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October, 2009:

Power of the Digital Pen

Remember the days of high school English class or getting a big paper assignment in college? I do. I never minded the act of writing; I was the type that thought having a “pen pal” in some far off country was pretty cool. (Mine never wrote back). However the concept of getting an assignment that had to be ten double-space pages with a max of a one-inch margins or a paper that had to be exactly 1000 words always seemed daunting. I always waited until the last minute to do it that made the entire experience even more traumatic.

My personal favorite was from Mr. Hart’s AP English class: Describe your view through an imaginary window. I am still slightly aggravated with myself to this day, or I should say, perplexed, that I didn’t just think to look out of an actual window in my house and describe what I saw. Instead I sat at my desk with the worst writer’s block, tapping my pencil against the desk, painfully trying to force an imagined view into my head. What’s funny is I think back now to the trauma of it all and really can’t remember what I wrote; I think it had something to do with icicles.

So it is with that in mind that I often think about how much the web changed the written landscape. Think about how many writers and content producers beyond traditional media (you know, the people who loved writing and creating the stuff even back in high school).  Many of them are a direct result of the advent of the digital pen. Much of the content produced may not be Poe, Emerson, Rand or Shakespeare but it doesn’t need to be.  Clive Thompson has an essay called The New Literacy in the September issue of Wired that focuses on this phenomenon and also reflects on whether the “digital pen” is hurting the overall quality if writing.

People are creating some of the best content on the web today. Blogging enables thousands to produce incredible content across genres. Think about a well-thought blog post that you’ve read recently. Descriptive title, subject statement, number of paragraphs backing up an argument and some type of conclusion perhaps. That sure sounds a heck of a lot like the type of assignment many of us ran from.  And that doesn’t scratch the surface.  There is the micro-content world that Thompson touches on such as Twitter and Facebook.  Look at the extent of content, solid writing at that, taking place in the enterprise in the form of business plans, emails and PowerPoint presentations.

Content creation takes place us around us all the time.  Writing is getting churned out like crazy. The digital pen has enabled us to publish our thoughts in an easy way.  Even those of us who dreaded writing our view through an imaginary window could rail something out in 20 minutes without thinking twice. I find this truly amazing.

And guess what, how’s this for an essay?  519 words.  Knocked it out the iPhone on the train ride into the city this morning.  Wonder if Mr. Hart would approve?

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Positive Vision, Not Negative Outlook

Google Wave has taken the world by storm and been the talk of innovation since it was demonstrated months ago. Invites going out like concert tickets and for better or worse, early returns are coming in. This morning on the train ride into the city I read Scoble pronouncement that Wave is over-hyped. There is fantastic follow-up conversation that I recommend in the comments discussing it even further. Louis Gray also discusses.

So is Google Wave the New New Thing? Who knows? Scoble, Gray and many others probably have fair points. I have no idea if it is going to be successful. In fact, I haven’t even used it yet since I wasn’t opened to the system (not one of the worthy 100k, thanks Google!). I’d like to discuss a bigger question.

Why so negative? (Said another way, a very provocative question is “Why be so quick to judgment?”) Who knows what the future holds? In the beginning, Twitter showed no purpose to me. I have a personal post to prove it. I made the mistake to be very quick to judge the service at the time and quite honestly give the thing time to ferment. I later remedied my incorrect early impression. I think people confuse how they look at the service now as opposed to the service we were all looking at it when it first came out. And that quick rush to judgment has bigger negative consequences.

When Friendfeed switched to a real-time interface, I came very close to making the same mistake. It was blistering fast, hard to follow and there was a lot of noise in the channel just like when you follow tons of people in Twitter and just watch the stream. Very valid points BUT to a certain extent, it is the wrong way to look at things. It took a few months, but once I got used to the service, I couldn’t even go back to “refresh mode”, I loved real time. Back in August,I reflected and was honest with myself as to what I thought at one point no longer was valid…for me.

The goal or premise of Google Wave was to re-define what we mean for collaboration and by folding into the framework the concept of real-time, public and private conversations, threaded and nested conversations: really the merging of email and IM/chat which has been the standard collaboration conversation paradigms of the past couple decades.

Some say, impossible, there is too much email lock-in to change the way people communicate in an email like channel. Why? Are we actually saying that we will not advance from the email we know today? That cannot be. With that attitude, we are set collectively to never create anything game-changing and new. Again I reflect, back in the 90’s, a little search company came out and I laughed (negatively) and wondered if these two guys didn’t understand that Yahoo! owned the search market. We know how that story ended. And that is why I don’t say things like “don’t come out with new search engines, you cannot beat Google, they have too much share and power.” Is it daunting? Of course it is. But not impossible. Microsoft, a gorilla, is under threat in the enterprise and the office productivity space. We would never have thought such a thing could occur, many still don’t.

Building good enterprise software (often regarded an oxymoron) is hard and often failed but that doesn’t mean we will not continue to innovate in the space.

I close this post tying it back to Google Wave. Will it be successful? Who knows? What I can say is that it shows an enormous amount of vision, positive vision about how it can change the collaboration and real time communication world. It is so early in the evolution, let’s see where we go, viable use cases, incremental improvement, additional feedback loops incorporated into the product. And finally, let’s not lose sight on what huge factor: the open development community will harness some real power and value in this ecosystem. Just like what happened with Twitter. Twitter evolved from a simple user interface with a white box to type “what are you doing”. It would be no where near as pervasive today with the significant developments around its API and the community developing apps with vision on how to leverage a one-to-many communications framework.

Let’s give this some time. Let’s give it a chance. That is what makes innovation so great. Building and investing in things that do not seem possible, initial ventures that are seemingly dumb and improving the status quo.

Guess I woke up on the right side of the bed this morning.

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