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  • Barnstorming and other Adventures

    Posted on December 10th, 2009 Lee Devlin No comments
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    1929 Travel Air

    1929 Travel Air


    I once shared a hangar with this beautiful 1929 Travel Air. About 20 years ago I learned to fly at the New Garden Airport in southeastern PA. Shortly after getting my license, I purchased a 1961 Piper Colt. Not long after I purchased it, this amazing aircraft showed up in the adjacent hangar. The plane had been purchased by a young lady who quit a secure job and started a barnstorming business with a business partner giving rides in an open cockpit biplane. I was amazed to think that someone would leave a secure job and start a business like that. Later on when I was exposed to Richard Bach’s books I felt like his stories might have inspired the couple to throw caution to the wind and start that business.

     

    While reading the Slashdot feed yesterday I saw a reference to a site that was exposing the Internet get-rich-quick schemes that are so prevalent these days. The article referenced a website called undress4success.com. Despite the attention-getting title, I learned that it was dedicated to providing useful information to people who are working from home. It provides resources to help people who like the idea of a 2-second commute and the site’s owners regularly gave the low-down on scams that prey on those hoping to make a living working from home. The most recent article was related to the ‘Work for Google’ scams that are being actively pursued by Google’s legal team, since they are not endorsed or supported by Google. The scammers are just trying to profiteer from pretending to have an association with the Internet search giant.

    I like to expose scammers. Seeing unscrupulous charlatans abuse the goodwill and trust of others is just one of those behaviors that I can’t sit by and idly watch. Several of my most popular blog articles are related to exposing scams like the Amish Heat Surge miracle heater, the Arctic Cool Surge (yes, same company), and exposing the unworkable mathematics of all MLM schemes.

    biplane_ride_san_vicente

    I was reading through the website and I started to realize that the couple running it had a very familiar-sounding story. They mentioned that they had started a Barnstorming business in Pennsylvania in the early 1990’s, moved it to San Diego, and then grew it to 7 aircraft and 25 pilots before selling it and starting this new website and promoting their book entitled Undress for Success: The Naked Truth about Making Money at Home which is about how to work from home. It was Kate and Tom, the same couple I had met at New Garden Airport, all these years later! It’s certainly a very small world.

    I had been working on my own article about people who make money by selling others on the idea of how to make money on the Internet. The funny thing is that many of these sites are all writing about the same thing, which usually involves selling ‘secrets’ or starting an endless cycle of recruitment for information products. It sounds a lot like an abusive MLM business. The kingpins in the worst MLMs don’t actually make their money selling products, they make their money selling high-margin ‘educational materials’ and ‘tools’ to unsuspecting recruits month after month. This is precisely what these get rich quick membership sites (who generally want a direct line to make a monthly withdrawal from your bank account) are up to. When it’s all said and done, they sell you on a business that is nothing more than a recursive cycle for you to try to write and sell the same kind of information on the Internet. But who wants to buy from you when they can go right to the source, i.e., the guy holding up an image of his big earnings check on every one of his pages? They augment this income with a other questionable affiliates all who have something to sell you that sounds like it will teach you to get rich quick. Or, if not that, then information on how to get flat abs, or get ripped like Arnold Schwartzeneggar in 4 weeks.

    I just purchased the book based on the positive reviews I’ve read on Amazon. Websites that educate people on the perils of scams tend to restore my faith in humanity and I always feel good when I come across one.

    And if you can’t live without a ride in the vintage Travel Air, you can find it at Barnstorming Adventures (phone: 800-759-5667) located at Montgomery Field Airport in San Diego flying under the new ownership of another couple who no doubt purchased the business as an insurance policy… an insurance policy against a boring life. 🙂

    Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and on the Internet, that goes double.

  • The Sun Also Sets

    Posted on October 2nd, 2009 Lee Devlin 3 comments
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    Sun Microsystems has always intrigued me. For a number of years, it seemed as if the company could do no wrong. During the early 1990’s, Sun occupied the top position in high performance computer workstations, a category of computing that has since virtually disappeared thanks to advances in PC hardware. Despite desperate attempts to unseat it from its leadership position by worthy competitors like HP, DEC, and IBM, Sun was able to prevail.

    If you had purchased Sun stock in May of 1994, you’d have seen it skyrocket to nearly 100 times its value by August of 2000, just 6 years later. Had you kept it at the historical high price of $253/share, you’d have seen your investment lose more than 98% of its value when it came back down to just $3.17 a share by October 2008.

    SUNW/JAVA stock price meteoric rise and fall

    SUNW/JAVA stock price meteoric 100x rise and fall


    Sun has always been a leader and innovator. As the workstation market was overtaken by PCs running Windows, Sun became an exceptionally strong competitor in the server market. In 1999, Sun was riding high and looked to be unstoppable. The company was getting lots of positive press about its new language called Java which sought to be the long awaited ‘write once, run anywhere’ computer language. Presumably, it would be the last computer language that a developer would ever need to learn.

    Java had an incredible amount of hype surrounding it. Something that would relegate the Microsoft Windows operating system into a well-deserved irrelevance had finally arrived. No longer would all the popular desktop programs be forced to use Microsoft’s proprietary OS. Instead, applications could be written in Java and run equally well on a Mac, a PC, or any number of Unix-derived operating systems. It was a simple matter of providing a run time environment for each computing platform. That run time environment became known as the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). If you have an orange coffee cup in your systray that always seems to be begging for an update, then that is an indication that you have a Java Virtual Machine on your PC.

    The JVM looking for an update

    The JVM looking for an update

    For a while, many websites required the JVM to work properly, but lately I’ve noticed it has become much less necessary. And very few commercial desktop programs require a JVM. Whenever I install a new Windows OS, I can sometimes go for months before realizing I haven’t downloaded Sun’s JVM.

    The Java programming language should not to be confused with JavaScript which is a completely different language used primarily in web browsers which was developed independently of the Java programming language. JavaScript was developed by Netscape and was originally called LiveScript. When the folks at Netscape saw the positive response Java was enjoying back in 1996, they made a cross-marketing agreement with Sun to rename LiveScript to JavaScript to tap into Java’s significant cachet. Netscape agreed to promote the Java language in exchange.

    Despite all the hopes and dreams of Sun and enthusiastic Java developers, this ‘write once, run anywhere’ promise never achieved its potential. Today it looks even less likely that Java will unseat Windows from its hegemony on the PC. Apple has only recently managed to make some progress on the Windows desktop monopoly by finally breaking through single digit market share of installed base. Apple is now at 10% market share vs. Windows at 88.7% share according to a ComputerWorld report. But when it comes to desktop apps, Apple still relies on Microsoft to deliver the goods in the form of Office applications even for its Mac OS. I guess we’ll see if Google will have better luck than Apple in unseating Microsoft on the desktop with Google’s upcoming desktop OS and cloud computing approach to applications.

    After Sun developed Java, it appeared to change directions. Sun seemed to be intoxicated with Java’s assured future success. This infatuation with a language that had failed to achieve its mission in any significant way 12 years after being introduced reached its zenith when Sun changed its stock symbol from SUNW to JAVA in 2007. I think it was Sun’s way of turning its back on its hardware roots in exchange for the promised fortunes of free software. For Sun’s market cap, the downhill slide continued despite the new stock symbol.

    I had worked with Sun back in the late 1990’s and found that if you emailed Sun a Microsoft Word document it would be rejected along with a request that you to re-submit it in HTML format. I thought this was rather odd, since Microsoft’s Word was emerging as a defacto standard and surely someone at Sun should have been able to convert it to HTML. But then I found out that Sun employees didn’t have Windows computers and weren’t allowed to buy them. This was around the time that laptops running Windows were becoming indispensable business tools. Sun had acquired an insane hatred for all that emanated from Microsoft to the point where the use of its products was prohibited. In essence, Sun’s management had constructed a reality distortion field for itself and the rest of the company.

    Sun acquired StarOffice in 1999. It later offered the software as a free open source “almost-compatible” alternative to Windows Office applications and called it OpenOffice. I’ve used OpenOffice which is the free version of StarOffice, but have found the applications lacking true compatibility. It feels like a product that was built without any apparent business model in mind, unless you consider a quixotic attempt to marginalize your archenemy’s revenue source to be a business model.

    Sun had always been vertically integrated, supplying not only its own operating system, but also its own computing hardware all the way down to its Sparc CPU. Sun made some early tentative steps to get its Solaris OS to run on x86 CPUs, but the early efforts never really gained much traction, likely an indication that they were conflicted about making it work. Instead of figuring it out, Sun abandoned those efforts and continued to promote its Sparc architecture, and continues to offer Sparc-based hardware to this day. I believe it was this decision to try to do battle with not just Microsoft, but also with Intel, that furthered Sun’s problems. Sun entered into an alliance with AMD in 2004, but AMD has problems of its own, namely that it has to compete with Intel too. Finally, in 2007, Sun began working with Intel by adopting Xeon CPUs for its high-end servers. But I think it was too late at that point.

    In 2004 Sun arrived at a legal settlement with Microsoft, claiming the company was exercising its monopoly position to ruin Java, earning it $1.95 B for its years of legal wrangling. However, I think the damage done to the relationship between the two companies was beyond repair. By the time of the settlement, Sun was hemorrhaging. Giving an ailing company that much cash is like giving it to a crack addict. They’ll only use it to go on a binge and, based on the sort of acquisitions made after that point in time, that’s exactly what happened.

    Sun spent $1 billion to acquire MySQL in 2008, an open source database project that was no doubt starting to give Oracle and its competitors cause for concern because it was encroaching on the highly profitable database business. This acquisition did little to boost Sun’s prospects because MySQL really didn’t seem to fit in anywhere at Sun, and it’s hard to imagine there was any potential for revenue since MySQL was already open source and freely downloadable. Only about 1% of MySQL customers were paying for it. That sort of genie cannot be stuffed back in a bottle. To make matters worse, Sun was determined to move it upstream by improving its performance, furthering its threat to database companies who were still charging for their software.

    By early 2009, Sun, having lost nearly 98% of its market value and suffering from years of losses or break-even results, was looking to be put out of its misery by being acquired by a rival. IBM appeared to be the front runner but in a surprise bid, Oracle came in and made an offer that Sun accepted instead. The deal is still pending some regulatory approvals.

    What Oracle expects to achieve with Sun is anyone’s guess, but I think Oracle made the deal to get its hands on MySQL and to make sure it never becomes a competitive threat to its primary source of revenue. Despite claims to the contrary, Oracle has no need for Sun’s hardware business because it is no longer sufficiently differentiated from the competition. Sun’s software businesses have never made any money when one considers the cost of developing, supporting, and defending them. It’s just mystifying to me what Oracle’s Larry Ellison thinks he’s getting for $7.5 billion. I suppose if the company can be parted out, Ellison will be able to derail further development of MySQL, keep Sun’s $3 billion in cash, and sell off the rest of the company in an effort to recoup the remaining $4.5 billion. Oracle probably won’t risk entering the hardware business and thus alienating key allies like HP, Dell, and IBM when it comes to offering its database server on their hardware. My guess is that once the deal is approved and things quiet down, a fire sale for what’s left of Sun’s assets will ensue.

    Sun was a formidable company in its heyday, and I’m sure there are still a lot of smart people there despite Bill Joy’s proclamation to the contrary, now known as Joy’s Law, that ‘most of the smartest people work for someone else’. That statement comes across with such a demoralizing thud that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around its true meaning. Scott McNealy, Sun’s former President and CEO, known primarily for his sarcastic sound bites about Sun’s competitors and his periodic resurrections, has somehow been silenced. I don’t think he’ll be making a reappearance because Ellison is not the type of person who likes to be upstaged, as can be seen from the YouTube video below where he amuses the audience with his take on Cloud Computing.

    Despite the multitudes of really smart people at Sun, its decline, fall, and consumption shows that no amount of technical brilliance can overcome bad decisions on the part of management.

  • Business Relationships vs. Hostage Situations

    Posted on September 25th, 2009 Lee Devlin No comments
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    I’ve been working with computers for a very long time, dating back to the time when you needed to use punched cards to program them. After graduating with several engineering degrees from Penn State, I went on to design computer peripherals for a major computer firm for many years. Because of my computer experience, my friends, most of whom are not computer experts, often use me as their first line of defense when they have a computer problem. And these days, “business is a boomin’.”

    Part of the reason people have trouble with their PCs is because of the aggressive nature of companies trying to shove services down the throat of anyone who gets on the Internet. Not content to festoon what might otherwise be useful information with blinking banner ads, the new target of choice is the browser’s toolbar.

    Last night I was helping my auto mechanic friend with his computer because it had lost his user profile, and Windows would let him log in but wouldn’t remember any of his desktop icons or save any of his browser’s bookmarks. He needs his computer to do his job as a mechanic since GM has moved all of its documentation on-line and without a computer, you just can’t function as an auto mechanic anymore. I know that sounds unbelievable but it’s true.

    While I was adding a new user and copying his data over from his prior user’s settings, which seems to be the only way to fix a broken user profile on Windows, I noticed that his browser real estate had shrunk considerably since I first helped him to set up the computer. Why? It was because numerous toolbars had somehow managed to install themselves without my friend’s help. I suppose he may have helped a little but I can assure you it wasn’t intentional. I know this because his smile brightened more each time I managed to make one of them disappear. So in addition to fixing the main problem, namely the lost Windows profile, I also spent a lot of time cleaning up the computer.

    Not only did I remove the offending toolbars, but I also removed all the miscellaneous links HP had included in his browser before he even set up the computer. He was too afraid to delete these items for fear he might break something. I call this stuff ‘crapware’, because it usually induces a customer to try crippled versions of programs or services which seek to get him to sign up for a perpetual subscription to an unnecessary service. And I should mention that the computer crawled along at a snail’s pace because of its heavy-handed virus protection software which his employer requires him to use, at his expense, of course.

    I might have forgotten about this travesty and you’d not be reading it here, but then I got spammed by Sun today. I’ve been constructing an article in my head about Sun Microsystems which I will publish soon about how this once proud and capable company is now engaging in a desperate attempt to monetize the un-monetizable, namely Java, by using Java’s persistent need for updates as a trojan horse. I made sure to visit Sun’s CEO blog, written by the pony-tailed Jonathan Schwartz himself, just to make sure that was their plan. Sure enough, it was.

    In my haste to quiet that little Java coffee cup by saying ‘yes’ to the update, it installed Carbonite’s crapware on my PC. Now, I’m no fan of on-line backup services and had previously written a critical review of what I think of them. Part of my view is colored by an image that I will now convey to you. Hang on, because I think you’ll like it. In any event, I can guarantee you won’t forget it.

    A few years ago I witnessed a sales pitch for a service to provide on-line backup. I won’t mention the perpetrator, and you’ll never guess who it was because this idea was pitched by at least a million companies over the past few years and it’s one of those bad ideas that simply will not die. But during the presentation, the presenter took several opportunities to indoctrinate us, much like he was reciting a mantra, with this phrase:

    “When you hold the customer’s data, you hold the customer.”

    Along with this mantra, delivered with pregnant pauses both before and after, he used a hand gesture. Imagine holding an invisible tennis ball out in front of you at approximately waist level, palm pointed upward. The image is that of grasping and squeezing a person’s unmentionables. Wow! I think I knew where he was going with this. It wasn’t a business relationship he was proposing, it was a hostage situation.

    Thanks, but no thanks. I’d prefer not to get involved in that kind of thing.

    Yet it is precisely this kind of desperate business model that gets investors all worked up these days. No longer can you propose to provide a useful and valuable service for which people are willing to pay. Instead you must trick them into accepting something (often something offered for ‘free’) and then force them to become some sort of stooge, paying you perpetually for your right to continually abuse them.

    I can only hope that this nonsense fades into oblivion, because I don’t want to live in a world where every business relationship requires duplicity and, eventually, larceny.

    The next time someone is proposing to give you something that sounds like it’s for free, grab your wallet and anything else you’d like to hang on to and run in the opposite direction, because if you don’t, your valuables will soon be in the possession of someone who may not treat them with the same respect that you have for them.