Unraveling Obfuscation

ob fus cate – 1. to confuse, bewilder, or stupefy 2. to make obscure or unclear

Archive for January, 2007

Atlas is baked

Posted by Todd McKinney on January 24, 2007

If you care, you’ve probably already heard, but the .Net Ajaxy thing is RTW…very cool ūüôā


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Oh, My Over-Monetized Eyeballs

Posted by Todd McKinney on January 20, 2007

Jeff Atwood is lamenting a future that is filled with advertising hanging off of every postage stamp sized bit of content we read. I agree with the premise that it’s already uncomfortably close to reality and it is trending worse. At least in some areas.

There are two problems that I have with ads being plastered everywhere. First, and probably most gut-wrenching, is that the stuff is just ugly. In a world where people value aesthetics and good design, much of the advertising on the web is just a visual abomination. If you doubt that the general public is drawn to such lofty concepts as aesthetics and design, witness the financial results of Apple over the past couple of years. Second, an issue as troublesome to advertisers as to its victims, is that most ads are never delivered at an appropriate time in an appropriate context for me to find them interesting, useful or actionable.

The answer, for most advertisers, is to turn up the volume. If you get a very small percentage response to something, just increase the base number. The industry is driven by this simple mathematical concept, which is typically called the response rate. It’s why spammers send so much spam. Even if you and I delete every one that comes through the filters, there’s still some customer somewhere who gets one of these and responds. If there was no response, they wouldn’t keep doing it.

Not being an advertiser, the whole approach just seems very simplistic. The advertisers have adopted the web, but are using an system that was devised for other media. It is based on attracting attention and interrupting people. The forays into technology seem to be about finding a better way to interrupt us. This leads to a sort of arms race situation where advertisers abuse system functionality and then everyone has to work to find ways to turn it off. We have popup blockers because they were being used to steal our attention. Flash is being marginalized as a tool because advertisers see it as an effective way to completely interrupt what I’m doing.

There is a better way. I do buy goods and services. Never from a spammer or a popup ad or a dancing snake, but I make buying decisions all of the time. How? Often based on the recommendations of other people, and often based on research. If someone I know has purchased something and it works out well for them, they are likely to talk about it. If I need to buy something to fill a need I often want to figure out what the options are and make a somewhat informed decision. We are getting there, but there’s a long way to go before our systems are as usable as they should be for helping me make these decisions.

Let’s look at some case studies and see if there’s anything that can be concluded by what has been happening in the world of commerce on the internet.

Ebay is one thing that I would not have expected to work. The basic premise of an online auction is sound enough, but when I talked to people and they were sending cashier’s checks to complete strangers and trusting them to send back the goods, I just winced and shook my head. Surprisingly enough, however, the system mostly functions correctly. The secret sauce is the feedback mechanism, as you can’t sell anything effectively if you have a bad reputation.

Google ads have been a smashing success. Born of the “don’t be evil” philosophy, and enhanced with context information, there’s at least some hope that the ad might be on-topic and that it won’t be spinning and flashing and interrupting what I’m trying to do. The ads are popular with advertisers because they work, and they work because they’re closer to being relevant than most things. They work for me because they don’t get in my way. Because of the respect that they show me by not trying to constantly interrupt what I’m doing, there’s some goodwill that has been built up and I don’t feel like I’m causing problems by supporting¬†bad behavior¬†if I click on one of them.

Bloggers are getting a lot of attention from advertisers. Advertisers are shipping free cellphones, new laptops, and who knows what else in the hopes that a good recommendation will come from someone who is trusted and influences lots of people. In some ways this is an extension of the recommendation from a friend model, because readers end up feeling like they understand where a writer is coming from after they have read a lot, or even interacted with the writer.

Amazon has a recommendation engine that generates a lot of revenue. By matching up what you’re looking at with the buying behavior that they have collected, they can generate relevant ideas and offer things for sale. There’s also a fairly active review system that allows you to see not just what people bought, but what they thought of the products.

AttentionTrust is working on a way to gather up data about your activities in the hope that you will be able to use this data to help advertisers find you. Google works in IE, so they are probably way ahead in the data gathering department. I think AttentionTrust has hit upon one of the more important ideas in play here, which is personalization and more specifically personalized ownership of clickstream data. I really hope this idea gets traction, but I can’t exactly see how¬†they’re going to pull it off.

It is still way too difficult to research anything. Doing a web search gives you a flood of stuff that you have to sort through and decide whether it has anything to do with what you’re wanting to know, and at the end of it I never seem to feel like I’ve gotten a comprehensive look at the topic. Wikis and tagging (e.g. del.icio.us) both help on these fronts, but there is a lot of knowledge that is either not being captured or is way too difficult to find.

To wrap up what seems a bit like rambling at this point, I can see an alternate¬†future that is not as dismal as the one painted in Idiocracy. The internet as a platform has tremendous potential for systems to be built that help people in ways that can’t be done in other mediums. Advertisers are not likely to come up with the systems, but you can bet they’ll start using them if they prove to be effective. There is a tremendous opportunity for innovation. The existing tools all seem a bit crude. If history is any indicator, the approachs that will succeed will be open to¬†everyone¬†and focused first on helping people succeed, not on monetizing their eyeballs.

Posted in Tech | 1 Comment »

Total World Domination Schemes

Posted by Todd McKinney on January 20, 2007

It’s probably lame for me to just link to something on Techmeme, but I find this story to be a compelling argument and an issue worth thinking about. Cringley, who used to be a frog but now just looks like an ordinary PBS columnist, has uncovered one of the strategies The Google is using to take over the planet.

Like many people, I have become more and more concerned about how much data The Google has and how dependent on it I really am. It’s a classic single-source provider problem – I get a lot of convenience out of not having to keep track of stuff all over the place. At the same time, I’m at risk of the provider having too much power. What would you do if Google turned off your account, or if someone hijacked it? Would you shrug and go on, or would your life be disrupted? I can tell you from firsthand experience that if you have a problem like that, getting someone from the land of fluffy bunnies¬†(a.k.a. The Google) to respond to a support issue can be a very challenging endeavor.

I don’t know that there’s a lot that can be done about this, but these things do have a way of correcting themselves in the long run. In the meantime, they do great work and it is convenient, so who’s it hurting?

In some ways The Google is doing a useful public service. They’ve completely outmanuvered the newspaper industry and¬†helped create a system where¬†all of the interesting content online and free. They’re making a bunch of locked-up book content accessible via search, and now they own the #1 pirated video content site on the planet. The copyright holders seem pretty willing to not make them mad. They probably are the only company that can cook up a winning replacement for iTunes, and won’t that be fun. My biggest hope is that they come up with a scheme to end-run the cell phone providers and pummel that industry with a giant wet noodle.

It’s fun to watch, this power struggle among industry giants. Hopefully, the average person benefits from the competition. Just be careful about relying too much on a single provider, because power corrupts. The friendly search box in the sky might not always be so accomodating, and it’s not too soon¬†to¬†start getting¬†ready for it.

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Just warming up

Posted by Todd McKinney on January 19, 2007

One post down, and I already broke a rule. Just realized that my hello world post did not include any indication of what I plan to write about on this blog. Part of that could be on purpose, since I hadn’t thought much about it yesterday and I didn’t really know. Most of it is because I forgot.

My personal experience is that the types of blogs I truly enjoy reading are usually those that are consistently focused on a topic. Particularly the writing of Jeff Atwood is one of the first¬†examples that comes to mind¬†for regularly delivering something thoughtful and well presented. I’m also somewhat astonished at the consistently useful topics that the dynamic duo (Raymond Chen and Larry Osterman) serve up. I doubt that I’ll come out of the gate with that kind of impact, but it’s nice to have something to shoot for.

With that in mind, I’m going to stick to a couple of closely related ideas. First and foremost, I’m going to write about coding, because it’s what I do. With my recent focus turning to test automation and software releases, expect quite a bit of discussion about software quality and testing. The other bits will be something of a grab bag category – technology. Whether it’s cool gadgets that I find useful, or just something interesting going on in the industry, I’m going to consider it fair game and completely on-topic.

That covers what I will write about, but says nothing of what I will very rarely if ever touch on. I’m not going to spend much time meta-blogging about blogging and bloggers. I’m not going to pour out my innermost feelings and every thought that pops into my head on a daily basis as some sort of outlet for my frustrations (although I have to say that I do find Rory to be really¬†hilarious sometimes). I’m not going to cover politics, or ever say anything about Lindsey Lohan.

Also, I plan to be consistent with the updates. None of this blog going dark for a month or two because I’m busy with something else. At the very least, I’ll put the word out if I’m going to go on hiatus.

Now that we have that nonsense out of the way, let’s get to work. There’s a lot of obfuscation going on out there, and it really is our job to unravel it.

Posted in Coding, General, Tech, Testing | Leave a Comment »

Hello world!

Posted by Todd McKinney on January 19, 2007

Long time listener, first time caller. Not really, I’ve had quite a few blogs in various forms. The problem is consistently posting something worth reading.

It’s not that I’m incredibly inconsistent, or that I never write anything worth reading. The main problem, it turns out, is that many of my forays into blogging have unfortunately been married up to a deeper investigation of blog server software. It’s pretty cool to learn about the underlying design complexity of dasBlog, or Community Server, and there’s nothing like using it while you’re tinkering with it to get a clear understanding of what’s going on. The thing that I have definitely come to realize, like many people that have limited free time and a lot of things that they would really like to do, is that I’m not a server administrator. Since the kind folks at WordPress seem so good at keeping things running correctly, and given the price, it really seems foolish to run my own blog server.

With that, we now have a re-launch of my little notepad in cyberspace. Let the spammer-scum and the content theives dig in at once. Fresh meat.

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