Cool software workspaces in downtown Portland

My office is approx. 10x20, on the north side of the building, looking out over the Willamette River.
My office was approx. 10×20, on the north side of the building, looking out over the Willamette River.

What’s a nice working space like in downtown Portland? Tenth floor, one block from Max at Pioneer Place, one block from 5th Avenue or Washington Street buses, one block from 3rd Avenue food carts, barristas in the building on 3rd Avenue side, locked bike hangars in the building.

Main advantage of an office like this vs. co-working spaces is the opportunity to carry out concentrated focus on work for hours at a time. The disadvantage is that there’s no “water cooler conversations” — you miss random conversation and networking.

This is somewhat of a software developer building: Chirpify is on the floor above, Cedexis is here, this is where Jive Software was before they outgrew it, Janrain is next door. Building was reworked as LEED. North side of the building; nice view out to Waterfront Park and the Willamette River, good WiMax signal on for being on the Internets.

But I’m giving up the space in December. Why? Well, my wife is now consulting from home instead of working a block away, so I’m working at home most of the time, too, and I just don’t need the space. Happily it’s proven possible to pass it along to another software person.  I was lucky to find it originally when it was unneeded additional space that a non-profit was paying rent on (another good reason to help, and network with, non-profits).

Client-side tasty soup

stewInteresting pieces brewing on client-side of web applications these days that I’m starting to investigate:

  • Javascript frameworks, such as ember and angular, providing an efficient object and data environment
  • Gesture libraries, such as hammer.js, for interactions such as pinch to zoom
  • Responsive design best practices to enable scaling UI adaptations from smartphones to desktops
  • Plus JQuery and JQuery UI for specific interactions

Looking forward to being able to formulate a client-side toolkit that can be matched to backends built on Django.




Internet Blackout Day, Jan 18, 2012

Today is “Internet Blackout Day” (Jan 18, 2012:

For anyone not yet familiar with the SOPA / PIPA legislation currently being promoted by lobbyists to implement Internet censorship in the U.S. (in order to protect certain vested interests in the U.S. — similar to schemes used to protect certain vested interests in certain other countries, resulting in suppression of free speech and economic development), here is a short reading list explaining why you should be contacting your Congressional representatives to oppose it in totality:

For broader insights into the problems generated by lobbyist politics and vested interests, see many of the writings by Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law School, who more recently was focused specifically on election reform initiatives.

Narrowness in business

A friend at Intel used to say, “no matter how narrow you make something, once you get close to it, it looks pretty wide.”   My goal in 2012 is to get a sufficiently narrow web application business off the ground by myself.  No venture capital, no angels, no recruiting, no house of cards.  I’ve done that all before, but today it seems like a) it’s best to be able to move quickly and b) virtual private servers are very inexpensive.

Meanwhile, my narrowness guidelines for 2012:

  • Focus on providing a communication channel that is new, simple,  predominantly mobile, and “obvious in retrospect.”
  • “Faster, better, cheaper” rather than “brave new world.”
  • Browser-based (forget about web apps on Android and iOS).
  • Focus on feedback mechanisms and monitoring tools.
  • Avoid developing new domain knowledge.

Narrowness in software

It’s a joy working with software projects, but there always seems to be half as much time available as estimated and what’s to be done always seems to be twice as much as estimated.  And that’s in the good cases. No matter how narrowly you think you’ve defined a project, it tends to fractalize.  If you can reduce at the outset — and even seemingly unnecessarily — the number of new things that have to be learned or dealt with in a project, the probability of getting it functional increases.

In the recent past, I’ve tried to stay up on a way larger number of new things that are bright and shiny than I can really deal with.  Time to toss a lot out.  Narrowness in software, goals for 2012:

  • Python 2.7.2  <– avoid diversions to learn more in Ruby, Javascript, JQuery, bash, Java, C++, Erlang, php, etc,. and put off Python 3.2+ until Django runs on it, which seems roughly one year out.
  • PostgreSQL <– MySQL.  Took a while to get comfortable in pg but seems reasonable now.
  • nginx and uwsgi <– ok, need Apache and mod_wsgi in two ongoing projects.
  • Django 1.3 <– avoid diversions to learn other frameworks, enjoy the fruits of class-based generic views in 1.3, look forward to 1.4 fixing some things.
  • Ubuntu 10.10 on laptop and 11.04 server on servers <– 11.10 still has “classic” option, though not installed by default; avoid investigating proliferating hubris of Mint, Ubuntu, non-Ubuntu UI options.
  • git <– lots of good documentation; if I force myself to use git every day I might actually start needing to consult the docs less.

The Portland Experience

Portland has overwhelming natural environments within an hour or two, and even in the city, too; fantastic global cultural fusion, represented by the Chinese and Japanese gardens and by hundreds of Asian and European food carts; the biggest, craziest, most social day or night literacy center in the U.S. with “Powell’s City of Books,” and last but not least, from “Tuba Christmas” (with 200 tubas) and “Drunken Santas” with 1,000 Santas to tech meet-ups and un-conferences like pdxgroups, barcamps, and Ignite — people in Portland know how to self-organize.

Pacific coast at Manzanita, Oregon
Pacific Coast at Manzanita, Oregon

Mt. Hood near Portland, Oregon
Mt. Hood near Portland, Oregon

Tuba Christmas, Portland, Oregon

Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon
Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon

Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon
Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon

Powell's <i>City of Books</i>, Portland, Oregon
Powell's Books, Portland, Oregon

Android un-Marketing vs. iPhone Marketing

The biggest difference so far in Google’s Android business development strategy vs. Apple’s iPhone business development strategy is that Google has un-marketed to experimenters, developers, and companies, while Apple has spent heavily on image-based advertising to techies and early adopters, and taken advantage of brand extension from other Apple product categories.  Android has a great spec sheet; but not much of an image.

The iPhone capitalized on the opportunity for iPod brand extension in Apple’s retail presentation and word-of-mouth. The iPhone is not a ‘better’ cell phone — the cellular service providers and handset vendors had commoditized the category, and smartphones were still struggling to be taken seriously; there is nothing that can be spectacular or distinguishing about a cell phone now, except maybe negatively — if too big and heavy, or its battery doesn’t last long enough. So the iPhone is instead a cool expansion on the iPod that includes cell phone capability.

One of Google’s biggest advantages with Android is its portfolio of partners that includes everyone from China Mobile and NTT DoCoMo to HTC and Motorola.  It’s also one of Google’s biggest challenges. Even if one of these partners were to introduce an Android phone that one-upped the iPhone with cooler hardware, it would not be a complete product (in the classic marketing definition of Bill Davidow) like Apple’s iPhone.

Maybe Google’s best bet is to re-define the competition by having not one complete product (and image-anchored) Android that is better, but thousands of tiny, splintered, un-marketed, open-source ones.

If that’s the strategy, Google is going to have to be a lot more aggressive in pushing an open source strategy.  Recent introductions like a limited Python, Lua, (soon Ruby) programming framework with Google’s Android Scripting Environment (see reality check blog post by Mike Riley at Motorola), or a Native Development Kit (some C/C++ programming and library access for focused performance re-coding of Java apps) on top of Google’s Android Java platform is effort in the right direction. 

Google will know it has momentum when there are open source developer forums and wikis that are driving Google’s Android work, rather than the other way around.

Ok, ok, so maybe un-marketed doesn’t really mean there is no marketing strategy and tactics, but, like un-conferences, it does mean that everything happens with far greater leverage and focus, and in a fraction of the cycle time.

See also “How do you sell an Android phone?” on

Twitter as News Channels

I use Twitter pretty much only as a news channel today. When I first started a year and a half or two ago, my early Twitterverse expanded rapidly by adding everyone I talked to at local meetups. Over time, after looking at a lot of tools, of which I still find the most useful, I’ve gradually rebuilt my Twitterverse around news about my interests.

My interests may not be your interests (and also may not match my interests six months from now). I’ve been in the tech business for 25 years in marketing and general management, initiating new business because it’s what I like to do, and I’m also a developer of whatever it takes, because it’s fun making things work and if I don’t have a clue how it works then it’s hard for me to sell it. 

Today, Twitter as a set of personal news channels serves as an index for me into other online information. TechCrunch, Brian Solis, “Are Blogs Losing Their Authority to [Twitter] the Statusphere?” , summarizes how Twitter is deflating the blogosphere while creating a co-dependency with it.

So what do I want from Twitter?  I want a channels for:

  • Marketing Updates: what’s happening with new, mostly web and cell phone-based communications products (services, software, hardware) in terms of launches, rumors, reviews, sales trends, demographics trends, geographies, ecosystems, influencers, business strategy insights or speculations.
  • New Developments in Development Platforms: Such as topics in Nginx, XMPP, Python, JQuery, Rails 2.3, large-scale distributed data object manipulation – I need more timely, more “spun,” and higher ROI info than I can get with, Wikipedia, RSS, or filters like ReadWriteWeb, RubyInside. Tweets with links to posts or articles.
  • News About My People: We’re already somewhat up-to-date and in context when we meet at the next meetup, Lunch 2.0, conference or unconference. Twitter-informed transformation in people’s knowledge of each other when I go to 3-4 tech or social meetups a week is remarkable. And it’s more leveragable than knowing the latest in the lives of nieces and nephews on Facebook.
  • Global Community: I also follow people in Beijing, Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, New York, SF Bay Area to read in Chinese, Japanese, German, French — both to keep up on some of my languages (if there are tweets in classical Chinese, I haven’t found them yet — just maintaining a reasonable snarkiness coefficient and tech market vocabulary in several modern languages is a trick) and to get different perspectives in my areas of interest.
  • Advocacy: Unilateral nuclear disarmament (Do it now!), de-provincialization, greening, bringing the human ecological burden on the planet down by at least 90%, Keynesian and information economics, language and culture interaction — creating 21st-century reality.
  • An Ear into the Cultural Trace: Mostly relating to Western music since 1600 (and I do mean “since” — with all the social, technological, and political history, dialectic, and reinterpretations thrown in — and including music since 1950, which you will rarely hear on classical music radio. Also Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern music new and old, plus jazz.

Dirk Hohndel on Open Source Software in China

Dirk Hohndel, Chief Linux and Open Source Technologist at Intel, gave a talk centered on the evolution of open source in China for a lunch meeting of the China Business Network of the NW China Council on December 3.   Mike Rogoway of The Oregonian has coverage on his blog, so I’ll try to complement what he had to say about it.

Dirk emphasized that he was representing his own views; not Intel’s.  They reflect his involvement as a committer to Linux and related open source projects since 1991, his frequent participation in fostering open source in China over the past several years, and a clearly articulated vision of open source as a natural continuation of the way humanity has evolved the state of knowledge over the past 300 years by building on the work of peers and predecessors. 

From this perspective, selling software executables without access to source, which started in the late 1970’s, was an aberration not only from the previous practice of delivering source code with the sale of computers, but also from a longer history of the progress of knowledge.

In China, there was initially a perception that open source software was almost too good to be true by people looking for short term profit.  They could include it for free, bundled with a computer or other device they charged for, or just put a “brand” on a disk and sell it.  According to Dirk, for example, there were many failed attempts to put a brand on the code of the open source project and sell it without source as a cheaper flavor of Microsoft Office. 

Within the past 3-4 years, Dirk said, there has been a change in China to true open source participation for the long term by companies, organizations, and individuals, as they have learned that open source creates more value when you do not disconnect from the value chain. Now companies like Red Flag, CS2C, and Sun Wah have become active in open source; and Chinese government ministries and universities have started to become important Linux and open source drivers.

Initial Impressions: iPhone 3G

Rather than a general review, these are initial impressions on some aspects of the new iPhone of particular interest to me and also relative to the competitive market context.

U.S. TV ads during the Olympics have been touting it as twice as fast, which probably is a good, uncomplicated message for that audience, but maybe not quite what was hoped for (EDGE is around 160Kbits/sec and “3G” on UMTS phones you would hope to be running 1-2 Mbits/sec, so 6-12X would be a lot nicer).  Twice as fast basically means you’re still looking for wifi access (see my previous iPhone 3G posting for discussion of Apple’s coup with AT&T wifi at Starbucks), unless you’ve just got to have that email or web page, so most people I know are turning off “3G” (Settings -> General -> Network:  3G -> off) to save power.

The iPhone 3G system software is somewhat more sluggish and the Safari browser more prone to crashing than on the previous iPhone, but neither of these things is a major problem.

My favorite two innovations are downloadable apps and the multilingual operating environment.  The first thing I downloaded was a WordPress client (no, this post is not being written on the iPhone.  Desktop typing is faster than for an 親指俗人 oyayubi zokujin (“thumb tribesman”) using the phone.  But that brings me to the language part, which actually means the system language, the keyboard, and the region.  For example, switching to Chinese (mainland characters or traditional) puts most everything in Chinese and then you can set the region as China, Singapore, Taiwan, etc.

The keyboard, in the case of Chinese, can be “pinyin” (typing in Roman alphabet, which is contextually converted to Chinese characters) or “handwriting.”  These techniques have been around for a while but work great implemented on the iPhone 3G.

I have to admit I naively thought there was no way that handwriting was going to work with a finger tip dragging across a capacitive-sensitive screen rather with a stylus on a touch sensitive screen (like my previous favorite cell phone, the Chinese Motorola A780 — see way below).  I’m not sure why I thought that, because a common way to clarify to someone which character you mean (in a Chinese language context) is to “write” the character you mean with your finger on the palm of your hand so they can “see” it written. Well, contrary to what I thought, it works great!

Twitter posts in many languages, yes!  Once I started trying some Twitter posts in Japanese and Chinese from the phone, I moved on to German and French, which are almost as cool because predictive interpretation and correction are used there, too.  You type “sein konnen” and it’s changed, like “fail whale, oder warum Twitter Posts trotzdem toll sein können.” Same thing with French diacritics and accents.

In the competitive context (writing as I watch a Verizon ad with an LG iPhone-alike being rolled out and pasted on the side of a building out my office window), adding downloadable webbish apps like WordPress almost, almost, quasi open sources the iPhone, which I think is a key strategic front on which a competitor “could” make their offering(s) bigger and broader (maybe Android phones or Ubuntu on Intel MIDs as they evolve into cell phones will have an opportunity here), and adding lots of languages that work extremely well (esp. Chinese with 600 million cell phone users) both are going to put the iPhone brand just way out there in a way that took the iPod much longer to accomplish.

iPhone 3G

The new iPhone becoming available July 11 will have 3G for faster web and email connections and longer battery operating time. Meanwhile, where’s the best place for 4 million iPhone users (not counting the 2 million that are in China or elsewhere) to demo to potential buyers? Starbucks. Apple has pulled off a great move in the U.S. with free AT&T wifi through Starbucks, significantly reducing the barrier of locked or for-pay wifi access points. This also will do more for Starbucks’ stock price than Starbucks could manage by changing their menu. There is, er, the small matter of a contract with T-Mobile that needs to be rationalized. Apple, AT&T, and Starbucks could perhaps share equally the cost of splitting the difference with T-Mobile.

Since everyone I know who has an iPhone is planning to switch to the new one, and everyone I know who doesn’t have an iPhone is planning to get the new one, it appears that Apple can do no wrong.

When the iPhone launched at the end of June last year, I made a bet with a friend about which would happen first (and by the end of 2007): iPhone clones from Chinese cell phone makers, or iPhone liberation by open source software.

Well, there have been clone sightings (“Top 10 iPhone Clones“), and a lot of hacking (“iPhone Hacks” – it was a matter of days before samba and ssh were functional on it), but I don’t think you could argue that either of these outcomes has occurred.

Now Sprint is going to take a $100 million run at AT&T and Apple with the Samsung “Instinct” iPhone clone. Sound familiar? I think it’s going to be “Indistinct.” In 2005, the year that iPod sales really took off, Creative Technology’s CEO said he was going to spend $100 million to compete with the iPod. A year later, Creative had decreased market share. By that time, “podcasting” was hot and “iPod” was the category. I’d say it’s too late for Sprint and Samsung to compete on feature-vs.-feature comparisons and ad spending because the iPhone has already redefined the smartphone category. It will take another redefinition.

An “open phone” could be that redefinition, but the hardware will have to be cool-better (OpenMoko has not been able to execute on either aspect; and the Google Android cell phone platform is Java, not sufficiently open source, and may have bitten off too big a piece of the stack; maybe evolution of the Intel MID project with the Atom processor on Linux will be the source of a broadly usable open phone platform).

Wang Jing on Brand New China

Wang Jing (王瑾), professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at MIT, chair of the international advisory board to Creative Commons / China (知识共享/中国大陆), and author of Brand New China: Advertising, Media, and Commercial Culture (Harvard Univ. Press, 2008), discussed “Creative Culture and Creative Commons: Web 2.0 in Mainland China” at Portland State University on June 2.

Wang’s leading insight is that web 2.0, meaning open business models and community-created content, is a natural path of evolution for China. It is a third way, different than being absorbed by “globalization,” in the sense of Western brands colonizing China, and different than a socialism that is either culturally conservative or even de-cultured and thus lacking the energy of innovation.

In this “third way” vision, it is possible to see aspects of several influences. One is an escape from the kind of cultural double-bind associated with Edward Said’s critique of colonialism. Another is an escape from the double-bind of that emerged in the Chinese reformist, pre-revolutionary period, in which some advocated “Western technology but Chinese culture,” perhaps best captured in the Exhortation to Study (1898, 劝学篇) of Zhang Zhidong (張之洞).

Wang is skeptical of bright-eyed Western marketing’s optimism about the so-called rise of the Chinese middle class.

In her analysis, there are, first, limits to growth of the “middle class.” Many web 2.0 digital innovations are being driven not by a middle class consumer culture, but by either the digital elites or the socially marginalized (such as the literally hundreds of millions of largely disenfranchised migrant worker families, or ethnic minorities, neither of whom is readily absorbed by a would-be middle class).

Second, in Wang’s analysis, an important current in Chinese web 2.0 culture is a critique of consumerism that has transformed into an issue of user rights, hence there are already over 1 million contributors to Creative Commons in China. With food and fuel prices rising even more rapidly in China than in the U.S., sustainable lifestyles may shortly be another key component of this critique.

Barcamp Portland – May 2008

Notes on everything in which I participated at Portland’s latest session of the international, self-organizing “unconferences” organized by techies for techies that occurred at Cubespace in Portland on May 2-4. (I link to notes if I could find them.)

– Haskell programming language: promising for multicore programming.

Online Community Management, led by Dawn Foster, who has that role at Jive Software. Mostly I think this was a comparing notes kind of session.

– Calagator is an online calendar of Portland technology events and also a community-programmed Ruby on Rails project. See

– Time-centric social networking: for some participants the answer to how to do it already exists: Twitter.

Options for Inexpensive Web Presence, esp. for small non-profits and startups: a session that Jim Tyhurst and I led. Least expensive ($0) is WordPress hosted on WordPress (don’t even need to know HTML). The next level ($20-$40/month) is a VPS (Virtual Private Server, which requires having someone who can put togther environments like WordPress, MediaWiki, Drupal, or Ruby on Rails applications on a server. The next level ($100/month) is a collocated server at a service provider, which has programming requirements similar to VPS but also means putting effort into supporting the server.

– Distributed Collaboration Tools for Software Development: For me, the best thing was finding out about Gobby collaborative text editor.

Migrating from MySQL? Try Postgresql. By Selena Deckelman of the PDX Postgresql User Group. People are evaluating moving from MySQL to Postgres because the latter is a community-driven open source project and has had some important database technology longer than MySQL.

– Wagn: described as a database-like wiki on Ruby on Rails.

– Using WordPress as a Content Management System. Well, you can. Bottomline: Once there is much content, better off moving to Drupal.

– What’s the Web Missing for Bike Culture? Portland-based project to provide Google Maps-style street level views and optimal routing that does not include sending a bicyclist onto the freeway.

– Drupal. Overview of a widely-used content management system in PHP on MySQL. For me, I learned I probably would be well advised to stay away for a while, because there are too many modules and options to deal with and also the transition to 6.0 has created some bumps in the road.

Rebecca Fannin on Chinese Web Entrepreneurs, 2008-4-24

Rebecca Fannin, author of Silicon Dragon: How China is Winning the Tech Race (McGraw Hill Professional, 2008), spoke April 24 for the China Business Network of the Northwest China Council in Portland on the founders of some of the leading high tech entrepreneurs in China. There is a good interview with Fannin about the book in Forbes.

Fannin is a journalist who has covered tech business in Asia since the mid-1990’s, first with Red Herring magazine and later with the Asian Venture Capital Journal and writing for diverse tech business publications. She also has a great network into the investors and drivers of new businesses in China, as well as India and elsewhere in Asia. She has a nose for “the story” on companies in a way that a lot of tech business publications don’t always capture and her talk put a personalized spin on companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and DangDang.

Since recently joining the board of the Northwest China Council, an Oregon 501(c)3 non-profit which puts on a series of China Business Network events, as well as intensive Chinese courses and cultural events, I’ve been working to bring more focus on technology business, as well as looking at ways to leverage web technology for this organization.


The Saturday, March 29, 2008 Startupalooza event at Cubespace in Portland (thank you, Todd Kenefsky, who organized it, and Eva and the rest of the Cubespace hosts) was the lowest BS-quotient startup confab I’ve ever seen.

The format was PowerPoint overviews, mostly of what companies or projects were doing, but instead of puffery and pitches, the approach was almost from the perspective of a confessional. Pretty much everything was interesting and well done, but most memorable for me were GarageGames (evolved from game software contract work to web-based distributed games building platform) and Jive Software (evolved from Jabber-based chat to a broader platform solution for customer communications – see Matt Tucker’s XMPP posting from January on Jive’s potential direction), as well as projects, like (happy hour mashups on Google Maps), which spawned (same idea, but for knitting supplies).

It was striking that none none of these had been successful on the first go – sequential failure (or maybe I should really say “less than complete success,” “aborted success,” “undermined success,” “unleverageable success,” etc.) over many years was the norm – not that I’ve experienced that :). Also, none were heroic solo successes. Each was driven by multiple people who had somehow found others that complimented themselves.

A few weeks later at an Oregon Entrepreneurs’ Network forum, I couldn’t help thinking that the contrast with Startupalooza was like the contrast between 90’s, Microsoft-like software and 00’s open source.

UTF8 for Chinese, Japanese web apps

The motivation to use UTF8 character encoding in a web application is to be able to maintain a single development environment regardless of language content. I set out with the goal of creating a cheat sheet I could refer back to for UTF8 in the tools underlying a web application — MySQL database and Apache server configuration, plus PHP, Python, and Ruby programming. There’s also some discussion of Ubuntu Linux and Windows XP, and a side note on WordPress.

For a backgrounder on UTF8, see Joel Spolsky, “The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!).”

Part 1: MySQL

Note: I’m working with MySQL 5.0.45 on Ubuntu GNU/Linux 7.10:

/etc/mysql/my.cnf // Ubuntu and Debian; formerly /etc/my.cnf


You can check the model cnf files in /usr/local/mysql/support-files for other configuration information, but there’s nothing on UTF8. MySQL by default has character_set_server=latin1 and collation_server=latin1_swedish_ci. These can be changed by recompiling using ./configure –with-charset= and –with-collation=. Or mysqld can be started with –character-set-server and –collation-server, or with the corresponding settings in /etc/mysql/my.cnf, as detailed in the previous section. With those cnf settings, restart the MySQL server and now 3/6 responses in MySQL to issuing show variables like ‘char%’ are “utf8” instead of “latin1.” To get 6/6, add –default-character-set=utf8, as in mysql -u root -p –default-character-set=utf8. If you forget to use –default-character-set=utf8, you get mangled display of everything above the lower ASCII range.

MySQL uses “CHARACTER SET utf8” as a modifier to database and table definitions. So a model database definition for UTF8 would be:

create database my_database default character set utf8 default collate utf8_general_ci

and a model table definition for UTF8 would be

create table my_table (
my_id int unsigned not null auto_increment primary key,
my_string varchar(128)
) type=InnoDB CHARACTER SET utf8;

See 10.3.2 “Database Character Set and Collation” If a character set is defined for the database, it is the default for its tables. Note that show create database my_database indicates that it is UTF-8 but describe my_table does not. Also, when using regular expressions with REGEX in queries, first be sure to issue set names “utf8” or the results will be mangled. See 5.11.1 “The Character Set Used for Data and Sorting” (

Important note for using load data to put Chinese or Japanese text into a database: character_set_database affects data imports.

Great Opera, part 2

Poulenc, Les Dialogues des Carmélites (1957).
Santa Fe Opera (1999). Based on the stories of Carmelite nuns guillotined in Paris during the reign of terror led by Robespierre in the French Revolution, this opera’s music inexorably builds a sense of pre-Existential fate. There’s not even momentary diversion for the audience from knowing how it’s going to turn out, but what carries the drama of the opera is the contrast between the Mother Superior who curses God for abandoning her and the novice who goes to her death steadied by her faith. Too much Flannery O’Connor for me. After Flaubert you would think in the twentieth century there would be no room for religiously fixated art, but then look at Poulenc who started as a Dadaist, or Olivier Messiaen.

Bright Sheng, Madame Mao (2003), libretto by Colin Graham. Review by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times for 2003-7-28. I agree with Tommasini’s review that the “most imaginative stroke” of this opera is juxtaposing the older and younger Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) characters with two singers, telling the story of Jiang Qing from the perspective of her suicide in prison in 1991 looking back to her progression from Ibsen-esque actress to wife of Mao to driver of the dehumanizing terror of the Gang of Four, but I did not have as much trouble with the mixing of musical idioms. It would be great to hear this opera again, now on the tails of hearing operas where I did find the mixing of musical idioms to be a problem – Tan Dun’s “Tea” and “The First Emperor” – really disappointing because he’s written so much other great music.

Peter Lieberson, Ashoka’s Dream (1997) in Santa Fe, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. As often happens, the aesthetic significance to me of this opera stems from the way it crosses several threads. I liked the “big” idea of the opera: Ashoka, emperor of India through conquest, being transformed from Chandrashoka (cruel Ashoka) to Dharmashoka (pious Ashoka) after realizing the horror of the 100,000 deaths his troops had inflicted so he could become emperor, thereafter dedicating his government to promoting mercy, peace, and Buddhism. But how much better if Lieberson had done more to bring the story forward to a critique of American empire and promoting modern unilateral disarmament and humanitarianism. The music was epic, but I have to say I enjoyed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s singing even more in her recordings of Bach cantatas and of Lieberson’s own “Neruda Songs” premiered in 2005 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.

Smartphones -> Web Phones

It’s been obvious that the iPhone sets the new gold standard for smartphones, and simplifies the definition of smartphone as web phone. But other cell phone competitors so far seem content (Michael Malone’s analysis is that they’re unable to respond to a risk-oriented product strategy) to ignore the competitive threat.

A January 14, 2008 article in The New York Times by Miguel Helft (“Google Sees Surge in iPhone Traffic” [at Christmas]) notes that the iPhone is the first cell phone on which web browsing is useful enough to generate significant traffic on Google. Even though Symbian and Windows-based phones are 63% and 11% of the worldwide smartphone market vs. Apple’s 2%, traffic from iPhones surpassed traffic from them on Google over the holidays. Wow!

I’d add to that the notions that “it’s the browser, stupid,” not built-in applications, that create the iPhone’s potential for value; and that it’s wifi that enables you to actually realize that potential value.

Looking at my own usage, I get little use out of the vast majority of the iPhone’s built-in applications. I’m using the browser as my platform (ok, except for camera, alarm clock and, absent VoIP telephony, the “phone.”) With the 1.1.3 version of the iPhone software, to which I upgraded yesterday, I’m even more aware of the browser focus, because now I could move unused applications off the main screen and out of the way.

In addition to not using built-in applications like the iPhone’s “Calendar,” wherever I have a choice between “mobile” and “desktop” versions of browser access to an information service, as is the case with Google Calendar, I choose desktop. The iPhone hits the sweet spot in terms of display size. Together with being able to stretch or squeeze the display to zoom or unzoom, what’s great about the display size is that you can have the convenience of fitting it in your pocket without giving up the convenience of being able to read web pages.

So how long will it be before other cell phone competitors make wifi standard and go to an iPhone-style display?

Simplicity as a Market Strategy

WordPress, Google Calendar, and Apple’s iPhone have a disarming simple-mindedness that is one of the keys to their market leadership.

In certain respects they’re so simple you have to wonder why a lot of people wouldn’t just be infuriated and give up on them, and yet their simplicity is cute in a way that encourages customers to advance their cause way beyond what is normal.

In the case of WordPress, an open-source blogging tool which you use either by installing it on your own server or by creating an account on a WordPress server, one element of its simplicity is that every new blog entry you write is posted by default with the posting date/time to the top of a stream of entries going down (or back) from the present. Further, many WordPress templates provide a calendar widget on which entry dates automatically are highlighted with links to these entries. That’s basically it; there isn’t much more to the usage model, although there are a lot of tweaks and management you can carry out fairly intuitively by poking around in the WordPress dashboard page.

With WordPress, there’s a lot more you COULD do, but it isn’t necessary. So I and millions of other users recommend it to everyone contemplating starting a blog because it’s so simple that there’s very little downside in doing so.

Google Calendar’s simplicity is that there’s very little to using it and you can access it (log into your version of it) from a browser anywhere — home, office, laptop, cell phone (you do have a cell phone with a web browser, don’t you?) — so it extricates you from the 90’s problem of synchronizing your calendars, some of which would have been Outlook. Like WordPress, the basic model in Google Calendar is ridiculously simple. Just click on the calendar to pop open an entry line and type something that seems like it could be interpreted as an entry, say “11/2 12pm R. Cheung – Sungari 1st and Yamhill” and it will show up in the calendar at that date/time from any browser.

Google has not needed to do anything to market Google Calendar (which has been “BETA” for a long time), because, again, I and millions of people recommend it to everyone we know as a calendar solution, because there is very little downside and every chance that people will stop needing support for Outlook. In a lot of cases, people may still be required to run Outlook in their offices, but Google Calendar can blow right past all of that by word of mouth.

In the case of Apple’s iPhone, most of the functions are laughably simple. For example, the “camera” tool has no zoom or any other controls, and the “iPod” tool has no back or forward control, so all you can do is start/stop play, etc. But this also makes it impossible for me and (now) over a million other people not to demo it to everyone who asks, because it is so simple to demo.

Some cell phone makers seem to have expected they could ignore Apple’s market entry, because there really are no new functions on Apple’s phone and the thinking was that what you can do on a cell phone is pretty limited, anyway. But by making the Apple cell phone basically ALL DISPLAY, and a dramatically larger display, and finger operated, which is incontrovertibly cute, it would be demoed like crazy compared to other cell phones.

So in all three of these cases, simplicity is part of a strategy of redefining the market’s expectation of how to carry out a task in a way that the standing competitor(s) can’t begin to match for marketing-less viral promotion.

iPhone Commentary

Competitive Positioning:

“The coolest upscale smartphone you can get; applies minimalist design with a vengeance.”

As it happened, when I purchased my iPhone the first week they were on the market back in June, at the same time I bought and then dropped two other cell phones with very different positioning:

– AT&T (HTC) 8525 phone running Windows and supporting UMTS high-speed data connections on the cellular network, as well as wifi. Curiously, Windows was a constant “in your face” nightmare on this phone. In contrast, I set my wife up on HTC’s Windows-based 3125 (on Cingular -> now AT&T) last year and, after an hour or so of configuration to get rid of things she was not going to use, it has been great. I really wanted to like HTC’s phone because of the speed and because HTC makes a wide-array of very slick cell phones, but they’re all sold with Windows.

– Motorola A1200 “Ming,” which is the third generation of Chinese-designed Motorola cell phones running Montavista Linux. Curiously, there is only a slower GPRS data connection on the A1200. Its predecessor, the A780, my main cell phone for the past year, had the faster EDGE data connection. I really wanted to like the A1200 and find it useful, but Motorola’s failure to open up its open-source based platform and dropping of an intermediate speed for an even slower speed data connection just killed the deal.

– iPhone — well, it’s the one of these three phones that I decided to stick with, but if it weren’t for wifi support, I would have taken it back, too, in favor of sticking with my Linux Motorola A780 (bought it on eBay; came out in China in 2004), on which reading web pages over AT&T EDGE data connections is no better and no worse. But the network connection for voice is better on the iPhone and the A780 was becoming unreliable, shutting itself off or freezing for no reason. Side note: Apple should have a marketing group whose only charter is to open up wifi access in public places, especially the coffee chains and airports, without sign up, registration, monthly fees, or whatever. Just show them the NY Times story from 9/18/2007 about The Times giving up on charging to read the paper’s columnists online and instead going to an advertising-supported (aka Google) model. The 4-5 top reviewers that Apple lined up for initial product reviews basically all said “nice phone; AT&T EDGE is terrible.”

Evaluation of features (aka “What do you demo?”):

Panorama from Portland's West Hills - iPhone photos turned into panorama on Linux using hugin + autopano-sift + gimp+ Camera (see panorama from a series of photos above), photo browsing, finger-based operation, wifi web browsing and email, great display, generally keeps going two days on battery charge with moderate use; one day with high use.
– Need to type? Forget it, you are going to read not write email on this. Youtube? Not really, the iPhone has a very limited subset on old technology. Music? I had classical CDs and Chinese and Japanese language recordings on my A780, but haven’t tried getting that on the iPhone, yet. The biggest minus is the AT&T EDGE data network: was barely adequate 5 years ago; now it’s a national embarrassment; we’re about 20th internationally on cellular data speeds, as well as digital cable bandwith, but that’s all another whole topic. Furthermore, back on the Apple-controlled part of what doesn’t demo so well, the information model is old-school in the sense that you’re looking at information that you’re going to try to sync between applications on the phone and applications on the desktop. “Web cloud” apps, like gmail, Google Calendar, Flickr, Google Maps, Google Docs make more sense, but that’s not where this phone concept is.

Also, unfortunately, only a subset of AJAX (“Web 2.0”) capabilities are supported in the iPhone’s web browser. So Google Docs don’t work. Google Maps don’t work. Gmail sort of works.

Channels and Strategy:

Finally, even though the phone’s software is based on 50+ open-source projects, the phone is not set up to facilitate open-source software, but instead to lock up the software environment.

That is missing a big opportunity, I think. Meanwhile, the open source community is busy working to “liberate” the iPhone on the one hand, and Chinese / Taiwanese electronics manufacturers (the iPhone is manufactured in Shenzhen) are bringing out clones.

The New York Times just published a thought-provoking commentary by Randall Stross (9/16/2007, “A Window of Opportunity for Macs, Soon to Close”) asking why Apple is thought of as doing well when they only have 3 percent of the computer market now vs. 14% more than 20 years ago. In comparison, Apple’s iPod product line has been much more dominant. What will be the case with the iPhone? In each of these three areas, Apple basically has had a strategy of trying to redefine the category up a notch (DOS PC -> graphic Mac; generic MP3 player -> “iPod” as the category; smartphones -> “the” iPhone) and to control very tightly the evolution of marketing messages in (or by also controlling, like 185 Apple stores in the U.S. vs. HP computers for sale in 23,000 U.S. retail locations) the sales channel.