Is Less Really More?

The Economist just ran an article on less powerful computers becoming more attractive due to the recession and because more services are available online. This might hurt the computer industry. Well, not entirely true. While a “regular” consumer may indeed find a slower netbook laptop good enough, a corporation putting slower machines on its workers’ desks will have to invest in reliable networking and faster servers to carry the extra computational load. So, computing services will still have to be paid for either through direct hardware investments or by paying service providers such as salesforce.com and Amazon EC2. The right question is whether there is a net savings in IT expenses by investing in faster servers instead of desktops. And the impact on the industry should be viewed in the same way, since having the new arrangement of servers doing more and desktops doing less may give rise to new and unexpected opportunities.

ps: a personal example of where less is indeed more is this dishdrawer. My wife and I hardly used the full-size machine we had before, but we’re finding this tiny appliance fills up quickly enough that we actually use it.

BlackBerry Under Threat

One of the unexpected news highlights of the US elections is Obama’s forceful battle to keep using his BlackBerry, which he won this week. The BlackBerry is a communications device built by RIM of Canada. I suspect Obama’s victory actually didn’t matter other than for his personal preferences, since these days several good substitutes are available, such as from Apple, Palm, Nokia and even Google.

Yet a few years ago, this wasn’t true. Dave Weston and I recently wrote a case study on the BlackBerry, and we learnt that in 2005, when RIM was told to shut down the BlackBerry network due to a patent infringement case, Washington DC insiders appealed to keep it running, claiming it was indespensible for the operation of the US government. Ironically, the US defense department cited National Security as the reason why the US government should be exempt from the shutdown — the same reason given now for why Obama should use a “more secure” device.

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The Reliability of User Reviews

User generated reviews are one of the great innovations that came with the growth of the Internet. They are now pervasive, and cover everything from automobiles, to music,  books, movies, and restaurants. I suspect the arrival of user reviews on interactive mobile platforms (such as urbanspoon and amazon) will bring upon us a new wave of interest in such content.

Yet, user-generated reviews suffer from informational problems. Firstly, why would you trust the product recommendations from an online stranger any more than you might somebody else? Secondly, user reviews are often tediously long, contain huge volumes of inconsistent information, and sometimes even degenerate into personal mudslinging matches. This imposes search costs upon the person trying to make sense of reviews. For example I was recently searching for a new lens for my SLR camera (a little hobby on the side), and it took a bit more time than I had expected to visit various photography forums to sort out which products were really good, versus other lenses that suffered quality control problems. Thirdly, there is a growing phenomenon of companies manipulating online information for their own benefit. For instance, last week Seagate was found to be deleting user postings from their website about high defect rates, while a Belkin official was caught out offering cash for good reviews.

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