Chris Horn Talks About Innovation And Ireland: “How Can We Create A Desirable Environment For Entrepreneurs?”

Dr. Chris Horn, co-founder of Iona, president of Engineers Ireland, and member of the Irish Innovation Taskforce, gave a keynote at the Dublin Web Summit a few weeks ago.

He began by giving us some history. 30 years ago, he was a PhD student in TCD’s computer science department. In 1981, he had his first visit to Silicon Valley because at that time TCD computer science had some links with Stanford computer science. When he went to the computer science department he met two young guys working on graphics hardware, Andy Bechtolsheim and Bill Joy, who later went on to co-found Sun Microsystems. Chris thought “we’re as good as these guys, why can’t we set up a company like this from Dublin, Ireland”. He talked to other people at home doing interest things with software and hardware (“geeks like me”) and they decided that they were going to start a company.

In 1991, Sean Baker, Annrai O’Toole and Chris set up Iona in Pearse Street. They had one metal desk, one phone and no chair. Each put in 1000 punts (Irish pounds) into the company, and they set out to build a global software company. They realized that there was an opportunity in the worldwide software industry to tie applications together. Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and HP were all playing in this space. They decided to see who would give them some money: they tried the BES (business expansion scheme), didn’t get anywhere, and tried the banks. However, at this time, Guinness Peat Aviation’s IPO had just been pulled, and Memorex Ireland had just collapsed, so they didn’t get far. They talked to VCs in the UK and folks in US, but got nowhere. Everyone said they just couldn’t invest in them.

For a while, they did anything legitimate: running training courses for the Met Office in Glasnevin, carrying out backups for banks, writing device drivers, doing programming courses for the Department of Excise in Southampton. Chris was an electronic engineer: he never did an MBA, but his strategy was that he had to have at least three months of cash in the bank, and they always tried to have that money available as a throttle.

They started their first product in 1992 with John Moreau and Bridget Walsh, but they couldn’t sell their product in Ireland or Europe and realized that they had to do it in the US. Iona went to a trade show in the summer of 1993, and Chris recalls getting that first cheque from their first customer (SAIC, a systems integrator) as being the most thrilling moment of his life. He wishes he still had that cheque or even a photocopy of it. Their application integrated the new version of Windows with Sun’s latest OS, and was demonstrated on their stand. The Sun guys got very excited, and were delighted to see what they had, so they wanted to check them out in Ireland.

At this stage, Iona was just 11 people in a small Pearse Street office so they tried to keep them out of the office and arranged to meet in a conference room in the O’Reilly Building in Trinity. They signed a deal in December 1993, and sold 25% of the company for $600k. Iona was profitable, and being in profit every month meant that people would give them money. Sun endorsed them, and they met Scott McNealy a few times. At that time, Motorola was building a global cellular network, and they wanted to use Iona technology for the management of the constellation. There was no way that they could bet a multi-million product on the 11 guys in Dublin, but Sun backed the endorsement story, and they got the Motorola deal and other deals on the back of it. It was the glue that got them into Boeing, and led to their IPO in 1997 on the NASDAQ. The IPO got $60 million, the fifth largest at the time. Iona grew from there, becoming one of the top 10 software-only companies worldwide, growing to employ 1200 people at one stage. It ended with the sale of Iona two years ago, not on the same high note, but luckily on a positive one: Lehman Brothers were the bankers, and the Iona sale deal was completed two days before Lehman went bust.

Chris went on to talk about the Innovation Taskforce. He was approached last June with 27 other people to join the Innovation Taskforce, including the head of the IDA, SFI, Enterprise Ireland, and the Enterprise, Trade and Employment secretary general. The goal of the group is to examine how we can make an innovation economy. Chris has been blogging regularly about each of the meetings, talking about what would it take to make Ireland an innovation centre for the planet, how we can enable successful growth and create jobs. We have a number of things going for us: natural resources, green technologies, wind power. But we also have huge potential due to our electromagnetic spectrum and the free capacity on the radio waves. This means that companies can do experimentation of new transmission technologies and algorithms here in Ireland. Chris says that ComReg are doing fantastic stuff around trial licensing in this area.

We also have had recent successes in digital animation and nominations for the Oscars, demonstrating our great creativity. We have a huge diaspora; he cited David Williams as being highly influential in the Farmleigh diaspora forum. Chris says that there are more Irish worldwide than Indian and Israelis combined. It’s an incredible resource and there is so much good will towards Ireland. We have had our problems with the death of the Celtic Tiger, but we can create a framework in which these guys in our international diaspora can help us. There are various angel investors coming through aiding with the formation of startups, but the big thing that Ireland has that Singapore does not have, which Israel doesn’t have, and even Silicon Valley, is the presence of not just ICT multinationals but huge biomedical companies as well (others would kill for that).

What’s great with many of the companies who are here is that they are not the headquarters, so they can do things here that the mothership would not consider. This can create an opportunity for a multinational like Google to sit down with the pharmaceuticals, to enable cross-disciplinary discussions between traditionally-stovepiped industries, enabling collaboration that can’t happen with the motherships. Worldwide head of Bell Labs, Jeong Kim, was in Ireland recently looking for more that Bell Labs can do using Ireland as their hub. Bell Labs has a lot of dormant IP that could be licensed to an Irish startup. IBM and Microsoft have already done that. These multinationals are an additional resource that other jurisdictions don’t have.

On the negative side, broadband in Ireland is a big issue. One of the biggest, stupidest issues in Ireland is the legislation around bankruptcy. It takes twelve years to clear your name, and you have to go the high court. Only one person in Ireland did that last year. There were 13000 registered bankruptcies in the UK, but over there you can clear your name in just one year. We have to clean up our bankruptcy laws. Another point that Chris made is that an entrepreneur in an Irish context isn’t always perceived in a positive way. (They are seen more as “chancers”.) We need to change public attitude towards risk, failing, learning from failure, and trying again. The second or fourth time around, you’ll get it right. Another issue is in relation to intellectual property, particularly through state funding from the likes of SFI. How can research work get out and become commercialized? How can IP be managed since they are state assets? There should be a fair return to the taxpayer, encouraging spinouts and startups. The taskforce is struggling with this, because inconsistency is an issue: you don’t get the same answer from each University. There are different rules, but they need to be made entrepreneur friendly.

For the requirements of grants from most funding agencies, importance is placed on entrepreneurs filling out forms and having meetings. Rather, we need to streamline accounting, employment legislation, health and safety issues, allowing entrepreneurs to focus on business and make things easier for them. We need to look at immigration policy. For non-EU nationals, or exciting entrepreneurs from Asia, how can we make things easier for them? Chris says that it’s wrong for Ireland to do a me-too policy just because other countries are. Don’t copy infrastructural investments: create a new platform in Ireland that’s globally unique and that can be the leg up for companies in Ireland to use that structure.

TSMC said they could break the Intel model and have manufacturing separated from the design of ICs: give us a design and we can make it for you. That led to a large number of VLSI design shops in Taiwan, disrupting the industry. There are good ideas that could change a whole industry based on insightful government investment in Ireland. The IDA has been great in attracting companies to Ireland, and SFI have been pretty good too in investing to attract international scientists to work alongside our own. But which agency focuses on bringing risk capital and overseas entrepreneurs to Ireland? Not the IDA, Enterprise Ireland or SFI. If we could get risk capital and overseas entrepreneurs interested, what would it take to get them to think “I’ve got to come to Ireland because…” How can we create an environment that would encourage that? It’s a big challenge, but we strongly need to do this.

Chris referenced Michael Henning ideas in this space, referring to his own blog post “Transforming Irish Industry“. He looked at the IDA annual reports from 2000 to 2009. He also went to the Enterprise Ireland website: they only had the last two online, so he used the Wayback Machine and pick up the older reports. Chris set up a spreadsheet, graphing money in, out, imports, exports, jobs created, etc. He wanted to draw a graph of employment figures, to see how many jobs were created by client companies of Enterprise Ireland and the IDA in the last ten years. But what he found was a flat line. You would have thought we’d have more jobs in 2009 than in 2000 created by Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. They’ve been working so hard in these agencies to create employment and create jobs, so what’s wrong?

We have 430,000 unemployed, so how do we create jobs, and create a positive feedback loop in the economy? We can hope that existing companies will spin out others. Iona spun out something like 30 companies in their lifetime. For every tax euro we put into companies, we need to look at how we can get these companies to in turn get more excited and involved, trying new things to create more jobs and spinouts, thereby forming this positive feedback loop. We need Enterprise, Trade and Employment to go viral, leading to a multiplicative effect, not an additive effect. Chris finished his talk by telling us that there would be a report from the Innovation Taskforce going to cabinet in a few weeks and it will be published in March 2010.

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How will we interact with our data in the age of cloud computing and semantic search?

John Collins interviewed me recently for an article he was writing for the Irish Times on life in 2030. Here are the full answers to his questions which may be of interest.

Human-computer interaction: the PC of 20 years ago had a keyboard, mouse and screen (although in terms of spec it was less powerful than most mobile phones). Microsoft is releasing Project Natal this year removing the need for a controller when playing Xbox games. How might we interact with computers in 20 years time?

When I heard about Natal, I said to myself: “Johnny Lee, the Wiimote guy, must be involved”, and sure enough he is! Certainly, there are some very interesting prototypes in the HCI space including things like the Wiimote, where people can create a €50 electronic whiteboard with a Wii remote and a LED pen (as opposed to costly electronic whiteboards that can cost thousands of euro), and also the Sixth Sense project which enables gesture recognition and interaction with one’s environment through the use of a mini projector and camera (spotted this in Technology Review recently).

Cloud computing: is the idea of locally stored data going to seem crazy in 20 years time?

We are getting used to our data being available in the cloud, through applications like Gmail or Evernote, and people expect certain features now from their applications: accessibility, freedom to get their data wherever they are, security (of course) and the ability to share tasks or documents with others – such that many traditional applications like MS Office are augmenting their offerings with online cloud-powered applications (Office Live). But also beyond just data computing power can be leveraged in a cloud of machines physically removed from a local user or application, allowing the cloud to carry out tasks for a person that an individual’s computer cannot. There’s a diverse range of software and services moving to the cloud, nearly all of which are accessible via a fully-featured web browser on a computer or a smart phone.

It’s not just in computing that we’ve become used to the cloud. Banks too have become clouds, allowing a person to go to any ATM and withdraw money from their bank wherever they are. Electricity can be thought of as a cloud, as it can come from various places, and you don’t have to know where it comes from: it’s just there, be it from companies located in Ireland or beyond. In the future, we may see more services moving to the cloud or clouds of their own: health services, security monitoring, video recording / retrieval, etc.

One issue with cloud computing is that users will always want to know that they have full control over their own (personal) data. To this end, there will have to be guarantees that moving personal data into the cloud is extremely secure and will be protected. I don’t think there will necessarily be an end to locally-stored data – a cache is still important, even if they main storage is in the cloud – people will want to still be able to access important information locally without having to worry about a net connection being down.

The Web: clearly you will have thoughts on the Semantic Web. I’m also interested in what happens when not just people and PCs/phones are connected to the Web but also possibly hundreds of other devices we might own.

On the Web, we’re starting to see huge interest in the idea of semantic search. Bing from Microsoft, Twine 2 from Radar Networks and Google are the main names in this space.

People are tired of typing in keywords and getting back a bunch of pages that may or may not be related to what they are looking for, when they just want to find a person, a recipe, a company, a product, some particular thing that they know some of the properties of, e.g. a recipe for chicken soup, a person with skills in home entertainment systems located in Cork, etc.

There’s a few ways you can get towards having some semantic or meaningful information being produced on the Web – automated or human-generated. You can apply various mining or language processing techniques to extract certain facts from pages of text or structures. Or you can look at what people are making and add some metadata to describe what it is. Both work on their own, and work better when combined.

The SFI-funded DERI institute at NUI Galway recently worked on adding semantics to Drupal, one of the largest content management systems in use on the Web (by the likes of the White House, Warner Bros Records, The Onion, etc.), and the alpha version of Drupal 7 with added semantics was released recently. Google has been mining information from various websites about how many people are talking in different discussion areas and when was it last updated, but this addition to Drupal will allow site owners to publish this information themselves in a way that can be easily picked up by search engines. This will help search engines to augment their search results with data about how many replies a particular discussion has, what topic it’s about, and what other stuff the author has written about – and then these sites using Drupal can benefit from being boosted in search result listings.

Dries Buytaert, the creator of Drupal, made a nice blog post about semantic search last year describing the potential benefits of having many Drupal sites marked up with semantics: he was envisaging beyond just social website structures (blogs, comments) but thinking more about vertical search and what would happen if many small websites all started using the same semantics to represent their items.

For example, for small companies publishing info on their products – search engines could directly index this data and show different products in certain price ranges, locations, etc. thereby disintermediating many of the middlemen like Amazon or whoever and allowing people to get directly to the product supplier.

The other point you mentioned is in relation to other devices and maybe sensors connected to the Web. Most people have many computing devices (including mobiles), and again, the cloud can help with being able to access one’s data across a range of devices. The potential issues and data scaling challenges here could make your head spin as you begin to think about the sensors in these devices, separate sensors in houses, cars, clothing, location monitoring systems, and how to manage all this data, and make it part of the Web we are using now. There are some parallels between social networks where Facebook and Twitter users are streaming out data every hour about what they are doing, and sensors are a bit like that, streaming out data about what they are observing. Just like we filter the data that’s relevant to us in social networks (usually through social connections with people with whom we share a common interest), we may filter out the inputs from various devices: traffic stats, weather reports, power statuses, etc., based on context: where we are and what we are doing.

Recent thoughts on geotagging and social media

Gareth Morgan interviewed me recently for an article about geotagging and social media in New Scientist magazine. Here is a longer version of my answers that may be of interest.

Do you see location-based social media apps appealing to users? If so, any thoughts on why?

Linking things together by place and time can be extremely powerful. American computer scientist Tom Gruber wrote an interesting blog post comment last year on the importance of attaching location and time to various objects on the Web when he said:

For example, joining person place and time across multiple sources can lead to new discoveries of what can be done, when, where, and with whom. This has exciting applications from travel (harvest the collective knowledge of interesting adventures around the world) to history of science (discover paths of influence across researchers and projects).

On the Web, geotemporal information is particularly useful for searching across a range of domains, and provides nice semantic (meaningful) linkages between things. For example, having geographic information and time information is useful e.g. for describing where people have been and when, for detailing historical events or TV shows, for timetabling and scheduling of events, and for mashing all of these things together (“I’m travelling to Edinburgh next week: show me all the TV shows of relevance and any upcoming events I should be aware of according to my interests…”).

In terms of the Social Web, I think there are similar but more powerful examples (due to the real-time nature of social media websites) regarding why adding location to social media content can be so appealing. You’re in a new city looking for restaurants within a certain geographic radius mentioned by your friends or friends of friends from the past few months. Or last minute during a night out, you’re trying to find out about some time-critical event like a performance or party and you’re trying to find out which one to go to based on where people are and what they are saying.

You’ve also got applications powered by user-generated content from the Wikipedia like DBpedia Mobile, a “location-centric DBpedia client application for mobile devices” that displays nearby Wikipedia resources (from a set of 300,000) based on a users’ geolocation as recorded through his or her mobile device. When geotagging was introduced on Twitter, one potential use mentioned was that you would receive trending topics relevant to your geographic location rather than a worldwide view. This has recently appeared, but there are many more use cases that can be imagined.

Do you think these types of services are purely for ‘fun’? What do you think of the idea of location as a platform, where a person’s location becomes a platform to add on additional services for that person? So for example, the foursquare / Metro Canada deal focuses on delivering restaurant reviews to users, but could location data be used in other ways? When looking how the Obama election campaign used social media so effectively, I wonder whether having even better detail on people’s location (and which wards they may be voting in) might be even more powerful.

Location data will be used to deliver answers to questions or perform actions based on where you are, including delivering restaurant reviews and other user-generated content items, but much more, as evidenced by the forthcoming Siri personal assistant for the iPhone [out now!]. Nova Spivack interviewed the aforementioned Tom Gruber about Siri and its features recently, but also the demos of Siri give some idea of the power of combining types of content with geographic data and matching those to user requests – show me flights from here to there today, book me a movie or restaurant near here, etc. So it’s providing a nice combination of geospatially-tagged content provided by people but also by services.

There are of course lots of fun applications that use location-oriented user-generated content, but they are often gimmicky unless the data is filtered or becomes meaningful to you in some way. So, if you have an augmented reality application that is showing you tweets by anybody in a certain geographic range, that may not be particularly useful, but if you can limit those to your friends, or even better, tie them to an event that you are intending to go to or a conference you’re attending based on a #hashtag you’ve used on Twitter, or maybe some event that matches some interests in your social networking profile, then you are beginning to go beyond fun.

Regarding how this could be used by others who are looking at a mass of user-generated content and trying to generate some intelligence from that, of course there may be issues in terms of people making it easier to determine where they are based on automatic geotagging. So for electioneers, they may start “following” users based on certain keywords and their geotagged posts.

Combining your location-related context with norms on how that context should be used could be useful if a service can determine that a person works at location X and they are currently creating user-generated content near that location, then they probably shouldn’t be bothered with certain types of messages and certainly no spammy offers of CD discounts.

Over the history of the internet, there has been much talk of delivering services (adverts?) based on a person’s location. I’ve seen little appetite for that, but does location-aware social media appeal for different reasons?

There have been various studies suggesting that people don’t mind getting ads if they are relevant to their interests and to what they are doing. Advertisers will argue that having geolocation identifiers (whether via a geotag or an IP address) can be used to provide personalised communication methods with users, so that flexible and geographically-relevant products can be deployed as a result.

Bargains and deals offering financial incentives are obvious applications for location-aware social media applications. You tweet that you are in location X and if your profile mentions keywords like Web/Mac/iPhone, then you may be addressed with a tweet from the local Apple store offering you 20% off product Y. The asynchronous nature of services like Twitter means that this may be slightly-less intrusive than a direct e-mail or something appearing in your list of subscribed followees, since you have to search for people mentioning your username to get to that offer.

Gerry McKiernan – “The Future of Research and Scholarship – Open, Social, Semantic, Mobile”

I attended an invited talk at NUI Galway last year by Gerry McKiernan (blog, homepage) from Iowa State University. Gerry is an Associate Professor at the University and has been working in the area of science / technology libraries since 1987. His slides are available here.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, Gerry said “the paradigms they are a-changin'”. He said that he would focus on four trends that are emerging: open, social, semantic and mobile. These trends do overlap to some extent: they are distinct but they do connect.

What is research? It’s a search, an inquiry, an examination, an interpretation of facts. Scholarship is the dissemination of research: the question is how can it and will it happen?

Open

Open can refer to different things. There’s open access, open data, open peer review, open research, etc.

Open access is free online access to articles traditionally published in journals (with licensing restrictions). There are various pathways towards providing open access: publishing in open-access journals, allowing access to an article after a certain delay (embargo), or self-archiving.

IREL-Open is a mechanism for open access publication in Ireland (e.g. HEA-funded researchers are asked to deposit papers no later than six months after publication). Readership of open-access material is much greater than publications where the full text restricted to subscribers only [and as recently pointed out by Ben Goldacre, citations for open-access material are higher too]. ARAN is NUI Galway’s open-access repository.

Students need to recognise the potential of open access, in terms of practices of disregarding copyright law: “if it’s on the Web, I should be able to access any information free of charge”. There’s a need for people to understand the legal aspects and context of how something is made available in order to sustain long-term open access and to influence support for open access.

Gerry referenced the OpenDOAR.org directory of OA repositories, and also ROAR (a registry of open-access repositories).

Semantic

Gerry said he’d cover semantics in relation to audio, interactivity, supplemental content and video.

Semantic publishing provides added value to the publishing of a journal article (e.g. see this article). For example, we can incorporate or embed multimedia within a journal article. There are also other benefits in terms of data reuse and linking.

10 years Gerry did a review called “ECLECTIC: E is for Everything – the Extraordinary, Evolutionary, E-Journal” which described moves to augment e-journals with rich content. [url]beta.nejm.org[/url] is one attempt to develop and promote such eclectic semantic functionalities. One test article provided an audio summary with the slides for articles. You could also imagine a recording of the full text of the article in clinical practice, then getting this on iTunes and downloading it to an iPod.

Another test article that demonstrates interactivity was “The Impact of Environment and Social Gradient on Leptospira Infection in Urban Slums“, which created a variety of data images that could be manipulated / overlayed on maps. For example, it creates a mashup with Google Maps showing the occurrence of disease, putting the experimental data into context. There is also a machine-readable version of the paper (here) that contains FOAF and other data [David Shotton also presented on this topic at the workshop on Semantic Web Applications for Scientific Discourse].

One central benefit with Web 2.0 technologies is the ability to reuse. NEJM has created functionality so that you can select images from journal articles and create your own PPT from that content. This promotes reuse and repurposing of images.

Social

Of course, social can also refer to many things, but Gerry’s focus was on science blogging, social bookmarking, social networking and social software.

There has been an explosive growth of online social networks (OSNs), but there are also many [hundreds and thousands!] niche networks beyond the dozens of general networks. Social networking is not just for dating: they provide a multi-faceted information system. You can have a merger of a variety of information technologies within a particular framework. While students may like to use it for social purposes, others see it as a information transmission and communications venue.

There are social networks that have chat messaging, e-mail type functionality, video file sharing, blogging, discussion groups, voice chat etc. You can view social networks as a Swiss-army information tool, i.e. a tool with many facets, but the separate components are all complementary.

Gerry referenced the map showing the relative dominance of social networks in different countries: “A chaque continent ses préférences”. There are also various social networks that appeal to science and technology folk including Lalisio, SciSpace.net (for collaborating researchers), and the Social Science Research Network.

The group behind SciSpace.net recognised that this Swiss army tool can be of benefit to scientists, and their service lets a community of researchers make use of these tools to facilitate researchers. Collaboration doesn’t have to take place in one place at one time: it is transnational, interdisciplinary, and time-shifted / asynchronous. Also, the software doesn’t have to be a proprietary system. For example, Elgg is an open-source social networking system that has a community of developers (similar to the paradigm-shifting Linux community).

SciSpace.net resources often have an integrated Twitter feed. The integration of such technologies can augment or extend a core activity, e.g. the School Seismology page on SciSpace.net is integrated with [url]http://twitter.com/Schoolseismo[/url]. We need to consider the use of Twitter to engage a community to promote scientific content, activities, events, and publications. Libraries can be at the forefront of these kinds of initiatives.

He referenced the National Initiative for Social Participation by Ben Shneiderman from the University of Maryland, College Park. Social networking services can provide the opportunity to facilitate better collaboration between scientists: they have a Facebook group and use a wiki for collaboration at [url]http://iparticipate.wikispaces.com/[/url]. This effort led to the NSF-funded social computational systems effort (NSF 09-559).

Mobile

Finally, Gerry talked about mobile in terms of access, content, data and research.

Gerry himself doesn’t have a cellphone, but he can’t ignore how pervasive mobile devices have become. In research on mobile use in Ireland, he came across a figure that 987/1000 make use of a mobile device in Ireland. This is much greater than the number of landline phones and also mainstream internet use. What does this demographic offer in terms of education, social services and outreach? Gerry says that there are incredible opportunities for a variety of sectors to become engaged.

Mobile access is access to digital resources via any mobile device. There are loads of new apps for facilitating access to information resources. arXiview is an arXiv viewer for the iPhone, providing access to 534,588 e-prints in science from arxiv.org. The iPhone application has some very sophisticated search / browse functionality. BioMed Central, an open access journal, has an application available for PDAs, Pocket PCs and Windows CE devices. A beta version of WorldCat Mobile, connecting to the online OCLC catalogue of library holdings, is also available. These and other applications are reviewed here.

Kindle also has access to 240,000 books, and there are methods to access public domain titles. There is also huge potential in having science, technology and medical books or arts and humanities titles on the Kindle or iPhone.

Gerry finished with some quotes. The first was from novelist William Gibson: “The future is already here… It’s just not evenly distributed.” The second was from Alan Kay (PARC, 1971): “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

FOWA Dublin 2009: Blaine Cook – “Why This Stuff Matters to Me?”

Blaine Cook, formerly of Twitter, gave a talk about some of the elements of the Social Web that he thinks are particularly important, including networks of niche communities and real-time topic-centric content.

He started off by telling us to close our eyes, and imagine we were in a big room: in one corner is your mom, in another is your boss, in another is your football team, your ex-wife, your girlfriend, and so on, and everyone in the room now knows everyone else in the room. We should be horrified by such a scenario, but this is Facebook.

Blaine said that while he was working at Twitter, he had the realisation that sites like Flickr, Facebook, etc. don’t really work the way they are expected to. They aren’t just one big community but rather lots of smaller communities bound together. If he was giving this talk three days earlier, Blaine said he would have been slagging Facebook for not being able to address this. However, Facebook had just announced that they were tackling the issue of context with filters. This allows one to break big sprawling social communities up into smaller ones.

If we look to the wider web, there are a lot of sites out there like Ravelry which is a social networking site (SNS) for knitters that has two employees, is profitable and has rich social context. Blaine gave a list of sites that address specific communities including Orkut, Ravelry, and Nexopia. Nexopia is exclusively for Canadian youth: it’s ubiquitous, such that every student under 22 is on it. Together, all of these smaller networks comprise of 500 million users. These sites are bigger than Facebook, but on their own they are smaller.

Blaine said that when we can move beyond the defunct Friendster model to novel interaction patterns, we can get really interesting sites that people can interact with and love.

However, with the decentralisation of networks, we lose the ability to communicate. There are no bridges between services. The problem is that we want to be able to share social objects. Before this, it was all about being able to share contact lists and friends. But really what you care about is sharing photos, events, ideas. For example, maybe I use Flickr and I want to be able to see my grandmother’s photos from Facebook. There is a bit of a problem in that there is no way of addressing these things: “what’s your photo address”? It’s hard to give a Facebook ID [even now with usernames]. Blaine says that he doesn’t think the answer to this problem is OpenID or FriendFeed.

He suggested a couple of points that he claimed are core to how we can move forward. Federated social networks is one part. URLs are another part of it. Having a common understanding of RSS feeds is necessary and there should be concrete ideas for content addressability. Blaine says we have a massive gap in the Web, and the answer isn’t XRIs.

If you look back, one of earliest thing you learn as a child is your address. Hierarchical addressing schemes are something we learn and can understand. We also learn the same thing with phone numbers, which are also part of a globally-unique addressing scheme. Previously, different phone networks were run by different companies. There was limited usage of phones for a lot of people if they didn’t have the same carrier. The same happened to different e-mail providers and services until we coalesced on one system which is similar to physical addresses. Instant messaging (IM) is moving in the same direction: it hasn’t completely converged, but it’s getting there (e.g. by using e-mail addresses as IM identities).

He referenced platforms like OpenSocial and Facebook Connect, and said that while these give you access to larger social networks and potentially more virality, the problem is that it’s the wrong kind of virality (a knitting site sitting on top of Facebook doesn’t match up very well). There is also the risk that Facebook will pull the rug out from under you. Blaine says there is reason to believe they are benevolent but who knows.

Something can be done if there is some degree of these sites working together. The next sites we build aren’t going to be the next Facebook, but if we have networks of small sites working together then they can come to some unified agreement that will allow them to succeed together [see CrowdGather]. The story of Gulliver is appropriate here because the Lilliputians (although small) worked successfully together. If you’re working on a small site, you have to have laser focus. This is why Blaine loves Ravelry: the social objects are yarn, knitting wool, patterns, photos of projects, etc. There is passionate involvement: the networks may be small but the people are very engaged.

There are some other examples out there. Flickr released a few pandas into the wild, with near real-time feeds of panda photos. This gives a better sense of what’s happening in real time, with better interactions. Blaine referenced some good articles on the code.flickr.com blog about it. The New York Times has also announced something in this space recently. They have an open project providing real-time feeds of news material that is coming out of the New York Times. If you wanted to you could build a community that is targetting topics that the New York Times wasn’t oriented towards before.

Fire Eagle announced location streams in February 2009 that give real-time location information. With OAuth, you can only get a location at a time: bulk polling doesn’t work. If you want to track multiples over time, for example, using geotags based on locational data, you’d have to constantly poll Fire Eagle. Making it scale is the challenge, for example, there are 500,000 Fire Eagle users on Twitter but if you had to poll all of those e.g. at one minute intervals, it’d be really expensive and really hard. So with real-time feeds you can have an XMPP pubsub service to be notified each time a user updates their location. Then you can stop worrying about obtaining and geocoding a location: you can just get them pushed to you. If you can update your Twitter location you can then start to do stuff like deliver updates to people in a given geographic region, or only give updates if they haven’t been seen in three days, etc.

Blaine says that WebHooks is doing a fantastic job of stuff in this area. However, for high-scale implementations, it still has to be proven. WebHooks uses HTTP posts to push out data, like blog pings, acting like a GitHub where something can act on a change. Blaine finished by citing some other technologies of interest including XMPP, RabbitMQ, OAuth, Facebook Connect, OpenSocial REST APIs, Identi.ca, and the open-sourced Jaiku engine.

He then answered some questions. The first was why was he focussing on real time? Blaine said that real time is important because right now the delays we are getting in syndication are fairly random and quite long. In experiments between Facebook and Flickr, having real-time comments led to more interactions and better conversations. If you can interact with someone in real time on Twitter, conversation is much richer as opposed to e-mail (there are similar interactions using IM). When we meet in person, we don’t pass notes back and forth slowly over days: we sit down and talk. Immediacy is important to the Web.

He was also asked if he thought that social applications were still on the rise: have we reached a peak, or is it going to slow down? Blaine said that we haven’t even really started yet, we’re still just in the stone ages. Friendster was just a few years ago: add a friend, have a discussion. Ravelry is moving further in this direction of a truly social application. Blaine said that what’s coming is going to be a lot more diffuse, but there’s also going to be a lot more of it.

Matt Mullenweg talks about WordPress and open source: “There’s a deeper universal truth”

These are some notes I made from the talk by Matt Mullenweg, creator of WordPress, at the Dublin Web Summit. The event MD Mark Little said to begin with that he had read somewhere that Matt’s long term aim was to create a movement, and he certainly has.

Matt made a resolution last year that he would post 10,000 pictures, so he took some pictures of us and told us we’d see it on his ma.tt site some day. This served as an introduction to why he started blogging in the first place, and it began with photos. Matt visited Washington DC when he graduated from high school, and there was so much there to take photos of: museums, great public transport, cherry blossoms, and he was just blown away by it all. For these photos, the captions he had to add when uploading them online were getting longer and longer, turning into text descriptions after a while. He needed to blog rather than simply upload photos, and he started using Movable Type. Eventually he moved to B2, but the B2 projects stopped, and then he turned it into WordPress. Normally for proprietary projects, when development ends so does the project. But B2 was open source, and that became the basis of WordPress seven years and five days ago today.

Matt says that during the past few years they’ve had some lucky breaks, and attracted fantastic developers, including Donncha O Caoimh, the first employee of Automattic (before Matt himself who was employed elsewhere). One of the strengths of WordPress was that they kept up with competitors by developing importers for other major software, and through that they had to develop feature parity with everything else out there. Four years ago, he decided that he was “quite unemployable” and started Automattic. If you take an open-source model, but start a business, economic responsibility has to be aligned with the broader interests of the community.

Around this time we were seeing the beginnings of SaaS (software as a service), so Matt decided that they needed a hosted version of WordPress, where you could just click a button and have a blog within seconds. There are now 10 million blogs on WordPress.com reaching an audience of 200 million every month (the population of the US approximately). WordPress.com makes money by selling upgrades and other services: this funds growth, but also funds development of WordPress (which ironically also powers many of their competitors).

This is Matt’s fourth time in Ireland: the first time was to meet Donncha O Caoimh, the second was Donncha’s wedding, the third time was a secret trip to Sligo when they were thinking of acquiring PollDaddy and he came over to meet Lenny (David Lenehan). He said that this last one was a trip that they didn’t want anyone to know about: it was very annoying for him because it was a beautiful day, and he got the best photos up in Sligo (where PollDaddy are based) but he couldn’t post them without giving a hint as to what was going on!

Matt then offered to answer some questions for the remainder (majority) of his session about open source, open-source business models, WordPress, Automattic, PollDaddy, etc.

The first question was if he would like to comment on the iPad?

Matt says he didn’t have anything to do with it 🙂 He acknowledged that it doesn’t play Flash, but WordPress only uses Flash when they have to, e.g. when uploading multiple files at the same time, or when playing video. Fortunately, the genesis of WordPress was web standards. Matt says that he believes HTML5 will be the next wave of revolution for the web: it won’t be Web 3.0 or the semantic blah blah. It’s going to be about broadband, and HTML5 will allow us to provide full interactive applications right there in your browser that will load up in seconds. He says that he is counting the days to when they can drop support for IE8 and just support HTML5.

Another question was about libel. Somebody was fined 100,000 euro here for defamation on a blog. Given the experience with libel both here and in the US, will we see changes in the numbers of bloggers and how people use blogs?

To Matt, he said that it’s not too specific to the medium. If they’d put it in a newspaper, via signs around town, or on a bulletin board, it’d be the same action. However, Automattic avoids having servers outside the US. They often get defamation notices, and being in the middle, they try and stay out of it.

Another question was posed regarding the open and collaborative process for the UI design of WordPress 2.7. How was it organized, and how did they get quality out of the process?

Matt said that as a side task of the open-source development process, much effort is carried out via bug trackers by passionate people all around the world. The minuses are what is called the “bike shed problem”. Some people want to build a nuclear plant, so they take their plans to city council, say here’s our plan, and it’s all glanced over and rubber stamped. Someone comes in after, and says that they want to build a bike shed, but the council bring up loads of problems over colours, size, how many bikes can fit inside, etc. Everyone in open source wants their 15 pixels of fame. If you make an option, there’ll have to be something allowing red or blue, or maybe reddish-blue: purple! Every additional option is a burden for the user. On install, all options are a burden. OpenOffice has the worst options pane, it’s like a tax form with 30 pages of check boxes. Open source makes functional software, but very seldom does it make beautiful software. Matt wanted to turn this around, as he is passionate about design. It needs to be as accessible as possible: languages, localisations, and optimization for the cheapest servers it may possibly run on.

They needed to get hard data on usability, so they did laser eye tracking. When you do this, you can ask people why they didn’t push the button, and if they say they didn’t see it, you may already know from the eye tracking that they looked right at it. Maybe the button wasn’t prominent enough, or the wrong words were used to describe it, or it wasn’t where it was expected, etc. They got Jane Wells involved, and she had a huge community and usability background, so she started collecting lots of contributors. 99% of contributions to WordPress are code, and she galvanized the design community. One example was that they had a design challenge for icons in 2.7. You can get amazing data from these collaborators which wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The best people in the world aren’t working for you, they are completely spread out geographically, and may only contribute a few hours a month, but their combined contributions are the best.

Someone else asked if Matt was an accidental entrepreneur. Is building on open source a good way to get into business?

Matt says that it is not the easiest because you give everything away in open source, so you need other models that can build on that. Open source was a revelation for Matt, and the ideas of the Free Software Foundation were very inspiring to him. He stumbled into it, the idea that you can build on something that’s there and that gives you a two-year head start that you couldn’t have had otherwise. Once you learn about the philosophy behind it, there’s a deeper universal truth: the more you give, the more you get back. The majority of servers run Linux and open source software. All of us are using it every day from routers to mobile phones.

Someone else pointed out that Automattic started off with people he’d never met. Are there downfalls and success factors to this?

Matt said that the important thing was the way they’d worked together already. They had been talking and coding for a year or two, so he knew these people far better than if they lived down the street from him. This is pretty powerful. Automattic has 52 people, perhaps doubling that next year. Hiring is the number one thing that’ll affect your business. Life is short, and you want to work with good people. The trick is to try and work with people first on contract before they come on full time, maybe for three to four months. You can see how they work, find out how they communicate, examine their work ethic. A resume can’t encapsulate that. It’s only when you’re in the trenches that you can find out what they are really like.

From a security viewpoint, the more plugins, the bigger the security concerns. Is there a way to certify them or control security aspect?

The biggest shift for Matt came when he stopped thinking about WordPress as a script and now as a platform. With more code, there will be more bugs, and some will be security related. They try to ship an update to as many people as possible as fast as possible, even behind the scenes without people knowing it. WordPress has 7,000 plugins now, growing to maybe 12k or 13k next year. The core software itself is light and fast, so a lot of functionality is in the public realm. But they’ve taken a lot of inspiration from very robust auto-update systems. You should be able to click one button to update WordPress and the plugins, or at least as close to one click as they can get without Amazon suing them. Another side to aiding with security is education. The better the tools that they can give to developers and the better help or support they can offer, the better the community becomes. As he put it, “you can upgrade the community as well as the software”.

Someone else pointed out that in the past, capitalists wore big hats and ran factories and have lots of people doing the hard work for you. Now you can run a site like TripAdvisor and people make your product for you. Open source is one extreme manifestation of this shift, and there’s been enormous growth in the number of companies that make their money out of other people’s labour in a way that the fat cats with their cigars could only have dreamed of.

Matt answered by saying that the people contributing to these sites are very smart and aren’t dumb: they get something out of it. One review in itself isn’t useful on TripAdvisor; a hundred is pretty neat. On the Internet you’re a click away from your competitor, so if someone does more than you do, users will gravitate towards that. You certainly can’t build a business over 5 or 20 years with the Huckleberry Finn approach.

Someone asked what the distributed usability tool is called and can others use it?

It’s called “Distributed Usability and Testing”. It can be used by anyone, for testing a website or an iPad, whatever. The important thing when people are using it is that you shouldn’t help them using software. Matt recalled a story about his mother who was trying out WordPress, and he started writing down some points and she gave out to him saying “you’re taking notes”! (She started a blog last year.) Matt said that even if you just can get some people in a cafe to try out a system and you give them some cards to make notes, it’s a great help.

The last question was about democratizing the world of publishing. How can we increase the quality of content made by any user or help any user with finding better or more relevant content?

To create better content, the functionality of a tool often dictates the content. Blogs originally just had a text area with no title box. In WordPress, they wanted to provide really great markup and form. The usability of the theme itself is important, and blogs have nailed this format. The way blogs look hasn’t changed much over a decade: posts are in reverse chronological order, with titles, dates, etc. The most important shift was comments. Matt says that he writes not because of content but because of the comments: “did you think of doing it this way”, “here’s a link to my thesis on this topic”, etc. The 10,000 people who read his blog have almost the exact same interests out of the 6 billion on the planet.

Matt referenced “After the Deadline”, which helps to polish his writing. It will fix errors like “he was fine in the poles” [instead of polls], and it has a contextual spell checker that checks against various style guides. It can’t make you a better thinker, but a misspelling in the first sentence will often lead one to discredit the content that follows so at least it can aid with that. WordPress is about writing, creating content, so a tool like this complements this nicely. Automattic acquired After the Deadline, and they then open sourced the technology as an extension for Firefox.

Regarding how to make it easier to find better stuff, Automattic are not tackling it right now, but it is an issue. With around 2 million posts per month, the content being created on WordPress is like an English-language Wikipedia being created every month. Filters are important for geography, and search will remain number one for now, but Matt thinks that the social graph will help to filter this information, and looks forwards to developments in this area.

Craig Newmark talks about Craigslist: “The Internet allows us to tell our bosses things”

Craig told us that he’d talk a little about Craiglist and what he learned that may apply to other things. He promised us a short talk so that there’d be time for questions for the panel. To begin with, he began by answering (without being asked) one of the usual questions: they aren’t interested in selling the company! He said that it works for them, they are helping out people in different parts of the world, and it feels right at the moment.

Craig started things with Craigslist in 1994. He was working at Charles Schwabe, and he could see that there were lots of people helping each other out online, so in early 1995 he decided to reciprocate. He set up an events list with events around San Francisco, and 1995 in San Francisco was a good place to be. The list started off as an e-mail CC list, but after so many names were added, he couldn’t use a CC list anymore, so he started using a listserv mailing list, and found he had to give it a name. He was going to call it “SF Events”, but people told him that they had already started calling it Craigslist. The name stuck, and as a website by the end of 1997, it was getting about a million page views per month, not just from Craig. Microsoft Sidewalk asked about running banner ads on the site, but Craig was still making a living as an overpaid programmer, so he found banner ads kind of stupid.

He kept plugging ahead, running things on a volunteer basis, but in 1999, people informed him gently that the volunteer effort was failing. In that year, he asked people how they should pay the bills and do better. The response was to charge the advertisers who pay too much money for less effective advertising: jobs, house sales/rentals, etc. That’s what they did: job agencies are charged for advertising in 17 cities in the US.

Craig said that you must listen to what your community is saying. Craigslist is driven by what the community is saying, but listening is tough. This was borne out in 2000 when people helped Craig understand the degree to which his skills as a manager “sucked”. He hired Jim Buckmaster, and Jim now runs Craigslist, whereas Craig’s job is customer service primarily. By responding to people and extending trust to the community, they have built a community of trust. Craig says that he believes people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and good. The problems on the Internet are a small fraction of those in real life. Craigslist gives something like a neighborhood watch-type functionality to the community so that people can flag ads for removal, and if there’s enough flags, the ad is removed immediately. They say that democracy may be lousy but it’s the best we’ve tried.

Another lesson from Craigslist is that Internet allows us to do the things that we could always do, so in that sense it’s not that big a deal. Now we have efforts in microfinance online that can augment those in the real world. The Internet is ubiquitous and extends pretty far to connect people of like minds: people working together towards common goals. He gave the examples of DonorsChoose.org for helping with classroom project requests and Kiva.org for lending to microfinance institutions across the world. The Internet does allows us to do these things in a far more pervasive way.

Craig said he was speaking about the future of media in Washington recently. If you have someone who wants to know the truth, make them laugh, or they’ll kill you. His theory is that the future of media is similar to real life in that we rely on the people that we trust in our daily lives and it’s the same on the Internet. The battle for democratizing the Internet has largely been won, with blogging, etc., especially in the Western world. People still struggle to decide how they can find stuff that they can trust and act on. Curation, like the editor from newspapers, is key, and getting news from people you trust is a part of this.

Craig says there is a big opportunity for more accountability, for mechanisms of trust. The opportunity is ripe for repositories of trustworthy identity and reputations systems that can build on that. In DC, there’s a new trend wherein the rank and file government agencies are the people who really know what’s going on, and really know how to fix things. In any hierarchy, we tell the boss what they want to hear, and they tell their boss, and we get information degradation on the way up to the top (so it’s no wonder the President has a Blackberry so people can tell him when things are going wrong). He cited some internal innovation contests in DC, and he is going to work with people in the Department of Health and Human Services in this area. We need some way to tell bosses things, and the Internet allows us to do that. In a discussion board, you can vote up and down ideas, and if management can sign into that, it can really change things. This strategy needs to be more pervasive, and matters immensely.