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Saturday, January 21, 2006

We Can Do It!

This is gonna be a short and sweet post. I just wanna show my solidarity with the Egyptian soccer team who is now playing in the African Cup of Nations. We Can Do It!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Leveraging Users' Intelligence

I have been using Babylon for few years now. Its a pc side dictionary that can translate between most languages. Its fast with a nice user interface and lots of cool features. You can click on a word and it would give you the translation from different sources. It has spelling correction and pronunciaton. There is one feature though that really made Babylon stand out and that is user created glossaries .You can think of a glossary as a small dictionary for a particular topic like medical terms or bird names. Instead of providing all the content themselves, Babylon created a file standard that users can follow to create their own glossaries. The glossaries are shared with other users through Babylon's website. The website also keeps track of how many times a particular glossary was downloaded and that's an indication of its quality. Now all the sudden, Babylon offers very rich content with very little effort from their side. And believe me there are glossaries for almost everything from sports to animals and pets. The ones I found most useful are the slang glossaries cuz you won't find those in a regular dictionary.

The idea could be generalized to be taking advantage of users to enhance the service being offered. Off course that has to be done in a way to leverage the power user without creating a burden on the average user. I can think of three ways where that concept can be put into practice. The first way, which I described in the example of Babylon, is letting the users create most of the content. That content does not have to be only data, it could be skins for an application, graphics for buttons and so forth. Did I mention Wincustomize? It has super cool docks, widgets and icons. The second way is to let the users create most of the functionality. Wow, really? Its true, if you are the service provider all you have to do, is to design your application in the form of a platform where users can add features on top. The best example for that is firefox where most of the plug-ins are created by independent develpers. Third way is to take advantage of users' intelligence to do some, and usually the most difficult part, of the logic. Instead of implementing the logic through lines of code, it would happen in users' brains. How does Gmail know if a message is a spam or not? Let the user decide and use that information to mark that message pattern/sender as a spam in the future. Which results does Google show first when you type in a certain keyword? Use past information of what other users have selected in correspondence to a similar keyword.

So why would a user be willing to do all this work for free? Well, users like to be associated with successful applications, because that in turn makes them successful. Second, its a huge source of personal gratification to know that something you created is being used by alot of people. Third, they get rewarded through fame as they get name credit for their contribution especially if its popular among other users. The best part is that its not only free contributions from users, its also free marketing because users would be marketing their own work. So in summary, designing a service in a way that enables users to contribute yields to reduced cost, richer features and content and better marketing.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lessons From The Past

I love this story and its implications. Its from the life of prophet Mohamed (pbuh). Many of the problems the Prophet faced in his life are very similar to what we experience today. There is alot to learn if we analyzed the strategic thinking of the Prophet. So the story goes like this: When the prophet was assigned with the task of spreading Islam, he started doing so in secret first. Few people, mostly black and slaves, started converting and rumors started to spread about the new religion. The rich and wealthy in Mekka were not happy about this new religion mainly because it calls for equality between the rich and the poor, the slave and the free. Their natural response to maintain their status was to fight Islam and they started torturing the prophet's followers to force them to convert back. The Prophet's decision at that time was to move from Mecca to the neighbouring city of Al-Madina. This decision is really the key of the story. The Prophet did not say, I am gonna stay and God will help us. He did not say it does not matter if the followers died because its for a good cause and they will eventually be rewarded in the after life. Instead, the Prophet was practical. He had a plan and long term goals. He recognized his weakness and that staying in Mecca would slow down the spreading of the religion. He decided to move to Madina where muslims can grow in size and power. And it did not exactly happen over one night. It took around 8 years before Muslims were strong enough and went back to Mecca but this time victorers. What's interesting to note from this story: is that it is not enough to only have a just cause, you need strength as well. Otherwise your voice won't be heard and the facts could be distorted and you won't have the means to correct that. In the Prophet's story, when the Muslims seized back Mecca, the Prophet did not take revenge but instead set his enemies free. That had an enoromous effect in making more and more people convert to Islam. Can we learn from this story and apply it to what's happening in our lives today?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How To Create Wealth

Recently, I finished reading Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham. Paul Graham is an essayist, painter and programmer. The book is a compilation of articles he wrote on his blog. He writes about random and diverse topics that he finds interesting. Some of his good articles are: Why Nerds Are Unpopular and Hackers and Painters where he draws the analogy between programming and painting. However, the one that really got my attention was this one: How to Create Wealth. Graham first describes the difference between wealth and money and explains how wealth is not fixed (i.e. we can all be wealthy). He then argues that the fastest way to create wealth is through start-ups and explains why start-ups are usually associated with technology. One of the memorable quotes from his article:
"Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four"
Great article and worth checking out.

Monday, January 02, 2006

May You Be Prevented From The Evils Of Envy

Or "Yakfeek shar el 7asd" like my grandma used to say in arabic. If you grew up in an arabic family like I did, you probably would have heard about one or more of the following superstitions: Sleeping in your socks could make you blind, closing and opening scissors causes fights to happen and having your slippers flipped on the floor is bad because its facing God. The evils of envy is another one and by far the most overrated of all of them. You might be familiar with some of these preventive measures against envy: Having a blue crystal in the car, bokhour at home or simply living in extreme secrecy and hiding anything that anyone could possibly envy. True story: Up to this day, my parents won't tell everyone that I moved to the US. They do that because people in Egypt tend to associate the US with living comfortably and my parents fear that I might get envied and some sort of harm would happen to me in result. Its not like my parents are not well educated or anything. My dad has a Phd and my mom is a civil engineer. Its nothing specific to my family either; all the arabic families I know are like that too.

Let's take a look at the reasons why people fear envy and I will refute them all, fair and square. The first reaction I get from friends when I bring this topic up is that they start showering me with stories about how they have been affected by envy one way or another. Whether its a couple who broke up because people envied how happy they were or someone's new car was involved in an accident because someone gave it the eye or many many other stories. My take on this is that people who envy are envying all the time, its just we tend to make the association with harm when something bad happens to us. The other common reason people fear envy is in reference to the quranic verse in surat "Al-Falk". My personal opinion, and I am certainly not an expert in quran tafsir, is that people are misinterpreting the verse. What the quranic verse says is to be cautious from the person who envies. And thats where harm could really come from not from the act of envying itself and thus one should avoid those who envy if possible.

There are many drawbacks for fearing envy. For one thing, it makes us worried about nothing. It influences many of the decisions that we make in a negative way. It forces us to hide things and isolates us from others. Enough said, Flame On!!