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We Won The Internet

13 Mar

Yes, we won the Internet on February 26, 2015. But, first things first.

What is Net Neutrality?
For douchebags,

“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.— Senator Ted Cruz on Twitter

For educated folks, The Oatmeal has explained net neutrality beautifully with an example. Simply put, net neutrality is all about information on the Internet being treated equally. Which means, a movie on Netflix or a video on YouTube has the same priority as any other video from a small startup. The cable companies like Comcast or Time Warner cannot charge money from any company to speed up their videos streaming and slow down feed from companies that do not pay.

In the beginning …
Everything was hunky-dory and information on the Internet was free. Free as in air, not free as in beer. And all information was considered equal. This was the default so we never paid – or had to pay – attention to concepts like “net neutrality”. Everyone received the same content on the Internet and all content from all companies was treated equally.

Then this happened …
Netflix started slowing down for Verizon and Comcast customers. Netflix, being the most popular online TV and movies provider, consumed about 25% of the total bandwidth of the Internet connection in 2012, which rose to 35% in 2014 during peak TV viewing hours. So, some service providers started asking Netflix to pay more for more bandwidth usage. Netflix declined and these service providers started throttling Netflix.

Courtesy Netflix

Courtesy Netflix

Paid prioritization
Because money is king; to hell with customers

In February 2014, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast, and later to Verizon, to stream its videos at higher bandwidth. Then the streaming speed went up again.

Courtesy Netflix

Courtesy Netflix

Verizon vs. FCC
Federal Communications Commission is a US government agency that oversees and regulates all communications, including TV and radio airwaves and wire and cable transmissions. In 2005, the FCC had issued guidelines to promote net neutrality. These were not formal rules, so the ISPs were not legally bound to obey them. In 2011, Verizon sued FCC and asked the court to overturn the open Internet rules. The court ruled in favor of Verizon on the grounds that the Internet providers are not classified as common carriers and as such, FCC does not have authority to regulate them.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996
In 1934, congress enacted the Communications Act to regulate the wire and radio communications. The Act was amended in 1996 into the Telecommunications Act and the Internet was included under its purview. The Act made a distinction between “telecommunications service” and “information service” wherein the telecommunications service are more stringently regulated than information service, which included the Internet service providers. The Act was intended to foster competition among the providers but due to consolidation in the industry, only a handful of providers remained operational in each region. Verizon won the lawsuit on the grounds that it was an information service provider and hence, cannot be regulated by FCC, which was the right decision.

What is Title II of the Telecommunications Act?
One of the seven titles of the Telecommunications Act, Title II outlines the provisions of “broadcast services”, which includes “Common Carriers”. Title II stipulates that common carriers can’t “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.” In February, FCC voted in favor of reclassifying the ISPs as Common Carriers, which means the broadband Internet service will be treated as telecommunications service and not information service.

The fight ahead
President Obama has openly and strongly supported net neutrality. The final rules have not been announced; however, there has already been an outcry from the industry, which was expected. However, many leaders of the Republican party have strongly spoken against the rule change. Lawsuits would undoubtedly follow once the rules are announced, and it might take years before things are stable again.

Until then, we, the people, have won the Internet. People: 1 – Douchebags: 0.

Recommended readings

What The FCC’s Net Neutrality Ruling Means For You
Verizon, the FCC and What You Need to Know About Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know Now


Don’t Fool Yourself …, Or Why Evaluation Is Important

7 Apr

In 2006, when I was attending Stanford University School of Education for my master’s degree, we were working on our master’s project. One of our professors, who is an expert on evaluation, came to our class to discuss evaluation of our projects. He started by saying:

“Don’t fool yourself into believing that you are developing a great product.”

It was a shocker for us as we all completely believed that we were indeed on our way to developing great products. My project was intended to make it easy for school children to view 3D animations on 3D monitors on concepts that were difficult to visualize in 2D, for example, the rotations and revolutions of planets and the atomic structure of molecules. It was the greatest idea of all time. Why did I need to conduct an evaluation for such a simple, yet powerful concept?

We learned a lot that day, especially not overestimating the usefulness and effectiveness of our ideas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to evaluate our projects so we completed our program and set out, starry-eyed. to change the world.

However, people in real world who develop products and services don’t always care about the users of those products and services. They come up with innovative ideas (or so they think), and start working on the ideas with the premise that they are developing great products. Case in point: Windows 8, iTunes Ping, Google Plus. They ask the users what they think about those ideas, and, thanks to confirmation bias, come back with user feedback that confirm the greatness of their ideas.

They fool themselves into believing that they are developing a great product. They don’t want to look at the analytics because that would disprove their hypothesis. And I have been as guilty of this crime as anyone else.

The right way: Startup companies

Startup companies too start with the premise that they are working on the world’s greatest idea. And they are right. If they don’t think that way, they wouldn’t risk everything to work on that idea. They spend years developing, launching, evaluating, and iterating on their idea. Their best friend? Usage analytics, which gives them insights into how many people are using their products, where, and when. How many people are visiting what parts of the product more? What macro-level trends are visible? Does making a minor change in a color shade increase or decrease the usage of a page or a field?

More than 90% of startup companies die within two years of launching because of several reasons. But they all know how useful and effective their products are (or not) thanks to analytics data. Analytics do not always save an idea but they help fail early, fail fast, fail often, and help people learn and move on. They can fool themselves but not for long. And that’s why evaluation is critical to developing great products.

The Revolution That Wasn’t: Part 2

28 Jan

I recently read some comments about MOOCs.

Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Finds: Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the Sloan Consortium

The findings, released in a report on Wednesday, reveal a growing skepticism among academic leaders about the promise of MOOCs. The report also suggests that conventional, tuition-based online education is still growing, although not as swiftly as in past years.

The article – Top Issues Facing Higher Education In 2014 on, ends with:

You may observe a notable omission from this list: MOOCs. Increasing awareness of their limitations for certain audiences combined with a feeling of “enough already” will make these yesterday’s news in 2014.

The pioneer of MOOCs, Stanford Professor and founder of Udacity, predicted in 2012:

In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.

Recently, however, he changed his opinion of MOOCs:

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea.”
“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product. (emphasis mine)”

I have taken a few MOOC courses on Udacity, Coursera, Stanford Venture Labs, and NovoEd. I’m enrolled in one or two courses all the time, which I complete at my own pace. I believe it’s a great but overhyped idea, and MOOCs are not a replacement for traditional students and universities.

Meanwhile, I stand by my take on MOOCs two years ago – Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation?

Suggested Readings:

The Wisdom of Crowds

22 Oct

James Surowiecki, a journalist, had coined the term – The Wisdom of Crowds – in 2004 (The title of his book). In this book, he argued that none of us is as smart as all of us. Or, in other words, expertise is overrated. Not that the experts are not needed in this world, but the collective wisdom of people leads to better decisions. It seems counter-intuitive, but it has been proven to be true.

  • Google was the thirteenth search engine when it had launched in1998 and yet, it became a resounding success because of the quality of its results. The search algorithm takes into account hundreds of factors but the most important factor is the number and reputations of Web sites linking to a particular Web page. It is, in essence, a vote for a page by other knowledgeable people – a collective wisdom in play.
  • Wikipedia, an openly editable encyclopaedia, allows anyone to make changes to its articles. Instead of relying on the knowledge of a few experts, Wikipedia harnesses the small chunks of information people have on a topic and combines those chunks to create millions of articles. Surprisingly, the articles outnumber the professionally produced Encyclopaedia Britannica and the number of errors are comparable too.
  • Reviews on Web sites like Amazon (products), Rotten Tomato (movies) and Yelp (restaurants) rely on the feedback of many people to produce an aggregate rating.

This concept begs a question, though. Can we put a group of people in a room, give them a task, and they would come up with the best decision? Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple. This concept, to work best, has some preconditions that must be satisfied.

Diversity: The people in the group must have diverse opinions, educational and work backgrounds, experience, knowledge, and skills, which would lead to creative ideas and a large quantity of ideas. A group comprising experts on the same topic tend to think similarly.
Independence: The people must think independently from each other. In a group setting, groupthink takes over and the conversation usually follows the most vocal or the highest ranked person.
Decentralization: There is no top-down directive so nobody is in charge and the problem of mere compliance is avoided. Everyone contributes freely and voluntarily.
Incentive: There must be some incentive for the people to contribute to the overall effort. Intrinsic reasons (because I want to) work much better than extrinsic reasons (I have to because I’ve been asked to or paid).
Aggregation: There must be a mechanism to aggregate the contributions of the group. An online environment (Google, Wikipedia) works great even if the group size is millions. In an offline environment (an office setting), a designated leader can do the collection and compiling.

Additional readings
The Dirty Little Secret About the “Wisdom of the Crowds” – There is No Crowd

Is Content King?

2 Aug

“Content is king”. I’ve been hearing and reading this phrase ever since I started working in the e-learning industry more than a decade ago. It has been mostly true for most of the history of content. But is it true now? I think the answer is “it depends”.

Content is social
In the last few years, the free content on the Internet is killing the print industry. People recognized that they don’t need “experts” writing news stories, analyses, and reviews for which they have to pay. Content created by amateurs is good enough and most importantly, it’s free. Breaking news is available on Twitter, restaurant reviews are available on Yelp, content on any topic is available on Wikipedia. If I want to learn a programming language, I just go to W3Schools or Codecademy. If I have a question, I can ask my friends on Facebook or anyone on Yahoo Answers, Stack Exchange, or Quora. Most importantly, participation in a community increases engagement.

Experience economy
Design and user experience have always been important in every industry but good design is hard and not many people focus on it. Content has always been available in print or digital format. But it doesn’t always address our learning and development needs. It’s generic and is not tailored to anyone. It might be irrelevant. However, the main reason users do not trust a Web site is not content, it’s the Web site design. On the other hand, people trust content originating from authoritative sources.

Content, however good it is, will not be used if it doesn’t fit nicely into a satisfying experience. Reading a book doesn’t provide that experience, so a number of startups are developing interactive ebooks using rich media. Analytics tools are available, which, when integrated with ebooks and quizzing, might provide useful usage and performance data. Social media is being integrated with ebooks to help students interact with their peers and teachers.

Quality content is not enough. It should reach the target users. Marketing, especially social media marketing, is very important to make sure a large number of people are aware of the existence of the content. Good content is what gets shared, and that’s the best marketing for the content.

Content for students
Times are changing. Very soon, content creators will be competing  not only on the quality of content, but the experience they are providing to their users. Users will no longer learn by reading their books, they will get all kinds of current information delivered to their electronic devices. They will take an assessment and will instantly get feedback and recommendation on what they should study next and which resources they can use. They have a question, they just ask, and someone, somewhere around the globe will  answer it. They are on the move, and small chunks of information will be delivered to their smartphones based on spoken search queries. Content would never be stale again. Rapidly advancing technology is making things happen that were unimaginable a few years ago.

There are three elements of a great experience: Content, community, and technology.

So the answer to the question – Is content king? – is yes. Content will always be king. But the place for experts in today’s world is getting smaller and smaller. The wisdom of individuals and crowds is taking over content creation. The design of the experience is more important than ever.

Related Readings

Content Is No Longer King: Curation Is King

Why Content Quality Matters: The 7 Hallmarks of Compelling Content
Psychology of Trust on the Internet

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

Innovation is the Key

27 Apr

IDEO is world’s largest design firm. Originally named David Kelley Design (named after the founder and Stanford University professor, David Kelley) and founded in 1978, it was later rechristened IDEO, which came from the word ‘ideology’. The company has some of Fortune 100 clients and is primarily involved with the design of consumer products. Some of the most popular and innovative products designed by IDEO are the Apple mouse, Steelcase chairs, and Palm V PDA. Professor Kelley teaches a very popular course at Stanford University that helps students learn the basics of design and rapid prototype development.

The book The Art of Innovation was written by David Kelley’s brother Tom Kelley (with journalist and Pulitzer prize winner Jonathan Littman), who is also the General Manager at IDEO. The book is intended to share the best practices for developing a culture of innovation within a company, which is practiced at IDEO after years of using and refining. A person at the company is the official ‘Story Teller’ to outside visitors who tour the company to see and learn what makes the company the leader in design innovation.

The book has been divided into fifteen chapters. Each chapter covers a specific topic in the design process or in building a company focused on innovation. Tom Kelley talks about building a company-wide culture that promotes thinking and innovation and what the stages are in developing an innovative product.

Here’s is the summary of chapter 1.

Innovation is the key
In the last 15 years, innovation has become a buzzword widely used in big corporations to tiny startup companies. The CEOs and the executive team members always talk about innovation, be it product innovation, process innovation, services innovation, or innovation in other areas. It has become a top priority for many companies. The methodology developed by IDEO comprises five stages:

  • a. Understand the potential market, users, available technology, and constraints.
  • b. Observe the potential users in real-world situations doing their normal activities instead of setting up focus groups and laboratory research.
  • c. Visualize how and what the products will be in future and how, where, and when they will be used.
  • d. Build a prototype and continuously test with real users and refine it.
  • e. Commercialize the concept by launching the product in the market.

Innovation is a mindset, a complex, time-consuming, and difficult process, but it is the only key to future growth. It is the only way to remain relevant in today’s hyper-competitive market.

Suggested Readings
You Call That Innovation?
Innovation Is a Discipline, Not a Cliché