Software / Internet

Amazon Prime is genius

Due to my general lack of patience, I was a late arrival to shopping with Amazon. With the zeal of a convert I am convinced that this is the way people will shop in the near future. It is just a superior way to buy things, especially if you hate shopping or fighting the Malthusian crowds. Anything not needed immediately can be ordered online. For any trip to the grocery store or a place like Wal-mart or Target, a certain percentage of items will be non-perishable. Most of these items are already available via Amazon. Amazon has also recently started delivering fresh groceries in select cities.

As a business, I think Amazon could grow to eclipse even Wal-mart. Sure, anyone can sell products online, but Amazon just does it better. Also, with an online model they need fewer facilities (lower overhead) and fewer employees than their bricks and mortar counterparts. The retailers deliver goods to you and you ship them to your customers via UPS. No truck fleets to manage, no shoplifting, no fancy stores with big electricity bills, etc. Pure sales. For customers, you get a good deal and often no sales tax unless you’re in the same state as an Amazon facility where they must collect sales tax. With no sales tax, this is an automatic 6-8% discount.

Amazon Prime is a good example of this superior approach to retail. With Amazon Prime, you pay $80 a year for super cheap shipping. This is a great deal if you use Amazon frequently. As an Amazon Prime member you get free two-day shipping and $3.99 per item for overnight shipping.

Amazon Prime is also genius for a few reasons:

  1. When you join Amazon Prime, you buy a whole lot more. With free two-day shipping and super cheap overnight shipping, you can order something and have it the next day, which is tough to resist.
  2. Amazon Prime also trains you to buy more exclusively from Amazon versus from other retailers who offer products on In addition to selling their own stock, Amazon is a storefront for independent partners who use Amazon as an ecommerce platform. The thing is, if you’re an Amazon Prime member and there are multiple sellers for a particular product, given the choice you will buy from Amazon since only Amazon fulfilled products qualify for the free shipping.

MySpace is for dating. Period.

myspace.jpgI’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get so-called social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, etc. I don’t use them to find music, hang out, send messages, or whatever it is people do. I don’t use them period. I have signed up to try them out and to see if I could stalk find people from high school, etc., but after that what else do you do? Just leave notes on people’s pages? Why not just send an email, instant message, or make a call? Whenever I go to the library it seems like all the people on the library computers are using MySpace. I don’t understand it. Is it basically asynchronous, public instant messaging?

My working theory is that social networking sites are the successors to online dating websites. In effect, MySpace reintegrates online dating into some semblance of a normal, social life, albeit one that is semi-virtual and online rather than physical and actual.

Rather than cruise for connections with strangers (the normal online dating paradigm), social networking sites facilitate lively echosystems where people can potentially pair off. In fact, I believe this is the whole point of MySpace-type sites. According to this theory, I would expect the people who are most active in MySpace/Facebook to be single and looking. Or cynically, in a relationship and looking. In simple terms, dating sites are the online equivalent of a singles’ bar, whereas MySpace is a party. Even though the goal in both often comes down to romance/sexual gratification, they both go about it in very different ways.

Social networking sites will eventually replace dating sites because they perform one very important function: they erase the stigma of meeting people online.

This is just an idea because I am clueless about it. I’d be curious to know what the appeal is. If you participate in social networking, how do you use it? What purpose does it serve for you?

Prune your feeds

I subscribe to several feeds. It’s the main way I do any recreational web surfing since I don’t generally participate in social networking, forum posting, or whatever else people do on the Internet. I use the web in a mostly functional manner, either to look up specific information or to stay on top of some of the things that are going on. I’m one of the legions of asocial lurkers out there. Sifting through the dross to find useful information.

There are several sites that update 10+ times a day. Even if I enjoy the content, this is too much for me. I can’t keep up. I organize my feeds by category, but I also have one folder for my daily reading. These are my personal A-list bloggers. Everything else is read only when or if I have the time. With a couple hundred feeds, it’s a chore to try to keep up with them all, so I don’t.

The bloggers on my A-list have some things in common: the authors are smart, perceptive and insightful, they are not part of the echo chamber (In fact, they are often the source of popular blog postings elsewhere. They start an echo.), they have their own interests, and most importantly they post no more than 5 times a day. I have a feeling that many people out there are exhausted by the sheer volume of information posted to their favorite sites.

The network is the computer

Jeremy Allison puts it well:

There are now no interesting non-networked applications. Standalone computers are devices for watching stored video or listening to music, usually on airplanes. People doing offline email are simply working in an extreme case of a network disconnect, a rather large network latency if you will. The Internet has become the real computing environment of the next century and all programming will become network programming. This is a more challenging environment than programmers have been used to, with connection, latency and concurrency problems making our work much more interesting than it used to be on the standalone DOS box. All entertainment and communications such as television, radio and the telephone network will move onto the Internet. Poor Sun Microsystems were twenty years too early with their “the network is the computer” slogan, but they will eventually be proven right.

The phone is the platform

personal communicatorIn a few short years, the “smartphone” will be the de facto personal computer: connected, mobile, and fully integrated into Life. Desktops will never go away completely, but 90% of what you do will be done from your phone: email, photography, video, voice, instant messaging, music, gps and mapping, web surfing, etc. All of these things are currently possible with existing products such as the Blackberry and the Palm Treo. The smartphone platform will succeed because it frees you from your desk.

This will lead to a huge shift in business and in life. Already the boundaries are blurring between work and home life. With ready access to the Internet, workers are bringing life into the workplace and the workplace is bringing work into the rest of your life. Rules and custom will adapt to meet this new reality. Ultimately, I believe it will foster a flexibility and connectedness that will be good for both employees and business.

There is a war brewing to see who will ride the wave of society’s shift toward full mobile computing. It will be interesting to see how the landscape changes. In ten years, I think we will always be connected wirelessly through our personal communication device. It will likely still be called a ‘phone’, but it will do everything you need. It will integrate with various systems at work, in the car, at home, and everywhere else. Desktop computers may exist only as specialized devices to amplify computing power or display output. Your personal device will connect to larger screens, full keyboards and specialized input devices, as well as networked cameras, sensors, and storage. But, all your files will exist in one place and your phone will be your tether to the rest of the world.

The necessary conditions for this shift:

  1. Ubiquitous high-speed Internet access: Wifi, EVDO, EDGE, Ultra Wide Band, etc. networks will eventually connect everyone.
  2. Networked and online storage.
  3. Mobile apps: web 2.0 stuff like Gmail, Flickr, etc. and specialized apps built for the smartphone.

Some businesses are in better position than others to benefit.

The businesses on offense:

  • Smartphone companies, primarily Research in Motion – The maker of the wildly successful Blackberry is in good position. They’re very competitive and have made it easier for developers to develop products for the Blackberry. They’ve also continued to add good features like built-in GPS, camera, and media capabilities. They’re the current 800-lb gorilla and their margins are superior since they build everything in house rather than outsourcing to third parties.
  • The cellular carriers: Verizon, Cingular (AT&T), and T-Mobile – Any mobile computing scenario will depend on the carriers. I think more people will move to broadband-over-cellular versus WiFi. A cellular Internet connection is persistent, more secure than WiFi, and personal. No need to find hotspots or worry about someone sniffing your WiFi traffic. It’s ideal for mobile computing and complements the current cellular voice network.
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile is rapidly becoming the default OS for commodity level smartphones like the HTC handsets. This could be the entry point for many consumers.
  • Google / Yahoo! – Both Google and Yahoo! have been very supportive of mobile computing. Google has produced several applications especially for smartphones including versions of Google Maps, Google Reader, Gmail, and Google Talk. Any web company who caters to handhelds will stand to benefit.

The businesses on defense:

  • GPS device manufacturers – GPS is quickly becoming a commodity product. Soon GPS chips and software will be available on all phones, cameras, video cameras, etc. Grabbing GPS coordinates will just be another basic function, like a temperature reading. Why carry multiple devices when you can have one that integrates into everything else? Companies like Garmin and TomTom are already anticipating this shift and are trying desperately to enter the smartphone market. They are unlikely to be successful.
  • Apple – Apple created one of the first truly successful mobile devices, the iPod. The iPod did not succeed because it is the best device ever, it succeeded because Apple was the first serious company to really get behind downloadable music. They sensed the consumer appetite and they bet on it. I remember back in the old days when you had to find a CD player that would play mp3’s. No one really took it seriously even though people had been downloading mp3’s since 1996-1997. Apple saw the potential and moved in before anyone else. This is why they succeeded, not because they make the best products in the world. Everyone else was just asleep at the wheel after the fall of Napster. Apple is extremely vulnerable right now. They have the same problem the GPS companies have in that their bread and butter is quickly becoming just another application. When you can get your music and video on your phone or over the network why would you use Apple? The iPhone is pretty, but I think it will be a marginal success at best. Unlike with mp3 players, the smartphone market is very competitive. Apple had to ‘redefine’ the device to keep from looking like a late arrival, so they added a touch screen. While being a creative interface, it is nothing more than a gimmick. The iPhone is a toy aimed at consumers. At this point, it is not serious.
  • Low-end camera makers (point and shoot) – Like with GPS and media capabilities, photography and video are becoming just embedded capabilities. The camera will just be another sensory input on your phone. Already, the high-end smartphones provide 1.5-2 megapixel cameras built-in with flash and zoom. People are becoming accustomed to taking photos and shooting them to friends or across the web.
  • Handheld game makers – Most people want basic games. In a mobile setting, these games will be played on smartphones. Already several game companies like Magmic are specializing in developing games for the mobile environment.
  • Satellite anything – Satellite radio, satellite internet, satellite television is too expensive to launch and too difficult to upgrade to newer hardware. It’s much easier to just expand network coverage to where 90% of the people are. As soon as cars are connected to the wireless cellular networks with access to the Internet and media, they will replace satellite-based alternatives. Satellite radio is already starting to receive competition from terrestial broadcasters in the form of HD radio. The sound quality of satellite radio is notoriously bad. Add online radio to the mix and they’re doomed. I have a feeling satellite radio subscriber numbers are heavily inflated given that I cancelled my XM radio account over a year ago and yet it still miraculously works. In light of this shift to “connected media”, the recent royalty increases for online broadcasting make sense as barriers against non-commercial players.

In conclusion, any business that is not connected to the central personal communication device (the “phone”) and to the network is vulnerable. It’s very difficult to accurately predict the future, however I believe the trend to mobile computing that started with laptops and iPods will culminate in a fully portable, connected voice, media and data device.

Duet Hosting: New Website Design

In 2002 or so, I started a web hosting company, mainly to serve my web design clients and friends and to allow me to start as many websites as I wanted for minimal added cost. I’ve hated the old design for a while now, but haven’t had time to update it. I was messing around last weekend and designed a new website and built it out in a few hours. It was a lot of fun and a relief, in a way.

Some things I’ve done differently versus what I did 3-4 years ago:

  • Full CSS/XHTML design
  • Scalable design using php includes so I don’t have to change five different pages just to change the footer text
  • More spacing. White space is good.
  • Randomized testimonials using php
  • Google Analytics to go with the rest of my sites, so I can view my site stats all in one place.
  • Reskinned the billing login interface, suspended pages template, and new account skeleton pages to match the rest of the site.


I’d like to get some feedback from you. I’ve already received a few good suggestions about the usability of the site, which were really helpful, so look out for those issues especially. When you’re building anything you’re often too close to the project to be objective, so feedback would help fix any glaring problems.

I don’t get Twitter

Twitter is this website where anyone can post what they’re doing right now. You can post to Twitter from your cell phone, computer, email, Wii, etc. It’s like a group MySpace page or something, which I don’t get either. The usual sorts are drinking the kool-aid and posting every time they get a coffee or do something at SXSW. Does anyone really want to know everything I think or do in the course of my daily life? Do you enjoy knowing what all your friends are doing? Maybe I’m the weird one.

It seems like Twitter is MySpace/Facebook/Bebo for the more sociable, blogging nerds. It’s new and it’s social. Those seem to be the important qualities.

One of the problems I have with the web is that novelty-seekers (or, as they proclaim themselves, “early adopters”) tend to talk a lot and often and thus seem to wield a strange influence by creating excitement about new, cool things. Often through sheer volume of activity, the novelty locusts latch onto something good and worthwhile. But, in the case of Twitter, I don’t think so.

In a way, it reminded me of the “cat in ur _____” meme, except twitter will not make you laugh. So, I did this image of cats using twitter, which makes just as much sense as people using it.

twitter cats

See also:

  1. Twitter is for Twits
  2. Some Bail on Blogs in Favor of Twitter
  3. Today I Unsubscribed from over 100 Blogs, and Joined Twitter

Considerations for ecommerce software

I’ve had to locate good ecommerce software (online shopping carts, etc.) a few times for various projects. Each time the details of the project are different, which often requires using something entirely different. Here are some of the things you need to consider when shopping around.

  • Try to pick the right product for the right platform. What server platform are you using? Pick the ecommerce application that fits in with everything else you’re doing and it will be a lot easier to integrate and maintain. If most of your site is running on Windows 2003 Server using ASP .NET and MS SQL, go with an ecommerce application that uses that. If on the other hand you’re running on Linux with PHP / MySQL pick something that fits in. Most popular cart apps are written in either PHP or ASP. I generally avoid anything that is written in its own proprietary scripting language. While it may be more secure and flexible it usually just ends up more difficult to maintain. It’s just easier to do everything with a common language since you might find yourself pulling in data from the cart in other places around your site. Also, applications written in common scripting languages often have larger communities dedicated to using and extending the product.
  • Consider the software license. Examine the license agreement. What kind of license do you get? What are you allowed to do? How many times can you install the application? What are the limitations? Many popular ecommerce solutions like OsCommerce are open source, which means that not only is it free to download, but you can do whatever you like with it. Some will allow you to install multiple times if you buy one license, others will only let you install and use once. I had a situation recently where we purchased a license for an application we’re using and later found out the license only allows for one install, even on the same domain, so we couldn’t install it twice on the same site even for non-public use. This was annoying, especially considering it was not an inexpensive product.
  • What payment types are supported? How will you be accepting payment? Paypal, credit cards, egold, etc.? If you plan to take credit cards, you’ll need some sort of online payment processing gateway usually provided by companies like Most ecommerce applications support and Paypal, but you should make sure you know two things: how you will be accepting payment, and are your desired forms of payment supported by the ecommerce application.
  • How easy is it to template or reskin? This is a big one unless you don’t mind having a storefront with that looks like everyone else’s. One of the things you’ll notice about many of the ecommerce packages is that the end result always looks very similar. This is particularly true of many of the cheap and free alternatives like OsCommerce. You may have a different banner or background colors, but otherwise one OsCommerce site looks pretty much like another. Do some research on how easy it is to reskin or re-template the application output, especially if you want the storefront to be integrated into the look and feel of your website. When I’m looking at different products, I basically look for something that can spit a product listing into my overall site design. I stay away from stuff that has too many modules and extras because this tends to get in the way of reskinning. It also helps to visit sites that are using the product to see what they’ve done with it.
  • What support is available? This is one of those things that is highly variable, but generally what kind of support will you get with the product. If it’s a free product, don’t be expecting any hand holding. Raise your expectation level as the price goes up. For any product, you’ll need to read the documentation. Look for good documentation and an active community when working with a free product. For more expensive products, do your research on what type of support is provided by the vendor. Many vendors will offer free installation or other services that will help you out. On the flip side, some companies specialize in nickel and diming you to death. They’ll sell you the base product for next to nothing, but the necessary payment modules and normally included functions will cost you 50-100% extra. If you want software upgrades and customer support you’ll need to pony up another 50-100%. Support can be a big deal and an added headache if it sucks.

Assassinating comment spam

After I logged in to discover 152 friendly (“Great site! Ci@lis!”) spam comments from Cialis and online poker sites, I had to move to a new solution for fighting comment spam. It seems the spammers circumvented my previous solution and implemented it into whatever scripts and tools they use to troll the vast blog geography. Luckily, due to the open source nature of WordPress there were several available solutions for preventing automated comment spam through the use of ‘captcha‘ images. There was one WordPress plugin, SecureImage, that stood out due to its simple drop-in functionality. You just throw the plugin into your WordPress plugin directory and activate it. You must also have the ImageMagick module installed on your server, which is usually the case. If not, it’s an easy install. I had to make one change to the plugin script since it was not detecting the presence of ImageMagick’s convert utility. If you have the same problem, simply comment out the section where the script checks for the location of convert. To see the captcha script in action, try to leave a comment.

Cool things you can do with Google Calendar

  • Subscribe from iCal
    Using iCal you can subscribe to anyone’s Google calendar. Just open up iCal then right-click the calendar pane on the left and select “Subscribe…” At the prompt, just paste in the link to the .ics file you would like to subscribe to. If you want to send someone an iCal (.ics) file link open up Google calendar and go to “Settings” then select the Calendars tab. Each of your calendars has Sharing settings that lists private and public links to your calendar. Send these to your friends and they can add you to their iCal.
  • Find or promote local events. Many people are starting to create public Google calendars to promote their events. A cursory search for “Dallas” turned up game schedules for the Mavericks and the Dallas Cowboys, as well as local concerts, and even event calendars for local churches and LARPers. If your group has something planned, add it to a public Google calendar.
  • Organize your life. Calendaring is not new, but using an online calendar can help you keep track of all the different aspects of your life. Create separate calendars for work events, hobbies, family, birthdays, etc. Create a public family calendar you can use to schedule events and stay abreast of important family functions. Then just invite your family to the calendar as users.