Friday, March 17, 2006

Write a book or start a company? - Lessons for Product Managers and notes on VoIP, eBay and Skype

Some kind of normality has returned. The house move is done - although plenty to do on the new place we can live here quite normally. And my product at work is back to normal, actually that happened about a month ago but I don’t think I mentioned it here.

So, with a kind of normality returning I’m asking myself “what next?” I’m lacking a personal project now and I’m wondering what it should be. Two ideas keep coming up.

First idea is to write a book. A couple of years ago I started to outline a book that would piece together some of my Overload pieces with some of my MBA dissertation work to produce a book called something like “Re-learning software development” or “Knowledge, Learning and Change in Software Development” or even “Software Development in the 21st Century”

I started to put some flesh on the idea and even had a conversation with a publisher. She asked me the very product manager-like question “Why would someone buy this book?” “What problem will it solve?” I was kind of stuck for an answer, I could imagine a neat book but then why would someone actually buy it? I couldn’t answer that question and I eventually put the idea to one side.

The other idea that comes up again and again is that of starting a company. Being entrepreneurial. Again the question comes “Why would someone buy something from you company?” which is another way of saying “What would your company do?”

As a Product Manager I know the first starting point has to be “What problem will you solve?” All I have to do is think of a problem, an answer, and a means of putting the two together... easy really.

Of course my techie background has me approach it from another point of view “Gee, this is neat technology I could... maybe someone will pay money for it?”

At the moment there are two technologies out there that should inspire me. One is AJAX - which a key building block of Web 2.0. I see people building all sorts of stuff with AJAX but you still need to solve a problem.

Some people are resolving known problems with existing solutions. For example: office automation applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.) This could work but you have to ask: Why will a Web 2.0 word processor be better than what is there at the moment? And given economic network-effects: Why would anyone change from the standard?

The second technology I see as big just now has a similar problem: Voice over IP. We have solved the voice communication problem, its called the telephone. Has been solved for about a hundred years, again there are network-effect economics to keep people with the traditional system yet you can cross link the two systems.

I’ve been thinking a lot about VoIP lately. Partly that is because I was reading Richard Edge’s blog and secondly because of a conversation I had with Craig Taverner a couple of weeks ago.

So far the big problem VoIP has solved is cost. It brings the price of telephone calls down. This is another point Product Manager should remember: its OK to solve a problem that has already been solved just so long as you change the solution in a superior way.

However, VoIP currently comes with another cost: inconvenience. Unless you have a PC, a broadband connection and a little bit of computer skills you can’t get it to work. Even if you do get it working to save the maximum amount of money you need the person on the other end to have a PC too. And then the two of you have to stay close to your PC.

Well, VoIP is going to get better still. Already there are routers that allow you to plug in regular handsets to the network. Like this one from LinkSys and Netgear are promising a phone that is loaded with Skype and talks to your Wifi router.

These kind of products will reduce the inconvenience of VoIP but I’m still wondering if that is enough.

The way I see it is that VoIP needs to offer something, some application, that we can’t do with regular phones. For example, although I’d played a little with Skype the thing that got me to use it a lot was the conference call facility.

Of course we’ve had conference calls on regular phones for years, but, on the whole they have been restricted to business because of the extra cost and need to set up an account. I use a traditional conference call system a lot in work but it entails dialling a lot of numbers.

With Skype I’ve been able to hold free conference calls with more people and it has been much much easier to set up.

Conference calls are an example of an application we run on top of voice connectivity. Other examples are voice mail, caller id, ring back and even faxing. Traditionally creating a new telephony application meant some experimentation plus access to telephone equipment - which tended to be complex stuff and only available to a few people in big companies.

To get your application out there was even more complicated. Telecoms companies are a traditional bunch, and for the application to be widely available it needs to run on multiple exchanges so you need agreed standards. Then you need to roll it out to a lot of exchanges so introduction was usually slow.

Now, with VoIP on Skype, Vonage, etc. you can write an application on top of the VoIP system much more eaily. More people have access to the technology and rollout means people installing the app on their PC.

Conclusion? We’re going to see more applications on voice based VoIP systems.

In fact I think we’ve already seen the first signs of this with the eBay takeover of Skype. Until now I couldn’t figure this deal out. Now it makes sense, eBay wants a sales application that integrates seamlessly with the eBay website. It also needs installed users to adopt the system and show the masses it works.

So there you go. I know the technology and I know the logic. I still don’t have a business idea. I still don’t have a problem to solve. Maybe I’ll have to go back to the book!