Friday May 08, 2009

Sun's Personalization Design Evolves

In my last post, I displayed an image of a new display widget for personalized content on web pages. I noted it was a draft, and with good reason -- nobody was ready to sign off on the design at that point! The main issue was that it took up a considerable amount of the most valuable "above the fold" space on pages, and the content owners weren't enthralled with having their content pushed down the page. Our excellent design team mulled this over quite a bit and came back with what we feel is a great compromise design. (I am a big proponent of "compromising" and try to do so whenever reasonable, so that all parties feel relatively satisfied with an outcome. That's probably one of the reasons I'm about to celebrate my 24th wedding anniversary! But I digress...)

Here's a wire frame of the new solution. ("Wire frame" refers to more of an "outline" picture of the solution, not the final coded and realized design. Ignore the numbers -- they cross-reference content in a design specification. While we have the final design complete and coded, I'm not at liberty to preview it publicly just yet. Suffice it to say this wire frame has been translated into a very cool new widget!)

new recommendations widget

So here we see the recommendations as more of an overlay rather than a full page-wide component. This offers the immediate advantage of making it readily clear there is content behind the widget (and in fact you can still see the whole left hand top of the page), and no content had to be pushed down the page. It's also attention grabbing, and we do want customers to notice the personalized recommendations we have for them. We keep the fashionable "carousel" functionality so that you can click to see more recommendations, and we make it readily apparent how to close the recommendations to view the content underneath. Once closed, it'll remain in a closed state until the user opens it again or until the cookie that tracks this preference expires or is removed.

I'd be remiss in not acknowledging and thanking the design team that worked so hard to find not just a workable solution, but what I think is an excellent solution as well: Margaret Brown, Chris Haaga, Sara Shuman, and Andrew Payne.

Now that I've whet your appetites, you're probably wondering when this will be live. Sorry, I can't publish dates for functionality that we're still building, but suffice it to say we're making great progress.

Tuesday Nov 14, 2006

Summing up the 2006 Web 2.0 Summit

I was fortunate to attend the Web 2.0 Summit (November 7-9, 2006, in San Francisco) again this year and to have this opportunity to sum up my experience and take-aways.

(Actually, it was the "Web 2.0 Conference" but just became the "Summit" to avoid confusion with the all new Web 2.0 "Expo" planned for April! The story we were told is that there were 750 attendees this year with "5000" more turned away due to lack of space, so a new venue was created at Moscone to hold a much larger audience.)

I enjoyed it quite a bit this year but wasn't quite as enthralled as last year. Web 2.0 is now quite a bit more "mainstream," while AJAX and mash-ups were exceptional new concepts last year. Contrast that with this year's general obsession with YouTube being bought by Google, and you get the idea. Just the same, it was still very exciting and informative to see and hear the leaders of the industry.

To me, this year's summit is best represented by a bounty of aphorisms springing forth from the speakers' mouths. While often repetitive, these pithy statements distilled the key messages coming out of the conference I think. I jotted them down when I could and am pleased to share herein.

The conference started with a series of simultaneous workshops, so you had to decide what sounded best and miss the others. I first attended "The Next Internet Infrastructure" featuring a panel discussion with Marc Canter, Broadband Mechanics, Jeff Barr, Amazon Senior Evangelist, Chad Dickerson, Yahoo Developer Network, and Jonathan Hare from Resilient. (By the way, speaker bios are online if you want more info on anyone.)

There was a lot of talk about Identity, and it's still a big issue. Microsoft's Passport failed the first time around due to privacy concerns, and Liberty Alliance hasn't achieved the hoped-for critical mass. Along with Identity goes Reputation, and these were the focus areas discussed. Of note, Yahoo recently opened up APIs for their browser-based authentication, meaning any subscribing site can provide instant login access for Yahoo's 1/2 billion registered customers. Quotes of note:
  • Openness is its own reward.
  • Put your APIs out on the 'net, and then see what people do with them. (You will be surprised!)
  • Integrate first, then do the deal.
    (With open APIs from Yahoo, Google, and Amazon, it changes the model considerably. Start-ups used to have to negotiate or buy software up front. Now you can build something fabulous -- hopefully -- then make the deal to monetize it further when your idea takes off.)

Next was a panel led by Danny Kolke, CEO of Etelos, on "The Revolution of the SMB Application Marketplace." Gist of the discussion was that 50% of small/medium businesses aren't even online today, so there is a huge untapped market opportunity. However, the market must be served by easy to use applications, and remember, the data belongs to the customer (a recurring theme!).

I was interested to hear Don Tapscott's talk on "How the Net Generation Changes Marketing and Management" (and not just because I have a 15 year old son!). Tapscott is an excellent speaker and true thought leader, and his take on the first generation to grow up attached to the 'net was fascinating. This line of research is a work in progress for him and his team, but he has already distilled a valuable list of "norms" for the new generation:

  • Freedom of choice ("Choice is like oxygen")
  • Freedom to customize (and to change your mind)
  • The new scrutinizers -- they read reviews and research online before purchasing
  • Freedom to schedule (think Tivo)
  • Search for integrity (highly tuned "BS" detectors)
  • Relationships and Collaboration. They are willing to share information, and really want a 2-way relationship with their brands.
  • Experience, entertainment, fun, playfulness -- melding of activities and multi-tasking. (If you have a teenager, you've probably seen them learn, study, play, communicate, shop, and entertain at the same time!)
  • Speed and Immediacy

The last workshop I attended was sponsored by Level 3 on Networking Strategy and Evolution. This was sparsely attended, as it coincided with the Launch Pad (where new startups make their debut), so I had good opportunity to interact and learn. I enjoyed especially speaking with Andrew Parker, CTO for CacheLogic, and Ezra Davidson, EVP BD at SyncCast. While their focus is moving large media files around, it's not much different from our focus on moving large binaries, such as the Solaris Operating System. Andrew discussed how the BBC plans to make all their content available on the Internet via P2P immediately after broadcast, starting next Spring. Ezra talked about moving 6 GB media files around, which are even larger than our operating system images. I asked him "the secret," since files over 2 GB in size may not download correctly on older infrastructure. He said their biggest issue was with the servers. So they tuned their web servers and provide their own download manager. Seems simple enough -- if you control the server and the client (and hope nothing goes wrong with the plumbing in the middle), you can succeed in delivering such large files.

Late in the afternoon, the full conference kicked off with a BIG name, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. Talk turned quickly to YouTube, as you might imagine. According to Eric:

  • Video became a "fundamental data-type" on the 'net over the last year.
  • Put the needs of the users first. Let them own their data; let them move their data.
  • Would you rather host your application (and livelihood) on your desktop or in a 24-hour data center?
  • Don't bet against the Internet!

He made an interesting comment on how they develop their strategy -- ask questions. They started the year with "29 questions," then sent teams out to look for the answers. Then develop the strategy...

Next up, Joichi Ito gave a quick but deep dive into the World of Warcraft and "socially driven gaming." Take-away here is that the lines are blurring between "virtual" and "reality". Hard to argue -- we see Sun holding news conferences now in Second Life.

Ben Trott was up next to introduce his new social-networking site, Vox. Memorable quote: "Open Data is as important as Open Source." While Vox can suck in blogs from other sites (and competitors), it also has an Export function. So we see a recurring mantra here -- "users own their data."

Jack Ma, CEO of hugely successful Chinese site Alibaba, offered some valued insights into doing business in China. Success is about understanding the Chinese culture -- it's not about technology or (U.S.) brands. He was asked how he deals with the government; he was measured and pragmatic in his response. He's in business to make money, so he cooperates with the government, plain and simple.

Day Two started off with Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. I had heard about Amazon's roll-out of web services but hadn't really grasped their strategy until now, and I was impressed! Bezos explained their web services platform is now a core of their business strategy and the third revenue center behind selling their own goods and making a marketplace for other sellers. It quickly dawned on me how similar this sounded to Sun's grid offerings, though interestingly the word "grid" never left  his mouth. He talked of this new paradigm of "developing for the data center" (echoing Eric Schmidt) and a new era of "computers talking to computers" (i.e. Web 2.0 services).

A bit later, he was asked directly about Sun's services and why Amazon's seems to be taking off more quickly. He mentioned "easy to use," "pay by the drink," and "service the long tail." He alluded to Sun's approach which was more focused on negotiating and signing a contract up-front. (I don't know how true that is - I had heard you can get on Sun's grid with a credit card. But I did get the impression that Amazon's approach is really gaining momentum.)

Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen talked a lot about buying Macromedia in an effort to move away from being a "peripheral player" on the Internet. A big announcement was their decision to open source the Flash ActionScript Virtual Machine in conjunction with the Mozilla Foundation, pushing even further the ubiquity of Flash by allowing the VM to be embedded directly in the browser. But, he was clear their business model is not around everything being open source, pointing out there is a clear line between "open standards vs. open source."

Mary Meeker from MorganStanley presented, "The State of the Internet, Part 3 -- The World's Information is Getting Organized and Monetized." Unfortunately, she was given 10 minutes to cover 40 slides that are jam packed with really useful data. Fortunately, the slides are online.

Mark Benioff, CEO of, illustrated how far we've come in a year, introducing his concept of  Enterprise Mash-Ups and the evolution of the "killer app" to the "killer platform." He spoke of the "elastic database" and using the salesforce DB and data center as a foundation to build great value-add mash-ups for salesforce customers.

I mentioned Don Tapscott earlier. He came back for a "main stage" appearance to talk about his forthcoming book, "Wikinomics -- How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything." Here we see the "business web" evolving to a "computational platform," quickly approaching a state whereby no company can innovate fast enough by itself. This plays on another recurring theme of the conference, "Harvesting the collective intelligence." Interestingly, I think this somewhat echoes Sun's prescient motto, "The Network is the Computer."

Jim Lanzone, CEO of, and Steve Berkowitz, Senior VP of Online Services at Microsoft, had some interesting thoughts when given their opportunity to discuss a "common enemy," Google (of course). They talked about a much greater need to tailor and personalize search as we move our web interactions from "products" to "experiences." One zinger was the statement, "Google is the Model-T of search." In other words, like the Ford Model-T, Google is the first search engine that really works for the masses. When you're the first, it's OK to be "vanilla" (like the first Model-T, where your color choices were black, or black). But to stay relevant, customers will soon demand personalization and differentiation, and they see a big opportunity there to "disrupt" Google's model.

I frankly didn't find Ray Ozzie's much-anticipated appearance too interesting (maybe cause it was late in the day, or maybe because he's such a honcho at Microsoft now that he really needs to watch what he says!). He talked about scenario based design and building properties focused on the user -- nothing earthshaking.

That ended Day 2, and off for more eating. A quick aside...
Did I mention the incredible volume of food at this event? Yikes, I know I put on a few pounds, as they insisted on feeding us at every opportunity. There was full breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not to mention copious snacks at the morning and afternoon breaks! Each meal had its corporate sponsor, of course, so my personal thanks to all of them for helping us to totally overdo it in the food department.

Day 3 kicked off with Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL, and further elaboration on the foundational role of data in Web 2.0:

  • Data happens everywhere
  • Open source your data
  • The data is the platform

He proposed creating the "Skype of data" and a "DNS for SQL servers" whereby everyone's data gets connected into one global DB. Hmm, I suspect there might be some privacy concerns, but perhaps the benefits could outweigh the risks.

Brad Garlinghouse and Ethan Diamond from Yahoo demoed their new email application that integrates chat into the client. They echoed the theme: Applications are dead, but Experiences thrive.

Next up venture capitalists Roger McNamee, Elevation Partners, and Ram Shriram (founding board member of Google) told us all how to get rich (well, not exactly). When asked where the biggest opportunities lie, they spoke of "time management" in particular. Of those 100 emails that arrived in your inbox since you went to lunch, which are the 2 important ones? If you can solve that problem and help people manage their time in the face of the onslaught of information overload, you'll do well. A few further words of advice:

  • What matters is the size of the pie, not the slice. (I guess that's another way of saying 20% of something is better than 100% of nothing.)
  • Figure out if you want "dumb money" vs. "smart  money". (So do you just take $$$ or do you want the intelligence and experience the VCs can offer as well?)

I mentioned "Harnessing Collective Intelligence" earlier, and this was the topic for a panel discussion including Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster. We saw an incredible slide that showed the top 10 web properties by visits and the size of their staffs. I don't remember the exact numbers but they were all in the thousands except for one -- Craigslist, 20 employees! That is the epitome of  harnessing collective intelligence. For example, why hire people to moderate postings and eliminate spam when you can simply empower the users to do it for you?

  • The system learns from the users.
  • Let the users tell you what features they want most. 
  • Spend your money on features rather than marketing and see what works. 
  • "Come out from behind the mirrors" (I found that statement provocative -- it's a direct reference to the one-way mirrors we sit behind when conducting focus groups and usability studies.)
  • Understand the difference between UGC (user generated content) and collective intelligence.

Marissa Mayer from Google had a succinct message, "It's all about speed!" She showed how changes on Google that caused pages to load half a second slower would severely impact usage rates. The good news is that the web provides an "instant feedback loop" on these types of changes, so you can (and they did) change back quickly. She also noted  that "AJAX = Speed."

The day ended with a rare public appearance by David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo. By that time, I'll admit I was getting tired of seeing the parade of 30-something billionaires (OK, so I'm jealous), and I didn't catch any new themes in that discussion.

If you've come this far, you'll have picked up the recurring themes of this year's Web 2.0 Summit. It's all about the users, the users' data, the web's transformation into a platform, and experiences over applications. I'm sure there's more than enough collective intelligence to go around -- we just have to harvest it and focus it back into winning experiences for our customers.

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I helped design, build, and manage download systems at Sun for many years. Recently I've focused on web eMarketing systems. Occasionally, I write about other interests, such as holography and jazz guitar. Follow me on Twitter:


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