Monthly Archives: February 2007

Mashups Dymystified

I get asked occasionally “what is a mashup?”  This is typically after a “what is web 2.0” conversation, and similarly, it can be interpreted differently by different people.  Sure, maybe there are no right or wrong definitions, it is still an emerging concept, but being the purist that I am, I’ll attempt to define a mashup the most technically sound, business applicable way.

Before I get into some technical examples of a mashup, perhaps I can describe it contextually in a way many people will understand, reminiscent of another term of long ago – “portal.”  A mashup essentially represents several distinct views (technologies/pages/services/what-have-you) combined into a single application presenting data in a new way.  Put another way, it “mashs up” several disparate services into a new, more meaningful service.  This new service may be more productive, a single repository of information, or just extensions of a service which intend to leverage someone’s expertise.

A couple good examples can be found over at mashupCamp where developers come together to showcase their use of or offerings of mashups, which can also be considered APIs and even SDKs.

Ok, great, so you understand what a mashup IS, but what is the business model behind them?  Well, many at this stage don’t have one.  They effectively serve as a developers playground, enabling rich functionality with nominal effort.  Mashups today serve the ‘bleeding edge’ developer community.  No mashups aren’t just about AJAX, but they share similar tendencies in that most of the underlying technology has been around for awhile, just not exploited, or made readily available as it has become today.

So it stands, everything old is new again!  What the “portal” (arguably) failed to deliver upon last time around is back again, this time under the guise of mashup.  So what makes it more compelling this time around?  Well, a couple of things.  Firstly, unlike last time, you don’t need to robust platform with intrinsic support between vendors.  You don’t need complicated interfaces, in fact you don’t even really need to be a good programmer!  The real kicker now is the simplicity; consistent with other web 2.0 tendencies, user-generated content and rapid, low-cost development makes it sexy.  Creating a mashup of flickr, youtube & google maps can be done in literally hours with your favorite [programming] language of choice.

Ok, so its easy to use.  Why is it going to stick around this time?  First off, who knows if it will ever hit critical mass, however, based on the patterns of the previous few years it wouldn’t surprise me to see some successful services emerge collaborating content from several sources.  The principals are fairly sound, you do what you do good at and I’ll stick to doing what I’m good at and lets just agree to play nice together.  Here’s where things start to get interesting.  Everything is fine and dandy when your “borrowing” content and nobody is really noticing (hence your little site isn’t yet obtaining 10K new customers each day).  However, if/when you do happen to draw some attention, maybe even make some money, that is when things start to get muddy.  We’re already seeing this kind of activity within mySpace, content providers are making it so easy to consume their services and embed it into other sites that the hosts actually have to block, stop or restrict access.  This isn’t always easy.  Remember a while back when PayPal infiltrated eBay?  Here we go again.  On the other side of the fence you have intellectual property protection.  Who owns what, who has rights, permissions, authority not to mention who gets compensated or royalties.  This is just tip of the iceberg.

Take the simplicity, power and flexibility of mashups (glorified APIs) derive something new and you may have yourself a potentially valuable website.  What if I said you could (with several readily available tools), consume data (content, feeds, articles, etc) from what are considered restricted sites – either those you protect behind a login or those that may require payment for access – combine it all together and make it available for free to other users?  Sounds scary huh?  It is, and its being done everyday.  With one valid user account, a program can be written to infiltrate your “secure” data, pull it out of your site, repackage it and offer it up to a whole new audience.  Yep, its probably illegal, but until it gets mainstream attention its not exactly being discouraged, hell, most businesses don’t even realize its happening.

Mashups to me, really represent a new paradigm for the web.  This hodgepodge of technologies, vendors, services, platforms, tools, acronyms and yes, even expectations is exactly what we aimed to solve several years ago with STANDARDS.  Back when Netscape was battling with IE, EDI became XML and interoperability, cross-platform compliant software was all the rage – technology shops finally wised up and said, hey its in everyone’s best interest for us to all get along.  Standards bodies then drafted guidelines for HTML, CSS, XSL and the major vendors started playing nice, applications could talk to one another consistently, we didn’t have multiple instances supporting different platforms and we could all live happily ever after.  Well, at least we thought.  Mashups represent the wild-west again, rouge developers deploying new technologies without due diligence, with (in our defense) for the better of the “community” – let users decide what they want we cry.  Let the markets work in other words. 

Its clear to say the jury is still out on what exactly mashups represent, it does however offer suggestions that with every step forward, we must take a step back.  Every advancement (even web 2.0) comes with some baggage.  Making technology so easy to use/deploy its bound to fall into the hands of those less disciplined, less  knowledgeable as to how things “should work” and frankly, surface others with malicious intent.   As of now, its up to us to self-regulate ourselves, as the tools have become so powerful there’s no simple “easy button” to protect ourselves.  Knowledge is key.

On the positive side mashups can represent significant breakthroughs.  Innovative companies can now interact with sites/services they never before could.  If a site doesn’t offer an API, no problem we’ll create one for them.  This is a practice formerly referred to as screen-scraping and its becoming easier to do and you no longer have to roll your own.  Literally any standard HTML can be “lifted” from site A, tunneled to site B and repurposed.  Some tools harvest by CSS tags, others use micro formats – whatever the flavor, it’s the newest technique to interact with remote sites/services.  The reverse is also true, if you have data you can programmatically inject it into remote sites, now I’m not talking maliciously or sql injection here, but rather remote form submissions, such as a login.  One simple application I saw demonstrated how a developer liked a girl on facebook, however her status was not “single”.  So he wrote an application that would programmatically log into facebook, scan her profile and alert him when her status changed!  Just think about the power this represents!  Monitor your competitors, incorporate new business workflows, review sale prices of your next plasma tv – the uses are only limited by your imagination!

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Crains Detroit Newsmaker of the Year

Detroit needs entrepreneurs, and he’s put serious money into getting them started,   that’s why Dan Gilbert is Crain’s 2006 Newsmaker of the year. For those of you not familiar, Dan Gilbert is the chairman and founder of Quicken loans.  Mr. Gilbert is also the majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, employs over 5,000 people through several of his businesses, one of which (Quicken Loans, Inc.) was ranked a top 15 “Best Place to Work” in America by FORTUNE magazine for the past three years and ranked the #1 place to work for technology employees in the United Stated by Computerworld Magazine two years in a row (2005 & 2006).

Dan grew up in Michigan, still lives here and is involved in several current business ventures.  One noteworthy initiative, in November 2006 Dan announced that he had formed and funded ($10 million) Bizdom U, an entrepreneurial academy that opened its doors in January in rented space at Wayne State University.  Bizdom U is a two-year program to teach entrepreneurship to area residents so they can start businesses in the city of Detroit.  Gilbert will pay for students housing, meals and lend them a laptop and blackberry.  Bizdom U will also fund some startups with investments ranging from $25K to $500K with the academy retaining an equity position in the successful businesses in order to provide seed money for more startups.  Much more information on Mr. Gilbert can be found online, just google him for a more in depth background.

A few of us attended this years Newsmaker of the year luncheon at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center.  After a quick bite, Dan took the stage and after a few thank you’s got right into his presentation.  He started off with his company’s guiding principals, he referred to as “ISMS”.  He went on to explain how there are is no “secret sauce” in the success he (and his organizations) have achieved, slighting other organizations with “proprietary success formulas” or more specifically, local auto companies that are struggling to find their way.  It all starts and ends with… Culture, Environment and Philosophy.

Dan went on to explain how his organizations greatly empower its employees to “do the right thing”, challenge one another and how all the little things can add up and contribute toward achieving truly great things.  He then showcased several items employees themselves uncovered, helping the organization become better.  One example was of overflowing dumpsters, a new hire had noticed clear trash bags being used to contain lots of company documents that were over-flowing the dumpsters.  Not only was this unsightly, but the bags made it easy to identify potentially confidential paperwork (which could lead to identity theft) – which ultimately lead to improved shredding practices.

Additionally, Dan breathed life into several other “ISMs” such as:

  • Always raising the levels of awareness – They expect all team members to notice what’s going on around them.
  • The inches we need are everywhere around us – opportunities to make a difference are everywhere, and usually they’re found in the little things.
  • Responding with a sense of urgency is the ante to play – on their team they return all phone calls and emails the same day.  Not just clients and partners, but to each other!  They kill each other with courtesy… and very quickly.
  • Every client.  Every time.  No exceptions.  No excuses – clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Obsessed with finding a better way – don’t settle.  If its good, make it great.  If its great, lets take it to an even higher level.
  • Ignore the noise – don’t take your eyes off the ball.  Tune out the bad days, obstacles and naysayers.
  • Its not about WHO is right, but WHAT is right – it doesn’t matter where ideas come from, what matters is which idea is the right idea.  Egos (or lack therof) are checked at the door.
  • We are the “they” – there is no “they”. “They” does not exist.  We are the “they”.  One team. United.  All in this mission together.
  • You have to take the roast out of the oven – wrap it up.  Finish the job.  Execute!  Over-analyzing can kill an idea and possibly make you miss an opportunity.
  • You’ll see it when you believe it – do you believe it? Then you can make it happen.  It doesn’t work the other way around.
  • Every second counts – Time, not money, is the most valuable commodity of all.  It can never be replaced.
  • A penny saved is a penny – choose to make your time valuable.  Spend it chasing pennies and you will find pennies.  Spend it on ideas, innovation, developing your talent, design, marketing, technology, and you will find a lot more than pennies.
  • Eat your our own dog food – We should be our companies biggest fans, referring others and providing the best possible products, services and places to work.
  • Simplicity is genius – If Forrest Gump or your 87-year-old Grandfather can’t understand it, then don’t say it. You don’t need to be complicated to be great!
  • Innovation is rewarded.  Execution is worshipped – a great idea is just the first step.  The real magic is bringing that idea to life with great execution.
  • Do the right thing – the high road is not a short cut.  Stick to the highest standard of integrity, without compromise.  And remember, character is what you do when no one is looking over your shoulder! 

In summary, the presentation was very good.  In fact, even an eye opener for lots of us, consistent with other great leaders, many of the things that make organizations successful are well known, discipline and the intent to “do the right thing”  should be enough to overcome most obstacles, even those found in our struggling automotive sector. 

Michigan needs more guys like Dan, more companies that operate by these philosophies and most importantly, an increase in the diversity of job providers. Michiganians have a lot to offer, skilled trades, strong work ethic and passion to name a few. I look forward to the day Michigan can offer an environment worthy of top-notch talent, keeping our graduates here and providing new, thriving industries (other than automotive.)

Microsoft Launch Tour 2007 – ready for a new day

I attended the “biggest Microsoft launch event in history” today, here in Detroit at Cobo Hall.  For the non-microsoft followers, the event was intended to “launch” Vista, Office & Exchange 2007.  While each have been available for some time now, whether publicly or to business customers, the event, in a nutshell was a dissapointment. 

Sure, its true, we tend to follow Microsoft technology rather closely, so we were well aware of the new products, most feature-sets and of course the new whiz-bang Vista UI – so I didnt expect to get blown away, however I did expect more fan fare, from the keynote, through the vendor hall to the sessions.  It was almost like a non-event.  Presentors went through the motions, showing off (yet again) flip 3D, widgets and the new ribbon UI of office.  But this stuff has been promoted for months, analysts and beta testers have done a good job covering the “top 10s”; so I expected something new, beneficial or valuable to our company, since they have been working on this release for 5 years!

To their credit, delivering software ourselves, I can appreciate the surface-stuff isnt all thats going on.  I’m sure they’ve may huge strides behind the scenes, but with all the advancements Apple & Google have been making – this was Microsofts big opportunity!  While the event [literature] was catered to Vista/Office & Exchange the underlying theme, from the keynote through the sessions was heavily upon SharePoint Server 2007 and workflow.  Microsoft has been significant enhacements in this area.  While the orchestration of all the office products (now pushing 15) and the Exchange platform (now with 5 roles) is great, it didnt exactly resonate with me.  We built alot of custom software, so most of our internal document or business workflows have long since been addressed.

The conference started off addressing 4 tenents of the “People Ready” enterprise.

  1. Simplify how people work together
  2. Find information faster & improve business insight
  3. Reduce IT costs and improve security
  4. Protect and manage content

These make sense to me, and in general I’m pretty happy with the Microsoft offerings to support each.  Recognizing we’re a somewhat unique company, not using alot of “off the shelf” products, I can appreciate lots of companies do.  More and more of us are working among [distributed] teams, the ability to create adhoc networks, whether using sharepoint “webs” to collaborate or physically with Groove can lead to better productivity. 

Unified messaging (UM) is also noteworthy.  Exchange 2007 also offers a UM role, which has hooks into other VOIP systems to enable email retrieval of voice messages.  As most of us know, UM pushes the “paperless office concept” integrating email/IM/chat/fax and now voice.  While the value proposition is strong, I’ve yet to see it truely leveraged in an real-world enterprise.  We at Billhighway have made inroads with UM and our Mitel VOIP telephone system, as it enables us to combine voice/data systems, namely with IVR (interactive voice response) systems, agent management systems (email/IM/chat) and “screen pop” capability, which *could* our agents recieve advance notification of the caller before they take the call.  I say *could* because we haven’t fully deployed that module.

While each topic, Vista/Office/Exchange warrant their own conversation there are many other places to find indepth content on each, so I wont go into the pros/cons here.  For those evaluating these products within their organizations I’ll simply leave you with this:

  • Vista – wait.  Deploy it in labs or even laptops until SP1 or a legitimate business requirement surfaces. 
    • While it definately has some IT configuration/deployment advancements it largely won’t increase productivity of your employees – UNLESS, search is a big part of what they do.  The UI is cool, although its the hardware requirements enable it to run [well] on only the latest equipment, often requiring upgrades (cpu, memory and/or video card) to leverage all advancements.
    • Look to deploy at home or on laptops.  Both offer features/functionality worthy of the upgrade.  The tablet and media center stuff is pretty cool, but you’ll need the Ultimate version for all that.  Salesman or frequenty travelers/presentors will benefit from the quick configuration options, toggling/optimizing settings for each respective environment.
  • Office 2007 – again wait. 
    • While the new ribbon navigational UI may be the easiest to learn to date, it is still a fairly drastic change from how things work in previous versions, which therefore will undoubtly reduce productivity and raise support costs initially. 
    • With the exception of Outlook, the driving force behind upgrading would be leverage SharePoint Server 2007 and the new workflow capabilities.  If your organization doesnt intend to do much document workflow, you probably get all the productivity you need out of your existing office products.
  • Exchange 2007 – depends.
    • If your organization is ready for an upgrade, meaning you’re looking to consolidate servers or finally move from 5.5, 2007 looks like a great product.  The new “roles” requires some advanced preparations, however you should be doing that anyway.  2007 as you probably know requires 64bit hardware, which again is good & bad.  If you planned to purchase new hardware anyway great, if not, you’re going to have to!
    • There are definatly some advancements made with Exchange 2007, so read through them thouroughly.  Installation/configuration doesnt seem too complicated, as they appear to be re-incorprating characteristics of AD (active directory) and 5.5 (mgt console), whereas 2000 & 2003 moved toward AD with mailbox configuration primarily being done through users and computers.
    • Outlook Web Access has again been updated, employing lots of ajax.  The experience is about as good as the Outlook client, with some vast improvements to your calendar/scheduling.
    • Our organization will be moving 2007 this summer, so I’ll surely be writing more about our experience and it occurs.

In summary, the conference was by far the worst launch I’ve ever attended (now being about 6) and if there are lots of compelling reasons to upgrade, they’ve seemed to slip by my observations.  Again, these products are conditional to the needs and requirments within your business, as I’m sure there were alot of firms there that have been waiting for alot of these advancements, however you’d never know it by the crowds response to most of the demostrations – the presentors were greeted with a mediocure response at best.  Most seem rather unimpressed.  On that note though, I’ll leave you with a few items I have been impressed with (inside Vista): BitLocker, Reliability Monitor, Application Compatibility Analyzer & Office Diagnostics.

Proceed with caution and continue to wait patiently for a new day.

Billhighway – from Technorati WTF

I recently wrote a WTF about Billhighway over at Technorati, which showcases Where’s The Fire (WTF) communications.  After getting some inital feedback, I thought I’d post it again here for the archives.  enjoy.

While flying well below the radar for the past few years, billhighway has been investing heavily in a community-oriented payments platform.  The “platform” has been built upon an SOA and GRID architecture, which is theoretically infinitely-scalable.  Having recruited experts in the emerging payments space, billhighway is well positioned to serve the needs of today’s finance 2.0 audience.

With no formal marketing effort, this boutique payments provider has quietly amassed over 500k members!  Its “platform” is resident in several commercial offerings; namely billhighway.com, billhighway.net and billhighway.org – which the company intends to showcase the power of its “platform” by serving several unique, yet demanding audiences.

Billhighway emerged as a leader in shared bills back in 1999, with its then APH for Roommates service (which has since been re-mastered as billhighway.net.)  Billhighway has had the luxury of refining its services and online presence for some time now.  Its flagship product, formerly known as APH for Chapters, is a well established financial system for managing distributed offices, chapters or business units – namely in the nonprofit sector.  Large organizations, regional offices, junior leagues,  property management firms, condo associations, and alumni groups are using the system to streamline finances using Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) techniques, allowing a central, consolidated system to bridge operations from local member-levels all the way up to the executive offices.  Everything from budgeting to membership management, invoicing to collections, even real-time financial statements, payroll integration and tax preparation, not to mention a full general ledger package exists to optimize  various requirements of financial transactions within an organization;  or it can be scaled down to accommodate simple cash management services for a single local chapter/association or office.  Billhighway is essentially a layer of software that sits on top of a bank to offer more flexible financial solutions, catering to community-based organizations and individuals alike.  Think salesforce.com for financials.

Most recently, Billhighway extended its platform in a consumer flavor, available at billhighway.net.  Here the emphasis is on the individual, whereas he or she is managing adhoc finances within various friendship circles that they may participate in, referred to as “crowds”.  While services available at billhighway.com & billhighway.org cater to the “organization”, therefore managing finances on behalf of an entity, billhighway.net empowers us, the end-users.  The intent is to make informal debts more manageable and most notably to address real-world challenges we may face each day.  For instance, collecting money from a group for a vacation, chipping in for a gift at the office, reimbursing a friend for lunch/dinner or planning a group outing, such as a golf trip – these things can now be managed with ease, from contact and event management – all the way to the physical collection of money, all done rather seamlessly online.

The real power of billhighway is in its transparency.  It currently serves a diverse audience, each with its own perception of what “billhighway” is.  While its true, many unique uses exists, they do however all share one common thread – a native payments platform.  That means no clunky bank software, no pay pal accounts – just plain old unadulterated online payments, which translates to flexibility!  Enabling such dynamic services on top of a single “platform” enables our teams to concentrate on extending features and functionality instead of re-engineering business processes and constantly addressing scalability concerns.  The eventual offering of an API will bring billhighway to the masses.  Companies, websites, and even hobbyists will soon be able to derive new revenue models due to the financial flexibility resident in our platform.  Split bills, partial payments, over-payment management, stored value, royalty and referral compensation programs – all take on new meaning.  Website owners can mashup services now tying in payments, whether macro or micro, and bestow a whole new level of service (or perceived value) to their customers.  Consider myspace, facebook or youtube users easily monetizing their content.  Content providers can soon incrementally charge for varying levels of service/access or divide a single payment between several parties.  The notion itself may represent a watershed type event permitting things currently not perceived as possible.  Think eventful.com wanted, where members contribute money to sponsor their favorite band at a local venue, athletic teams gathering money for jerseys/trips or contributing to your favorite fund-raising events – all can be modernized to simplify management and begin collecting money online.  The limits are seemingly endless.  And yes, of course, the patent process is well established.

The future is bright for Billhighway.  I encourage you to become more familiar with them, either for managing membership within your organization, helping with personal finances among your crowd(s) or as a website proprietor  – there’s truly something for everyone.

To reach Billhighway, visit http://www.billhighway.com/; email us at info@billhighway.com or call us direct at 866-BILLHWY.  Cheers.