Songs of Virginia redux

I got a little pleasant news in the mail over the weekend. Somehow I had missed the announcement that the Virginia Glee Club won a Jefferson Trust grant back in April to record a followup to Songs of the University of Virginia. I had previously been contacted by a current Glee Club member who asked questions about the old record, but hadn’t heard about the grant. Well done, guys.

Over the grimy deep

I participated in a corporate regatta sponsored by America’s Growth Capital yesterday, which will no doubt surprise those of you who know I don’t sail. It was an interesting experience. Three of my coworkers and myself, fortunately accompanied by an able and professional captain, on a sailboat, running races back and forth between the Boston Harbor Hotel and East Boston across the lovely waters of Boston Harbor.

My job was to be on the foredeck, hoisting the spinnaker, assisting with the genoa and the jib as we tacked, hiking out my bulk to keep us from keeling over in the strong wind of the last few races, and otherwise staying out of the way of the boom and the sheets. It was entertaining for sure, but a good reminder that I’m a little shy on exercise.

Afterward we grabbed dinner in the North End, at Assagio. It was frankly disappointing. I remember having a very decent meal there almost eight years ago when we were just getting started at business school, and scoring a few points with my tablemates for recommending a red wine from Campania which turned out to be outstanding. Last night, by contrast, the most exotic wine I could find on the menu was a Chianti from a producer that I knew that turned out to be too lightweight, and my meal proved that amatriciana, mozzarella, and gemelli don’t mix, and that Assagio doesn’t know real pancetta from their elbow, and that they don’t know that amatriciana needs hot peppers. As Nero Wolfe would say, pfui. Fortunately the North End has its compensating pleasures, like a dish of grapefruit gelato that was perfectly tart and light, giving a nice end to the day.

Bill Gates’ Movie Maker experience, as seen from the inside

Yesterday I posted a quick link (last entry) to one of the epic Billg emails that somehow became evidence in the Microsoft antitrust trial. The mail was sent in January 2003, when I was working in the marketing group that was responsible for, which was one of the groups implicated in the email about Bill’s being unable to find, download and install the updated version of Windows Movie Maker.

As someone who spent most of his next 18 months at Microsoft working on some of those challenges, here’s how Bill’s experience matched up to problems with the Microsoft customer experience at that time. ( has completely changed by now, almost five years later, so I feel safe in describing the way it was then):

“The first 5 times I used the site it timed out while trying to bring up the download page. Then after an 8 second delay I got it to come up. This site is so slow it is unusable.” I don’t remember the specific issues here, except to note that capacity management was an ongoing challenge for a part of the site that typically saw between 60 and 80 million unique users a month.

“It wasn’t in the top 5 so I expanded the other 45. These 45 names are totally confusing. These names make stuff like: C:Documents and SettingsbillgMy DocumentsMy Pictures seem clear. They are not filtered by the system … and so many of the things are strange.” The Download Center was something of a battleground and the user experience showed it. The thought process was that search would be the primary way to allow people to get targeted downloads and the default experience would just be ordered by download frequency; the only filter was by which country you accessed the site. The top 5/top 50 list that Bill refers to accordingly mixed downloads aimed at consumers, IT pros, developers, and business users without regard for audience or for operating system.

When the web marketing groups that I worked with did research to figure out how to fix this issue and present more targeted downloads, we found that there was no easy way to “fix it.” You couldn’t do it by OS–if an IT pro were logged in from his XP box and searching for server downloads he wouldn’t find them. You couldn’t even do it by cookie, because business users were consumers when they got home.

And the best part? Some execs who read this part thought that the answer was editorial promotion of “featured downloads.” Never mind that 99% of the users who came to weren’t looking for Movie Maker; if Billg wants to see it in the top 5, let’s jam it into the top 5!!!!

“I tried scoping to Media stuff. Still no moviemaker.” The product groups owned the keywords used to describe their products, and though we had acres of search data to inform them, very few of them mined the search strings to figure out how to categorize their products. Usually the categories were driven by product group, and so “media” would have meant Windows Media–at that time a separate product group and totally disconnected from the Movie Maker team.

I typed in movie. Nothing. I typed in movie maker. Nothing.” Ah, Search. I spent so long on problems with Search that it’s not even funny. At this point in time the search engine behind the 4 million pages of content on was based on the one that came with Commerce Server. Did Commerce Server scale to cover that much content? Did it do well with dynamically generated content like those download pages? Let’s just say there’s a new engine there now.

“So I gave up and sent mail to Amir saying – where is this Moviemaker download? Does it exist? So they told me that using the download page to download something was not something they anticipated.” Heh. This is my favorite point. Sadly it’s not as insane as it sounds. The product groups had control over their own content areas on Microsoft and so they thought that customers just knew to come to the Windows site to start looking for Windows downloads. This is one of the reasons that the Downloads site was such a ghetto; a lot of marketing groups didn’t understand that it was a destination for a lot of users and thus spent no time on it.

“They told me to go to the main page search button and type movie maker (not moviemaker!). I tried that. The site was pathetically slow but after 6 seconds of waiting up it came.” Search again. There was no internal search engine optimization effort, no one (in the program groups) looking at actual search keyword strings, and the search engine wasn’t smart enough to match moviemakerto movie maker. Since the keyword moviemaker didn’t appear on the page, the search didn’t return the content.

“I thought for sure now I would see a button to just go do the download. In fact it is more like a puzzle that you get to solve. It told me to go to Windows Update and do a bunch of incantations.” The product group had chosen to deploy MovieMaker as an optional download through Windows Update, rather than as a regular software download. Why? Well, the Windows product group had more control over WU than the downloads area. Plus, apparently they thought no one would ever want to download it. How many times do you look for optional downloads through Microsoft Update? Yeah, me either. And from this point the story becomes the familiar one of the nightmare of WU.

It’s really no wonder everyone hated Microsoft at this point. The web experience really showed no understanding of how users actually used the site and what they were trying to do.

So what would the right answer have been? Some of the steps that were taken right away were a dedicated focus on improving search by providing more scalable indexing and tuning and much better search algorithms. (Unfortunately the guy who headed up the part about “better algorithms” famously was sniped away by Google.) There was a better editorial focus across the entire site starting around this time, based on user behavior data, to improve the user experience. There was significant improvement of the internal BI tooling to help us better understand what people were trying to do on the site (I worked on this part).

I wish I could say that the product groups started working together more closely to figure out an integrated user experience. I don’t know that I can give a fair perspective on what this part of Microsoft’s culture now, since I left in July 2004. But at the time this was the big drawback of Microsoft’s legendary empowerment of their product teams; all the incentives were there for individual product marketers to do everything they could for their particular product or product segment without considering how it played with the rest of what Microsoft did. While the team that I worked on had this as its charter, we didn’t have the power to change things or override the product groups. In fact, Billg’s email and others like it were critical to Microsoft’s success because there were so few other mechanisms that considered the customer experience as a whole–and had the power to change it.

links for 2008-06-26

Presbyterians slowly reversing stand on gay ordination?

Like Estaminet, I hope so. But I also fear that this motion in a General Assembly committee to recommend the deletion of G-6.0106b, the part of the Presbyterian Book of Order that requires “chastity in singleness” or “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman” of church officers, and therefore bans ordination of gays and lesbians, is destined to, at best, be defeated by conservative presbyteries, and at worst cause a schism in the denomination.

In an alternate universe, where the church would care about “all the ordination standards, rather than singling out just one,” the committee’s alternate resolution would pass easily. But in this universe, where there is a vocal group that out of fear is determined to deny rights to their brothers and sisters in Christ, there’s just no way this effort is going to succeed, I’m afraid.

links for 2008-06-25

Nokia + open source Symbian: too little, too late

TechCrunch: Nokia Acquires Symbian – Goes 3. Hear that sound? That’s the sound of Fake Steve Jobs just itching to skewer somebody, but since he’s on vacation I’ll do it instead.

Make no mistake: this is a defensive move by Nokia in response to the iPhone and Android, not an offensive one. Five years ago, an open source OS for smartphones might really have made the market. Now Nokia’s not even calling the tune any more: with Motorola, Samsung and LG eating them away on the low end, and RIM, the Windows Mobile folks, and Apple eating them away on the high end, pretty soon there’s not going to be much left in the middle.

I enjoyed the Symbian phone that I used from 2003 to 2005, but Symbian didn’t move quickly enough with the OS and it became stale. It doesn’t smell any better now. When you have unnamed senior execs inside Nokia calling Symbian a POS, you’ve got problems.

And what about units? Those 291 million handsets you sold in Q1? They’re legacy products. Apple sold 6 million in the iPhone’s first year as a brand new market entrant even without the benefit of enterprise mail integration or independent developers. Now granted, you can sit fat and happy on your 291 million units shipped, or you can reflect on the fact that you shipped 100 million of them in the last 18 months, and the other 100 million are in all likelihood no longer in use since your European customer base replaces its phones every 12 to 25 months, and the US customer base every 17.6. Is your market really still growing, or did you just sell replacement Symbian handsets to your existing customers?

And I haven’t even talked about Android yet–it’s probably a trainwreck, but it’s from Google so it’s going to exert some market pressure on you too.

And your developers are talking crap about the OS, too. And I can’t blame them. Which would you rather write apps for: an OS that’s forked three ways, requires you to use a crippled version of C++ with weird string handling practices and proprietary error handling, and needs a downlevel version of Visual Studio, all of a sudden the iPhone’s development frameworks and XCode look like nirvana.

So, guys: if your competition is a competitor who’s locked up the enterprise and a user centric market innovator, I’m afraid that open sourcing the OS (the POS OS) is not going to save the company. Maybe if there were already a bunch of really talented individual developers working on creating a great mobile experience, but guess what? They’re on Apple’s platform now, not yours.

links for 2008-06-24

My madeleine? Thunderstorms

This has felt like summer, for the first time in recent memory. Why? The last few days, we’ve had high humidity and thunderstorms. Bam. Takes me right back to Newport News or even DC. Mowing the lawn Saturday morning was a real Proustian moment: cloudless sky but with steadily climbing temps and thickening air. By the time I was done I felt like I was swimming in the air, it was so humid. And instantly I was back home, trying to rush to finish the lawn before the skies opened. Then there’s that rush of cool air against the skin right before the rain comes in.

Followup: Mac OS X ARDAgent vulnerability advice

Various parties in the Mac community have weighed in and suggested the best way to address the issue highlighted in last week’s advisory regarding an escalation of privilege vulnerability in ARDAgent. While some have suggested that enabling the remote access service may actually correct the privilege escalation, there’s been enough evidence that it doesn’t really work. And a suggestion to clear the setuid bit that allows ARDAgent to act as root appears to kill it, for at least some commentators. That leaves only leave two options:

  1. If you don’t need to have anyone remotely manage your application, just delete or archive
  2. Restrict ARDAgent from being able to perform do shell script (as described in Martin Kou’s blog)

It would be nice if Apple just closed the hole, wouldn’t it?

While you’re at it, don’t forget to update Ruby (it’s part of the default Mac OS X installation), if you’re using it, to close a whole bunch of holes–from numeric errors to buffer overflows–in the core Ruby runtime.

And can we stop pretending that the Mac OS X platform is magically secure?