Author Archive for William Lai

19
May
08

i’m not dead. i just moved.

My blog is now: blog.aintnolai.com

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17
May
08

comScore’s microsoft sites ranking is so flawed

Check out this chart out from comScore via Paul Kedrosky:

Surprise!

The top two sites are probably not a surprise to anyone. But look at the third ranked entry: “Microsoft Sites.” If you haven’t followed comScore before, you probably would be surprised by the high ranking of Microsoft, given its generally lacking performance of its web properties. But before you jump to the conclusion that MSN or Windows Live (or whatever their latest brand is), you should know that this number includes microsoft.com. Microsoft.com is the corporate home page for Microsoft, visited by people to check for the latest Windows or Office patches, searching for support info, finding out about their product offerings, etc. I have no idea why comScore combines two very different sets of content, msn.com/live.com, and microsoft.com, into one measure. This just seems wrong to me, particularly if I’m an advertiser. The traffic to microsoft.com does not show ads, nor does it give my ads any impressions. So why combine the measure?

Ok, you may argue that microsoft.com is probably not a very big traffic driver compared to say msn.com/live.com properties. But you would be completely wrong. Just look at Apple.com, which is entirely about their product lines (perhaps with a very small contribution from .Mac). Apple generated ~48M unique visitors in April. In contrast, Microsoft, which owns about 95% of both the desktop OS and office productivity apps market, and also has a much wider product line than Apple, should in theory generate alot more unique visitors to microsoft.com. And yet the “Microsoft Sites” number is just 2.5x of the Apple numbers.

So the question is: just how many uniques is going to hotmail.com, msn.com and live.com properties, the real competitors to Google and Yahoo? I think comScore will be well served by tallying msn/live separately from microsoft.com.

07
May
08

How Google Reader killed my NewsGator habit

I have been using NewsGator products for a while now, maybe since 2000. I’ve used pretty much their entire range of client products, from FeedDemon, the Windows RSS reader, to NewsGator Go! for Windows Mobile, to NetNewsWire on the Mac. Along the way I’ve also tried NewsGator Inbox for Outlook, and very ocassionally use NewsGator Online in a pinch. That’s pretty much their entire offering for reading RSS (i.e. non-servers).

I’ve stuck with them for so long because the integration between all the clients is pretty good, at least my feed status is synchronized across all devices, so that if I read Lifehacker on the smartphone, the same posts won’t show up as unread on the PC/Mac. The one thing I was confused over, though, was their “clipping” mechanism: they seem to have various flavor of it on their various clients, and there is no synchronization of them on the server. So whenever I switch machine, or a hard drive dies, I’d lose all the clippings. All in all, it was still decent.

For the longest time I’ve heard from friends that Google Reader rocks. But I still resisted because their web client NewsGator Online was pretty slow, and I assumed that all web RSS clients will always be slower than desktop clients; not an unreasonable assumption given my experience with web email compared to Outlook or Apple Mail. Add to it that the rich client I used most recently, NetNewsWire, was pretty awesome, and I just didn’t see a major need to change.

Then came the day my MacBookPro was in Apple’s shop for a week, and I was sustaining my addiction on the home Mac Mini. I didn’t want to install NetNewsWire on it for just one week, and so I decided it was high time to give Google Reader a spin. I exported my OPML from NewsGator Online and imported it to Google Reader and started using it. I was blown away how fast and rich the web client was! It wasn’t giving much speed away compared to the mac client at all. In particular I liked:

– Google Reader’s preview was super fast, almost faster than NetNewsWire. I suspect they are caching the posts on Google’s servers given how many users would read the same feeds.
– GReaders preview shows all rich media for the most part, instead of the embargo of flash video in NetNewsWire. Given how often YouTube clips are embedded these days, it sure beats using NetNewsWire and then have to open the post on the default browser. Seeing the video right in the context of the preview area rocks.
– Using the Lifehacker Firefox extension for GReader provides me withshortcut keys that make navigating from post to post, marking articles as read or unread, and bookmarking posts all super efficient.
– GReader surprised me even with the mobile version. It’s not as good as the full browser version, but it’s very usable and doesn’t seem to give up much against the NewsGator Go! on the WM5 Blackjack.
– The trump card though, one that I think NetNewsWire will never be able to match, is the feature to bookmark interesting posts, or as GReader calls it, the Starred Item feature. It’s straight out of GMail. Synchronizing bookmark data across multiple clients (RSS or otherwise) on multiple devices is inherently complicated, have all sorts of failure cases that will occasionally pops up, no matter how good the mechanism is. Maybe Windows Live Mesh will solve it completely, but I kinda doubt it. GReader’s web based approach guarantees data synchronicity. Everything will always be in sync, and I’ll never have to worry about porting locally stored bookmarks from one machine to another. Add to it Google’s implicit promise for infinite storage, their search capability, and it’s hard to give this advantage up.

Ever since my switchover to Mac exclusively, I’ve been finding tons of Mac apps that have amazing design and quality. Honestly I didn’t think NetNewsWire for the Mac can be topped. But the promise of Google Reader is just too alluring, and so for me at least, another desktop app has fallen. Long live the web apps!

21
Apr
08

Thoughts on Tibet from a Chinese-American

I’ve been a fan of Tibetan culture ever since grad school. One night while I was supposed to be studying, I was just bored out of my mind from quantum physics / communication theory / whatever, and went looking for an interesting book to read instead. I picked up from the stacks the oldest book I could find, complete with loose pages and crooked typesetting. The book I picked up happened to be about the mythology of Tibetan culture. The tales of how each reincarnated Dalai Lama is identified when just a child was endlessly fascinating. The Oracles and the mystical events that led to the Golden Child was incredibly exotic and rich in culture. I thought to myself how shameful it is to have this disappear from humanity. Over time I learned more about the culture through Western press, learned about Tibetan Buddhism and became increasingly sure that the culture should and must be protected against Han-washing that the Chinese government are intent on carrying out.

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The systemic destruction of any culture, indigenous or not, is one of the worst crime in the world. What the European settlers did to the Native Americans, the Australians did with the Aborigines, the Spanish to the Incas, were all despicable acts, acts that turned humanity further down the road to a monocultural wasteland. The Nazis obviously take that crime to the extreme in the modern era, trying to destroy not only the culture but went on to murdering the Jewish people. In the names of religion and civilization, cultural destruction have been carried out all over the globe by Christian missionaries, from the Pacific Islands to South America to Africa. Not unlike what the Moors did in the name of Islam during the Dark Ages, actually.

Anyway, I’ve long held the belief that the Dalai Lama’s position, of not seeking independence but autonomy, is the right middle ground. China will never willingly give up the Tibetan plateau because of its military significance. Throughout Chinese history, the majority Han Chinese empires has been subject to invasions and attacks from neighboring states such as Mongolia, Manchuria, and, yes Tibet. The first two groups succeed and established their own empire for a time, establishing minority rule over the Han Chinese. For bad or good, weariness over the neighboring state is just part of the Chinese cultural consciousness. After all, they wasted millions of lives building a giant wall to protect themselves; that should tell you something.

Add to it that Tibet as an independent state is not the predominant stance throughout modern Asian history, and I can see why the Dalai Lama took the position that he still holds.

But somehow, the protests and anger over the Chinese treatment of Tibetan protestors has me on the fence. I couldn’t quite put a finger on what it is, but I’m not as strongly protective on the Tibetan side as I usually am. Was it because in some small way I identify with the Chinese authority? Maybe, but that’s not my usual norm and it would be a bit surprising. I really couldn’t put my pulse on it. When asked by my Korean in-law’s how I feel about Tibetan situation, I stuttered and couldn’t quite articulate the complexity of my thinking. And that really got me thinking.

I came to two realizations:

First: There is a new element in the conflict/impasse, and that is the young Tibetans that are not only yearning for autonomy, but for an independent Tibetan state. As with young people everywhere, they are more aggressive than the older generations, and it’s hard to blame them. But it went beyond what I think is the solution, and I felt it hard to support their position. This takes away some of my enthusiasm for supporting this particular round of movement.

Second: I think that there is more than a tinge of Anti-Chinese sentiment in these protests against China, outside of the Tibet issue. The rise of China in the last two decades has surprised a lot of people around the globe, putting them increasingly at odds with the Chinese economic behemoth. Issues of job security, product safety, environmental pollution, energy consumption and price increases, food shortages, and concerns about their military spending are all reactions to their rise in global stature. Some of them are legit issues that the world should be concerned about, such as job security, product safety and environmental issues that affects everyone in the world. Others, in particular their military modernization, I feel is completely ignorant of the Chinese history and culture, and is driven by the zero-sum, they-are-winning-we-must-be-losing mindset of the developed world.

In some ways, it is this “holier than thou attitude” that turns me off about this round of protest against China, confusing me for a moment from my real position on Tibet. The Dalai Lama has wisely chosen the middle way, one that both the young Tibetans and the Chinese authority should follow. In particular, I don’t understand why the Chinese authority is so stupid as to let this opportunity pass. But when people from around the world attack China, fanned by their national and economic insecurity and supposed moral superiority, yet little sense of Tibetan and Chinese political history, I do take issue with the sentiment behind the attacks.

So to be clear: I support the Dalai Lama’s stance for Tibetan automonmy, but believe the current round of protests smack of cultural and economic bias. I hope cooler head prevails before we get into a us-vs-them contest.

18
Apr
08

Change the damn New York subway map please!

I love NY. We just came home from our NYC vacation, and it brought back the memories of so many trips there, and how each trip was great. When the girls are off to college we are hoping to move to NY and enjoy life with great restaurants, top notch culture, and enjoy the convivial atmosphere of the city.

But while I’ve been to NYC many times, I’ve only ridden on the subway twice. Both times I was riding with a native New Yorker. Now I am not a neophyte suburbanite who is afraid of crime or grunginess and think the subway is scary. In thinking through the reason for this, I think I’m just one of many visitors who just can’t get past the monster that is the MTA subway map.

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I’m generally not afraid of complexity, and is considered sufficiently intelligent, but I’ve never been able to decipher this thing. Why all the crazy curves? What are the differences between black and white dots on stations? Where do I transfer from one line to another? And for god sake, why are some lines enclosed in circles and some in squares, and what’s up with the crazy numbering/naming?

Before this recent trip, I resolved to understand this system map by reading all about it on the web and in guidebooks, and thought, OK, I think I finally got it. I’ll try to use the subway as the main transportation option when I get there. Every evening before I hit the sack, I took out the guidebook and map, and try to figure out what is the subway ride that we need to take for the next day’s itinerary. Yet after about half an hour of head scratching and deciphering, I got sufficiently confused that I thought better of it, that the last thing I need on vacation are the wife/kids waiting impatiently as they wait for me to figure the crazy system out. We ended up walking all over midtown, from our 38th and Park home base to Columbus Circle and Central Park a few times. When we needed to get to lower Manhattan, we just took a few $10 cab rides.

The problem is once again the map. It’s just too difficult to understand. Upon reflecting what happened (again), I googled and found this great post on CartoBlog, a cartography web site. It explains why the NY subway map is the way it is: The system being a mash-up of three competing subway companies, with non-rationalized routes; the narrowness of Manhattan as compared to London’s radial subway layout; the way people expects the subway map to be realistic to the above ground street grid, etc. The post also talks about the various attempts to update the map for usability, and how each attempt failed for various reasons.

But what really caught my eyes were the most recent attempt, the Kick Map. It seems to have addressed most of the issues cited while rationalizing the system as a whole. Check out the comparison from the old map (left) to the Kick version (right) for Lower Manhattan:

Kick Lower Manhattan

Notice how the map is actually readable now? No more overloading of train lines into one graphical line. The curve of the routes are now easy to follow, and more importantly, ignored. I mean who really need to know exactly how the tunnel is curving underground, as long as the stations are placed correctly? And as a final blow, notice how the Fulton-Broadway-Nassau situation was before (incomprehensible), compared to how clear the Kick map illustrates it.

Yes, maybe the multiple route lines are a bit dominating, to the detriment of the above ground information, but that’s the only down side I can see. As a visitor, my first order of business is to determine which route will get me from point A to point B, and determine the 1-2 stations that’s closest to the end points. Getting to and from the station to the final destination I can do by asking for directions above ground, or consulting a street map. The Kick map accomplishes its goal of explaining the subway system effectively, while the official MTA map requires me to spend a semester to learn the symbology and meaning that it stops me cold before I start. I think that even for a native New Yorker, the Kick map will be useful too. I’m sure that most New Yorkers already know their daily commute trips by heart (probably learned the route thru trial and error), so they don’t need no stinking map. But when they use the subway to a new spot, the Kick map has got to be easier to read at the station or in the train.

Alas, the wise crowd at the MTA apparently rejected the Kick Map last year. But I gathered that the Kick Design guys are licensing it to Gray Line, so you may want to go there and pick up a few copies when you are in town.

03
Apr
08

Thinking Room

Since I’m mostly working alone these days, communicating via email or IM with my partner, I have had the luxury of working anywhere, anytime. For the last month or so, I’ve found that I work very well when this is the view from my desk:

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It’s actually pretty affordable. Whenever I’m mentally stuck and can’t focus, I drive to Alki Beach and park by the water’s edge, and just yank out my laptop. Between my 3G modem (best thing ever) and an inverter to power the laptop, I can work there for hours on end, and it’s usually some of my most productive time. There’s no distraction, no fridge to raid, no TV to watch, plus that view is just inspirational for writing a spec or business plan or what have you.

I think everyone should have a quiet place they can go to, not necessarily with that view, but looking out to a view that’s serene and mind-quieting. I’ve read about Kathy Sierra’s Airstream office rig, and I want one. And I’ve got the design all figured out:

Ideally I’d like a 19-22′ vintage Airstream, something like this:

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And since I’m a mod-head, I’ll have the interior all stripped down to the shell. No plumbing, no cabinets, no dinette set, no beds. I’m ick’ed out by the bathrooms on RVs and so I think I’ll take that out too…I’ll just go to the nearest gas station and Starbucks if needed. Ideally, I’ll have a solar-charged battery system with an inverter to kick up the power to 110v, so I can use it to power electronics. Interior wise, I just want this:

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It’s an interior designed by Bosch & Fjord for their client MindLab, as a conference room where people can collaborate. I think the curve walls will be perfectly matched to an Airstream’s shell, plus the immense whiteboard surface will be great for doddling your latest big idea. I’ll add a simple conference table and some chairs running down the middle of the Airstream, hang a projector on the ceiling, an electrical outlet from the battery system, a WiFi access point powered by my 3G modem, and I’ll be all set to do pretty much anything I need to get done.

I think I can put together the whole thing around $5-7K, with alot of elbow grease thrown in, which really isn’t too bad. The only problems are that my house has no room for RV parking, and I don’t have a tow vehicle, both of which can be fixed with more money. If I have time right now I’d actually go for it, but the day is short and this has to stay as a pipe dream for now.

If you have something like this setup for your work, write me a comment!

29
Mar
08

Bag Borrow or Steal

I read this on John Cook’s Venture Blog the other day: Bag, Borrow, or Steal, a site that rents out super fantabulous handbags for like hundreds of dollars a month, has raised $15M dollars from Madrona, Steelpoint, and others.

Now I don’t doubt for a minute that the VCs saw something great about this business. And it’s easy for me to sit here, as a guy, a geek guy specifically, and say “what the hell did they see?” But, seriously, WTF? $15M fund raised? What’s the pre/post money are they saying?? Ok, maybe I should use my analytical skills and dissect this puppy:

  • Not many barrier to entry that I can think of. Anyone can do a me-too. Consider the bags themselves: If the bag is from Prada or Versace or any hot designer, even if it’s a limited edition, I assume there’s enough of them that someone can fetch the identical bag on the market and offer it. And if it’s one-of-a-kind (“couture vintage” in their catalog), then it may be too unique that you can’t readily flaunt it at a party since people won’t recognize it, limiting its appeal. Not to mention that the more exclusive the bag, the more expensive it was to acquire, raising the fees to an absurd level, such as the $4800 per month rental fee of their higher priced item. There are probably only a handful of women who would be (a) willing and able to afford that kind of rental fees, and (b) who isn’t wealthy enough to just buy it outright. Meanwhile, that bag is eating up $10K of your capital, just sitting on a shelf.
  • And since we are talking about shelves: This is fashion we are talking about, folks, so what’s the shelf life of a given bag? A super hot bag of the moment will probably not be worth so much two years from now, as the fashion trends turn. What would be the half-life of a bag? 2-3 years? Now, they seem to counter this issue by doing what Blockbuster does to old DVDs, and sell the old bags that aren’t being rented out much, freeing up some much needed capital to buy newer, more popular bags. I wonder what the depreciation of hand bags are? I imagine it’s not so great, given the constant churn of fashion.
  • Market: How big is the market size where people can afford to spend $100-200 to rent a bag for a month? I’ve got to imagine the Sex and the City market is not that large, that you are limited to only urban professional or wealthy women. Women in rural Iowa just don’t have a need to flaunt the latest fashion handbag every month; hell they’ll probably just get ridiculed at church every Sunday. I’m sure that the company probably has a track record to prove the segment does exists, but does anyone actually have demographic data to show how large it can scale? And don’t forget, unless you are some sort of Super Bag-a-holic, each customer can only have one bag at a time. But in their defense, they probably have a pretty good repeat customer rental rate, since their customer may just think of paying a monthly rate to constantly have the latest handbag.
  • Capital needs. These bags aren’t cheap, which is the reason why ladies don’t just buy them outright. The business requires alot of money being tied up in the inventory, which as we pointed out, has a limited shelf life. Meaning that if they are every wrong about a fashion trend and buy a bunch of bags that prove to be unpopular with the customer base, the opportunity cost can be huge. I sure hope they have a really great fashion editor on staff, who isn’t just avant-gard and knows what’s going to be hot next season. Which, in fashion, seems to be not a fool-proof game, given how often we hear about retailers suffering a huge downside when they bet wrong.
  • Marketing Cost: How much money did they spend to get the product placement on Sex and the City, The Movie? And that’s only one movie. They probably need to do this constantly, getting on Oprah, Martha, magazines and media.

There’s no doubt that the business opportunity is there. It’s just that it requires a large capital base to make it work. And has a limited upside, and won’t scale very large. And requires a large marketing expense on an ongoing basis. If I’m the VC, it’s hard for me to imagine that this company can return 10X on my $15M investment. I’m guessing the pre-money would be in the $50M range? How much would it be worth if this all works out? $200M? $300M? I’ve gotta think I can deploy my capital better elsewhere. How many startups can you fund for $15M? I would think you can do at least five, and everyone one of them can promise return better than Bag, Borrow or Steal.