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A bi-weekly column with timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the BC technology industry.

Something Ventured:
June 1st, 2007

By Brent Holliday
Greenstone Venture Partners

Two Ideas Today


“Walked out this morning,

Don't believe what I saw.

A hundred billion bottles,

Washed up on the shore.

Seems I'm not alone at being alone…

A hundred billion castaways,

Looking for a home” – The Police, Message In A Bottle

A few weeks ago, Judy Bishop wrote a piece in Business In Vancouver about e-mail overload.  If you didn’t read it, the gist is that we are using e-mail too much as a replacement for interpersonal communication by phone or in person.  She specifically referred to e-mails that have emotion attached to them (anger being the worst one, but cover you’re a** blind copying of someone else’s communication being another huge issue) that tend to be wasting a lot of time as people can wrongly interpret meaning from text.  Judy talked about “e-mail free” days that some corporations are instituting to try and improve social interaction where we humans are good (visual and audible cues to how a person really feels are critical to communication (just ask a good poker player).

I agree with Judy’s thesis that we are over-using the technology beyond what it was intended to do, which is asynchronously communicate.  If you think about it, it is a messaging service that lets you send information for processing at some later date (5 minutes from now, to a year from now).  Its use as a real time communication system is flawed on many levels, not the least of which is its unreliability for arriving in real time.  E-mail’s real killer app in the corporate world is task management.  It allows you to collect all of the things that people are asking of you, organize, prioritize and respond in time.  If I need to communicate with you right now, I can show up at your desk, call you, start a video link or instant message/SMS you.  If I need to communicate with you right now, it will be different than sending you something for review or asking you for something that can wait.  Real time means let’s get to a solution right now… this can’t wait.  If it can wait, send me an e-mail and I will get back to you… 

The major issues with e-mail that Judy cites are because it is being used inappropriately as a real time communication tool (I don’t mean inappropriate content which is another problem) and not as a defined business process. There is no need to immediately respond to an e-mail in most cases.  There is no need to check your e-mail every five minutes either.  But e-mail free Fridays?  That’s a bit extreme…

Texting and instant messaging are very different than e-mail.  They are short bursts of conversation mimicking real conversation.  You don’t sit with someone and talk for 10 minutes and ask for them to respond (well, some of you do, but you probably don’t have many friends).  So, on some level, this real time technology is better than e-mail for interpersonal communication.  We can attach emoticons and shorten words to near hieroglyphics to actually engage in conversation.  If you are in a meeting and messaging on your Blackberry to someone else, that is an attention disorder problem facilitated by technology, not a problem caused by the technology.

E-mail is so predominant because it worked well in the hypergrowth phase of the Internet.  Quite simply, it worked, where many other new technologies, especially real time ones, were questionable.  As broadband penetration improves, so does the capability for audio and video links in real time.  Nothing substitutes for a face to face meeting, but high definition video that does not jitter and freeze will be the next best thing to being there.  Of course we are still a few years from that happening on everyone’s desktop.  E-mail is predominant because it worked in a slow connection world.  It started to get mis-used as a real time communication medium which has lead to the issues that Judy speaks about.  She failed to mention carpal tunnel syndrome or Blackberry thumb which will also gradually improve with audio/Webex and video communication as we stop typing absolutely everything.

E-mail will always be a fantastic task management system if you use it as such.  Over time, we will see that it becomes used less as a synchronous conversation medium which will ease some of the issues we have today.  There will be other ways to talk more effectively over distance. Of course, if you are still e-mailing the person in the next cubicle something that can be said in person, then you are clearly mis-using the technology… you might want to show your face a little more to your co-workers.

On a completely different note this week…

As you may know from reading in this space, I really enjoy the stories of success in BC.  I enjoy bringing the trials, tribulations, key turning points and rewards of entrepreneurial success to you.  Some of you suggest I should write a book.  If I did sit down and write one, it would be a biography or a series of biographies on this topic.  Even though this would be an enjoyable labour of love for me, I doubt that a publisher would be interested in an audience of about 15,000 in total, assuming all you regular readers would pay!!!

One of the most important stories in BC’s technology history and one that I would definitely enjoy writing is the story of MDA.  Now BC’s largest technology company, it was also the founding company from which many, many local successes (and a few failures) can trace their roots.  Just this week, an ex MDI friend of mine forwarded me a link from their Google groups post that I want to share with everyone:

“From: Chris Schofield

I'd like to take a little walk down memory lane - back exactly 30 years to 1977. For those of us who are geeks, the original Star Wars movie was being shown and the first Apple II had gone on sale. So too had the Commodor PET, with its 4k memory and audio cassette storage, running Microsoft Basic 1.0. The Internet as we know it did not exist. Arpanet was around, but with less than 200 hosts and X.25 was an emerging standard for packet data and UUCP, or unix-to-unix-copy, had not invented. There were a few early trials of packet radio on Arpanet in the bay area.

At this time there was a group of people at Macdonald Dettwiler and Associates, working on a project for the RCMP to send data over wireless modems and this resulted in a trial system for the Vancouver police. A year later in 1978, Mobile Data International was born. MDI grew quickly after winning the Fedex business and many of the people have since moved on to form MDSI, Sierra Wireless, Webtech Wireless to name a few.  

Perhaps I'm just showing my age, but I personally find the history of technology very interesting and I recently started a pet project to record it. Last week I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours with Dr John Macdonald, who is a great leader in BC technology, talking about the early days of MDA and spin-off companies including MDI. A few weeks ago I interviewed Victor Jones, who was one of the first presidents of MDI.

I will be sharing these fascinating stories and the wisdom of the pioneering leaders through the medium of podcasting. My first episode of "BC Technology Review" has been posted at http://inceptionsoft.net with an RSS feed and it can also be found at iTunes. Currently, I plan to distribute a 30 minute podcast each week as I explore the wireless and high tech industry in BC.”

I have listened to Chris’ first installment and it is like sitting down over an ale with John MacDonald.  He is a good story teller… but like any podcast, it can be rambling if you are short on time!  There are some great bits in there about how the company started and some of the little anecdotes about commercializing technology that are still relevant today.  His second installment is with Victor Jones, former CEO of MDI through its rapid growth phase.

The cool thing about what Chris is doing is that he wants to chronicle all of the great stories of the first 30 years of BC’s technology industry eventually.  Hopefully my exposure here helps a few of you visit his site and his sponsors so that he can continue this project.  I will certainly be tuning in.

What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday

Something Ventured
is a bi-weekly column designed to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the industry. I hope to share some of the perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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