the offender in question is acting harmfully anticompetitive at all, and second if there is credible economic value in the institutions they seek to regulate.

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Consulting to the next level

image The assumption underlying most consulting professions is that it is possible for highly trained individuals to be brought up to speed quickly on unfamiliar projects/businesses/initiatives to contribute valuable advice. Whether or not this is true probably varies from type of consulting, but it raises an interesting issue, why stop at just advice or support?

And it seems I’m not the only one who is asking this question. I’ve identified two (out of probably a whole world of other companies) who really seem to take consulting to the next level, bringing in special forces (hence the picture of Marvel’s Winter Soldier) rather than merely slidemaking advisors:

Pivotal Labs

Pivotal Labs is a small software company who’s business model is an interesting hybrid of consulting and software development. They are hired by software companies who cannot solve key programming problems. Think this means that only small little startups hire them? Think again – their list of clients includes the mighty as well as Twitter, which has recently been dealing with the limitations of the Ruby on Rails programming framework.

From what I can tell of their site, not only are they brought in to help their clients with software issues, they engage in many practices which well-managed management consulting firms follow:

  • Rotate staffing – According to Pivotal’s web site, not only are their employees staffed on challenging problems, they are rotated between projects, probably to prevent boredom, but also to help workers develop experience and to foster a sense of community (we don’t work for Salesforce, we work with each other on Salesforce or any of our client’s problems).
  • Training of the client – The difference between a good consulting firm and a bad one is that the former will help facilitate skill and responsibility transfer to the client. This may mean that in the short-term, the firm sells less projects/cases, but in the long term it improves the value proposition of the consulting project and, at least in theory, leads to future demand for the firm’s services.
  • Proprietary and non-proprietary frameworks/toolkits – Every consulting firm has their own magic “bag of tricks” which they constantly develop and deploy when faced with consulting challenges. Pivotal is the same way, having developed a number of web application programming tools which they are happy to explain (most seem open source) and even happier to deploy.

Bain Corporate Renewal Group

Bain & Company is one of the “Top three” management consulting firms (along with BCG and McKinsey) and is known for being somewhat of a maverick in the consulting industry – when it started, it promised not to work with your competitors, demanded access to top-level management, and became known for its emphasis on protecting the secrecy and confidentiality of its clients. These are now fairly common practices across the management consulting industry, but at the time, they were fairly unique – a pattern which followed with Bain pioneering private equity consulting, again something which the rest of the industry is now copying.

It’s not a surprise, then, that Bain recently announced the formation of its Corporate Renewal Group, an arm of the firm which doesn’t merely provide business advice and analysis, but which actually takes over a troubled company/division and turns it around. After all, if consultants truly believe they have the business savvy and the know-how to help troubled companies, then why not take a hand at actually managing the turnaround?

Unfortunately, the Corporate Renewal Group appears to be in its infancy, so the Bain website and a general Google search hasn’t turned up significant evidence of its success. But, it will be interesting to see if Bain is capable of pulling this fairly significant departure from its core slidemaking advisor competencies to the world of “special ops.”

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Slides done properly

After about a year of slide-umentation, it’s nice to finally see a business person use slides the way they were meant to be used. And, no, this wasn’t at my client, it was at this past week’s Apple WWDC. Take it away, Mr. Jobs (all pictures are from Engadget’s liveblogging):


Simple. Unwordy. Clear in meaning. What is he saying in this slide? He’s saying that Apple rests on 3 major product groups: the Mac (PC), Music (iPod/iTunes), and the iPhone. That’s all you need in a presentation, people!!


Bam! We know that the iPhone 3G has several enterprise features: Push Email, Push contacts, Push Calendar, Auto-Discovery, Global address lookup, and Remote Wipe. Notice how we can tell its about the 3G, because there’s a big picture of the 3G that takes up the left half of the slide. Notice how the right slide just has big text, not tiny text to describe what “Push Email” and “Push contacts” mean, or the little technical specifics on everything.


Now, for something “technical” — but, oh look — the slide makes it again very simple to understand without resorting to an insane mind-numbing wordwall or any overly sophisticated diagrams. It’s just, email pops up in server, is then pushed to the push notification service, and then pushed to the iPhone.


I mean, seriously, using words to describe this slide does injustice to the slide.


Frankly, Jobs could’ve done without the horizontal grid-lines, but again, very simple and elegant chart.


Somebody at a typical consulting firm/business would want to put on this slide the dimensions of the iPhone. Jobs knows, however, that all you need to do is show a picture — so the audience understands how thin it is. How many inches doesn’t stick in one’s head. This image, however, does.

As always, Mr. Jobs, well done. Now, can I please have a free iPhone?

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The Third Coming …. of Firefox


Today marks the release of the third version of Firefox. I’ve posted before on why Firefox is my favorite browser, and this latest version improves on what was already a pretty good thing:

  • Speed – Firefox 3 is now MUCH faster than it used to be. You can see it in the smoother scrolling, the more rapid handling of Javascript (which helps with the loading of web pages AND extensions)
  • Memory – As much as I used to love Firefox, the one thing I absolutely detested about it was its inability to reduce its memory footprint. This was especially a problem for me given the sheer number of extensions that I have loaded. Thanks to an improved cycle collector, you can now run Firefox 3 for hours without worrying about it slowly taking up more and more memory.
  • The “Awesome” Bar – Most browsers have fairly ho-hum location bars – about all you can do is type in URL’s and hit ENTER to visit the appropriate page. Not so in Firefox 3 – the location bar (or “Awesome Bar” as some have called it) is now your interface to all of your bookmarks and even your history. Just by typing in words, Firefox 3 will search its built-in SQLite database for any bookmarks you have or websites that you just visited who’s titles or URL’s match the words that you just typed. Just visited a CNET article on the iPhone and want to go back to it? Just start typing in the Awesome Bar “iPhone” and it will highlight all the most recent pages you’ve visited or any bookmarks you have that have the word “iPhone” in it.


  • Awesome Bar continued – Firefox 3’s Awesome Bar also gives you rapid access to your bookmarks and to a new tagging feature which lets you quickly bookmark the current page you’re on just by clicking on the little star icon. Click a second time to either store the bookmark in the right folder or to tag the page you’re bookmarking with a description which also becomes searchable when you use the Awesome Bar!
  • Security – Every time you visit a secure site (i.e. your bank, your investment account, etc.), Firefox 3 now displays an icon in the Awesome Bar which gives additional information about the identity of the site in question (so you avoid being scammed) as well as additional information about the site so that you can be 100% confident that the information you’re passing on is safe and secure.
  • Password Manager – This isn’t your dad’s password manager (aka from Firefox 2) – this is a smart password manager. One of my pet peeves about most browsers is that after entering a password and hitting enter, the browser will ask you if you want it to remember the password – but, they don’t let you see if the password you entered is the right one before you say “yes” – Firefox 2 has now fixed this problem with a very sleek and minimalist password remember-er feature which fits as a small bar at the top of the screen.
  • Select text that’s not next to each other – This would require 1000 words to describe… or just a picture (just use Ctrl to select the pieces of text):


  • Extensions – Not only does Firefox 3 have a new and better integrated Addons manager, but almost all of the major extensions have been updated (and those that haven’t are probably now obsolete thanks to a UI or performance enhancement made in the upgrade). And, as in my previous Firefox oriented posts, below are my current swath of extensions:
    • Adblock Plus – This is an extension which actually blocks advertisements from my site (I think the only internet ads I’ve seen since Firefox 1.5 are the Gmail ones).
    • Better GCal and Better Gmail 2 – These two extensions are compiled by Gina Trapani of LifeHacker fame and are collections of Greasemonkey scripts which enhance the user interface for Google Calendar and GMail, the former letting me see multi-line events in calendar-view and the latter giving me access to a Launchy/Quicksilver-like interface so that I can use my keyboard to completely control Gmail.
    • dragdropupload – This extension is Windows only, but basically allows you to side-step the awkwardness of using the “browse…” button to find whatever file you’re attempting to upload or select by letting you drag and drop the file from a Windows Explorer window. Sounds kinda useless, but saves me a lot of time. The other day when I was at a friend’s place who lacked the extension, I found myself completely flabbergasted, as I had gotten so used to just dragging-and-dropping!
    • Firebug – Hands down, the best web developer tool of all time.
    • ForecastFox – An old favorite of mine, it lets me see a constantly updated weather status and forecast so I always know what I can wear tomorrow and how warm/cold it is once I leave my overly air conditioned/heated room.
    • Google Gears – Google’s answer to growing demand for offline capability in web application support – I use it as it gives me the ability to read my beloved Google Reader offline and support offline work in Google Docs.
    • Greasemonkey – I’ve waxed lyrical over this extension before – basically it allows users to use simple Javascript to alter or extend the functionality of a site. Case in point, I use the Greasemonkey script “Advanced Google Keys” to provide me a keyboard interface with which to navigate through Google Search results with. Instead of scrolling up and down and clicking on the next or previous links to get to the next page or using the middle mouse button to open a link in the next page, I use the up and down arrow keys to navigate through the search results, left and right arrow keys to move to the next or previous page, and using the ‘t’ key, I can switch between opening links when I hit enter in new tabs or in the current window. And this is only the beginning of what these Greasemonkey scripts can do!
    • Link Alert – This is a slightly newer extension for me, but what it does is provide me a visual cue in the form of a small icon which shows up next to the cursor which describes to me when a link I’m about to click will open in a new window, or is a PDF, or is a picture, or an RSS feed, or a Word document, etc. etc. Very useful in doing web design and in saving bandwidth when I know that I don’t have the connection speed to load up a massive PDF.
    • Scrapbook – A very useful extension which lets you save/store and even annotate web pages that you find online so that you can see them later. I’ve not only used this to store important pages (e.g. airplane tickets, hotel bookings) but also to assist me in research by providing a library for me to store web pages which I can annotate in.
    • Mozilla Weave – I was saddened to discover that Google was no longer updating their Browser Synch extension which had helped get me through the period of senior year when my laptop was broken, requiring me to eke out time on my lab computers and on my roommate Eric’s spare computer. Thankfully, it turns out Mozilla is beta-ing a new service called Weave to perform essentially the same task. It’s still in its infancy, so I’m not willing to entrust it to store my passwords and more sensitive information like cookies, but it is currently helping me synchronize bookmarks and history between the various computers which I’m currently running Firefox on.
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The Writing on the Computer

When people think of prolific writers, their mind jumps to people like Charles Dickens or St. Augustine or Shakespeare — individuals who have shaped Western intellectual thought with huge tracts of their wisdom bound together in paper form.

They’re about to eat Philip M. Parker’s dust (hat tip: Freakonomics)

Philip M Parker, a professor of management science at Insead, the international business school based in Fontainebleau, France, patented what he calls a “method and apparatus for automated authoring and marketing”.

Huh? Wazzat? It’s a machine that writes books!

The book-writing machine works simply, at least in principle. First, one feeds it a recipe for writing a particular genre of book – a tome about crossword puzzles, say, or a market outlook for products. Then hook the computer up to a big database full of info about crossword puzzles or market information. The computer uses the recipe to select data from the database and write and format it into book form.

Parker can literally create a book on demand:

Nothing but the title need actually exist until somebody orders a copy. At that point, a computer assembles the book’s content and prints up a single copy.

The Guardian claims he’s “written” 200,000 different books so far, of which include the fascinating Webster’s Albanian to English Crossword Puzzles: Level 1, the suspenseful The 2007 Import and Export Market for Ferrous Metal Waste and Scrap Excluding Waste and Scrap of Cast Iron and Alloy Steel in United Kingdom, and the unforgettable 2007-2012 Outlook for Edible Tallow and Stearin Made in Slaughtering Plants in Greater China.

Let’s see him craft an epic poem?

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Made in Taiwan

I’ve been on my current case for about 3 months. As I’ve mentioned before, it is a high level strategy case for a technology client. As a result, I’ve been able to do a great deal of fairly interesting work researching various technology markets and trends, ranging from the typical (Internet search) to the more esoteric (grid computing), as I help the client scope out successful strategies by other technology players and possible expansion opportunities.

image During the course of this research, I have been surprised by many things, but what I found most surprising on a personal level was how important Taiwan is to the global technology market.

This is a particular point of pride for me, for despite Taiwan’s pre-eminence as an economic power and it’s fascinating fusion of Western, Japanese, and Chinese influences, the island is not given the same respect or attention as Hong Kong or Singapore. Despite a vibrant political system, it has no seat on the United Nations, no diplomatic recognition by any major country, and even to the United States which guards the island as if it were its own, it is the black sheep of the US’s circle of friends.

And yet, the world as you or I know it would not be able to get along without it:

  1. Taiwan is the center of the world’s semiconductor foundry business. Because cutting-edge semiconductor factories (called fabs) are so expensive to manufacture, only the largest semiconductor firms (such as Samsung and Intel) have the annual sales numbers to justify building their own factories. Smaller players are better off outsourcing their production capacity to dedicated semiconductor factories, called foundries. Today, almost all semiconductor manufacturers use the services of a foundry to build most if not all of their semiconductors. The world’s two largest foundries, TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor) and UMC (United Microelectronics) are located in Taiwan, and together control approximately 60% of the world foundry business (the next largest foundry is only half the size of UMC, which is itself only about one third the size of TSMC!) and exert significant influence in the global semiconductor industry.
  2. Taiwan is the center of the world’s electronics manufacturing services. What many people don’t realize is that companies like Apple and Dell tend to only specialize in marketing and some design, but not in manufacturing (which would involve building a factory, gaining manufacturing expertise and skill, and other expensive and difficult things for a firm trying to stay lean and on the cutting edge). These firms thus outsource their manufacturing to specialized firms called Electronic Manufacturing Services (EMS) firms. The world’s largest EMS company by far is the Foxconn/Hon Hai conglomerate which is responsible for about 20% of the world’s outsourced electronics manufacturing, almost double that of the second largest firm. Never heard of them? You’ve certainly heard of its products: the MacBook Pro, the iPhone, the iPod, the Playstation 3, the Wii, the Xbox 360, graphics cards for AMD/ATI and NVIDIA, … the list goes on.
  3. Taiwan is the world’s original design manufacturing capital. Original design manufacturers (ODMs) go a step further than EMS firms — they actually do provide some of their own design services (which begs the question of what we’re paying Dell and HP and Apple for when they’re outsourcing design to ODMs). This is one reason that many ODMs are also original electronics manufacturers (OEMs) — companies which attach brands to the electronics themselves (think Apple, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) Of the top 10 ODMs in the world in 2006, at least 9 are Taiwanese companies (and that’s because I was too lazy to look up the last one — TPV technology) — those firms alone control nearly 70% of the global ODM market — and they include Windows Mobile phone manufacturer and Open Handset Alliance member HTC and the rapidly growing computer OEM ASUS.
  4. Taiwan is also home to D-Link and Acer. The latter of which recently is trying to resurrect dying brands of eMachines and Gateway.

Long story short — Taiwan matters, and I hope this will be the first in a series of posts that explains a bit more about the country that I come from.


Life’s Little Victories

My current case is working on high-level strategy work with a tech company, the goal being to help guide their strategic thinking as they attempt to map a strategy for future growth. The case, while very challenging because of its breadth, has been very interesting, not only because of the interesting strategic questions that we are trying to answer, but also because the tech geek in me is literally being paid to learn more about future gadgets and software products.

Oddly enough, though, despite the vast amount of work I’ve done on the case on studying technology markets and technology companies, the work that earns me the highest praise from the partners and stands the greatest chance of being presented by the client’s senior management deals with, of all things, women’s deodorant.

About two weeks ago, I receive a completely unexpected email in the morning from my CTL. Instead of giving me some guidance on my workstream from the previous day concerning profit margins in different technology markets, I was being asked to do research on Procter & Gamble, the large consumer products company. It turns out that the partners on the case are trying to present the client with examples of companies who are able to be more profitable than their peers and explain how they are able to sustain that advantage — and Procter & Gamble was one example of such a company. Our working hypothesis was that P&G was able to be more profitable by effectively becoming the “premium product” in many of the product niches they attempt to play in.

The tricky part was how do we prove this? After a little discussion, my CTL and I decided that the simplest way to do this was for me to drive to the nearest Safeway and go up and down the aisles comparing the prices of P&G goods (e.g. Tide, Pampers, Crest) to their competitors.

Sure enough, I got a lot of weird looks from the store people and from the other shoppers as I canvassed the aisles looking for P&G products and their relevant comparisons. In the hour that I was there searching for products, I learned more about the product diversity of toothpaste, deodorant, detergent, dishwashing soap, than I had ever known (or wanted to know).

Worse was coming back to the office and presenting my preliminary price data to my CTL and manager, both of whom grilled me (although I could see the smirk on my manager’s face and the chuckle in my CTL’s voice as they did so) on whether or not I made the right product comparisons (is Infusium 23 comparable to Finesse? Or Pantene? Are Huggies comparable to Pampers? What’s similar to Tide? Or Secret?)

After begging for help from wiser friends (read: female friends — big shout out to J. Sasaki and K. Teng and V. Liu for all their help!), I prepared a slide showing P&G’s price premium across a number of product categories, and sent the slide out to my CTL and manager, never expecting it to go anywhere or amount to anything.

A few days later, one of the more senior partners in the firm walks by my desk and tells me that the client was very excited about the slide I had prepared and that it stands a decent chance of making it into the CEO’s presentation. Not the other volumes of analysis I’ve done on tech markets, on tech products, on tech companies, on financial forecasts — but the slide I make on women’s de-odorant, women’s shampoo, diapers, and laundry detergent, researched from a couple conversations with friends and a hasty trip to Safeway.

Welcome to management consulting, people.


The Blackberry’s Big O

imageI’m talking about Opera, the web browser.

Why speak of Opera when I’ve made it quite clear that I’m a big fan of Mozilla’s foxy open-source browser? The reason is that web browsers on mobile phones tend to suck.

  1. They suck because they are capable of very little. The little pages that you see on most mobile phone screens is stripped of animations, Flash, most Javascript effects, etc — neutering some websites and rendering all but the websites with custom mobile versions as hideous blobs of letters.
  2. They suck because they have horrible User Interfaces. An application does not have to have an intuitive interface like the one on iPhone to have a work-able user interface. The way that the user interface on the Blackberry browsers is designed, however, is the exact opposite of work-able. The clunky interface makes it very difficult to navigate larger web pages. The browser also makes no attempt to auto-rescale websites and sizes, or to auto-detect what user interface mode makes the most sense.
  3. They suck because they look and feel nothing like the browser on a computer. This may seem like a nit-picky point, but it lies at the heart of the problem with the mobile browser — it’s supposed to be modeled off software which we are all very familiar with, but it ends up falling short by not making a good effort to emulate, but by focusing more on the device’s limitations (limited screen-size and bandwidth) rather than the device’s potential (emulation to simulate most of the features from a desktop browser).

Opera Mini is Opera’s attempt to solve all three of these problems (hat tip: A. Ow). Opera Mini is a mini-browser Java app which speeds up the browsing experience by fetching all web-pages through a proxy server which performs on-the-fly calculations to rescale webpages and determine the best way for the user to start browsing the page. This is fed back to your phone, making the download faster and allowing the browsing experience to be smoother. Unlike the default mobile browser, Opera Mini attempts to strip down web pages as little as possible, oftentimes preserving the look and feel of the website (the Opera Mini demo shows what sites will look like in Opera Mini) including some Javascript and CSS.

I would strongly encourage people who either use the Internet on their Blackberries a lot or who want to but can’t stand the default Blackberry browser to download this.

On the part of Opera, this is quite a good business ploy — not only because this may mean they can one day capture the mobile browser market, but because I was so impressed with Opera Mini, I actually downloaded and tried the Opera browser for my laptop.


Google for Blackberry Gets Better


Google has recently overhauled the two applications I use on my Blackberry the most (Gmail and Google Maps) and introduced a new useful one (Google Mobile Updater) as well as made a few interface changes to the Blackberry Google Talk applet.

The new Gmail upgrade is the least polished of the overhauls. It feels a little more sluggish, although, thankfully, they’ve now included new bandwidth status messages to at least give you a hint of what’s going on. It also adds new features such as:

  • new keyboard shortcuts
  • contacts interface which allows you to search through your Gmail contacts, call those you have listed phone numbers for
  • secure connection — you now have the option to use a secure connection for all your Gmail interactions
  • drafts are something that I always thought were a no-brainer; unfortunately, these drafts don’t show up in your Gmail draft folder and you can only have one at a time
  • notifications are something which make the Gmail update much more useful; before, when new messages were received there was no way for me to know when or how many. New mail messages in my work inbox would result in my Blackberry’s LED flashing, a vibration or tone (depending on what mode I set the device at), and a change in the inbox icon revealing that there were new messages. Gmail’s new applet has finally fixed this allowing one to customize exactly how Gmail will notify your Blackberry that new messages have arrived– by icon, by LED, by tone/vibration, etc.

Much more useful is the Google Maps upgrade which now includes a new feature called “My Location” for those of us too poor to pay for GPS service and a built-in GPS device in our phone (and who can’t stand to re-charge our mobile phone devices super-often as the GPS service drains your battery like crazy). My Location is a feature which allows Google Maps to estimate your location to within ~2000 ft radius (highlighted by a light blue circle surrounding the blue dot in the interface) by locating the cell phone tower that you are closest to. While this doesn’t let you pinpoint your precise location, it makes the app much more useful. Case in point: on my way to our office’s Community Impact Day, I got lost, and instead of having to find some clunky means to estimate my location in Google Map’s interface, I simply used the My Location feature to give me an estimate of where I was so that I could quickly see the local streets. The video below summarizes:

Not particularly useful, but visually more interesting is the Blackberry Google Talk application updating to allow for Google Talk icons to show up, and a restructuring of the menu to be a little more usable. Alas, neither the rarely-updated Google Talk desktop application or the Blackberry Google Talk application seem to be able to interface with AIM the way the Gmail client does.

Google also very recently introduced the Google Mobile Updater which now provides one central location from which to install and update Google software (except for the Google Talk applet which appears to be maintained by RIM/Blackberry rather than by Google). This is currently only for Blackberry devices and, taking a page from the new Gmail applet’s icon, also informs the device user of updates and new products by change of icon.

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Blackberry + Facebook = End of Productivity

From Reuters:

RIM rolls out Facebook for BlackBerry

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd has launched Facebook software designed especially for its smartphones to make it easier for users to browse the popular social networking Web site.

T-Mobile USA has been chosen as the first carrier to provide the new software to its customers, RIM said on Wednesday.

The application will let users receive Facebook notifications and messages automatically and scroll through them quickly, just like the e-mail service for which the BlackBerry is already well known. Users can also read and compose messages even while off line, RIM said.

The feature that lets users upload photos to Facebook will also be integrated with the BlackBerry’s camera and photo management software, RIM said.

RIM has been expanding its offering of so-called “lifestyle applications” like games and multimedia in a bid to attract more retail users to the traditionally business-focused BlackBerry.

Business-wise, this is a smart move by both parties. RIM increases the “usefulness” (quotes are VERY sarcastic) of their device, and Facebook captures the wealthy demographic who own these devices (including the younger recent graduates who are Facebook users).

Of course, I see this purely in terms of my productivity losses :-(.

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Blackberry 101

Despite my protests to never become “one of those Blackberry owners”, I have, for the past three months, sadly and somewhat hypocritically, become a proud owner of a Blackberry Curve.

After three months of fairly heavy usage, I’ve compiled a list of 12 suggestions and impressions for people who are looking at making a purchase or wondering what the big deal about these devices is:

  1. Get a good high-speed unlimited Internet wireless service. The Blackberry Curve is cool because it is one of the only Blackberry devices to have a camera. But, if all you wanted was a camera on your mobile device, you could’ve gotten any number of cell phones. What the Blackberry excels at is in email and Internet applications. Thus, unless you have a service that allows the Blackberry to do what it’s supposed to (mainly, email and Internet), then you shouldn’t even consider getting one of these. It’d be like buying a car but never intending to buy gasoline.
  2. Check with your firm (if this is for work) if they have a Blackberry Enterprise Server. If they are (which is probably the case if your firm uses specialized Microsoft Outlook features to handle email and scheduling), check with your firm’s tech group about which type of Blackberry service you need to purchase. Not listening to them will mean, at best, that your Blackberry device won’t be able to use some of the cooler features (i.e. scheduling meetings through Outlook), and at worse, it means your Blackberry might not work at all. Note also, that while many devices support some type of Blackberry service/software, most of these emulated Blackberrys can’t read from a Blackberry Enterprise Server.
  3. Download Gmail’s Java Application. I assume you’re using gmail, because it’s the best, free web-email I’ve seen. If you’re not, go get gmail (for the reason, refer to the previous sentence). Then, go download the Gmail Java application which allows you to use the Gmail UI features (ie labels for email, organize mail by conversations, large space limit, forwarding at will, etc.) while accessing your gmail. If your job is going to be pinging you all day, then you might as well have access to your personal email while you’re at it.
  4. To combine your Blackberry and your phone, or not to combine, that is the question. I personally don’t want to lug around two mobile devices wherever I go (assuming I only want to pay for one voice plan — which, I do, because I don’t want to pay for two completely separate phone lines for two separate yet overlapping purposes), so I bought the Blackberry and swapped out the SIM card from my old phone and popped it into my Blackberry. This meant that I didn’t get the new service plan discounts on my Blackberry purchase, but on the upside, I did not have to change my cell phone number or anything. The major downside to this is . . .
  5. The Blackberry ties you to work. On the one hand, this has been a major time-saver for me and my team. I rarely turn on my work laptop on the weekends, now, because all the essential functions (checking email, firing replies, scheduling meetings/appointments) I can do from the Blackberry — and I can do any time and in any place that has phone service. On the other hand, especially because the device is the same as my phone and hence I don’t turn it off, I never get away from the email. This of course is mitigated by . . .
  6. Turn the email notification off. For the first couple of months, I left the notification on — which meant that every time I got an email from the office, no matter what the hour (and I discovered that some workers send emails at the oddest hours), my phone would vibrate at me. It got to the point where I could feel my blood pressure rise and the stressed out “fight-or-flight’ feeling build up every time I heard the darned thing vibrate. Now that it’s off, I feel much better. But, don’t you miss out on emails that way? No, because . . .
  7. You’ll check the Blackberry compulsively. I wouldn’t say that the device is necessarily addictive — although some people would disagree — if anything, I’d say it’s a godsend during boring interludes in conversations or when I’m riding a bus or a train and I have absolutely nothing to do. You just get in the habit of checking the device for no good reason. I’ve gone hours without looking at the device without any sense of withdrawal, of course addiction is partially genetic, and maybe I just lack the “easily addicted to small handheld smartphones” genetic makeup.
  8. GPS? Some Blackberries these days come with a GPS device which makes the mapping programs (I use the Google Maps applet) much more useful and much cooler. For those devices that lack a built-in GPS, you can use the device’s Bluetooth system to connect to a nearby GPS device to feed your Blackberry your position information.
  9. Buy a microSD expansion. These devices come with more or less no memory. If you plan to use any of the features at all (including downloading big attachments, using mobile Java applets like the Gmail and Google Maps ones I just described, using the camera, or using the music/movie player features) you’ll need more memory.
  10. The device charges on USB. Very useful for charging when you have a laptop and laptop cable but didn’t bring the bulky Blackberry adaptor.
  11. Consider how fat/clumsy your fingers are when you pick a device. I’m only partially joking here. Case in point: I really liked the Blackberry Pearl, the Blackberry’s general consumption model — it looked like a phone, was much smaller than the other models. Yet, it had two letters to a key, as opposed to the standard QWERTY keyboards that the other models had. That device, while cool-looking, was just not usable for me — and I have fairly small hands. I know people who say that it’s easy to get used to, but given that these smartphones already have tiny QWERTY keyboards, I feel strongly that if your fingers are large or maybe a little clumsy, that you avoid the Pearl and buy one of the QWERTY keyboard-bearing ones.
  12. Most of you actually reading this will probably get a Bluetooth hands-free headset thing. You will look like a big dork with no life outside of work. You will probably be a big dork with no life outside of work. You have been warned.

Incidentally, if anyone’s wondering why these things are called Blackberry’s, from Wikipedia:

RIM settled on the name “BlackBerry” only after weeks of work by Lexicon Branding Inc., the Sausalito, California-based firm that named Intel Corp.’s Pentium microprocessor and Apple’s PowerBook. One of the naming experts at Lexicon thought the miniature buttons on RIM’s product looked “like the tiny seeds in a strawberry,” Lexicon founder David Placek says. “A linguist at the firm thought straw was too slow sounding. Someone else suggested blackberry. RIM went for it.”

The “Strawberry”, huh? I picture my curve, but in pink. . .

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Google Reader Upgrades

My favorite feed reader just got three long overdue updates:

  1. It can now count to 1000. Back before this Google Reader update (during the wild, young days of the internet), on days when I couldn’t check Google Reader, the unread post count would build up rather quickly. However, instead of being told precisely how many blog posts I had, Google would only tell me that I had “100+” unread posts. Not particularly informative for a company that prides itself on being the organizer of the world’s information. Today, it can go to 1000. I have yet to reach the point where I have that many posts unread, but at this rate, I think in another year or two, Google may update the reader so that it can count to 10,000. But right now, our technology just can’t handle numbers that big 🙂
  2. You can use “back” and “forward”. Given that Google Reader is on a webpage, you might expect that the back and forward arrows on your toolbar should work like they do on a regular webpage. But, Google Reader is no ordinary webpage: it’s an AJAX application, which means that movement from page to page is not so clear cut. Implementing “forward” and “back” has actually been a challenge for a lot of online Web developers who create AJAX applications, so it’s very nice (and quite a feat for some hapless programmer who probably had to do a lot of unappreciated behind-the-scene work) that they were able to implement this.
  3. Search. Why a company renowned for search expertise create a product without search is beyond me, but its great that Google has finally gotten around to implementing it in Google Reader, allowing me to dig through every post I’ve ever read.
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Something for Nothing

Where I work, I have instant electronic access to numerous databases. While I no longer have access to Scifinder Scholar (for Chemistry papers and structures and patents) or PubMed (which indexes every biological/medical paper published), my research workhorses are now Factiva (for news and magazine articles), Euromonitor (for economic and market data), and OneSource (for general company information).

Access to these databases cost money. Lots of it. I remember balking the first time I saw the purchase price for a Thomson research report ($10,000 for some analyst’s research on an energy company) that wasn’t covered by the firm’s subscriptions.

And these databases are, if used properly, well worth the cost to the institution in question. But sometimes, you don’t need fancy-shmancy million dollar databases. I’m currently doing research which involves finding historical operating margins and I’ve found the following resources to be very useful and also very cheap (as in free) and just thought I’d introduce three of my best friends from this past week:

  • Google Finance – This is a pretty awesome tool. It’s flashy and aggregates an enormous amount of useful information. You get corporate information, stock price data (back to 1980), a quick summary of the stock performance of related companies, links to recent news articles, and a quick aggregation of top-level income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement numbers.
  • Reuters – I used to think this site was purely for news (I’m a huge fan of Reuter’s Oddly Enough which I guess isn’t exactly news), but it’s a treasure trove of financial information. Most useful of all are its industry profiles whereby it describes multiple industries, what makes them tick, and industry statistics that enable you to compare how a company is doing relative to its industry. It also lists some information for companies that are not publicly traded
  • SEC EDGAR – Any company report that has ever been filed with the SEC within the last 13 years can be found here using EDGAR, the SEC’s report search engine. This was particularly helpful when I was looking up financials for telecom companies that no longer exist because they either went out of business, changed their name, went private, or were bought out by someone else.

So useful are these sites that I’ve actually created Firefox keyword searches for them (except for Reuters where I still can’t get the keyword search to work). Now I can look up Dell’s financials with a simple “fin Dell” (to search on Google Finance) or “sec Dell” (to use EDGAR).

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Little Fighter 2

This is the most addictive game ever. Cute little bitmaps. With ninja powers. Duking it out — up to 8-character deathmatch. FREEWARE. It doesn’t get much better (or worse, if you shouldn’t be wasting time) than this.


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Google Reader

I use a lot of Google products/services.Not all of them are equally worthwhile, to be frank. But, there are several that I use regularly. One which many of you are already aware of is my Blogger account, which, yes, is now owned by Google (what better way to search people’s blogs than to start a blog service?).

One that I’ve been particularly impressed with is Google Reader. It, like all other google services, requires a google account (but lets face it, how many of you DON’T have one?). Up until recently, I’ve been using Sage, the RSS reader extension for Firefox to aggregate my RSS feeds. One of the reasons that I really liked Sage was that it used my Firefox browser history to point out which feed items I’ve already read (ie if I visited Jane’s LJ, Sage would know, and it wouldn’t tell me that Jane had a new post that I hadn’t seen before). The problem with that, of course, is that if I visit Jane’s LJ while I was waiting for my next class at the computer lab and I read her latest post about wine glasses, then my Sage extension at home wouldn’t know, because — well, its at home.

Enter Google Reader. It is, like Sage, a RSS feed aggregator. It is also, like and livejournal friends page, completely online. But, it has a few distinguishing features. Not only does it aggregate feeds for me, so that I can read the latest posts on Jane’s LJ and Greg Mankiw’s blog, but unlike and Sage, it does not separate them into separate lists or groups of articles, but groups them all together in one big list for me to read. Moreover, it also notes which posts I’ve already read and since its online, it means that the stuff I read when away from my laptop is still marked as read!

You can also attach tags/labels to different feeds and even different posts. For instance, I put the Sinfest, Dilbert, and PhD Comics feeds under a label called “humor” and, if all I want to do is look at humorous stuff, I use Google Reader to show me only all feeds tagged “humor”.

Google Reader also lets you publicize your feeds. If anyone’s interested, I can give the feed URLs for some of my tags so that, if you wanted, you could be reading the same stuff I’m reading when I’m on break. On the sidebar of this site, for example, is a list of articles that I’ve found and clipped as “noteworthy”.

The thing I like the most about Google Reader’s interface, however, is the keyboard shortcuts. I’m not really a big mouse guy — blame my old HP laptop for having mouse buttons which didn’t work properly, so its good to be able to navigate the interface without having to use the mouse (even though I’m now a proud owner of a VAIO with functioning mousepad). On any article that I find to be interesting, I hit “L” and I can label it as “noteworthy”. If I want to read a specific feed, I hit “g” and then “u” and it takes me to a menu of the feeds that I subscribe to, and I can then choose it. If I want to read a specific label, I hit “g” and then “l” and then I get to a menu of labels that I’ve defined. On the main interface, I can move forward and backwards through any list I’m reading by hitting “j” or “k”, and if I want view the original website where the article came from, I only have to hit “v”. And, the interface is pretty mouse-intuitive as well (scrolling on your mousewheel does what you would expect it to), for those of you who are more into the mouse thing.

About the only complaint I have is that there is no way (at least not yet) to search all the feeds that I have read for stuff. I can only search for new feeds.

Anyways, if you started getting into the whole blogosphere/feed thing, I’d definitely recommend Google Reader as a way to keep track of things. And, if someone from Google is reading this, I’d like to get paid commission :-).


Lightning and Cell Phones Don’t Mix

Wow.. a little scary…

Mobile phone users warned of lightning strike risk

Fri Jun 23, 2006 5:11 AM IST

LONDON (Reuters) – People should not use mobile phones outdoors during thunderstorms because of the risk of being struck by lightning, doctors said on Friday.

They reported the case of a 15-year-old girl who was using her phone in a park when she was hit during a storm. Although she was revived, she suffered persistent health problems and was using a wheelchair a year after the accident.

“This rare phenomenon is a public health issue, and education is necessary to highlight the risk of using mobile phones outdoors during stormy weather to prevent future fatal consequences from lighting strike injuries,” said Swinda Esprit, a doctor at Northwick Park Hospital in England.

Esprit and other doctors at the hospital added in a letter to the British Medical Journal that usually when someone is struck by lightning, the high resistance of the skin conducts the flash over the body in what is known as a flashover.

But if a metal object, such as a phone, is in contact with the skin it disrupts the flashover and increases the odds of internal injuries and death.

The doctors added that three fatal cases of lightning striking people while using mobile phones have been reported in newspapers in China, South Korea and Malaysia.

“The Australian Lightning Protection Standard recommends that metallic objects, including cordless or mobile phones, should not be used (or carried) outdoors during a thunderstorm,” Esprit added.

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