[TheStandard] OpenCola, drink it down, and kick the can...

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From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Tue Oct 24 2000 - 13:45:40 PDT

The happiest geek on earth, eh? Wildly oversubscribed for his 15-buck
second round, eh?


How do *I* find the stuff you don't know you don't know? Through my
buddies, not through the clicks of a bunch of anonymous monkeys surfing in
their Web browsers. The reason Napster is popular is the COMMUNITY. p2p
has nothing to do with it, except to the extent that it promotes MORE


Nouveau Niche

Meet p2pness incarnate: Cory Doctorow. Disney freak, science-fiction
novelist and self-described "happiest geek on Earth." His peer-to-peer
dream is to help obscure artists find their audience.

By Mark Frauenfelder, October 23, 2000

It's easy to spot Cory Doctorow at the bar of the Beverly Hills Trader
Vic's. Among the surgically rejuvenated matrons, sun-burned tourists and
Hollywood machers, he stands out in his retro clothes, horn-rimmed glasses
and Drew Carey crewcut, drinking virgin mojitos and playing SimCity on his
Handspring (HAND) Visor.

Doctorow, 29, knows as much about tropical drinks as the bartender.
Ordering another round of mojitos for both of us, he rattles off the
ingredients: "Bar sugar, crushed mint leaves, crushed ice, lime juice, and
club soda." How does he know that? "I bought a 1947 copy of the Trader
Vic's Bar Guide at a yard sale in Toronto for $2!" he boasts. No rum? "Not
tonight. I'm driving to Disneyland after dinner." He'll use any excuse to
come to Southern California (like the digital music conference he attended
here last week) if it means a chance for him to make a pilgrimage to his
mouse-eared mecca.

Doctorow has a thing for Disneyland. As with his obscure knowledge of Cuban
cocktails, Sputnik-inspired wall clocks and dumpster-diving for high-tech
recyclables, Doctorow is obsessed with the Magic Kingdom. The backgrounder
he passes around to VCs describes him as a "Disney freak." He lives in
Toronto, but owns an annual pass to the Anaheim theme park, owns the URLs
enchantedtikiroom.com, piratesofthecarribean.com, hauntedmansion.com and
mrtoadswildride.com, and scours eBay (EBAY) daily for Disneyana. His
business card looks like an old-fashioned Disneyland E-Ticket, labeling him
"the happiest geek on Earth."

Why so happy? Two reasons. First, after years of writing for obscure
science-fiction magazines (even the world's biggest science-fiction
magazine is obscure can you name it?), Doctorow won the prestigious John
W. Campbell award for his collected body of short fiction.

Second, Doctorow is giddy with the prospect of being "wildly
oversubscribed" for the $15 million in second-round funding for his
company, OpenCola, which he and 25-year-old John Henson started in 1999. As
chief information officer of the open-source software developer, Doctorow
believes he will make it possible for consumers and creators of niche media
to make a living without resorting to temp work and sponging off parents.

The company's flagship product also called OpenCola is a peer-to-peer
file sharing and search-engine technology that's a little like Napster, a
little like Gnutella and a little like SETI@Home. With 50 employees
scattered between OpenCola's Toronto headquarters and its new San Francisco
offices, the company hopes to solve what Doctorow claims is "the real
problem of this millennium: resource discovery, finding the good stuff.
Because everything is out there and available, but how do you find it?"

According to Doctorow, three domains of knowledge exist: the stuff you
know, the stuff you know you don't know, and the stuff you don't know you
don't know. The stuff you know is like, 'I know how to make brownies,'" he
explains. "The stuff you don't know is, 'I don't know how to make nut
brownies,' and the stuff you don't know you don't know is there's another
confectionery you might like better than brownies." It's this last bit
OpenCola offers users. "That's the critical problem," says Doctorow. "How
do you find the stuff you don't know you don't know? "

Doctorow thinks he's got the answer. Still in alpha, OpenCola (which,
depending on the mood Doctorow is in, stands for either Collaborative
Object Lookup Architecture, Cows Orbiting at Low Altitude or Cory On Lotsa
Acid) is a free, downloadable application that, like Napster, resides on a
user's hard drive and links to other OpenCola users' hard drives. The big
difference is that it keeps track of users' Web searches and selections,
anonymously sharing that information with other OpenCola users who make
similar searches.

Here's how OpenCola works. Say you enjoy reading about rock climbing. You'd
install an OpenCola program on your computer and feed it a couple of rock
climbing articles, or simply type in some keywords, such as "flapper,"
"hang-dogging" and "dirt me." OpenCola will construct a software robot
(sort of a single-purpose search engine) that goes onto the Net to dig up
stuff that matches your criteria. It does two kinds of digging. First, it
fetches files from the Web just like any other search spider. But the robot
goes one step further by looking for other users' OpenCola robots looking
for the same kinds of things you are. Then, your robot grabs files the
other users have fetched and found worthwhile. In other words, you benefit
from the decision-making of the other like-minded OpenCola users. It's like
a Web-size version of Amazon.com (AMZN) 's "people who liked that book will
like this book" service.

When you get the results of an OpenCola search, you can click a button to
"reward" the robot for finding good files, which encourages it to bring you
similar documents, or click another button to "punish" it when it finds bad
files, which will teach it to stop dragging that kind of trash into your
computer. This information is then shared with like-minded users on the
OpenCola network and can lead to interesting surprises, says Doctorow. For
instance, your robot will eventually start to bring you documents that
aren't about rock climbing, but which have been pegged by other climbers as

The good stuff gets pushed to the top even more quickly because OpenCola
gives extra weight to the decisions of users who consistently pick things
that a lot of other like-minded people find useful, creating a sort of
reputation economy in which the behavior of the most trustworthy users gets
propagated through the network.

Buzzwords aside, the aim of OpenCola is to replicate that infinitely hip
friend of yours who points you to songs, video clips and articles he just
knows you'll love.

This passion for pushing the obscure comes from Doctorow's experience as
the quintessential niche guy. As a science-fiction writer, a Mac user and a
Canadian citizen, Doctorow knows all about niche markets. The biggest
science-fiction magazine in the world, Analog, has fewer than 70,000
subscribers. There are 10 million Mac users, but it is considered by most
Web-application developers to be too much of a niche to bother with. And
Doctorow is from Canada, a country of 25 million English speakers who are
often not considered cost-effective for publishers.

Doctorow's dream is that OpenCola's technology will help the millions of
artists who can't afford to publicize themselves in a worldwide market. He
believes OpenCola will make it possible for any arbitrary piece of media to
find its audience.

That's a much different approach than Napster or Gnutella, which don't
allow musicians to contact or transact business with potential listeners.
OpenCola has a mechanism in place for publishers to sell their material, or
give some or all of it away. Naturally, OpenCola takes a cut of the
transaction; that's the business model. A musician might offer a song or
part of a song for free, allowing access to a full download for a fee.

OpenCola also supports the "tip protocol" a la Stephen King, where users
download material and pay for it on the honor system, and the unfortunately
named "street-performer protocol," where a creator releases a work into the
public domain after a certain amount of money has been "thrown into the
hat" by any number of customers.

Of course, Doctorow hopes that big companies as well as niche publishers
will see the power OpenCola has in connecting consumers with producers.

One gets the feeling that Doctorow is doing OpenCola partly as some kind of
postmodern science-fiction performance art experiment, where humans and
their personal robots team up to score more whuffie points (used in
OpenCola's reputation-ranking system) than anyone else on the network. Or
at the very least, it resembles an information-age Rube Goldberg
contraption that is dependent on the perfect operation of each component,
lest the whole thing collapses in a heap of broken links and fractured ideals.

Indeed, the inspiration for OpenCola was to see if the ideas from his
unpublished novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, would work. In the
novel, death, disease and poverty have been eliminated, and warring groups
of Disney freaks fight for the right to maintain the rides at the original
theme parks. The book is a result of Doctorow's quick education in project
management, and the concept of whuffie points as the currency of an
all-important reputation economy plays prominently in the novel. Doctorow
admits there's significant overlap between OpenCola and his fiction. "One
of the things we say in our investor presentations is that we are going to
put a label on OpenCola that reads, 'Warning: Portions of this software
conceived by a science-fiction writer. May not work as advertised.'"


Prozac can make it better. -- Offspring, "Original Prankster"

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