Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How much will a domain name be worth in the next decade?

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From Best Buy to Five Star Appliance, a culture conflict

February 22, 2011, Best Buy China (百思买) announced that it shut down its own retail stores in China but "to consolidate its China business operations under its wholly-owned Five Star brand." This announcement is not a big hit in today's news. I am, however, interested in it since it reveals something that is critical for not only Best Buy, but any successful western companies that want to expand their business in China.

One needs to apply different models to run the same business in China and in United States. Although this idea is not new at all, many people still do not truly get it until they fail. The business is the same; but the culture where the business runs is very different.

Let's take a look at Best Buy China. First of all, "百思买" (the Chinese translation of the Best Buy brand) is a dumb brand name to native Chinese. When the first time I saw the name, I was wondering who the hell suggested such a dumb name. Straightforward translation, "百思买" in plain Chinese means to buy it after a hundred times of rethinking. The meaning in Chinese translation is exactly the opposite to the Best Buy in native English, which means "no-brainer, this is simply the best buy". If I were the translator, I would recommend "最佳电", which is much better than the current translation and with exactly the same intention the Best Buy brand in English wants to broadcast. Some people may say that it is just a name. But it shows how little the Best Buy executives had known Chinese and the Chinese culture. A bad brand name often leads to a business failure; and it is proved again.

For any business, the first thing of success is to correctly identify the group of its customers. Best Buy certainly has no problem on the answer in United States, and in many other countries too. But it does not recognize the answer correctly in China. In United States, the Best Buy customers are typically the middle class. And it is the same in many other nations too. In China, however, there is no real middle class despite many politicians or economists claim its existence. In China, there are only two classes among people in history and till now---the elite class and the rest. A business can either serve the elite class or serve the rest. Trying to serve in the middle is simply an illusion to a grand-size business!

The Chinese society is divided by a magic word---官(Chinese pronunciation "Guan", which means Official). One is either a 官 or he is not. If he is, he belongs to the elite class basically. Otherwise, he belongs to the rest. Any ranks, including the pure academic titles in the western society such as professor or the technological titles such as engineer, is evaluated in China with certain equivalent to a level of 官. For example, a mayor-level professor versus a governor-level professor. To the people living in the western countries, it must be really hard to think of a distinction between a mayor-level professor and a governor-level professor. What does it mean? Isn't he just a professor? No, he isn't. In China one's social rank is generally determined by the equivalence of their professional title to the level of 官. So a governor-level professor is certainly superior to a mayor-level professor, discarding their real academic achievement, indeed, most of the time.

Any business, especially the retail business, that does not understand the former distinction may unlikely sustain in China. This is the essence behind Best Buy China's failure.

Best Buy wants to sell its product to the middle-class Chinese. But who are they? The elite class people generally expect more superior service than Best Buy normally provides in the western nations, which addresses the ordinary western middle-class people. To the rest of Chinese, however, the Best Buy service is an overhead since it increases the "unnecessary" cost that they do not want to pay at all. Between the two classes there is a niche, which might be named "middle class". But their number is limited even in the big cities such as Shanghai. A small start-up business may fit into the niche. It is, however, definitely too narrow to sustain a super-size business like Best Buy.

From now on Best Buy hands its business execution to the wholly-owned local business Five Star Appliance. May it solve the problem? I am cautiously optimistic to it. Fully localize a global business into China is a right step. But the step by itself is not enough to secure success. Until the Best Buy administration in United States truly understands the Chinese society, Best Buy will not succeed in China.

Again, the message is not just for Best Buy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

From Egypt to China

Recently a friend asked my opinion about the Egyptian revolution and how Chinese people may react to it. The topic is timely and illuminating and thus I would like to share my answer to the readers. The Egyptian revolution is remarkable to the contemporary history, but its impact to China and the Chinese people in the near future will be limited.


The Egyptian revolution occurred with the background of the Web-2.0 booming and the economic recession. The booming of Web 2.0 has brought the world wealth accumulation. The economic recession did, however, exactly the opposite. This pair of contradiction composed a main melody in the past decade. The Egyptian revolution was an explosive release of the said contradiction in the Middle East.

Accompanied with the Web-2.0 booming it is the trend of globalization. The world becomes flatter than before. The economic recession, on the other hand, warns us a terrible side effect of the world being flattened. The dams and other traditional landscape obstacles that used to preventing the flood of the global economy river have gradually lost their functionality in this newly flattened world. Globalization is both of a primary contributor of the economic growth in the last decade and a primary cause of the economic recession at the end of the decade. As we all know, the flood in a plain usually lead to greater destruction than it is in a valley surrounded by mountains. Besides the other internal reasons, the said contradiction is the main external factor for the Egyptian revolution.

In this evolution, the Egyptians were not pursuing the idealistic freedom. They were (and are) looking for better life. The fallen of the Mubarak administration was not due to the lack of freedom in the nation. It was, however, due to that the lack-of-freedom model had become the inevitable obstacle for the economic growth of Egypt. As I always said, the Web evolution is not just about the Web, it is a social evolution in essence. The Egyptian revolution is a typical example of how the virtual world evolution has been extended to the real world.


If we apply the same scale to study China, immediately we can see the difference. The economic landscape of China has not been flattened omnidirectionally during the last decade as it was in some other nations such as Egypt. Although China is one of the primary beneficiaries of globalization, China has very carefully prevented itself from being flattened unconditionally. By contrast, China is one of the few nations that have intentionally constructed the new barriers to fight against the technological improvement. Many critics have criticized what China did. Especially from the ethical point of view, I also agree to the critics. But at the same time we must admit the fact. It is these efforts of being against the tide of globalization that survives China from the economic recession. Due to the same reason, the chance of China being significantly affected by the explosive Egyptian revolution is very low.

Another factor in the scheme is the people in China. Unlike the Egyptians, most of the Chinese in mainland China are atheists. It means that they significantly care more about the present life than the life in future, let it alone the life after death. Therefore, it is very unlikely, if ever possible, to appeal their attention by the pure moral value. On the other hand, in history Chinese are not this type of persons. Unlike people in many other nations, especially the western countries, Chinese revolutions have never occurred due to the spread of any other global-scale revolution. Even the communist revolution in China was not a continuation of the Russian revolution but more or less the continuation of the regular dynasty substitution in its own history. As a nation with super-long history and tremendous number of population, China is a place where it may only export but unlikely import revolutions.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Free from Being Controlled

In his book Weaving the Web, Tim Berners-Lee argued:

Philosophically, if the Web was to be a universal resource, it had to be able to grow in an unlimited way. Technically, if there was any centralized point of control, it would rapidly become a bottleneck that restricted the Web's growth, and the Web would never scale up. Its being "out of control" was very important.

It is a great insight and Web evolution proves it. At the beginning, we had lots of the so-called web portals such as Yahoo, AOL, and MSN. Unless through them the regular users would hardly get to the Web. Very quickly these portals became the bottleneck of Web evolution and thus they were faded. The Web does not need entry points to be entered.

Then we had the second-generation Web portals---social portals such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. In similar, gradually they become the bottleneck of Web evolution for they are dragging a type of general public resources, which is supposed to be free, to their private interest. Therefore, a new type of barriers has been constructed to block the expansion of the Web. To the end, the social Web does not need entry points to be entered either.

There is always a difference between what need to be controlled and what must be free by the nature. The reason of the fallen of the Web portal business model was not that the portals were evil or nobody wanted to get to it (actually until today is still one of the most popular Web sites according to the number of visitors daily). It was due to that the portals wanted to hold a type of free public resources, i.e. the right of free accessing to the public knowledge, and took benefit from it indefinitely. Such a greedy intention is conflict to the evolution of World Wide Web.

The social portals will fall by the same reason. The right of free accessing to the friends and their thoughts is by nature a type of free public resources that must not be controlled. No one can take benefit from such a type of control indefinitely. It is, again, conflict to the evolution of World Wide Web.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Turing Test and Web Evolution

Machines may have will, but it is not free will.

In 1950, Alan Turing challenged if machines could ever deceive a human judge from being identified non-human by answering questions indistinct to the real human responses. This proposed experiment is now well-known as the Turing Test, an essential concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Now computer scientists generally agree that the Turing Test in a single standalone computer is likely unfeasible. With the rise of World Wide Web, however, people quickly revise the question by asking whether the collectivity of all computers in the world may eventually pass the Turing Test. May a network of computers do the trick? Or, a little bit more dramatically, may one day WWW evolve to be the Skynet?

To pass the Turing Test machines need to prove they may answer questions by free will, a unique character of the living creatures especially humans. In definition, free will is the putative ability of making choices discarding constraints. Constraints generally exist in any situation. The trick of free will is that independent to any other agent's prediction the agent may determine whether or not his decision is bound to any of the constraints. Free will means the ability of breaking rules with no limit and warning. Then a question follows: may we be able to assign this ability to the machines (discarding whether we will if we can)?

Here is my thought to the answer. If we continue building the computers based on the current computer architecture and programming them using the current type of the programming languages, there is no hope of inventing machine free will no matter of the standalone intelligence or the collective intelligence. The reason? The computer architecture and the programming languages themselves have already settled a set of rigid logic constraints. The machines built upon the architecture and programmed by the languages will not work correctly unless obeying these constraints. Please be aware that working incorrectly due to the technology problem is not a free will. Therefore, no true free will can be realized. In theory, we can always develop a set of questions that can cause trouble by the rigid set of logic to distinguish a machine from the real humans.

Now let's retreat half a step. May the machines have will despite it is not free? I believe, however, that the Web evolution is approaching this goal.

Recently in Wired Magazine, there is an article titled "Algorithms Take Control of Wall Street". In it the authors shared how the robots hired by the Wall Street traders instead of the traders themselves are controlling the stock prices. This scenario is a classic example on how the machines start having will, which is programmed by their human masters. In the article the authors also mentioned how some tragical events had happened due to the machines' will, which, the authors argued, was not really humans' expectation or intention. I think the authors may have underestimated the greedy nature of human beings. Behind the numerous rules there sits a word called "greed". Any single rule must be fair. The overall is, however, the consolidation of the greed. So it was not that the machines suddenly fell into greediness by their free will, the tragedies were nothing but the revealing of the overall greed in Wall Street. "There be no beasts." (quoted from Lois Lowry's Gathering Blue)

With the evolution the Web starts embodying the wills of not only the Wall Street traders but also many of us as the regular Web users. For example, the Google robots silently execute your will every time you press the search button. The Web starts being filled with the embodied wills and the machines claimed the ownership. That machines have will is already a fact.

With will, the machines now can do something fantastic. Also with will, the machines someday may do something horrible than we could imagine. The Wall Street tragedies mentioned by the Wired Magazine article are warnings. There is no any single rule that is particularly evil. It is the overall of all the rules/wills (established by the humans but) executed by the machines that causes the problem. If overall all of us are with good, positive intention, the embodiment of our wills overall will only lead our society and our world to becoming better and better. On the contrary, the tragedies will be inevitable. A little bit "harmless" greed by each of us can be accumulated by the machines that claim the embodied wills to become a great evil overall. Which future and which type of the Web we want it to be? The decision is in the hand of everyone of us. Now!

To the end, let's remember it. Machines may have will, but it is not free will. The future is in the hands of the free-thinking people, who are you and me. Let everyone of us uses the Web with good intention and thus the Web will be good to us. Otherwise, the tragedies will not just happen in the Wall Street.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

From No Silver Bullet to Computational Thinking

A few literature has influenced the world. Two of them must be "No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering" by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. in 1986 and "Computational Thinking" by Jeannette M. Wing in 2006. The two-decade time frame in between is one of the most exciting periods in human history---the prevalence of computers. These two distinctive papers represent a remarkable transition of how humans think differently with the rise of the "intelligent" machines. By reviewing history we can know what we need to do in the next.

The year 1986 was remarkable. In the beginning of the year, the Space Shuttle Challenger was unfortunately exploded in 73 seconds after the launch. At the end of the same year, the Chinese government ceased the first student democratic appeal since the beginning of the economic reform. It represented the primary melody of the Chinese policy in the following two decades. Within such a background, Fred's No Sliver Bullet paper seems insignificant. But history does not lie to us. Fred's paper represented the beginning of a very important reform of human thinking in history. In 2006, Jeannette's summary claimed the mature of such a human-thinking reform process.

So what did Fred actually tell in 1986? Beneath the apparently technical debate between the so-named accidental complexity and essential complexity in software engineering, the core of Fred's message was that the origin of these troubles was due to the lack of the real experts who not only understood computer but also were able to think like computers. To be "great" (in contrast to "good") software designers, Fred argued, one must think like computers. We might eventually overcome the essential complexity in software development only if we would have been empowered by such a kind of thinking. In 2006, Jeannette concluded Fred's journey using the term Computational Thinking.

This reform of human thinking is one of the most important events in history. Its impact will last longer than the Chinese economic reform and it is more crucial than the advance of computer technology itself. This event changes how we think, fundamentally!

Before 1986, as Fred pessimistically observed, few people could think like computer. Even till 1998 when I first started writing a C algorithm, my wife (who was a professional computer programmer already at the meantime) laughed at me loudly because I did not have a single clue of what "computational thinking" must be. Today I can still remember her words. "You are writing a parallel algorithm, honey," she said, "but computers can only execute sequentially. Your algorithm will not work." Why was I so foolish? Because in tradition humans used to think in parallel. Now after so many years of writing computer codes, sadly I have to confess that I have nearly lost that original capability totally because I had been trained very hard to think like a computer. Today Fred must not be pessimistic any more and Jeannette is surely enthusiastic. But I feel that, gradually and silently, we human beings are losing something very precious and hard to be earned back. This reform of thinking must be a great evolution. But is it great for computers only or for our mankind as well?

I want to ask a question: is there somebody who remembers how he thought in the pre-computer age? Few, I guess. It is not because you do not remember it after so many years. It is because you are no longer ABLE to remember it. This is the saddest among all the sad.

We, human beings, especially our generation, have been customized by the new way of thinking---computational thinking. We are not only eager in learning it ourselves but also advocating to train our kids to think this way, the way that the machines we create think.

Humans begin to admire and even to worship what are made by man's hand. This is certainly not the first time in history. Computational thinking! What a marvelous term!

What should we do then? I would not suggest us boycotting the tide of computational thinking because it will be hopeless. From No Silver Bullet to Computational Thinking, the history is made.

Instead of fighting against the computational thinking, I advocate reinventing computers. We shall learn how to use computers more effectively. But more importantly, we must teach computers how we think in contrast to make us more and more think like them. Von Neumann started this journey. Let's not cease it. Let's not be the slaves or the pupils of computers. We should be their masters and tutors. Let our thinking be enriched and empowered by the computational thinking instead of being replaced by the computational thinking. This is a destination assigned for the current (human) generation.