Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wolfram Alpha and Year One of the Shroud of Turin

One year after the release of Wolfram Alpha, the hoopla has come and gone. It just seems as if the world wasn't quite ready for Wolfram to come and grab the spotlight away from Google. Heavily weighted toward computational queries, with blended tendency of manipulating its data sets as opposed to simply retrieving what is actually available on the Web means its results can be more authoritative than a list of links.

As a result, Wolfram has "sold out" in a way, as it plans to make over its home page, and will start adding data for more pop-culture-friendly information such as sports, music, health information, and even its own take on local mapping. The problem is that Wolfram just doesn't know what it's for: as one pundit puts it, "Wolfram Alpha is like a cross between a research library, a graphing calculator, and a search engine."

Another challenge for Wolfram is that unlike Google, Wolfram expects to cash in on its enterprise: let's put it this way, it isn't doing this for knowledge dissemination. It plans to sell subscriptions to advanced users who want to do thing like blend their own custom data with Alpha's engine. The question remains: who's going to use it? Its business model is incumbent on a smaller, elite set of expert users. Google, on the other hand, has a business model that's shown a way to work based on use by just about everybody. There's a neatly aligned financial alliance between more users and revenue.

It's unfortunate as Wolfram Alpha came out with a great deal of anticipation and hope. Stephen Wolfram's presentation was very much as if he was uncovering new findings from the Shroud of Turin. Audience members anxiously waited their turns to throw questions which Wolfram easily captured with his new search engine. Unfortunately, for the past year, it appears as if much has come up short.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Copyright Wars

William Patry, author of Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars and blogger on the Patry Copyright Blog, poses some interesting food for thoughts. The "copyright wars," as he puts it, is an archetypal response of outmoded businesses who not only fail to innovative, but use the innovation of others to succeed. The lawsuits and the lawyers hired to manage them, are signs that companies lack such commitment; in other words, litigation is reflective of this failed business model, not its success.

Just look at the decline in sales of CDs, DVDs, and software piracy- they are all results of the copyright industries' failure to satisfy consumers' desires as opposed to stifling those desires out of a woefully misguided view that copyright is control and control means profits.

Intriguingly, Patry believes that Japan and South Korea are role model countries for the copyright wars. Both countries reveal the win-win situation that can occur when government takes innovation policy seriously and where publishers go with the technology and youth, rather than the need to declare war on them as is the case in the United States (and by extension, Canada). In South Korea, the availability of such inexpensive, super-fast broadband as well as the communal nature of digital connectedness has led to the phonemena that exist on a scale in South Korea unimaginable in the US.

Cyworld is one example. According to Patry, 43% of South Koreans use and maintain profiles in Cyworld, which is a social networking community. A combination of social websites like MySpace, a virtual world like Second Life, a blog-hosting site like Xanga, as well as a virtual shopping mall where music is legally downloaded. Korean corporations use Cyworld for product launches. It is part of the social fabric, as youths are associated by their cyaddresses.

Yet, this is a state-sponsored initiative. South Korea has come a long way when internet first appeared in 1995. It has modernized the country's infrastructure in contrast to the regulatory entanglements that has stunted the development of the US telecommunications industry. Impressive considering South Korea had fewer than 1% of its population using the Internet while by 2004, it had over 71% of its population.

It was a concerted effort by the South Korean government in the midst of an economic turmoil of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Rather than folding under pressure, Korean policy makers instead used technology as a key sector in restoring the nation's economic health, providing not only fiber connection to all big office and apartment buildings, and households (more than 80%) access to fast DSL or cable connections -- but also a national highspeed backbone network linking government facilities and public institutions.

Of course, there is always a drawback: and that resulted when unauthorized downloads or streaming of movies occurred frequently. Instead of shutting down operations, TimeWarner decided to defy its past business model and began releasing its films online in South Korea before they were released on DVD. Not surprisingly, South Korea is a digital culture, one where music sales are done digitally, much more so anywhere else in the world.

In Japan, whole novels are sold via cellphones. Japan's cellphone novels are not a craze, but a norm. Can you imagine where entire novels are read via cell phones? Only is it possible with such amazing broadband connections. In a country in which wireless connections have been common for at least the past decade, this is not a surprising cultural and literary feat. What can be learned from this? Certainly, for the West, open source and open access continue to face alarming distrust and misunderstanding, particularly in the publishing establishment, where copyright and corporatism rule both the digital and print world. It will be interesting to see in the next few years whether the West has caught on with the rest of the world.