On Success, Failure, Rational Faith and Nihilism

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Mike Arrington announced the sad departure from the scene of Edgeio, a company he co-founded.  That brought out the usual mix of supportive voices and critics. At AdventNet, the company behind the Zoho services, we have had successes and lots of failures too. We have launched over 60 products covering a variety of areas over the years. Enough of them have succeeded sufficiently well that, collectively, as a company, AdventNet is doing remarkably well. Yet a lot of our products have failed too – in the sense of not making a reasonable return on the time, effort & resources we invested.  It is the failures that often stick in the mind, and teach valuable lessons. This post is about failure.

First, let us accept that in almost anything worth doing, anything out of the mundane and the ordinary, a priori odds favor failure, often overwhelmingly so. You want to win a olympic gold medal? Give it up already. You want to win a Nobel prize? Good luck.  Even in activities one would think are reasonably predictable (like opening a cafe), odds favor failure, only less overwhelmingly so.  So it is obvious that a perfectly rational decision-making process that takes into account only those a priori odds would recommend giving up right at the starting gate.

But here is the crucial point: even if a rational decision-making process took into account the often intangible “situation-specific” information – like the fact that the person who wants to work towards an olympic gold medal is already a star-athlete at the collegiate level or the person who wants to open a restaurant is a great cook – it would recommend giving up. So why does  anyone tries to do anything out of the ordinary at all, when the situation is so hopeless a priori?

Therein lies the conundrum: if everyone gave up because of the overwhelming odds, no progress is possible. In other words,  only because enough people accept the overwhelming personal risk of failure,  collective progress becomes possible.

To bridge that gap between personal failure and collective progress, we need an extra element, to make people persist against the odds. That element goes by different names: the inner confidence, the will power, the stubbornness, the determination, the passion to win – these intrinsically unmeasurable traits make people persist against the odds, and make progress even possible. I call these traits “Rational Faith” – because it is remarkably akin to religious faith.  In fact, most people who persist against hopeless odds actually have religious faith in ample degree, so rational faith is well correlated with religious faith. Yet I choose to call this rational faith, because in a collective sense, such a faith is rational – as a posteriori evidence of progress makes clear. It is still faith, because it has to be axiomatically accepted – in the sense that there is no a priori logical proof possible.

Now, for those of you who consider themselves non-religious, the opposite of that rational faith I refer to above is not atheism, but nihilism. From the Wikipedia:

Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is a philosophical position which argues that Being, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.

Rational faith stands in stark opposition to this. You can be of any religious persuasion (or no religious persuasion at all) and still have ample rational faith. Rational faith is beyond conventional categories like good and evil – it is perfectly possible to have a lot of passion for something really evil.  Likewise, it is possible to be conventionally religious and still be a nihilist at heart. A reasonable dialog about success and failure is only possible when the rational faith axiom is accepted. In other words, don’t argue with a nihilist!

Rise of The Firebox

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Yesterday, we got a Zonbu box, a sleek device that arrived in the mail. My first reaction on turning it on was “This is totally silent”. I was determined to detect that wee-bit of sound, may be a little fan or a disk purring somewhere deep inside – I kept it close to the ear, but heard nothing but total silence. Only when you experience the Zonbu, you realize just how much we have been conditioned to expect a computer to make those sounds, and how valuable total silence is. Zonbu says this device is extremely power efficient – another reason to love it.

Before I turn this post into an ode to silence, let me come to my main point. Let me define Firebox to be a device that is designed to run Firefox well. Zonbu is a great Firebox. So is the Asus EEE PC. They run Linux, but the main work is done through the pre-installed Firefox. These come in varying form factors, ranging from small boxes on the desktop to ultra-light portables. Eventually, they will likely come in the iPod form factor too, which would be my preferred configuration. I would like the ability to plug-in an external monitor or keyboard (USB?) in that iPod configuration, so that I am not limited by the screen size. Better still, perhaps a tiny projector could be embedded, along with a virtual keyboard, so that a full keyboard and display are supported, with no additional hardware.

I love the Firebox computing model (yeah, big surprise!). Even now, I normally work on 3 different computers, one a big-screen desktop at work, one laptop and an old PC I keep around at home for testing but I end up using extensively, because it is always on, ready to go. That old PC is still useful mainly because it runs Firefox well. Whenever Raju would let me, I also use a drop-dead gorgeous Mac, which is his main computer. When the Zonbu arrived, within minutes, I was accessing my documents in Zoho – I have a feeling I am going to be spending a lot of time with the Zonbu Firebox, as I have named the device.

Zonbu & Asus EEE PC point to a broader trend; the rise of web applications go hand-in-hand with the rise of such Fireboxes, which most mobiles will be in due course. When these devices break the $100 barrier (the Zonbu already has a $99 price point, with a subscription agreement), perhaps even the $50 barrier, expect mass adoption, particularly in emerging markets. What the $1000 PC did in the US is what the $100 Firebox will do in India. India now has over 250 million mobile phone subscribers. Every one of them is a potential Firebox user in future. Somehow I seriously doubt the $100 Firebox user is going to shell out $300+ for an office suite.

It is an exciting time to be in this industry.

(Update: Krish points out in his comment that Novatium, a Chennai based company is doing something very similar. Their price point is just a little over $100 too. Thanks, Krish!)

Update on Updates

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Couple of weeks back I briefed about updates to different Zoho apps. In the last two weeks we did several important updates as well. Some of the very recent updates include…

Our previous updates also include…

These are some of updates that were rolled out in the past 4 weeks. You’ll see more updates coming soon for other Zoho apps as well. If you’d like to be updated on new Zoho announcements, subscribe here. If you’d like to see any specific features added in Zoho, please drop us a line.

Discussion: Zoho Writer Offline on Google Gears

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Myself and Sridhar sat down with Dion Almaer from Google Gears team to chat regarding our Offline Editing capabilities in Zoho Writer. We talked about how we implemented editing capabilities, what’s next and other related stuff.

Here is the video of our discussions with Dion. He also talked about this in Google Gears blog. You can find our previous discussion here.

Zoho Business – Scheduled Update

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We’ve scheduled an important server-side update for Zoho Business tonight (Tuesday, December 04, 2007) between 10.00PM PST and 11.00PM PST. During this time, access to Zoho Business will not be available.

We apologize for the very short notice and for any inconveniences that this may cause.

Sridhar Interviewed in ‘Working Webware’

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Sridhar was interviewed for the first episode of ‘Working Webware’, a video show done by Dan Farber, ZDNet’s Editor in Chief & Rafe Needleman, Webware.com’s Editor. According to Dan, Working Webware will “look at some of the up and coming companies and products aimed at businesses”.

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Watch the video here. More about the episode here : Can Zoho get a good share of the SMB market?

Thanks to Rafe & Dan for the opportunity!