Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wikipedia is the Internet Take 2

Lately I've come to a realization. Wikipedia is what the Internet originally was back in 1994 when I got onto it. Lots of nerds with too much time writing about things they care about. I've had that same feeling I had back then when I "surf" Wikipedia. I find all sorts of useful information, and follow link after link (despite not always having the best way to search the information) going down all sorts of trails of interesting information.

Google is absolutely useless for finding useful information these days. There is no way to search on a product or brand name without getting a million results trying to sell or review something. You have to be a real Google kung fu wizard to find out non-biased research information.

Wikipedia is the exact opposite. You search for something, ANYTHING, and there is more content then you could ever imagine about the subject. And despite all the bad publicity and criticism (I used to be it's biggest critic) the data is almost always accurate and not defaced! A coworker has a plugin for Firefox that split screen's Wikipedia with Google whenever you search, because let's face it, lately the most relevant link on a subject is almost always it's Wikipedia article.

More then research though, Wikipedia has gone on to become a tome of information about anything trivial, my favorite being sports. During the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup Soccer (Football) competition, due to the complete lack of interest of soccer in America, it was impossible to find good English language results. Even the Gold Cup's "Web Site" had "Coming Soon" type stuff instead of results and brackets. But not Wikipedia. Wikipedia had every score of every match, updated instantly after the game ended (who are these people editing this stuff??). It also link to the controversy, and every team name linked to it's own Wikipedia article where you can find out when the Canadian national team got to the World Cup (Round 1 in '86), and all sorts of other sports trivia that's literally impossible to dig up on the Internet. I even recently found a schedule of pick-up soccer games in the DC area on Wikipedia!

From Wikipedia, all sorts of other Wiki's have popped up...my second favorite being Wikitravel. Again, I find the data I'm looking for a lot more handy then Foder's or Travel Advisor or any other commercial site. What does this mean for the future of the Internet? Well, just as Google's plain, effective search engine stole the thunder from the big ad-covered boys, I think Wikipedia and other non-advertising Wiki type data could easily replace Google. Although this is probably a long way from happening.

The reason I say this is that just the other day I was having a conversation with some coworkers (non-programmers, but people in IT who should know better) about Wikipedia, and they said "Oh i saw something on dateline about that, isn't that the site where people make stuff up?". Which I guess is better then their complete lack of awareness of Flickr.... It's unfortunate there has been such a disinformation campaign against Wikipedia.

Try making it your primary source of information for anything over the next week (Medical symptoms? Forget WebMD, try Wikipedia. Breaking news? Screw CNN, try Wikipedia). It's amazing how it can basically replace any other informational site.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

How Not to Use AJAX

Yahoo! Weather used to be my go-to place for weather information. Even though it gets it's data from Weather.com, I like the speed and simplicity over Weather.com's ad filled interface.

Well the tides have turned. Yahoo! decided to implement AJAX on it's search bar for weather. It looks like this:

The whole point of AJAX is that it SAVES you time. But there are two things to notice here. First, you have to type in the city and THEN click "Go" (it doesn't just come up like intellisense). Next, you'll notice that it orders the results by country. So even though more people searching for "Rome" are probably looking for the one in Italy, I get all the Rome's in the USA first (there's like 10) and then the one in Italy, which is provided with a cryptic Italian state and country code. THEN I can click on the one I want and it brings me my weather. In Theory. For some reason though, the AJAX list kept giving me the wrong city. I'd click Buenos Aires, and it brings up San Cristobal. Don't even think about just typing in an area. Unless you have the exact city it doesn't work.

The other annoying thing about Yahoo weather is it doesn't keep the weather search bar at the top...instead it has the news(??) search bar. So even though typically I'd check the weather for where I am, and then where I'm going, I have to use the (gasp) back button to get back to a search.

Ironically, now Weather.com by NOT using AJAX is a dream to use:

You use an old school form to just type in the word Rome...it brings the most likely result up and you click it. Bing bam boom. Takes about a third of the time of the Yahoo AJAX nonsense.

Don't use technology for the sake of technology!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Perhaps the LAST thing you should worry about when starting a company.

When hanging out on the Business of Software discussion boards, there are quite often posts that go like this:

Hey all, I just got the idea to design a piece of software that will revolutionize the industry. I just signed up for an LLC, so now I'm wonder what dev tools you recommend to make my first million?

Perhaps because we live in a world with way too many lawyers, I continually see people register an LLC as their first step to starting a business. I think some people do it because they think a company needs to be registered to be "legal" (ie exist). But most people presumably do it so "they don't lose their house".

OJ Simpson proved today that having an LLC doesn't protect anything.

Many people register LLC's before they write a single line of code out of this fear. This is partly because of the FUD spread (presumably by lawyers) that the second you try to sell anyone anything, a bunch of frivolous lawsuits will come at you left and right. I hear radio ads saying 1 in 4 companies will get sued in their lifetime.

I really believe this fear is unjustified. First, many of the stats about lawsuits come from the old school traditional brick and mortar land that have more then one employee. When you are selling groceries or operating a restaurant, there are many things that can happen that would prompt lawsuits.... food poisoning, people slipping on the floor, wait staff assaulting a customer, discrimination, etc...

Think about who would sue you and why. You are an average middle class person throwing together some code for a few hours after work, and you have not sold a thing. What would anyone possibly sue you for? The only thing I can even conceive of is patent infringement or some other intellectual property theft. Now lets say you start actually selling the software, now what can they sue you for? Assuming you are selling the typical trivial desktop software, not nuclear power plant management software, there is not much you could get sued for above and beyond the cost of the software itself.

"Yeah yeah Phil, but you don't know...people love making money off lawsuits, they'll say your software deleted their million dollar project file!!!".

Fair enough, but people that sue others usually actually want to make money. Lawsuit trolls are not going to waste their time to sue an individual making $60k a year just to get a few thousand dollars out of the equity of your condo. And if your software really is capable of doing major damage, you need insurance, not just an LLC.

The usual argument to this is that it only costs $100 bucks to fill out some form at their state government, and you can never be too safe. That is kind of my point. I like when geeks are so paranoid about lawsuits and then are too cheap to actually pay a lawyer to form this entity that is going to protect them. As you can see from the link above, having a legal entity selling your software is not enough to protect you.

If you really cause enough damage that someone can sue you for hundreds of thousands of dollars, any judge will happily pierce your corporate veil. If you are a one man show running an LLC, where dollars pass directly unto you, and you are the sole person that developed the software, it is quite easy to still go after your assets. I've seen it happen. Is your LLC property capitalized? Do you have regular board meetings with yourself and take minutes, etc? Are you up to date on your property declarations?

Sole-proprietor businesses have been around for years. If you are starting a new software business there is no reason to even waste a dime or a thought worrying about your business becoming a legal entity.

Now I am not entirely discouraging you from registering your company. There are many reasons where an LLC would protect and owner, and where you are likely to be sued. If you have partners you should definitely form a legal entity. If you have any employees, same deal.

Beyond just registering an LLC, you should really contact an actual lawyer if you are seriously worried about getting sued. Are you sure that boiler plate EULA from nolo.com will protect you? You should also get insurance. Even if you are an LLC and have organized it well enough to "protect your house", do you really want all of your company's assets to be liened on? If you are properly insured, they will usually be the ones a plaintiff will go after. They will fight your court battles to a certain point.

Don't worry about seeming official. Get the important parts done. Finish your software. Develop a marketing plan. Beta a copy or two. Then properly get your organization together.

PS - I am not a lawyer, please don't sue me for giving you bad advice!!! ;)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

What I've Been Up To

There's not a great deal of news to report here. Similar to last summer, I've been traveling a lot, some for work and some for pleasure. Over the summer I will be in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Vermont, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Boston, Louisville, Ottawa, and hopefully South America in November.

Luckily all this travel gives me plenty of time to work on my next project, which I'll give a hint has something to do with travel! I plan to have something for beta testing by the end of the summer, although my original goal was the beginning of the summer.