Archive | July, 2012

A Brief History Of Content

30 Jul

What is content?
Content is any information communicated using a medium such as speech, writing, print, visual, or even sign language. Content has an audience within a specific context. A book, a tweet, a status update, a video, a podcast, a product review, a TED talk, a question, and an answer are all examples of content.

Humans beings have evolved over millions of years. The oldest content – some cave paintings – have been discovered that are about 32,000 years old. From cave paintings, sign language, spoken language, and writings to today’s medium of electronic devices, content creation and distribution has come a long way.

So how has the content changed over the years? Here’s a brief history of content.

Middle ages
For thousands of years, before written language existed, knowledge was passed from one generation to the next using gestures, drawings, and later spoken language. Then we started writing, and a handful of very knowledgeable people, such as Socrates, da Vinci, and Shakespeare, created literary and artistic pieces. Content was premium because it was written and copied by hand and there was very few of it.

Modern and Industrial age
In the fifteenth century, Gutenberg invented the hand-operated printing press. It enabled printing of a large number of books and other literary works. During the industrial revolution, a mechanized version of the printing press helped massive creation and distribution of printed materials. Content creators were more than ever before but they were still a minority. Electronic production and recording medium were invented in the twentieth century that helped creation and distribution of content to an even larger population and commoditize content.

The Internet age (1995-2000)
In mid 1990s, Internet started becoming accessible to the  general populace. The content creators and consumers multiplied, and the cost of creating and distribution started veering toward zero. The content was still static text and images delivered over the slow dial-up connections.

The age of the broadband
Beginning in 2001, home broadband started becoming ubiquitous and affordable. Content now included not just text and images but also Flash animations and short videos. Online learning revolution started at around the same time though it didn’t quite revolutionize education as many had expected.

The “social” age
The age in which we live now can be called the social age. Dominated by Facebook and Twitter, we create small chunks of content on a daily basis and share it with our friends and followers. Movies, restaurants, and everything under the sun (sold by Amazon) is being reviewed by the consumers and shared with the rest.

Content has come a long way. From premium priced content created by experts, the world is gravitating toward socially-created content that costs nothing. And this is happening because the quality of content is not enough. It’s the marketing, relevance, and social features enabled by technology that is revolutionizing the business of content.

Is content still king?

Bill Gates: The Hero

25 Jul

Hero: A man admired for his achievements and noble qualities; one who shows great courage (source: Merriam-Webster dictionary)

I have a picture of Bill Gates in my office along with a few other people I admire. I’ve been asked why I have Bill Gates’ picture, but not Steve Jobs’. The reason is that Bill Gates is a hero. A silent hero.

A visionary

His vision during Microsoft’s earliest days was to “put a computer on every desk and in every home”. In 1970s, nobody had thought of having a computer at home. Computers were the sole preserve of big companies that had IBM’s mainframe computers for data processing tasks. He wanted the magic of software developed by Microsoft to work on hardware developed by other companies. Apple, at around the same time, had a similar vision but wanted to control the entire user experience from software to hardware. Microsoft, and Bill Gates, won big time.

Success is one’s own worst enemy. Having realized his vision by all means, including some alleged monopolistic practices, and becoming the richest man in the world, I think he lost his way. He focused more on making money for himself and Microsoft’s investors than creating value for the users. And when you try to harvest more value than you create, things start to fall apart. Gates didn’t focus on design and user experience. He didn’t focus on innovation. Perhaps he didn’t read The Innovator’s Dilemma. Though Microsoft is doing just fine, Apple now rules the world.

Rivalry with Steve Jobs

They were about the same age, started their companies at the same time (1975), and had the same vision. Gates was a software genius and Jobs was a design genius. They were competitors, borrowed ideas for GUI from Xerox PARC, and worked fanatically to establish their companies. In Jobs’s biography by Walter Isaacson, he quotes Jobs: “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”
This statement is not true. Gates invented countless software for consumers and enterprise (much more than Apple) but also copied some. Same is true of Jobs. In fact, Gates is much more imaginative than Jobs. Gates imagined a world free of diseases such as malaria, polio, and AIDS, and a literate, innovative, and competitive America.

Philanthropy: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
In 2000, Bill Gates quit his job at Microsoft and is now devoting his full time to the Gates Foundation traveling to poor countries, meeting with people, and understanding the health issues prevalent there. He has committed his wealth to the foundation and also convinced his rich friends like Warren Buffet to donate most of their wealth to charity. He is working with non-profit organizations to get rid of preventable diseases and improve the health of people in developing countries.

Steve Jobs wanted to put a ding in the universe, but it is, in fact, Bill Gates who did it and still doing it. While Jobs was busy inventing beautiful gadgets, Gates first changed the world with personal computers, and now changing it again with his fight against deadly diseases in the developing world and his mission to fix the broken education system in America.

Bill Gates’ courage to fight the biggest challenges and his commitment to noble causes make him a true hero.

Suggested readings
A Conversation With Bill Gates About the Future of Higher Education
Bill Gates on Charlie Rose
Malcolm Gladwell: In 50 years, Bill Gates will be revered and Steve Jobs will be forgotten
The Real Reason The World Will Remember Bill Gates

Components of Creativity

18 Jul

Innovation, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t happen with a lone inventor working alone in his laboratory, though there have been quite a few discoveries and inventions this way. Per the Harvard Business School professor, Teresa Aambile, there are three components of creativity:  Expertise, creative thinking skills, and motivation. The most creative people are also innovators. They spend countless hours learning, honing their skills, and thus, acquiring expertise. They also possess creative thinking skills. Having domain expertise is not enough. Thinking creatively may involve applying ideas from other disciplines, connecting disparate notions, and observing the physical world for ideas. However, the most important element is the motivation to innovate. The motivation can come from outside (corporate incentives, good grades) or from within oneself (passion, purpose, or interest/fun).

The enabling factor for innovation in an organization is the corporate culture. A culture that promotes teamwork, interdisciplinary problem-solving, intrinsic incentives, exploration, play, and empowerment. Research as well as success of companies such as IDEO, Apple, and Google have proved beyond doubt that these factors lead to a culture of innovation.

  • Collaboration: I believe in the wisdom of crowds. Nobody is as smart as a group working toward the same goal. Rules of brainstorming apply, though.
  • Diversity: A team that has people with diverse educational backgrounds, expertise, work and life experiences, and culture is more innovative than a team with similar type of people.
  • Intrinsic motivation: People are more innovative when they have a purpose. Money doesn’t give people purpose. This is why Samuel Langley and his team of experts, despite spending tons of money failed where the Wright brothers succeeded. A quote from Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball – “Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.”
  • Empowerment: 3M pioneered the policy of letting their employees spend 15% of their time on any idea they wanted to pursue. This led to the development of a large number of new products at 3M. Google popularized this policy with 20% free time.

Related Readings
How to Kill Creativity

Design Of Everyday Things: Doors

3 Jul

Doors. We use them multiple times every day, everywhere. Home, office, shop, airport. Doors are so integral to our lives that we never pause to think about their design.

Wait. What? Doors are beautiful or ugly, they open and shut. What is there to think about?

Stupid people or stupid design?

This is the front door in my office. It’s beautiful. It’s pulled from inside or pushed from outside to open it. Even after using it for five years, I sometimes make a mistake and do the opposite. I have seen many people make the same mistake. Why can’t we open a simple door? Are we stupid? Or the designer of the door had other ideas?

What do the smaller handles on the inside and longer handles on the outside convey? That the smaller handle means it should be pulled and the longer handle means it should be pushed? This seems to be the thinking behind the design of this door. Unfortunately, no such convention exists.

Don’t make me think
Below is the restroom door in my office. There is only one way to open it from outside – by pushing it. A simple plate on the door, no thinking required. A handle on the inside indicates that it needs to be pulled.

Here is the emergency exit. Again, there is only one way to open it. By restricting the things we can do with a door to only one, it’s a simple and powerful design that can save lives during a fire.

Some doors open on both sides. If possible, this would be the best design. It would work for everyone. A door should not make us think how we should open it. That would be stupid design.

Related readings
Design Of Everyday Things