February 23, 2005
how not to do business - part 215
To me, business is about a relationship. Our customers need something - tools to help them be more productive with CSS and HTML, resources to improve their skills. And we need something, not to be cynical about it, Money. Actually, more than that, things like the satisfaction of doing a good job, and knowing what you do is not a complete waste of time. Lots of intangibles on top of the revenue.
So for us, business is about meeting the needs of our customers, and their meeting our needs. In a way, our customers are our investors. Their investment in our software and courses today means we can continue to improve them, to add new products over time.
And you know, we genuinely appreciate that relationship.
Seems pretty straightforward, and uncontroversial, no? But is that really the motivation many businesses have, is it really how they see their customers? Not to put too fine a point on it - not on your life.
I'd have to say, that many businesses, particularly larger ones, treat their customers as revenue sources, pure and simple. It's all about them and their needs - all about supersizing, maximizing revenues. All about short term gain, no about lon term relationships and growth.
Now why am I bothering with this? Well, a couple of incidents have triggered this little diatribe. I just had to download a certain streaming media player to look at some content as part of a presentation I am preparing. The content is public domain, but only available in the format in question.
Some months ago I downloaded this player, so I fired it up and...
It wouldn't let me continue. The player had expired. No option to keep using this expired version with content I knew it could play (as I'd used it with this content before).
No, I had to download a new version, giving all my details again. And on top of that, their site was slow (and ugly), and the entire process was a total pain. And I don't recall being told the version would expire at some point. Sure its probably in the "click thru" license toward page 57, but who reads those?
Now imagine if I had been foolishly relying on this player to work for my presentation tomorrow.
Sure, you might say, it's free, so I should be prepared to put up with any inconvenience as my side of the bargain. Maybe, but in this case I am forced to use their player should I wish to. or have to, view this public domain content.
And let me tell you, should I ever have the need to provide streaming content, there is no way I am going to use this companies products or services to do so.
The second case is something that has been making tech headlines. It has to do with certain printer manufacturers using DRM (digital rights management) to stop people using cartridges other than the manufacturers in their printers. OK, that's their choice, and it is simply enforcing their "razor blade" "business" model (give the printer away inexpensively and make you money on the cartridges).
Personally I'd avoid such a company. But news I just read suggests that some such printer cartridges now "expire" even if they are not empty. Seems to me an attempt to stop people refilling their cartridges.
Again, this is doubtless hidden away somewhere on some license you supposedly agree to by opening the box, but who would expect it?
Lastly, along the same lines, a laptop manufacturer now uses your BIOS to ensure only certain WIFI cards may be used in your laptop. I am not entirely sure what happens when new cards come on the market, and you want to use one of them.
What ties all these together is that all of them reflect decisions that are made for the benefit of the business at the expense of their customers.
Why put up with it? Increasingly customers won't.
Some years ago, the Cluetrain reasonably humorously addressed the sea change in business and markets brought about by the web. Traditionally, consumers had only "official" channels of information about the products and services we were interested in buying. The traditional media (whose revenue is dependent on ad spending by, you guessed it, the same people whose products and services they review), and the advertisements from the companies themselves. We were passive, our role to sit down, shut up and buy what we were told.
But the web turns "markets into conversations". Your customers are fundamentally important to you now. Their reviews and ratings, their word of mouth - not just around the corner, at the office, but around the world - has a big impact on whether a company does well or badly.
And still so many traditional big businesses don't get this. They either treat their customers like criminals and the enemy (hello hollywood and the music industry) or like fools (software and hardware companies like the ones from my examples).
These companies, and even whole industries are in for a huge shock. They are heading for a cliff, and frankly, they haven't got a hope of turning it around. Because cynicism, selfishness, greed are in their DNA. It's served them well for a century, but your end is in your beginning.
You can't fake your relationships with your customers. You can't fake sincerity, and respect. You can't just have a slogan like "putting you first", all the while belying your words with your actions. You have to believe it. It has to inform your decisions at a fundamental level. It's not about the PR or marketing, the spin you put on your decisions after they have been made. It must be part of your personal business DNA, and the DNA of your company.
And that's how we have tried to run our business for a decade now. I'd like to think we are doing OK.
February 15, 2005
Speaking in Wellington New Zealand February 24th
While we are very busy here preparing for the release of Style Master 4 in the next couple of weeks, and for our trip to South by Southwest, I somehow found the time to head across the "ditch" as New Zealanders call the ocean between Australia and New Zealand (Australians never refer to it as that, BTW ) for a fund raiser for the Web Standards Group in Wellington.
Russ Weakley, fellow Web Essentials organiser, all round web guru, Jonathan Mosen, accessibility expert, and I are all speaking, plus there will be drinks, and finger food.
It's on February 24th, at the Wellington Convention Centre, in the evening, and you can read all about it at the Web Standards Groups site.
So if you are in Wellington, or thereabouts, please drop by, meet up with the members of your thriving web development community and say hi. We'd love to see you there.
February 07, 2005
Style Master and the South by southwest web design awards
As readers here probably know, Style Master has been round for well over 6 years now. That's starting to look like long in the tooth for software (though as you should know by now, all good software takes 10 years)
As readers probably also know, we are based in Sydney, Australia. It's along way away from most of the people who use our software (only 3% or so of our users are here in Australia, and more than 50% are in the US).
Even as little as 10 years ago, a software company like ours simply could not have happened in Australia. Access to large markets like the US and the EU was only through large software publishers and distributors, and even getting to sit down and discuss such deals was prohibitively expensive.
The web has changed all that.
I guess most of our customers have no idea we are in Australia. We've never made a song and dance about that, in many ways (using American rather than British English, being a.com address, selling in US dollars) we've probably encouraged people to think we are American. I once had an email from an Australian complaining about this, and how he disliked Australian companies pretending to be American. The simple fact is, people are making a leap of faith purchasing anything over the web, so you need to make them as comfortable as possible. And familiarity (language, currency) makes people comfortable.
Over my last decade or more online, I've worked with, conversed with and generally got to know many people online. Yet, it was only when Doug Bowman, Joe Clark and Dave Shea came to Sydney for a conference westciv was involved with putting together did I appreciate how important meeting people is. Doug and I ended up snowboarding in New Zealand together, two weeks after we met.
After that Maxine and I reckoned it was time to get on over to the US to meet up with some of the many people we've got to know over the years, and South by Southwest in Austin seemed like the perfect opportunity. Everyone, it seems, goes.
So, we decided to go. Next thing you know, Maxine is speaking on a panel with Molly Holzschlag about women designers and developers and the web, while I have put together a panel with Dave Shea, Doug Bowman, Jon Hicks and Kelly Goto on the Tuesday at 10 am to consider what the web will look and feel like, and what designers and developers will be doing in 2010.
And in a final bit of exciting South by Southwest related news, this year's Web Design Awards, fast shaping up as the Emmys of the web, are being presented by none other than Style Master.
So if you are anywhere near Austin, get on down for SxSW, or at the very least the Web Design Awards. And drop us a line if you would like to catch up for a drink, I am sure we'll fit some time in for that too,
February 04, 2005
Tipping Firefox across the chasm.
There has been a lot of interest in the issue of browser stats of late, with Firefox's meteoric rise to prominence (putting paid to my prediction early last year that simply building a better browser was not enough to build a sizable market share.)
So because I had nothing better to do on a rainy Sunday morning (well, I had lots better to do but...) I've done a quick analysis of the overall browser market share of visitors to westciv.com
For a very small company (there are in essence two of us here) Westciv generates reasonable traffic. This year we are likely to exceed 1.5 million unique visits, and serve up perhaps as many as 10 million pages. Note that the visitors to our site are largely reasonably experienced web developers. I'll discuss the significance of this shortly.
These are the browser stats for everything over .5% of traffic. The stats don't add up to 100% because we have not included any browser with less than .5% of market share, and I didn't bother factoring out robots, and unidentifiable browsers.
Nonetheless, the stats are, as far as I am aware, reasonably accurate, and take into account browser spoofing and the like. And the sample size is big enough, hundreds of thousands of visits in each of the three periods below, as to make the them reasonably significant.
So below are the market share by browser brand, with percentage change on the previous period where available.
Browser Stats 13 May 2004 - 11 July 04
- MSIE 54.20%
- Mozilla 18.79%
- Safari 6.11%
- Opera 3.13%
- Netscape Navigator 2.15%
- Lynx 0.55%
Browser Stats 12 July 2004 - 30 October 04
- MSIE 49.82% change - 8%
- Mozilla 21.63% change +15%
- Safari 5.87% change -3.9%
- Opera 2.83% change -9.6
- Netscape Navigator 2.27% change +5.6%
- Lynx 0.72% change + 30%
Browser Stats 1 November 2004 - 18 Jan 05
- MSIE 42.87% change -13.95%
- Mozilla 25.63% change +18.49%
- Safari 6.71% change +14.3%
- Opera 2.56% change -9.54%
- Netscape Navigator 1.97% change -13%
- Lynx 0.4% change -44.4%
- MSIE change -20.9%
- Mozilla change +36.4%
- Safari change +9.8%%
- Opera change -18.21%
- Netscape Navigator change -8.3%
- Lynx change -27.27%
Note that MSIE represents all versions of IE, but particularly IE 5 and IE 6.
Mozilla includes Firefox, Mozilla and Netscape 7, in essence anything that identifies itself as using the gecko rendering engine (with our focus on CSS and web development at westciv, above all my interest is in rendering engines, not browsers per se).
Interestingly, about 34% of our current users use IE6, and 9% use IE5. If you go back to May of last year, the split was then 44% and 9.5%. So, the IE market share is actually falling much more significantly than the raw totals would suggest, particularly among early adopters. My guess is that IE5 users are "rusted on" either because they are obligated by corporate policy to use IE5, or because being at the end of a dialup connection they aren't inclined to upgrade to IE 6. IE 6 users show much less "loyalty", which if I were Microsoft, unless I had a very good reason not to, I'd be very worried about.
Now, as mentioned above, we aren't talking about a broad cross section of web users here. Westciv's content is of little interest except to web developers, who I'd guess are among the earliest adopters of new web browsers.
But my guess is that these stats reflect the day to day browsing habits of web developers, it's the browsers they use when looking for information, not just something installed for testing. So what we are seeing is that among web developers, a very sizable percentage have adopted a Mozilla based browser for their day to day browsing in the last 9 months or so.
Which got me to thinking about where these trends are heading. Will Firefox supplant IE as the dominant browser, just as IE replaced the once dominant Netscape?
A couple of reasonably well known books, that I've found have over the years given me some interesting tools for thinking about problems like this came to mind as I thought about the issue - Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey Moore, and the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
Let's start with Moore's "chasm" analysis of how new technologies get adopted.
In a nutshell, Moore observes that the adoption of a new technology is "quantum" like. There is no steady adoption of a new technology. Rather, two kinds of users, "enthusiasts" and then "visionaries" adopt a technology in its infancy, but the real challenge for a technology is for it to "cross the chasm" and be adopted by pragmatists, by the "mainstream".
Moore makes the point that It's not uncommon for a new technology to be adopted by a great many of these early adopters, but fail to "cross the chasm".
I don't think Firefox/Mozilla (I'll use the term Firefox from now on) is across the chasm yet. I'd say web developers (particularly those interested in "new" stuff like CSS) are a mixture of visionaries and pragmatists.
And I'd say Firefox is in the "tornado", Moore's term for the rapid takeoff of a new technology when visionaries start adopting it in significant numbers, but before it has crossed over to more mainstream adoption.
Note that being in the Tornado does not guarantee that a technology or product will "cross the chasm" (or, as Malcolm Gladwell would say, will "tip"). (For more on this, see Gladwell's justly famous piece for the New Yorker on Cool Hunting, or just read the Tipping Point). As Gladwell describes it, the tipping point is
the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It's the boiling point. It's the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards. AIDS tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic. Crime in New York City tipped in the mid 1990's, when the murder rate suddenly plummeted
Will Firefox Tip
So, will Firefox tip? How would we know if it had? Has it tipped already?
My gut feeling is that it has not hapened yet. The stats from W3Schools, westciv, and other developer oriented sites definitely suggest a major adoption by developers, the web's "early adopters" and "visionaries", not just in terms of testing and playing with Firefox, but in using it in their everyday use.
The difference between westciv's stats and those of w3schools I'd suggest reflects the different kinds of developer who use these sites. W3Schools users are more likely to be less advanced developers than westciv's (this is not a criticism of anyone, simply an observation about the different kinds of content the sites provide). I'd predict Slashdot's stats would show an even more marked adoption of Firefox over IE (which in part would reflect the larger user share of Linux among slashdot readers). Taco, any chance of publishing your stats?
But the rate of adoption in more mainstream use of Firefox appears considerably slower. This is not necessarily something to be discouraged about (if you, like me, and most web developers, want to see at least a significant non-IE browser at play to push innovation, and stop stagnation in browser development).
The Chasm and tipping point models of adoption would suggest that wild growth among the early adopters is a necessary precursor to more mainstream adoption. But it's not sufficient.
What will it take?
So what's is it going to take for Firefox to go mainstream?
The Wikipedia Chasm entry summarizes Moore's analysis of the challenges confronting a new technology when attempting to move into mainstream adoption like this.
Moore suggest[s] techniques to successfully cross the chasm, including choosing a target market, understanding the whole product concept, positioning the product, building a marketing strategy, choosing the most appropriate distribution channel and pricing.
With Firefox, some of these seem to be non issues. To be widely adopted, browsers must be free, and Firefox is. That takes care of pricing.
The distribution channel is an interesting issue. You download browsers, right? So the distribution channel is "the internet". However, its clear that Internet Explorer's rapid rise to market dominance in the late 90's had not a little to do with it's being on the desktop of every new windows system installed.
Now, it seems unlikely that Microsoft will be doing this favor for Firefox any time soon (nor Apple, given their investment in Safari, for that matter).
So is Firefox stuck with "the internet" as its distribution channel?
One of the most important ways in which users upgrade their browser is when they upgrade their internet connection, or change to a new ISP.
With significant growth in Cable and Wireless internet connection predicted in the near term, ISPs mindful of the support costs of Internet Explorer - associated with its vulnerability to spyware and other malware - may choose to make Firefox their browser of choice.
AOL's recent announcement of a Mozilla based Netscape 7 upgrade is essentially an example of this.
And I wonder just how much malware and spyware related system problems are costing Dell, HP, and other Windows system vendors in terms of tech support, in an industry where margins are razor thin? Even just answering the phone, and telling people it's Microsoft's fault could be costing these vendors a lot of money. Putting Firefox on the desktop as the default browser might just save them a small fortune.
What about a target market for Firefox? What's that about anyway? Surely the Mozilla Foundation want everyone to use it right? So the target market is "everyone who uses the web".
The idea behind choosing a target market is to recognize the difficulty of a single product being all things to all people. Choosing specific target markets allows developers to focus on the needs of a particular set of users, and marketing to articulate the benefits for a specific kind of user.
Reading their product pages, and considering their recent New York Times advertising spot, it appears that the Mozilla Foundation has chosen a target market of "everyone" for Firefox.
Is this a good strategy? (as opposed to goal, I think that for a free browser, unless you are widely used, you are likely to quickly become irrelevant. So the goal of any free browser is to be as widely used as possible, but it is often not a great idea strategically to try and get everyone to adopt your technology right away.)
Now while Firefox does not appear to have chosen a focussed, target market, interestingly, a couple of focussed target markets have apparently chosen or are in the process of choosing Firefox.
The first are people who have some kind of commitment to Free and or Open Source Software. These are your definitive hard core early adopters. Their motivation is at times anti proprietary software, or more specifically, anti Microsoft software. Or it might be a more idealistic motivation, that software should be free (either as in beer, or as in speech). The classic example is the slashdot reader.
The second group is web developers. Web development sites, like westciv, as we have seen, see use rates of Firefox at 10-20 times higher than more mainstream sites tend to report. Which can't be a bad thing.
As I've argued earlier, this does not mean Firefox has tipped. But, it does mean Firefox has a chance of "tipping". To take Gladwell's analogy from the tipping point a little further, let's imagine the adoption of Firefox as a kind of epidemic, like the flu. In order to catch the flu, you need to be exposed to someone who has it, and is contagious. A disease that is only infectious for a very short period of time, even if everyone who comes into contact with it will catch it, will not necessarily become an epidemic, because not enough people may be exposed to it for the epidemic to "tip".
Compare the flu - which is mildly infectious, but once caught, its carrier remains infectious for at least several days, with say Ebola, which is highly infectious, but remains infectious for only a very short period of time (usually because it kills its victims quickly) and the warning signs of which are so distinctive that potential victims can identify the risk and take precautions to prevent infection, unlike with cold and flu viruses, where they are infectious even before physical symptoms are obvious. Gladwell calls this second vector of epidemics "stickiness".
Now what on earth has this got to do with whether or not Firefox is ever going to really take off?
By analogy, to take off, Firefox needs to be both "infectious" (people have to be prepared to give it a go) and "sticky" (that is, it must remain infectious for a reasonable period of time like a flu, not a very short time, like Ebola).
Is Firefox Infectious?
Firefox certainly appears to be infectious. We've seen that it is spreading like wildfire among certain populations - based on our statistics, among web developers at about 50% per annum, which would give it a 50% plus market share in little over a year. Anecdotally, I know of many "mainstream" technology users - those who don't keep up to date with developments at all, who simply "use" their computers and the internet - who also find Firefox and even the full Mozilla application a welcome improvement to Internet Explorer when exposed to it, so much so that they stay with Mozilla/Firefox.
But those infections I know of in the mainstream have been because of the evangelism of early adopters - who might be fed up with fixing the malware related woes of their friends ad family each time they visit, for instance. The Mozilla Foundations challenge will be to infect more mainstream users.
But is Firefox just a Fad?
At times people speculate that Firefox might be a fad. When I was at high school, an epidemic of "two up" (a particularly Australian form of gambling) swept the school play ground. At lunch literally 95% of the kids played two up in small groups. It was incredibly infectious. I have never seen anything like it since. But none of those kids were playing a couple of weeks later. The fad was not sticky enough. That and the priests banned it because it was gambling.
I don't think firefox is a fad like this. Unlike "Pushcasting" (a virulent short lived fad of the mid 90s that almost cost News Ltd. 400 Million dollars) stats and anecdotal evidence suggest it is sticky enough that users once they start using it, continue indefinitely.
Firefox looks pretty "sticky" too. It seems that among those populations who use Firefox, like the web developers who visit our site, that this is not a fad. The continued solid growth of Firefox, almost entirely at the expense of Internet Explorer 6, indicates that users are not flirting with this browser, but using it significantly as part of their day to day use of the web.
If we return to Moore's Chasm analysis, to get Firefox to cross the chasm to mainstream adoption, he would suggest that Mozilla Foundation "build a marketing strategy" and understand "the whole product concept".
What can Gladwell's thinking on epidemics teach us about these two challenges?
When Moore suggests "build a marketing strategy", what goal should it have? Based on Gladwell's analogy, it should be to "make Mozilla infectious" .
Meanwhile, understanding "the whole product concept" means understanding how to make Mozilla "sticky".
Get people to use Firefox. And once they start using it, keep them using it, wanting to use it. Needing to use it.
Making firefox Infectious
Internet Explorer's increasing tiredness (not having been updated significantly for several years now, with little if any improvement promised for the indefinite future), the growing general understanding of the importance of security, and IE's vulnerability to spyware and other malware, gives increasing impetus to web users to find alternatives. While your average user may simply grin and bear these increasing frustrations, their early adopter friends and family are much more likely to take matters into their own hands and cut the gordian knot by simply installing Firefox in place of Internet Explorer.
ISPs, as well as Dell, HP and other vendors who shoulder increasing support costs from users calling with systems slowdowns, and virus, spyware and malware related problems might start thinking about saving themselves a pretty penny by making Firefox the default browser on their Windows systems.
So, should the Mozilla foundation concentrate on this negative aspect alone in marketing Firefox? It certainly appears to be a significant focus of their branding of Firefox (on the firefox homepage the first quote - from USA today - and two of the first product bullet points mention security and popup blocking) but not the only one.
But Firefox also urges us to "rediscover the web", a better aspiration than "get rid of the your current browser because of all these problems".
If I had any advice for the Mozilla Foundation when it came to marketing Firefox it would be that they really separate out the two very distinct groups of user they currently focus on - visionary early adopters, and the mainstream - rather than lumping them together when promoting the application.
Visionaries largely want complicated, complicating (and wonderful) stuff like plugins, toolbars and the like. The appeal to mainstream users of Firefox is almost the opposite - simplicity, security, ease of use, and maybe even a little fun. A bowser that "just works". Taking back the web. There you go Mozilla, you can have that one.
Right now, Mozilla, who do you really want to use Firefox? Where is your energy going? You've got plenty of traction with developers and early adopters. Perhaps you should stick with them for just a little bit longer, and keep working on usability issues for more mainstream users.
Making Firefox sticky
The Mozilla browser feels more like a whole heap of cool technologies than a single integrated application. Classic early adopter stuff. With Firefox though, the Mozilla Foundation has concentrated on the whole product approach. By integrating emerging technologies like RSS, and making Firefox a more seamless way of working with leading web technologies like Google, Firefox is not just a collection of really good pieces of technology, but rather, a complete product in itself.
Now Mozilla work harder on making Firefox even stickier.
You've integrated RSS in the browser. Now refine an RSS interface that "just works". Be the ones who made RSS mainstream. Own this emerging aspect of the web, like you own the idea among web developers of standards compliance (perhaps the key reason for Firefox's support among developers).
Improve bookmarking, make it smarter and more intuitive, so that you aren't just playing catchup with IE, but everyone else starts playing catchup with you.
Integrate even more seamlessly with the major web services that make the web easier to use, like you currently do with Google - with the Internet Movie Database, EBay - you know the stuff that those mainstream users use the web for.
It's clear that Firefox is in the Tornado. But not all new technologies cross the chasm to mainstream adoption. The danger at present for the Mozilla Foundation, and it's well wishers to see the rapid growth of Firefox use as implying Firefox's necessary mainstream success. It doesn't.
But many of those in the web development world, like me, wish it well. Internet Explorer 6 was released in 2001, coming up to half a decade ago. The web still needs innovation. And a successful Firefox might not only deliver that, but spur others - Apple, Microsoft, Opera - to do so too.