Bitcoin and the blockchain

You’ve probably heard of bitcoin, the most recognized online cryptocurrency, but like me, you may not know very much about it. The concept of a peer-to-peer (P2P) currency which requires no intermediaries to facilitate transactions is exciting to me, because of its potential to make transactions more efficient. Nobody likes middlemen.

The concept behind bitcoin, and other similar currencies, is the blockchain. Blockchain is a distributed ledger of transactions, replicated across the network by members or users of the chain in sequence. Each new entry is timestamped and follows the previous valid transaction. A transaction, once validated, cannot be reversed. The strength of the process is rooted in the distributed nature of the blockchain. It’s basically a constantly updating database that everyone has a copy of, or at least part of a copy of it.

Deloitte held a Dbriefs webinar on blockchain on January 14. It was an introduction to all of us (it seemed) to the confusing concept of blockchain, and how it will be used in the future by businesses to conduct transactions. The Big Four are really starting to explore the potential of blockchain in this area.

In case I haven’t made it clear (and that’s a real possibility), the picture in this WSJ blog post is worth a thousand words, and at least several thousand of my words.

In talking to a friend of mine the other day about blockchain, he noted that the primary risk is on how distributed the blockchain is, or whether any single entity controls a significant part of it. This makes sense, because if any one entity controls a significant part of the chain, it can effect fraudulent transactions, and replicate them across the chain.

A second criticism of blockchain is whether there is anything original about it if there is no cryptocurrency involved. For bitcoin, it only exists in its blockchain. For transactions involving non-cryptocurrencies, is blockchain any different from a database with a distributed version of multiversion concurrency control?

I’m pretty interested to see where this technology takes us. How do you think bitcoin, and the blockchain, will be used in the future?

Canada’s government announces Start-Up Visa Program

Canada’s federal government recently announced a Start-Up Visa Program aimed at attracting international entrepreneurs to the country.

Overall it is sending the right message to global entrepreneurs, that Canada welcomes them and their ideas in the hopes of creating jobs in here in an area of growth.

I hope it won’t create an uneven playing field against homegrown entrepreneurs, but my contacts in the industry think it’ll be a net positive. Deal flow will increase in Canada, which will benefit existing start-ups and innovators. The rising tide of more money sloshing around this part of the economy will lift all the boats, as it were.

Existing companies stand to benefit from at least one of the explicit goals of the Program, which is to bring in motivated individuals from around the world, deepening the talent pool for all companies.

What do you think?

Dropbox increases maximum free storage via referrals

Dropbox announced yesterday they are increasing the amount of free storage one can earn by referring people to the service!

I wrote a blog post about the service almost three years ago, claiming they made USB drives obsolete. Dropbox offers 2GB of free cloud storage that integrates seemlessly into Windows, Mac and Linux, and more storage (50GB or 100GB) for a monthly or annual fee. They also introduced a service for teams, which I could see being very useful for small businesses with remote workers in particular.

The old blog post was very successful for me, as seven people signed up for Dropbox using my referral link, netting me an extra 500MB each time!

If you haven’t yet tried it, give it a shot. The way it integrates with the operating system makes it so easy to use, and the web interface is great for those times when you don’t have administrator access to your computer but still need to get those files!

Integrate social media efforts across marketing and customer service

Most organizations likely place social media responsibilities primarily (or solely) with marketing, but a recent interview with Cisco’s Marketing Director on WebWorkerDaily, now part of GigaOM provides some insightful tips and makes the case for spreading it throughout the company, especially to customer service:

The heads of both your marketing and customer service departments should meet regularly. Marketing plans should be shared with — and can even be enhanced by — customer service. Each side should know how to use social media to not only fulfill their own goals but to help one another to get closer to reaching overall company goals.

Ensuring the alignment with the overall strategic plan is the key point, and in many cases KPIs for both groups will be similar. Hopefully customer service is already involved in other marketing efforts, but it’s especially important in the interactive space of social media. Customer service is better positioned to turn feedback into improvements to operations where identified.

Measure results together. As expectations are high for tangible returns on social media marketing investments, bring customer service in to help measure, analyze and tell the story of how social media is effective for the company.

Mine social media for more than sentiment. Instead of just looking for the positive, negative and neutral of what customers are saying about a company’s product or service, look for clues to how the public perceives the company as a whole.

Demonstrating a return on social media investments is a challenge for many companies, but collaboration across functions will help. As well, the social media team should build relationships with others subject matter experts within the company, so that customer feedback can be informed or addressed by the people best able to do so accurately. Tech companies, such as Google with their official blog, tend to do really well with this.

Building social media competence across the organization should also have the side effect of nurturing responsible personal use, which is still a risk, although one which I believe often unnecessarily overshadows the potential for beneficial use of social media to a company.

How are social media responsibilities organized in your company?

Opening up Outlook’s data format

In Q4 last year, Microsoft announced through its Interoperability @ Microsoft blog that it was planning to open up its proprietary PST email format used by Outlook.

The data in .pst files has been accessible through the Messaging API (MAPI) and Outlook Object Model (two things of which my understanding is minimal at best), but only if the user has Outlook installed:

In order to facilitate interoperability and enable customers and vendors to access the data in .pst files on a variety of platforms, we will be releasing documentation for the .pst file format. This will allow developers to read, create, and interoperate with the data in .pst files in server and client scenarios using the programming language and platform of their choice. The technical documentation will detail how the data is stored, along with guidance for accessing that data from other software applications. It also will highlight the structure of the .pst file, provide details like how to navigate the folder hierarchy, and explain how to access the individual data objects and properties.

The documentation will be released under Microsoft’s Open Specification Promise, which means that it is protected against patent claims. Other Microsoft Office formats, such as the XML-based .docx and .xlsx, and the older binary formats .doc and .xls, are covered under this promise.

This seems like a big win for users of Microsoft Outlook. Along with CodePlex, which hosts open source projects, it seems like Microsoft is slowly opening things up and making life easier for their customers. It certainly has the potential to make it easier for customers to leave the Outlook platform. From GigaOM:

In the past, if someone was moving from Outlook/Exchange to Gmail or any other platform, there was a pretty tedious process of exporting pieces of data from Outlook into various formats before moving over to the new platform. Basically, once you didn’t have Outlook, that .pst was a useless brick of data. Now in that case you’ll be able to take that .pst file with you and if other apps/platforms build readers, they will be able access that data. So migration to other platforms is a valid use case where there’s some benefit.

Some more ideas as to the reasons why Microsoft is making this change were floated on ZDnet a day after the announcement:

[Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft,] added that he believed Microsoft is trying to wean large customers from storing mail in .PST files or file systems “because doing that makes it hard for organizations to back up all their e-mail, enforce e-mail retention policies, and locate relevant e-mails during legal discovery.”

Not just retention, but perhaps helping organizations mine their email data for knowledge which can all too frequently be lost forever if an employee leaves the company? Here’s an idea: How about a tool that will gather information from emails dating back years and populate a wiki automatically for new employees?

[Rob Sanfilippo, another Directions on Microsoft analyst] added that .PSTs “are used most frequently for archiving purposes and Exchange Server 2010 includes a new server-based Personal Archive feature that gives users a separate mailbox to use for archiving on the server instead of using a PST.” He said this gives weight to the aforementioned idea that Microsoft is trying to help organizations get users off PSTs and onto server storage.”

Then, in February of this year, the promised documentation was released on the MSDN website. Finally, about a month ago, two open source tools that make use of the documentation were released on CodePlex:

  • The PST Data Structure View Tool is a graphical tool allowing the developers to browse the internal data structures of a PST file. The primary goal of this tool is to assist people who are learning .pst format and help them to better understand the documentation.
  • The PST File Format SDK is a cross platform C++ library for reading .pst files that can be incorporated into solutions that run on top of the .pst file format. The capability to write data to .pst files is part of the roadmap will be added to the SDK.

The project has seen some exciting progress, which is good news for organizations that use Outlook. And as you might know, data visualization used to enhance understanding is a favourite topic of mine!

What risk do these developments address within Outlook’d organizations? Knowledge/information management is critical to so many companies. The use, retention and (hopefully) reuse of knowledge developed by employees and stored in email conversations within Outlook will be enhanced through this openness.

Has your organization taken these developments into account in your audits of knowledge/information management and strategy?