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Locked and Bloated

By - December 05, 2012

(image Vator News) Companies get big. Companies gain market dominance. Companies slowly pivot from their original values. Companies justify those shifts with nods to shareholder value, or consistent user experience, or inconsistent implementations of their platforms by (former) partners.

It happened to Sun. To Microsoft. To Apple. To Google. It happened in the entertainment business, it’s happening in agriculture, for goodness sake.  Now it’s happening to Facebook and Twitter. (The latest example: Instagram CEO feels Twitter card removal is the correct thing…).

I don’t have any problem with any of that, it is to be expected. The services all these companies provide are great. They’re simply wonderful. And as they get big, they get public, protective, and defensive.

I just wish these companies all had one thing consistently in common: That they let us get our data, our content, and ourselves out of their platforms if we wanted to, in a painless, one click fashion.

Imagine a world where that was possible.

A long, long time ago, at least in Internet years, I wrote a piece called It’s Time For Services on The Web to Compete On More Than Data. This was almost five years ago – January of 2008. I was contemplating the rise of Facebook and the social graph, and Google’s nascent response. In the post I argued that Facebook should let us all take our social graph wherever we want, because the company will win not on locking us in, but in servicing us better than anyone else.

Oh, how utopian that all sounds.

Now, pretty much every major Internet player is scrambling to lock us into a cloud commit conundrum. Even Twitter, in certain ways – it wants content viewed on its platform, not others’.

Again, imagine a world where coming and going as a consumer was a given, a right. Imagine that when I left Apple’s iPhone for Google’s Nexus 4, all my iTunes purchases followed me (and yes, I mean apps too). Is that too much to ask for? Really? Then you must not be an entrepreneur, because this kind of lock-in is ripe for disruption.

Five years ago, I predicted that Facebook would fail if it insisted on locking our social graph into its service:

With one move, Facebook can change the face (sorry) of this debate by making it falling-down easy to export your social graph. And I predict that it will.

Why? Because I think in the end, Facebook will win based on the services it provides for that data. Set the data free, and it will come back to roost wherever it’s best used. And if Facebook doesn’t win that race, well, it’ll lose over time anyway.

Time is ticking. It won’t be this year, it won’t be next. But the day will come when differentiation is based on service, not data lock in.

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One Less iPhone Purchased: Day One With The Nexus

By - December 01, 2012

I finally did it – I slipped the sim from my failing iPhone 4 into a shiny new Google Nexus last night.

And damn, the thing just worked. And it’s So. Much. Better.

But….there are things I wish it had. I figure I’ll take notes here, so folks can both learn from my experience, as well as tell me what an idiot I am help me out.

Here are the things I really like:

– Much better screen, faster, etc. There are tons of reviews that go over all of this, so I’ll not belabor the point. This is a way better device in tons of ways than the iPhone 4. And my son has a iPhone 5, and it’s bigger, and frankly looks nicer as well.

– All my stuff from Google automatically just…works on the phone. I logged in via my main Gmail account, and all my cloud-based stuff with Google showed up. All my photos on Picasa, all my contacts via Gmail (I’ve been using Gmail as a way to bypass Apple’s terrible contact “solution,” all the apps I had already downloaded when I set up my Nexus 7 tablet a while ago. It was very, very slick, and it makes me both trust the service, and want to feed it more of my data. While I am wary of having my data on any one provider, as I have written before, Google’s commitment to “data liberation,” which is enforceable via the FTC, gives me far more comfort than Apple’s closed world. And, as far as I can tell from my family’s experience with Apple’s approach to the cloud…well, Apple is terrible at it.

– The camera is ridiculously better than anything I’ve ever had.

– Most of the apps are clean and work very well. Google search is really, really good in voice mode. Google Calendar works seamlessly as well. Twitter is elegant. Etc.

Now, here’s the thing I really, really don’t get about the Nexus 4: Why on earth, when I plug it into my computer, doesn’t Google Play come up, so I can manage my phone from my Mac?

I know, that’s how the iPhone works, but it’s a very good way to manage the device, and I don’t understand why Google wouldn’t take the same approach. Google Play is turning into a pretty good App Store, and I’d prefer to use it on a bigger screen (the PC web) as I manage all my Android apps.

Anyone have a good reason for why Google hasn’t pulled the switch on that?

I’m running into any number of minor irritations with the phone – there are a few apps I use a lot from the iPhone that I have to figure out how to connect to my new Android world, but I am sure I’ll get there.

In short, I think this phone is for real. It’s gotten me off the iPhone, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

So what apps should I use? What are your favorites? Any tips and tricks?

UPDATE: Thanks for reminding me about wireless updates, no need to plug into a computer. And thanks for all the tips, keep them coming. One irritation I have found in the following day or so of use is the way Android handles text manipulation. I don’t find it easy to insert the cursor where I want to, for example. I’m sure I’ll figure it out…

Dave Pell on Facebook’s Gift to Itself

By - November 28, 2012

I enjoy NextDraft, an email newsletter penned by Dave Pell each day. I value point of view and voice in any medium, and Dave’s got it. I think Searchblog readers would appreciate this item, so I’ve reposted it here. Dave, I hope you don’t mind…

The Gift of Data

Facebook knows a lot about you. But there are a couple things that would make its collection of personal data a whole lot more valuable: Your home address and your credit card number. In addition to having a big revenue potential, Facebook’s new birthday gift store could lead to a data treasure trove (and herald a new era when just typing “Happy Birthday” when prompted is no longer enough).

On Open Platforms, Wifi, Home Automation, and Kitty Litter

By - November 26, 2012

At least this platform is open….

(image Shutterstock)

The world needs more open platforms. The term is  loaded, but it’s worth unpacking. To me, an open platform is a consistent opportunity space where anyone – without prior permission – can attempt to create value, and the market gets to vote on that attempt.

When the Clinton administration declared the Internet a “free trade zone” in 1997, it helped create one of the most powerful open platforms in the history of business. Anyone could set up a website, sell their services, wares, or their snake oil, and the market sorted out the winners and the losers.

But an open platform doesn’t necessarily mean a free one. The last time I checked, Comcast is still charging me $65 a month for my “high-speed business” Internet connection. Once I pay that fee, I am free to launch any site I want and consume any content I desire. Comcast has no say in the matter (so far).

Another wonderful example is the Global Positioning System (GPS), once the realm only of the United States military, but now the driver of countless commercial opportunities around the globe (again thanks to decisions made during the Clinton administration).  Anyone can access civilian GPS data – it’s open and free to all. Had this system not been in place, my weekend would have been less interesting – I could not have tracked my family’s hike across a mountain in Marin, checked into my writing retreat this morning on Foursquare, or effortlessly mapped my route to the new restaurant where I met a dozen friends last Saturday night.

Over the years we’ve seen the rise of semi-open communications-driven platforms, some of which have been built on top of the Internet (think Facebook), others which were built on top of regulated, oligarchical networks like those of the cell phone carriers (think iOS ). These systems are open to developers, but subject to stricter rules and oversight by corporations (Facebook and Apple, for example).

But sometimes platforms rise out of unexpected places. That’s the story I want to tell today.

This tale is based on an open platform of sorts – or at least, re-imagining an existing platform. In this case, that platform is the home – and in particular, the wifi-enabled home.

A report issued earlier this year found that 25% of homes worldwide have wifi installed. In the US, that figure is much higher – 61% of US homes are lit by the airborne Internet. That’s a pretty astonishing number, and it continues to climb. Wifi-lit homes are now a platform waiting for innovative ideas to hatch. Last week I got a chance to chat with someone behind one of them.

Kevin Ashton is best known as an RFID pioneer, and for coining the terms “The Internet of Things.” But what many may not know about the British-born engineer and entrepreneur is his current work on home automation. Two years ago he sold his cleantech startup Zensi to Belkin International, a 30-year old computer networking and accessory firm in Los Angeles. Belkin’s a pretty traditional company, to be honest, but that may be about to change.

Zensi specialized in monitoring a building’s electrical information, tapping into the structure’s electronic grid and sampling the “voltage noise” that spikes across the wires. That noise turns out to be pretty valuable information – every electronic gadget has a signature, and by paying close attention, Ashton’s startup could reliably determine the energy use of every node node on a building’s electronic network. That energy “can be presented to the energy user in a way that can be very beneficial,” Ashton told me.

Ashton’s first customers wanted some pretty simple data. “Nothing more than knowing the total energy consumed in the building,” he says. But Ashton knew a lot more could be done with the information, if he could just open the platform up a bit, and instrument it with a few more useful appendages.

That’s what he and his team have been up to over the past two years at Belkin. This past summer Belkin introduced WeMo, a home automation system that plugs into any outlet and allows you to control electronic devices over the Internet. The system consists of a plug, a motion sensor, and an iOS app. It’s pretty rudimentary – you plug any device you want to control into the WeMo outlet, and that device becomes controllable via the iOS app. But add in the motion sensor and you  combine the ability to turn things on and off based on the ability to “know” some action has occurred. That’s when things get interesting. Now portions of your home have remote eyes and hands, in a limited sense. WeMo’s sensors  can “see” motion and “act” on what they see by turning things off and on.

Belkin’s promotional site for WeMo shows all kinds of uses for the system: keeping your dog off the couch while you are at work, easing your mind about whether or not you turned off that curling iron before leaving the house, automating when heaters or lights are turned off and on, etc. It’s all very cool, but it suffers from the same problem that plagues all early platforms: Early adopters and hackers love the system, but most consumers aren’t going to go to the trouble of buying, coding, and installing the Wemo system just so they can turn the lights off and on, or ease their mind about an errant curling iron.

What WeMo needed was the power of an open platform, and a community that could come up with uses for the device that the company never imagined.

When WeMo launched, Ashton told me, “we didn’t have many good ideas what people would do with it.” Ashton and his team knew that “lighting up” a home with new sensory appendages could ignite a big change in how people interacted with their living spaces, but instead of taking a proprietary approach to innovation on Belkin’s new platform, they created a free, open API for Wemo, and partnered with IFTT (If This Then That), an internet service that enables anyone to create rules-based actions triggered by data from any number of sources. A simple example of an IFTT “recipe” is this: “If (I post a photo to Instagram) then (put a copy of it into my Dropbox).”

IFTT is a small but thriving community of tens of thousands of folks weaving new kinds of connections between our digitally disparate lives, and Ashton’s team figured tapping into this group might provide Belkin with some novel ideas for WeMo.

They were right. There are nearly 200 WeMo recipes on the IFTT site, ranging from “Text me if my door opens!” to “Post a Facebook status message anytime someone reaches for the cookie jar.” But the one that really got Ashton’s attention is this: “Tell me when it’s time to clean up the litter box.” It’s one of WeMo’s most-used recipes (and it turns out, it did come from within his team, but not until the IFTT connection was established).

“When we were developing (WeMo),” he told me, “there was absolutely no way that anybody – in a focus group or in our think tank – was going to come up with that as an application. If they did, we didn’t think it would be meaningful.”

At the moment, the number of people who have employed the kitty litter recipe can be counted in the dozens. But that’s a function of WeMo’s total installed base, which is still small. That base will likely remain small until a few inter-related things change: First, WeMo-like sensing needs to get cheaper and more accessible. For now, fitting out your house with a full complement of WeMo devices runs upwards of $1000, and the devices are used mostly by a small group of motivated hobbyists (not unlike 3D printing or the Arduino platform). But if sensing devices are built into electrical outlets as a matter of course, and/or are easily retrofitted into existing homes, the presumption that your home is “smart” could tip in a matter of years.

Also, consumers must begin to expect WeMo-like functionality from their homes and devices. The kitty litter recipe is a small but leading indicator of such a shift. Ashton tells me, for example, that he already has inquiries from pet lovers about promoting WeMo – just for its role in helping humans take care of their cats. As the number of hacker-driven recipes for WeMo uses multiplies and device prices and ease of installation diminish, the home sensing revolution could be right around the corner.

Thirdly, the platform wants more data – the more, the better. Imagine if WeMo also had access to all that energy sensing data built into Zensi’s original products. Because the Zensi technology “knows” the signiature of every electrical device on the home network, it “knows” when you’re watching TV, or using the microwave, working at your computer, or firing up the oven. Making all that data “knowable” opens all manner of innovative applications, again, most of which Belkin alone couldn’t dream up all by itself.

But if all this is to happen, it’s critical that access to home automation devices and data remain on an open platform, where innovation can occur unimpeded by conflicting commercial or regulatory imperatives. At the moment, anyone can create a recipe for WeMo, without Belkin’s approval. Ashton says he’s committed to that philosophy – one that he hopes informs far larger issues than curling irons and kitty poop. “We are open to anything that adds value to the system for our users,” Ashton told me.

It wasn’t a natural act for Belkin to open up the WeMo platform.  The company’s CEO has run the company for 30 years, and has never done anything like the IFTT experiment. He took a risk by allowing Ashton’s team to create an API. It’s not a bet the company move, but Ashton believes it augurs a larger change happening across many industries. (GE, for example, is embracing this idea, as are IBM and many other large companies).

“If you can create a business in which other people’s business is adding value to your product, more people will buy your product,” Ashton says. He compares that to traditional, vertically integrated companies that try to control every aspect of their product’s expression (like most automobile manufacturers.) Ashton predicts that all industries will eventually tip toward a more horizontal, open platform approach to business. “In one generation,” he asserts, “this model will win.”

All this reminds me of a book I recently finished – Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age. I’ll be reviewing that work shortly, but Johnson’s point is simple: if we are to solve our largest societal problems, we need to take a more peer-driven, open-platform approach to business, politics, and culture. With WeMo, Belkin’s taken one small step in that direction. I expect many more will follow.

In a Nutshell, The Android Problem: Totally Forked

By - November 20, 2012

(image) I’m a fan of “open.” Anyone who knows me, knows this about me.

But I’m also a fan of “easy.” And of “good design.” So, for the past couple of years, I’ve been an iPhone user, mainly because it was easy, and had better design than any alternative. Also, my company supported the iPhone, even though it was terrible for calendar, contacts, email, you know, pretty much everything that mattered to me.

But because I’m no longer day to day at my company, I’ve been eager to move away from the iPhone, for many reasons, including the extraordinarily awful experience I recently had, chronicled here.  And I really like the philosophy of Android. It’s open, it’s hackable, it’s generative in all the right ways.

However, it’s also a utterly confusing mess. Alas, this seems to be the price of “open” – chaos.

There are something like 800 versions of Android, a developer who I was interviewing for my book told me today. EIGHT HUNDRED! And every one of them might change at any time. There’s versions modified by all the carriers around the world (stuffed with crapware, bloatware, portalware). Versions modified by all the handset makers – one for each phone, sometimes (same crap). Versions for televisions (I hear the new Samsung TVs are utterly borked with unchangeable bullsh*t). Versions that are specific to Google’s “own” products. And versions that have been so forked as to be spoons, like what Amazon’s done with Kindle.

This is not a new complaint. To those of you out there who are sophisticated, it’s terribly naive. You’ve spent your 72 hours deciding which one to buy, setting it up, working out the kinks, and now it works great for you (or maybe your IT department did that work for you). Congratulations. I wish I had the time. But if that’s what it takes to make a damn smart phone “smart”, I want something better.

I’m not afraid to admit it: I want an Android phone, I’m willing to spend lavishly to get the best one, but after hours of research, I’m utterly f*cking confused about which product to buy. One thing I do know – once I buy it, I don’t want to spend three days figuring out how to make it work.

Is anyone else having this issue? Any suggestions?

Meanwhile, I recall that one of my predictions for last year was this: “Google will focus on providing a clear, consistent experience through Android for tablets and mobile, but it will take a third party to unify the experience. I don’t see that happening this year.”

Yeah, it didn’t happen in 2011. And it’s not happening this year, though I can *feel* the pain at Google HQ as the folks there watch Android splinter into a million hamfisted pieces of forkin’ crap. Is this why they bought Motorola? One wonders.

Can Google put all the pieces together again? I certainly hope so. But there has to be a better way. Do you remember the Blackberry? Remember how magical that was? God, I sound old. And yes, I hear the Windows phone is really cool. But I’ve only heard that once.

Meanwhile, which phone should I buy? I mean, really, which one? HTC? Nexus 4? Galaxy S3?  Motorola Razr (holy shit, really!???!) Help!

Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather

By - November 09, 2012

(image) The past month or so has seen the rise and fall of an interesting Internet tempest – the kind of story that gets widely picked up, then quickly amplified into storms of anger, then eventually dies down as the folks who care enough to dig into the facts figure out that the truth is somewhere outside the lines of the original headline-grabbing story.

The topic this time around centers on Facebook’s native ad unit called “Sponsored Stories,” and allegations that the company is gaming its “Edgerank” algorithm such that folks once accustomed to free promotion of their work on Facebook must now pay for that distribution.

Edgerank determines the posts you see in your Facebook newsfeed, and many sites noticed that sometime early this Fall, their traffic from Facebook shrank dramatically. Others claimed traffic had been declining since the Spring, but it wasn’t until this Fall that the story gained significant traction.

I’ve been watching all this play out – first via an angry post on the New York Observer site in which the author posits that Facebook is “broken on purpose” so as to harvest Sponsored Story revenue. An even angrier post on the same theme came five weeks later on a site called Dangerous Minds. From it:

Spring of 2012 was when bloggers, non-profits, indie bands, George Takei, community theaters, photographers, caterers, artists, mega-churches, high schools, tee-shirt vendors, campus coffee shops, art galleries, museums, charities, food trucks, and a near infinite variety of organizations; individuals from all walks of life; and businesses, both large and small, began to detect—for it was almost imperceptible at first—that the volume was getting turned down on their Facebook reach. Each post was now being seen only by a fraction of their total “fans” who would previously have seen them.

The author goes on to argue that Facebook was breaking the implicit contract between himself – an independent blogger – and Facebook, the corporation.

…as a publisher of a medium readership blog, I used to get a great deal from using Facebook—but I understood it to be a two-way reciprocal arrangement because I was driving traffic back to Facebook as well, and reinforcing their brand awareness with prominent widgets on our blog.

Now, if you’ve read my Thneeds post, you know I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I believe large social platforms like Facebook and Twitter “harvest” content from the Indpendent Web, and leverage the traffic and engagement that this content creates on their platforms to their own benefit via scaled advertising offerings. Most of us are fine with the deal – we promote our work on social sites, social sites drive traffic back to us. We like that traffic, either just because we like more folks reading our work, or, in the case of commercial sites like this one, because we serve ads against it.

Now, as I’ve noted many times over the past six months, this bargain is breaking down, because it’s getting harder and harder to monetize traffic using standard display advertising units. That’s not Facebook’s problem, per se, it’s ours. (See here for my suggestions as to how to solve it).

Nevertheless, for many sites, the spectre of losing significant traffic from Facebook means a serious blow to revenues. And from the point of view of the Dangerous Minds blogger, Facebook first cut his traffic off, then began asking him to pay to get it back (in the form of promoting his posts via Sponsored Stories).

This makes for a very good narrative: corporate greed laid bare. It got picked up by a lot of sites, including Ars Technica and even the aforementioned George Takei, who is upset that he’s lost the ability to push his posts to all 2.9 million of his Facebook fans.

Turns out, the truth is a lot more complicated. I’ve done some reporting on this issue, but not nearly as much as TechCrunch did. In a follow up to the Dangerous Minds story, TechCrunch claimed to have debunked the entire story. Titled Killing Rumors With Facts: No, Facebook Didn’t Decrease Page Feed Reach To Sell More Promoted Posts, the story argues that Facebook didn’t change its algorithms to drive up revenue, but rather to cull “spammy posts” from folks’ newsfeeds.

Facebook has always shown just a percentage of all possible posts in a given person’s newsfeed. Anyone paying attention already knew that. The company uses its Edgerank algorithm to determine what it thinks might be interesting to an individual, and sometime in the past few months, I can confirm through sources which wish to remain anonymous that Facebook made a pretty significant change to Edgerank that penalized posts that it felt were not high quality.

Of course, that begs the question: How does Facebook determine what “quality” is? The answer, in the main, is by measuring engagement – is the post shared, liked, clicked on, etc? If so, then it is seen as quality. If not, it’s demoted in value.

Is this sounding familiar to anyone yet? In short, Facebook just executed a Panda.

I held back from writing anything till this predictable cycle played out, because I had a theory, one that I believe is now confirmed: Facebook is now making its own weather, just like Google, and in the past couple months, we’ve witnessed the first widespread instance of a Facebook weather event.

For those of you who don’t know quite what I’m talking about, a bit of history. Ten or so years ago, the ecosystem around search began to notice shifts in how Google drove traffic around the web. Google would make a change to its algorithms, and all of a sudden some sites would see their traffic plummet (other sites sometimes saw the opposite occur). It seemed to those injured that the only way to get their Google traffic back was to buy Google AdWords – corporate greed laid bare. This story played out over and over, to the point where the weather events started to get names, just like hurricanes do. (The first was called Boston).

Early last year Google made a major change to its algorithms that penalized what it believed was lower quality content. Dubbed “Panda,” the changes targeted “content farms” that cranked out SEO friendly pages as AdWords bait. This had dramatic effects on many sites that specialized in “gaming” Google. It also hit sites that weren’t necessarily playing that game – updates like Panda often create collateral damage. Over time, and as it always does, Google fine-tuned Panda until the ecosystem stabilized.

I believe that Facebook is now learning how to manage its own weather. I don’t know the Dangerous Minds website well enough to know if it deserved the drop in traffic that occurred when Facebook had its Panda moment. But one thing does strike me as interesting to note: A significant drop in traffic means a particular site is losing audience that has proactively decided to click on a link inside their newsfeed. That click means the person leaves Facebook and goes to the the Dangerous Minds site. To me, that’s a pretty serious sign of engagement.

However, one might argue that such a signal is not as important to Facebook as internal ones such as “liking” or “sharing” across the Facebook network. To that end, I am sure we’ve not heard the last round of serious grumbling that Facebook is gaming its own Edgerank algorithm to benefit Facebook’s internal goals – to the detriment of the “rest of the web.” Be they publishers or folks like George Takei, who after all wants to push his Facebook fans to any  number of external links where they might buy his books or sign up to meet him at the next Comic Con, the rest of the web depends on “social traffic” from Facebook. The question is, should they optimize for that traffic, or will their efforts be nullified in the next Edgerank update?

Facebook is learning how to tread the delicate line between its own best interests, and those of its users – and the Internet That Is Not Facebook. Google does this every day – but it has a long history as a distributor of traffic off its main site. Facebook, not so much. Over time, the company will have to decide what kind of a relationship it wants to have with the “rest of the web.” It will probably have to start engaging more openly with its own ecosystem, providing guidance on best practices and how to avoid being penalized. This is a practice that took Google years to hone, and many still think the company has a lot of work to do.

Regardless, Facebook is now making its own weather. Now comes the fun part: Trying to predict it.

The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good

By - October 31, 2012

The first banner ad to run on the web – AT&T’s “You Will” campaign. It asked “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?” The answer turned out to be “You Will…for a while. Then, not so much.”

 

Earlier this year I wrote a long post about the “death of display,” since then, I’ve consistently been asked about it, and in particular, to expand on my thoughts around display advertising economics, and the prospects for what might broadly be termed “independent creators of content,” or what I call “the independent web.”

Now, I love this topic, as many of you know. So in this post I’ll reprise the core points from On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”, and then riff a bit about where I see things now, and where they might be heading. Spoiler: It’s not all bad. Double spoiler: This post will be written in two parts. This is just the first.

Here’s that previous post, boiled down to bulleted form:

* The model of “boxes and rectangles” – the display banner – is failing to fully support traditional “content” sites beyond a handful of exceptions. For 15 years, independent websites have “direct sold” these units on their sites, or hired someone (like Federated Media Publishing) to do it for them. But marketers increasingly are turning away from direct-sold display units. Why? Read on….

* A new generation of “native” ad units are on the rise, which live primarily on large social sites that curate and aggregate content. Examples include Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and of course the grandaddy of them all, Google’s AdWords. Big sites like HuffPo and fast social comers like BuzzFeed are also employing native units. Pinterest is expected to roll out something similar soon.

* With the notable exception of Google’s AdSense (which is essentially a programmatic machine, see below), none of the other large “native” platforms  help independent content creators make money, other than a “quid pro quo” deal that if those content creators engage with the platform, they’ll earn traffic back to their sites.

* These publishers hope that by accepting this quid pro quo, they will drive traffic to their site that they can then monetize with display advertising. However, as I stated before, this model is breaking down. Why?

* Because even as all those “Boxes and Rectangles” morph into far larger units, they are increasingly bought and sold in real time by machines (“programmatic buying” or “Demand Side Platforms,” also known as “DSPs” – the largest include Google’s AdX, AppNexus, and Turn).

* So far, the rise of programmatic buying  has not made it possible for most independent publishers to make enough money to create content full time. Hundreds of thousands are making money using these platforms, but if you want to run an independent content brand that employs people full time, boxes and rectangles are usually not going to be enough. Some are opting out of playing in the programmatic market, but it’s quite hard to direct-sell small sites that are not at scale. Marketers and their agencies are finding they can far more efficiently find the audiences they want using machines, at a fraction of the cost of working directly with traditional web publishers.

* If we don’t figure out better models for how to get the “content creator” paid, we risk losing the oxygen that feeds the web ecosystem. After all, what would Google, Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest be without harvesting the hundreds of thousands of pieces of great content created every day on the web? Ditto for the DSPs, which depend on inventory created by these same independent content creators.

* At the moment, the lion’s share of digital marketing dollars and equity value is flowing to either those large content-harvesting platforms, or to programmatic platforms.

* At the end of the post, I suggest a new model that attaches value to an individual piece of content, such that the piece of content is monetized as it travels around the web, getting reposted, tweeted, shared on Facebook, pinned on Pinterest, and so forth. Such a model is incredibly difficult to create, but not impossible. I promised a follow up post.

Well, this is it (at least, it’s part one).

That took a lot to summarize, but readers know I’m passionate about getting independent content creators paid. In the past five or so months since that post was written, the direct-sold display marketplace has continued to deteriorate. Yahoo, a bellweather for display advertising, has had two more quarters of flat-to-declining display revenues that have missed Wall Street targets. In its latest earnings report, the New York Times Company noted that display revenues actually declined year over year.  We’re seeing it at Federated Media Publishing, as it has both direct-sold and programmatic businesses, and I’m hearing it from folks I speak with privately – models that depend on direct-sold “quality display” are under increasing pressure.

Meanwhile, business is great for the two platforms I outlined above. Programmatic buying platforms are seeing double and triple digit increases in revenue year over year (again, we see this at Federated, because we acquired such a business more than a year ago). As more data and insights are applied to programmatic, and better inventory secured, I  see a very bright future for this part of the market. Business is way ahead of plan at Twitter, executives there have said, and Facebook’s recent earnings highlighted the growing success of that company’s “native” advertising products – promoted posts and sponsored stories.

Unfortunately, neither of these two high-performing sectors of the marketplace help most full time independent web publishers make enough money – at least not yet.

Given all this, what is a publishing business to do? Well, as much as I’d like to say my idea of “monetized content traveling around the web” is imminent, I think that’s going to take a few years.  And while programmatic is getting better each quarter, it’s also going to take time and improvements over years before that ecosystem is fully expressed. If independent web publishers are to thrive in the near term, we’ve got to change our approach to the market. Change is scary, change is hard, but change is needed – and change is good.

How do we do it? In short, we’ve got to be far smarter about how we “feed” those platforms – making sure the value we get is equal to or more than the value we’re giving. We’ve got to be smart about how we interact with both social and programmatic platforms, and align ourselves with companies that put publishers first. And lastly, we’ve got to rethink how we bring high-touch marketing onto our sites – we need to more rapidly adopt new advertising products, new architectures for our sites, and a deeper understanding of how to partner. We can no longer relegate marketing to second-class real estate. If high quality sites on the independent web are going to thrive, we will have to embrace change. That’ll be the subject of my next post.

At Google Zeitgeist: Theoretical Physics and Astronauts, Unite!

By - October 19, 2012

Earlier in the week I traveled to the annual Google Zeitgest conference, where I’ve been honored to be a moderator for the past few years. This year I was given the challenge of tacking a 90-minute block on “The World We Dream,” which featured an extraordinary set of speakers. The session included a short interview with two impressive folks: Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut who has spent 180 days in space, and Lisa Randall, a celebrated theoretical physicist and author. I’ve never spent as much time prepping for a 20-minute interview as I did for this – in part because the Higgs Boson is not that easy for the laymen to grok, nor is the concept of floating around in space. If you are so inclined, enjoy:

 

The Facebook Ad Network Is Here

By - September 19, 2012

It’s been a pretty good year for my annual predictions, I must say. A few months ago I did my “how’ve I done so far this year” post, and found myself batting about .500. Yesterday Facebook pushed up my average with the announcement that it’s begun testing a mobile ad network. And this isn’t just an on-domain network (where you can buy ads across Facebook’s domain), but rather, it’s a true cross-domain network – just like AdMob on mobile, or Adsense on the web.

From Ad Age:

The company is working with an undisclosed number of ad exchanges to deliver the ads on iOS and Android devices for its advertisers, who can still target using Facebook’s array of options such as age, location, education and interests.

Expect Facebook to either build or buy one of these exchanges – just as Google did with the web (AdX via DoubleClick). Most observers are claiming that this step augurs a day when Facebook will launch a full-blown ad network across all platforms – video, web, and mobile. I have to agree – I wrote as much in those predictions in January. What I didn’t see was Facebook starting its ad network by launching an exchange (called FBX) and then moving into mobile before it did web.

But upon reflection, it all makes sense. FBX allows Facebook to gather data about web-based buyers’ purchasing habits. FBX is essentially a massive retargeting engine that connects web cookies to Facebook’s internal databases. That will come in quite handy when it launches an Adsense competitor. And launching its first true off-domain ad network in mobile first signals to Wall Street that the company has its priorities straight – its been dinged repeatedly for being too focused on the web. The key to this new mobile network is that Facebook is selling its data, not its inventory. If the company gets good at that, watch out.

These moves elevate Facebook into new arenas of competition with Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, all of whom employ  simliar product suites. And yes, I did include Amazon in that sentence – the company is far more engaged in the advertising business than you might have thought. More on that in another post.

 

 

 

Am I An Outlier, Or Are Apple Products No Longer Easy To Use?

By - September 13, 2012

I’ve been a Mac guy for almost my entire adult life. I wrote my first college papers on a typewriter, but by the end of my freshman year – almost 30 years ago – I was on an IBM PC. Then, in 1984, I found the Mac, and I never looked back.

Till now.

I’m not saying I’m switching, but I sure am open to a better solution. Because the past year or so has been dominated by the kind of computing nightmares that used to be the defining experience of my Windows-PC-wielding friends and colleagues. And it’s not limited to the Mac – the iPhone is also a massive fail in what was once the exclusive province of Apple: Ease of use.

I’ll caveat this post with the fact that I may be something of an outlier – I have thousands of contacts in my Apple contact database, and my iCal app is burdened with having to integrate with a multi-platform universe at work. And perhaps the fact that I love to take photographs, and have amassed more than 10,000 digital images, means that iPhoto has become mostly useless to me for anything other than as a storage vault. And that, apparently, is all my fault.

But my wife isn’t an outlier. She has about 250 contacts. She tries to use iCal, but can’t make it work. Her email breaks early and often. And she’s spent the past two months in IT hell, trying to salvage her digital life from the clutches of Apple’s self-centered, walled-garden update called the Lion operating system, which wiped out nearly all her previous settings and useful applications. Watching her struggles, and trying to help (and realizing I couldn’t without bringing in expensive professionals) made me wonder – whatever happened to ease of use?

I am certain this post will elicit all manner of Apple fanboys who claim I’m a moron, that I’ve brought upon my own demise through stupid decisions.  Well, let’s review a few, and you can judge for yourself.

Honestly, where to start. How about with the iPhone itself? I have an iPhone 4, it’s about a year or so old. The contract is for two years, and I don’t feel like paying $400 to get a new phone. I figured this one must be good enough, right? Wrong.

The phone is pretty much useless now, because all of its storage is taken up. With what, you might ask? Well, it’s a mysterious yellow substance – found, in a masterstroke of intuitive design, in iTunes – called “other.” I was alerted to this issue when I couldn’t take a photo because my storage was full. Oh, and I was also told my storage was too full to download any more mail. And I’m an inbox zero kind of guy!

WTF is all this “other” shit, I wondered to myself. Well, that’s what Apple’s self-hosted forums are good for (I’ve been there a lot lately, for any number of issues, only a few of which I’ll detail in this post). So off to Google I headed – “what is the other in iphone storage” yielded this post, among a lot of others:

 

 OK, so…should I restore the device from backup? How do you even do that? And if that doesn’t work, then what? I have to “restore as new”?

Sounds dangerous, like I might lose all my settings and apps and such. There had to be a better fix. I spent a half hour or so reading various forums, blog posts, and the like about the problem, which seems quite prevalent. Many of the suggestions are summarized in this post,  and included deleting your browser cache (that was pretty easy, I did it, no luck), deleting your entire email account and recreating it (a pretty drastic thing to do, but funnily enough, I’ve done it about ten times in the past year due to problems with our connection to work mail, and since I’d done it recently, I figured that couldn’t be it), and my favorite:

Go to /var/mobile/Media/ApplicationArchives using SSH (requires jailbroken iPhone) or DiskAid and delete everything. This folder contains partially downloaded apps which never completed nor removed and were probably interrupted at some point in the middle of downloading.

Are you frickin’ kidding me? I have to jailbreak my phone to fix this problem?

Oh wait, that blog post suggested one last thing I could do: If the above steps fail, do a full system restore :(.

Again, very drastic. But I was getting impatient. I wanted my storage space back. I found another site, one that looked pretty official, that said this:

Unfortunately, scouring available information sources and speaking with Apple hasn’t led to any type of easy resolution.

If you’re experiencing this issue under any version of iTunes, you’ll need to restore your iPhone to reclaim the space occupied by Other. That is the only known solution at this time.

Well shit. I spent a few more fruitless hours trying to find another solution on the web. There wasn’t one that didn’t require pretty significant technical know-how (such as installing a utility, running it to reveal all files on the iPhone, then deleting each file one by one, even if you weren’t sure what the file did). The only option that was relatively straightforward and seemed to work, according to many forums, was to restore the phone.

Which I did. And I lost all my apps save the ones that come preinstalled on the iPhone in the first place. And guess what? It didn’t fix the problem. 

OK, I’m going to stop on this example. Because the point isn’t to try to fix the problem (I know I’m going to have to go to an Apple store, and get a “Genius” to deal with this. And I know this “Genius” is going to tell me that my phone is old, and that I need a new one with more storage, and by the way, I should really get an iCloud account, because if I had one then I wouldn’t have a problem at all. In other words, Apple has architechted the iPhone in such a way as to insure that I spend much more money with Apple, and am committed to their cloud solution long term with my data. But that’s another rant). Oh, and the fact that Apple doesn’t respond in its forums about this (or any) issue? Ridonkulous.

My point is simply this: This. Ain’t. Easy. 

Another example: iPhoto. May I just say, and I won’t be the first, that iPhoto is A Piece of Sh*t, in particular given how image-driven the company is in its own marketing. iPhoto is about as dumb as an application can be. Just launching the things often takes up my Mac’s entire CPU,  crushing performance on anything else I have open (and no, my Macbook Pro isn’t old, it’s one of the newer models). Photos are organized by date, and there’s no easy way to change that. Album creation is utterly non-intuitive (again, I’m sure this is all my fault, Mr. Fanboy), and the “Faces” feature, which seemingly would fix a lot of these issues, is just plain useless.

Now, you Apple fanboys will scream at me: Hey Battelle, you wuss, don’t you know about Some Expert Photo Editing and Organizing Photo App That You Can Buy For Hundreds of Dollars. Or Some Bitchin’ Utility Written By A 19-Year-Old That Will Never Be Supported By Apple. Or something. Well I do, because I’ve searched high and low for help with iPhoto. Again, there are no easy solutions. I could take a class, yep. Or spend a few days manually tagging my photos. But wasn’t the point of the Mac that you SHOULDN’T HAVE TO DO THAT?!!

Another example: Nearly all of Apple’s built in “productivity” applications are terrible – email, contacts, calendaring, for starters. All of them are not ready for prime time. iCal is laughable as a shared calendar across platforms and the web – perhaps my IT department is filled with punters, but in five years, we’ve never been able to make iCal work seamlessly across pure Mac networks, not to mention with other solutions like Outlook or Google Calendar. And when we call Apple for support, it’s as if Apple really doesn’t care. Alas, we can’t seem to find anything better, so we limp along…apologizing when things “fall off the calendar” or, worse, when appointments stay on my iPhone calendar long after they’ve been moved from my main iCal on the Mac.

And dont’ get me started on Apple’s “Address Book.” As I said before, I have thousands of contacts. Is that so uncommon? Apparently it is. After months of trying to get my contacts to sync properly across my Mac, my assistant’s Mac, and both of our iPhones, my IT department finally got someone at Apple to admit that, well, the Address Book just doesn’t really work very well once you have more than about 1000 contacts. Seriously. Just – sorry, we don’t have a solution for that. We have found a fix – we use Plaxo – but now we’re dependent on Apple supporting Plaxo, which I’m not certain is a long term bet. Oh, and every time Plaxo syncs with Apple’s contacts, about one in ten of the contacts are duplicated. Why? No one knows. Is there a fix? Nope.

(And what if you want to sync to – gasp – an Android phone?! Well only way to do that is through a total hack involving Gmail. Seriously.)

Let me repeat my refrain: This. Ain’t. Easy.

Without going into detail, my little rant about Calendar, iPhoto, Address Book, et al goes for iTunes as well. I even bought a piece of software to try to fix iTunes myriad issues (Rinse). I can’t figure out whether or not Rinse has fixed anything, to be honest, and so far, all it’s managed to do is marry the wrong album art to about 100 or so songs which previously didn’t have any imagery. Which is kind of funny, but a tad annoying. And just the fact that there’s a market for something like Rinse kind of makes my point.

Oh, and then there’s the vaunted Apple Super Magical User Interface. You know, the Insanely Great Revolutionary Change the World User Experience that everyone fawns over as if it were a fact.

Are you kidding me? If Apple’s UI is magical, then I’ve got a Unicorn to sell you. Let’s start with Mac Lion. There are so many Fails in this OS, it’s hard to know where to start. You need a four-hour class just to understand all the contortions Apple seems to be doing in its attempt to make its desktop interface work the way the iPhone does. You know, pinch and swipe and app stores and mission controls and magic corners and all that. I’ve spent at least an hour figuring out how to turn most of that shit off. It just doesn’t work.

It’s really funny to watch my wife deal with all this, given she’s not exactly one to dig deep into system settings (you know, the very consumer Apple initial designed for). When she got Lion, the way her mouse, her iChat (now “iMessage” or someshit), and of course all her applications worked changed in very dramatic ways. For instance, she could no longer IM me – all of a sudden, she was on “me.com” and her IMs came to my cell phone as texts. (In other words, Apple defaulted to its own iCloud services, and wiped out her AIM-based identity). I’m sure this is all her fault, naturally.

Oh, and every time she clicks her mouse to try to move a window around, a message about “Icons and Text” appears. WTF? Little irritations like this happen all over the place, piling one upon the other until it crescendos with a long, wailing lament – WHAT AM I USING HERE – WINDOWS?!

But we all know the future is mobile, right? And the iPhone and iPad are Perfect Expressions of Beauty, Ideal Combinations of Form and Function. Except they’re Not.

 

Have you ever done a search in your iPhone contacts? You need the fingers of a poorly fed six-year-old to activate that search function. No, really, I must waste four or five minutes a day trying to make that damn thing work.

Seriously, how can an adult finger ever touch that little search icon without either hitting the “A” or the “+”????

And then there the precious internationalization feature of the keyboard (see image at right). I must turn my texts and emails into Kanji ten times a day. And this is a feature??!

There are countless other examples of irritating UI features on the iPhone. Inconsistent navigation is a primary one, but …OK. I’m going to really stop now. Because I know, learning how to use the tools of computing is MY job, and I’m clearly falling down on it. I know there are ton of tips and tricks that would make my life easier, if only I took the time to learn them. If only I spent hours a week on the Mac tips websites and such. If only I wasn’t busy…writing rants like this one.

And I know that Andriod and Windows are hard to use too. And no, I’m certainly not going to install Linux.

My point is simply this: This stuff is too complicated. There has to be a better way. And while it used to be that Apple was the brand which uncomplicated computing, for me, anyway, that’s simply no longer true. Does anyone out there have similar experiences, or am I really an outlier?