Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Will startups cry over the way WorldWide Telescope was implemented?

Earlier today, Sarah Perez shared (via FriendFeed) her post entitled "WorldWide Telescope is Now a Web App." And in FriendFeed, the first person to like the post was Robert Scoble, which was understandable if you remember his two posts in February 2008 on the application. The title of the first post caught a lot of attention: "Microsoft researchers make me cry." The attention was, of course, Scoble's intent, since he felt that WorldWide Telescope was a significant undertaking.

Around that same time, I expressed a different view:

Remember how I said in my earlier post [about the Disneyland Resort] that it was hard for me to recommend particular Disneyland/California Adventure attractions because different people are interested in different things? I think that's part of what's going on here. While I'm sure that telescope views on your PC are cool, I am personally more interested in the joys of Google Earth - being able to see places that I have visited, as well as places where I want to visit. If I have a choice between looking at Espoo, Schmelz, and Rombach vs. looking at stars, I'm gonna look at the earth-bound cities.

As a result, I never got around to trying Microsoft WorldWide Telescope until today, when I learned about the web application. I recorded my initial thoughts in FriendFeed:

I'll admit that it looks nice, and once I figure out how to navigate I'll like it more....

And, in my homebody style, I checked out nearby places - Venus, Mars, the moon, and Earth. (If I were Gene "Bean" Baxter, I'm sure I would have gone to Pluto, but I'm not Bean.)

But in the process of looking at WorldWide Telescope, I re-examined Scoble's first post - the one in which he said he was really impressed by something, but he was under non-disclosure and couldn't yet reveal what had impressed him. Toward the end of the post, Scoble shared some observations on business (note that when he discusses the possible Yahoo acquisition, Scoble was writing in February 2008):

Imagine if Microsoft did 10 things a year like what Curtis and Jonathan showed me yesterday? If the innovation engine at Microsoft were working that well there wouldn’t be any pressure to buy Yahoo. Heck, and if there were a constant stream of stuff like what I saw yesterday Yahoo wouldn’t be resisting going to Microsoft. They’d +want+ to go to Microsoft. Yesterday is the first time since leaving that I wish I were back working at Microsoft....

Note that it wasn’t a team of 100 people who did it. Two guys with a supporting cast of maybe a dozen. I’ve noticed a trend at Microsoft: that the coolest stuff is done by small teams without a ton of resources.

Then it gets interesting:

Could they have done this at a Silicon Valley startup? I doubt it. Venture Capitalists won’t see enough business value in what they are doing. Plus they would need to build a team around them, work out a business plan. Invest their own capital and time building a prototype so that people “get it.” If I told you today what they were doing, without showing you the video we’ll have up on March 3, you’d tell me “that’s lame Scoble.” But when you see it face-to-face everyone I know who’s seen it say they’ve had an emotional reaction to it.

Personally, Scoble may have been slightly off-base here. Even in February 2008, there was much discussion of a particular Silicon Valley startup that had no business plan and (some would argue) had no business value. And THAT startup (rhymes with "Flitter") has continued to get funding.

But Scoble is right inasmuch as large corporations and institutions are more capable of supporting these types of research projects with no immediate payoff down the road. Several months after WorldWide Telescope, Microsoft itself introduced SongSmith - although, as I've already noted, Microsoft launched it poorly.

And a Microsoft researcher has one other advantage, as Scoble noted:

It’s a lot easier to get access when you say “I’m a researcher at Microsoft” than when you say “I’m building a startup.”

You can bet it's a lot easier to get access. And even a former association with a big company helps. Remember how I said that one of the people at Likaholix got my attention by noting that she was an ex-Google employee. You can bet that people from Xerox PARC, or formerly from Xerox PARC, could get many doors opened for them in the 1980s, and that there are other companies that have this power.

But let's return to Microsoft WorldWide Telescope, over a year after its introduction. Has it changed the BUSINESS landscape? Well, consider that for me to use the web version of WorldWide Telescope, I had to install Silverlight (which I had not installed previously). And, in a press release just issued today, Microsoft positioned Silverlight as core to its business strategy.

Today at MIX09, Microsoft Corp. announced a set of platform investments to help companies more efficiently and affordably engage with their customers through a rich, interactive presence on the Web. This includes the release of Microsoft Silverlight 3 Beta....In addition, building on the success of Silverlight during the Beijing Games, NBC Universal has again chosen Silverlight to deliver the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games on its official Web site,

Organizations that create more intuitive, more engaging experiences on the Web are able to reduce costs and increase sales. Their visitors find the information they want faster, their customers make fewer calls to support help desks, and the number of impulse purchases made by customers generated grows dramatically. The integrated and interoperable offerings from Microsoft, composed of software and services for desktop, datacenters and the cloud, help organizations deliver richer, more compelling experiences that they require both in and out of the browser, and give them enhanced "return on experience" that the current economic climate demands.

So ignore all of the tech features of Silverlight for the moment (as I've noted, I'm not a tech blogger). Microsoft has done this pie-in-the-sky (literally) research project, gotten people interested in it - and, as part of the deal, installed something on my computer that can contribute to the bottom line of Microsoft and other businesses as well. (And if NBC's online Olympic coverage is sans Bob Costas, they've hooked a viewer in me.)

Sometimes companies and institutions just do stuff, not knowing how it will turn out. Sometimes there's no material gain, and sometimes the world changes. Let's face it - if a few defense researchers didn't try to exchange data in the 1960s, I wouldn't be typing this today.

P.S. And now you can figure out why I posted this song again (yeah, I did it before, but from a separate source that ALLOWS EMBEDDING argh). One good cry deserves another.
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