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    Entries Tagged 'programming' ↓

    Real Innovation Takes Time

    Combinatorial Innovation

    There are so many new technologies today: tablets, geolocation, video chat, great app frameworks. It is easy to cherry-pick off “combinatorial” innovations that seem compelling, and can maybe even be monetized readily.

    But all those innovations are inevitable. If our technologies afford a certain possibility, they will occur. “That’s not a company, that’s a feature,” is one criticism I’ve heard of many “startups.”

    These combinatorial, feature-oriented “X for Y” endeavors are often attractive because they can often be built quickly.

    Startup Weekend events send an implicit message that a meaningful business can be fleshed out in just a couple of days. And I argue that is not true. That might be a good forum to get practice with building a quick combinatorial technology and working with others, but a real innovation, much less a meaningful business, takes real time.

    I think people are often looking in the wrong places for innovation, often because they don’t really take the time to do the homework, observation, and deep reflection necessary to arrive at a true insight. We want things to be quick and easy.

    Changing Minds, and Behaviors

    The biggest innovations require asking people to change their beliefs, habits, and behaviors.

    iPhone: “why would I want a smartphone without a physical keyboard? It’s too expensive. I can’t install apps.”

    Twitter: “what is this for? Why would anyone do this? Who cares what I had for breakfast?”

    iPad: “an expensive toy. Could never replace a real laptop. Can’t run real office applications. The enterprise will never adopt it.”

    Foursquare: “only hipsters and bar hoppers would ever do this. They are letting people know when to rob them. I don’t want people to know where I am.”

    And these innovations have taken years of constant attention to bring to their current state. And they are not done.

    One Innovator’s Story

    Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, was in the room at Wherecamp in 2007 where I was giving a talk about location check-in habits via Twitter (a subject I knew well because of my Twittervision service, which allowed this.)

    Dennis, of course, also founded the precursor to Foursquare, Dodgeball, which he sold to Google in 2004 (they promptly killed it.)

    But Dennis wanted to see his vision come to pass, and he knew it would someday be possible — though at that point the iPhone had not been released and it would be nearly two years before it supported GPS location technology.

    But there Dennis was, doing his homework in 2007, studying user behavior to figure out exactly what behaviors he would have to encourage to make Foursquare work.

    He asked me, “so, people are really putting their home and work locations formatted inside tweets in order to update their location?”

    “Yep, a few thousand times a day,” I replied.

    “That’s cool. That’s really cool stuff,” he said. And from that, and years of similar evidence-gathering and study, Foursquare would be born.

    So, creating Foursquare took about five years. (I could have “stolen” the idea and built Foursquare myself. But I didn’t execute on that; it was his vision to pursue.) Dennis did his homework. He was prepared. And his vision preceded the technology that enabled it.

    Why, not How

    Real innovation doesn’t come from a weekend. It comes from passion, years of study, understanding deep insights and the “why,” and persistence in seeing something new to market, along with the marketing and cheerleading that will make it successful.

    The iPad owes much to Steve Jobs’ love of calligraphy. He cultivated a sense of aesthetics because of that initial interest. He didn’t set out to “make money” but rather dedicated himself to changing the world for the better using the entirety of his humanity. Time studying art wasn’t “lost,” it was R&D for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

    Many of today’s entrepreneurs could stand to do less “hustling” and more reading, exploring, reflecting, and gathering input — and when it is time to make stuff, set their sights as high as possible.

    There is more to this world than money, and there are countless opportunities to make it a vastly better place. Rather than using our CPU cycles just playing with combinatorial innovations, let’s devote ourselves to making the world as amazing as possible. Try to take time to reflect on how you can make the world better, and not just on what current technology affords.

    Drop Everything and Pay Attention to Firesheep Now

    Firesheep is a startling plugin that allows anyone to easily impersonate the login credentials of others for dozens of sites. It works on any unencrypted WiFi connection and is stupid-simple to setup. It can be done by anyone in a matter of minutes.

    Just to illustrate how easy it is to setup, I was on Virgin America flight VX67 from Washington to San Francisco yesterday.

    All I had to do to get going with Firesheep was download Firefox (onto my new MacBook Air) using the in-flight WiFi, and then download the Firesheep plugin for Firefox. Just drag the plugin into Firefox and it installs. Reload Firefox and you’re ready to go.

    Click “Start Capturing” and you are instantly snooping on every interaction occurring on the WiFi network. In my case yesterday, that meant snooping on everybody who was using the WiFi on my flight.

    What’s At Risk?

    Within just a couple of minutes, I was able to impersonate 3 people on Facebook (updating their status, exploring friends, doing anything I wanted to – of course I didn’t). Twitter is also at risk. So is Gmail. And so is Amazon.

    Access to Amazon is perhaps the most worrying. Once I realized I was in under someone else’s Amazon account, I quickly shut down Firesheep: this is some scary stuff. What if I had changed the shipping address for the account and done a one-click order on a $10,000 watch or a $2,000 plasma TV?

    This was all at 37,000 feet in an airplane (and way more entertaining than SkyMall). Like taking candy from a baby.

    Even More Shocking…

    Later in the afternoon I was at one of the Internet Industry’s high-profile events: Web 2.0 Summit produced by O’Reilly. There on the hotel’s WiFi, which was setup to serve the summit, I ran Firesheep. Within seconds I had compromised about 25 accounts, including the Twitter accounts of O’Reilly Media and TechCrunch writer Alexia Tsotsis. Change passwords, tweet-as-them, friend and de-friend people? No problem. Here’s what I saw. (Note that my accounts were vulnerable as well.)


    How It Works

    I have not studied this exploit carefully enough yet to explain it in full detail, but my understanding is that on an open WiFi network, it’s trivial to capture in cleartext all of the web interactions of the users around you on the same IP network. Once you can do that (something Firesheep achieves using the pcap library, capturing port 80) then you can sniff for credential information specific to particular websites. Firesheep supports a couple of dozen out of the box, including all major social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Gowalla, Foursquare) but also some more obscure sites relevant to coders (Github, Pivotal Tracker). Ouch. It even has an “import” function so others can write exploits for sites that Firesheep doesn’t know about yet.

    The bottom line is that these sites all need to enforce the use of HTTPS (secure HTTP) rather than HTTP *before* the login handshake occurs. This will force some emergency changes by many sites over the next few days.

    This is not a new exploit – it’s always been possible to do this; Firesheep just makes it stupid easy.

    A Note On Passwords vs. Encryption

    You’ve encountered WiFI networks that require WEP or WPA encryption passwords. These are secure from Firesheep’s reach. However, there are a lot of WiFi networks that require “passwords” (such as those at coffee shops, hotels, etc) that are in fact open networks. Many do not even require you to login to them to exploit them via Firesheep. To put it in perspective, every Starbucks location is vulnerable to attack.

    The only for-sure ways to stay safe from Firesheep for now are to 1) use only encrypted WiFi networks (that use WPA or equivalent), 2) use wired networks that you trust. Any open WiFi network can and will be vulnerable to this attack until vulnerable sites switch to using HTTPS for all authentication. Be very careful out there, folks.


    Update: After talking with a few folks and thinking through this exploit a little further, I can offer a bit more complete of an explanation of how it works and why blocking it is so difficult.

    The exploit does not actually capture the *password* itself (which is actually transmitted using HTTPS) but rather captures the authentication credentials which are stored (and visible) in the session cookie *after* HTTPS authentication has completed.

    So, even a one-time password will not address this. And the reason boils down to ads and other unsecure content that folks want to serve as part of the site experience. To fix this problem would require serving ads (and images) via HTTPS, which would require major computing resources and will have a major impact on the web.

    According to one security researcher I spoke to this evening (who formerly ran Yahoo mail), there’s no obvious way around this other than to allow both HTTP and HTTPS content to be served from the same site during the same session, something which presently causes an alert to the user (which would have the result of freaking them out). Such an alert is a good thing; turning it off is not a net gain. It shouldn’t be up to the user to have to sort out which resources the site is requesting should be secure and which ones do not need to be.

    So, it’s a real dilemma. No one seems to be sure how to really address it other than to eliminate or curb the use of open networks, which is probably where it’s going to end up. So open WiFi is now basically over. Expect places that had been using it to post publicly available WPA passwords, which solves the problem.

    iPad: What Will Happen

    I’m enjoying watching folks around the world prognosticate about the iPad, what it is and is not, how it might sell and what it means for computing. Sorry, but I can’t help but weigh in with some predictions.

    My son (age 12) and I have a bet at the moment about the outcome of the NCAA basketball tournament, which I know nothing at all about: I wagered that Duke would emerge victorious (I ignored the rest of the brackets). If I am correct, he owes me $487 trillion dollars; otherwise I owe him $12. (Hey, I’m trying to teach him about Popperian philosophy.)

    So, it is with the understanding that if I’m right, you, dear reader will owe me $487 trillion dollars, that I offer this humble marketplace analysis.

    • iPad will be released on Saturday, April 3. That means that a ton of people are going to get to play with it over the Easter weekend. And I’m talking about peoples’ moms and aunts here. It’s been widely reported that the experience of using the device is quite seductive, and I’ve argued it’s because it activates different parts of the brain. Somewhere around 200,000 units will be sold over this coming weekend, and each one will be shown to an average of 10.6 other people, creating a latent (nagging) demand for another 21 million units.
    • A bunch of old-media outlets will rejigger their offerings for the iPad and try to monetize the audience. Many already have. But this is Waterloo. Or Little Big Horn. They will sucker some folks into using the device for the “traditional” content, but sales will be disappointing. Ultimately they are going to have to radically reconsolidate their offerings and innovate in some serious ways. See below re: piracy.
    • The device is going to continue to rip through the population, busting past all sales records for a general computing device. This will have nothing to do with features or even the apps (yet). This will be based on the user experience alone. Everyone who uses the thing comes away sounding like a religious convert. In the same way that the original iPod just “felt right,” Jony Ive has managed to bring meaning to a general purpose computing device like nothing ever before. The central thing Ive has done is to bring the experience of computing directly to the user, with no barriers and no “analog” devices like the mouse. People will have a visceral relationship with these devices.
    • Roughly 20% of the initial batch of Wi-Fi only devices will be “handed down” to a secondary wave of users when the 3G models are introduced a month later. This will amplify the initial sales numbers, as many folks end up buying two units in the first month.
    • PDF-format books and news will become the Lingua Franca. What happened to music and movies is about to happen to books. A wave of piracy will couple with a race to the bottom in content prices. Some killer app, possibly Kindle for iPad, will capture a big chunk of the market share. It doesn’t much matter how it plays out, but paper books are going to be items of “significance” and the kind of thing hipsters trade, like vinyl records.
    • All desktop software will seem obsolete overnight. The obsessive attention Apple has paid to aesthetics in the built-in reader, calendar, and email apps will set the bar not only for other app developers on the iPad, but also for the iPhone and particularly the Desktop. Expect your Mac to feel particularly creaky. And Windows? It’s gonna seem steampunk compared to the twee aesthetics and colors emerging in the iPad design universe.
    • WiFi is going to become even more ubiquitous and free. Businesses are going to trip over themselves to get iPad users into their establishments, as the iPad rides its way to prominence. WiFi-only iPads are going to be somewhat cooler than the 3G versions.
    • Hipsters are gonna start using iPads as cell phones, using Skype and similar apps to bypass carrier relationships altogether. I’d expect the 3G-iPads to be used for voice too, marking the first significant use of the cellular network in a “data-only” mode, which will ultimately lead to the scrapping of the whole “voice/voicemail/minutes” paradigm. The first carrier to do this will have a temporary competitive advantage.
    • A whole new market in mouseless/keyboardless computing will emerge. Yeah, I don’t know what it’s going to look like either. But the raw numbers (100 million by 2015) of the iPad platform will create a new kind of pop/tech culture. Expect a New York Times Sunday magazine piece; potentially in that publications’ last print issue.
    • The next generation Macintosh, if there is such a thing, will be based on the iPad OS. Hard to say what this might mean, but I would not be surprised if Mac OS was phased out over a few years, or possibly converted into a server-only OS for the MacPro / X-Serve platform only.

    Remember that demand is not static waiting to be filled by the possible universe of devices: if that were the case, the iPod and the Mac and the iPhone should never really have gotten any traffic. What Apple understands is that good design can change the market, and invent new markets.

    And this is what the iPad will do: invent a new market. And the presence of that new market will profoundly change the dynamics of the existing (previous) market. New demand will emerge, and all kinds of new supply will emerge. The great thing about Apple, particularly Jobs and Ive, is that they know how to drive change.

    And that, ultimately, is what entrepreneurship and innovation are all about. If it were just about building devices to match the demands of the existing market, the Chinese seem to do a pretty good job of that.

    And I will supply my banking information, so you can wire me the money, when this all comes to pass. If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a beer.

    Design for Behavior: Part 2

    socialdevcampfall-1

    Twice last year, I had the experience of putting together SocialDevCamp East, a barcamp-style unconference for software developers and entrepreneurs focused on social media.

    Sounds straightforward enough, but that sentence alone is jam-packed with important design decisions. And those design decisions carried through the entire event, and even into its long-term impact on our community and our community’s brand. I’ll explain.

    Barcamp-Style Unconference

    In the last few years, the Barcamp unconference format, focused on community involvement, openness, and attendee participation has gained a lot of traction. I won’t write a ton here describing the format and how it all works as that’s been done elsewhere, but the key point is that this is an open event which is supported by and developed by the community itself. As a result, it is by definition designed to serve that community.

    So what are some other design implications of choosing the Barcamp format? Here are two big ones.

    First, anyone who doesn’t think this format sounds like a good idea (but how will it all work? what, no rubber chicken lunch? where’s the corporate swag?) will stay away. Perfect. Barcamp is not a format that works for everybody – particularly people with naked corporate agendas. It naturally repels people who might otherwise detract from the event.

    Second, the user-generated conference agenda (formed in the event’s first hour by all participants voting on what sessions will be held) insures that the day will serve the participants who are actually there, and not some imagined corporate-sales-driven agenda that was dreamed up by a top-down conference planning apparatchik three months in advance.

    The fact that there are no official “speakers” and only participants who are willing and able to share what they know means that sessions are multi-voiced conversations and not boring one-to-many spews from egomaniacal “speakers.”

    The Name: SocialDevCamp East

    We could have put on a standard BarCamp, but that wasn’t really what we wanted to pursue; as an entrepreneur and software developer focused on the social media space, I (and event co-chairs Ann Bernard and Keith Casey, who helped with SDCE1) wanted to try to identify other people like us on the east coast.

    We chose the word Social to reflect the fact that we are interested in reaching people who have an interest in Social media. It also sounds “social” and collaborative, themes which harmonize with the overall event.

    We chose the wordlet Dev to indicate that we are interested in development topics (borrowing from other such events like iPhoneDevCamp and DevCamp, coined by Chris Messina). This should serve to repel folks that are just interested in Podcasting or in simply meeting people; both fine things, but not what we were choosing to focus on.

    Obviously Camp indicates we are borrowing the Barcamp unconference format, so people know to expect a community-built, user-driven event that will take form the morning of the event itself.

    We chose East to indicate that a) we wanted to draw from the entire east coast corridor (DC to Boston, primarily), and b) we wanted to encourage others in other places to have SocialDevCamps too. Not long after SDCE1, there was a SocialDevCamp Chicago.

    Additionally, our tagline coined by Keith Casey, “Charting the Next Course” indicates that we are interested in talking about what’s coming next, not just in what’s happening now. This served to attract forward-looking folks and set the tone for the event.

    The Location

    We wanted to make the event easily accessible to people all along the east coast. Being based in Baltimore, we were able to leverage its central location between DC and Philadelphia. Our venue at the University of Baltimore is located just two blocks away from the Amtrak train station, which meant that the event was only 3 hours away for people in New York City. As a result had a significant contingent of folks from DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, many of whom came by train.

    Long Term Brand Impact

    These two events, held in May and November 2008, are still reverberating throughout the region’s community. At Ignite Baltimore on Thursday, SocialDevCamp was mentioned by multiple speakers as an example of the kind of bottom-up grassroots efforts which are now starting to flourish here.

    The event has the reputation of having been a substantive, forward-looking gathering of entrepreneurs, technologists, and artists, and that has gone on to color how we in the region and those in other regions perceive our area. Even if it’s only in a small way, SocialDevCamp helped set the tone for discourse in our region.

    Design? Or Just Event Planning?

    Some might say that what I’ve described is nothing more than conference planning 101, but here’s why it’s different: first, what I’ve described here are simply the input parameters for the event. Writing about conference planning would typically focus on the logistical details: insurance, parking, catering, badges, registration fees, etc. Those are the left-brained artifacts of the right-brained discipline of conference design.

    Everything about the event was designed to produce particular behaviors at the event, and even after the event. While I make no claim that we got every detail perfect (who does?), the design was carried out as planned and had the intended results. And of course, we learned valuable lessons that we will use to help shape the design of future events. Event planners should spend some time meditating about the difference between design and planning; planning is what you do in service of the design. Design is what shapes the user-experience, sets the tone, and determines the long-term value of an event.

    More to Come

    I’ve got at least 3 more installations in this series. Stay tuned, and I’d love to hear your feedback about design and how it influences our daily experience.

    WARNING – GEEK/PHILOSOPHER CONTENT:  It occurs to me that the universe is a kind of finite-state automaton, and as such is a kind of deterministic computing machine. (No, I was not the first to think of this.) But if it is a kind of computer, then design is a kind of program we feed in to that machine. What kind of program is it? Well, it’s likely not a Basic or Fortran program. It’s some kind of tiny recursive, fractal-like algorithm, where the depth of iteration determines the manifestations we see in the real world.

    As designers, all we’re really doing is getting good at mastering this fractal algorithm and measuring its effects on reality.

    See you in the next article!