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Is The iPad A Disappointment? Depends When You Sold Your AOL Stock.

By - May 31, 2010

iPadresponseJan2010.pngToday’s news that the iPad sold 2 million units in its first two months – coming as it does right before Steve Jobs takes the stage at his only public conference appearance in years outside carefully scripted Apple launch events – led me to reflect on my prediction, in January of this year, that the “iPad would disappoint” (that’d be #5, scroll down).   

In that prediction, which was not without its failures, I wrote:

Sorry Apple fanboys, but the use case is missing, even if the thing is gorgeous and kicks ass for so many other reasons. Until the computing UI includes culturally integrated voice recognition and a new approach to browsing (see #4), the “iTablet” is just Newton 2.0. Of course, the Newton was just the iPhone, ten years early and without the phone bit….and the Mac was just Windows, ten years before Windows really took hold, and Next was just ….oh never mind.

In essence, what I was saying is that the nexus of first wave computing (Windows OS) and second wave computing (the web) had not caught up to Jobs’ vision of the third wave – mobile, multi-touch web-enabled interfaces. I was also hinting at my own bias that voice will become an important part of our interface to machines. Another bias: the assumption that Apple’s tablet would actually attempt to connect the first two waves of computing meaningfully to the third.

I think my prediction was right in the short term (when the iPad was announced, nearly everyone was disappointed at what it wasn’t, see the headlines from January, above), and I was totally wrong in the medium term (the thing has sold two million plus and probably has a shot at being Time magazine’s “man of the year” for 2010). However I still believe I’ll be entirely correct in the long term, in particular if Apple doesn’t change its tune on how the iPad interacts with the web.

Allow me to unpack that last statement.  

What I missed, at least in my initial prediction, was how entirely hermetic and “un-weblike” the iPad would end up being. Like many others, I was surprised at how complete Apple’s disdain is for traditional computing models – including its own Macintosh. The iPad would not be an open development environment – instead it adopted the iPhone model of command and control. The iPad would not allow you to run Mac applications – only iPad/iPhone specific apps approved by Apple would work, and that meant no Microsoft Office, thank you very little. The iPad wouldn’t even let you cut and paste – an innovation Apple pioneered – and worst of all, it seemed, the iPad wouldn’t use Flash – a proxy, as it were, for “the rest of the web that Steve Jobs didn’t quite like very much.”

So initially, anyway, the hue and cry about the iPad amongst the tech elite was decidedly disappointed. The iPad wasn’t a computer! The iPad was just a big iPhone – but without the phone, or even the camera! It’s an overgrown iPod Touch! It breaks the web!

Then it came out, and wow, was it purty. Apple has done it again, we all marveled – the iPad’s genius, it seemed, was that it didn’t try to be a computer – instead, it was a gorgeous device for consumption of media and interaction with apps. And sure, those apps could be web enabled – on the back end – as long as the web was channeled into structured, Apple approved fashion (no third party data sharing, natch). And sure, you could surf the the “real web,” but only if you went through the Apple approved browser, which finds Flash unworthy of rendering.

No matter. The fact is, the iPad is a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal.

The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged – one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL – and gave birth to Google.

It was the link that made the web what it is today, and it’s the link – reinterpreted in various new strains – that drives innovation on the web still. The link is the synapse between you, me, and a billion other humans – and the signal (dare I say, a signal one might consider third party data) which allows a million ideas to flourish.

So let me ask you one question, right now: Can you link to an app on your iPad? And I don’t mean a link to download the app on iTunes, folks. I mean, can you create an ecosystem of links, deep into your iPad application(s), links that connect your particular activity stream inside that app with other streams, other links, and other intentions across the web? In ways that create new values, both predictable and unpredicted?

The answer is no. Anymore than you could link to pages deep inside AOL, back when it was a walled garden.

Sure, AOL eventually figured out the web would win, but by then, it was too late.

Next week, Apple will make any number of announcements at its WWDC. I’m hoping the company will announce that it is tacking away from its walled garden approach with the iPad, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Apple makes gorgeous products, but ultimately, I think any product which rejects the web’s core value of connection will simply disappoint. But more likely than not, it’ll be a year or two before that becomes apparent.

PS – If you want a deeper dive on Apple and the web, read this: Will Apple Embrace the Web?  No.

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Five Years In One Place, An Appreciation

By - May 25, 2010

federated-media-logo.jpgFive years and about two months ago, I wrote a blog post announcing the creation of Federated Media Publishing. I will admit I was scratching an itch, not certain that it would work out. In that post I hedged a my bet – mainly because I was still smarting from the loss of my previous business – The Industry Standard – and I was not certain that I (or the world) was really ready for me to run a company again.  

In short, I said that if the company succeeded, I might not stick around – after all, The Standard succeeded, and I stuck around, and that didn’t quite work out…well you can see where the psychology is going. This time, I remember telling myself, I’ll pull a Costanza and go out when I’m still ahead.

Well, that didn’t happen.

So as to not bury the lead too deeply, today marks my five-year anniversary as an employee of Federated Media Publishing, Inc. Apparently it was five years ago today that I signed some legal paperwork that officially made me an employee. At the time, I owned 100% of FM’s voting shares, and to this day, I am still the largest shareholder. That was a very intentional move on my part, and one that has served me – and I daresay FM – very well over the past five years.

By the Fall of 2005 I had assembled a team, an extraordinary group, some of whom are still with us, some of whom, after four years or so, have moved on. To my mind that is also a great accomplishment – the original team stayed for a very long time, at least in the life of a startup, and together we built a company that will endure. I’m proud of that, and of them, and of where we are today. Indulge me some pride, but the story of FM isn’t often told, and while I won’t take much more of your time here telling it, it’s certainly worth hearing should you be interested. (I’m happy to stretch this into a few hours, but the bourbon is on you).

I’m particularly proud that the core idea driving FM has not changed – thanks to search and social, media models have shifted, and a new approach was needed that understood the “conversational web.” FM set out to be a media company native to the social web, and five years in, I think we’ve succeeded.

But that’s not to say FM hasn’t changed. A few stats:

- FM had under half a million dollars in revenue in 2005. Five years later, we’re in the high eight figures of revenue. I’d love to brag about our current growth rate, but I think that’d be, well, bragging.

- FM launched with one segment – technology – and about ten blogs. We reached a few million uniques a month, and had roughly 25 million pageviews. Today, FM reaches 36 million uniques in four major segments (tech, business, lifestyle, and the real time web), and that’s just in the US (we’re past 70mm globally). We stopped counting pageviews when they eclipsed a billion. We’re the fourth largest pure play social media company on the web, behind Facebook, Blogger, and Myspace.

- FM has been a pioneer in bringing integrated, scaleable brand marketing to social media, first with blogs (2005), and then Digg (2006), the Facebook platform (2007), live events (Crowdfire 2008), Twitter (2009) and now location services like Foursquare (2010). Our partners, executions and programs have won countless awards, but we’re most proud of the tens of millions of dollars of revenue we’ve driven into the emerging world of independent content and platform creators online.

- The brilliant folks who invested in FM back in 2005 (including the New York Times, Omidyar Network, and various angels) have seen their investment increase twenty-fold, based on the valuation of FM in our last round (I’d argue we’re worth a lot more than that, but let’s stick with what’s on paper for now). Perhaps to their consternation, we have so far refused to sell the company, so they’ll have to be content with looking good on paper for the time being. And since that initial investment, we’ve brought in tens of millions of dollars through some extraordinary partners, and we’ve spent almost none of it. In fact, we’re now on track to add to our cash holdings year over year. I’m quite proud of that feat.

- FM was EBIDTA profitable for 2009, and so far this year, FM has turned a net income, with the best still ahead of us.

- Earlier this year, we established a new division focused on bringing the skills of publishers to marketers across digital platforms. This promises to be a very large and very scaled business. We also invested heavily in our technology platform, and while I won’t give away all that we are working on, it’s a very exciting platform indeed. In short, there’s nothing like it in market. I never thought, five years ago, we’d become a player in technology and data as well as in media, but then again, that’s the beauty of a startup.

- Perhaps most significantly, FM has evolved into a troop of 130 or so dedicated employees, led by an amazing President, who we hired this past Fall. And my work has changed, so much so that I can’t really imagine a better job than the one I have right now. I spend most of my time with partners – either media or platform and publishing, and in between I’m allowed to think a bit out loud, and work on my writing. I haven’t really changed my work hours, but I most certainly have changed what I work on.

And this, to me, is probably my greatest career accomplishment to date. I’ve never worked anywhere for five years – not Wired, where I lasted four years and change, or The Standard, where I almost made it to four. But somehow, as I enter year six at FM, I find myself energized, engaged, and thrilled to be here.

I think it’s because, way back in 2005, I made a promise to myself that I’d leave if I ever felt that I was in the way, or if I was consistently unhappy in my work.

I’ll admit, I’ve flirted with both of those demons over the past few years. And who knows, I may well again. But right now, sitting in a hotel lobby writing to you as I prepare for four meetings with clients in Atlanta, I just feel lucky.

Thanks, everyone – to our publishing partners, our clients, our investors and our employees, as well as all of you, who’ve read my thoughts here and cheered me on, criticized me, or both. I hope to make you all proud in the next five years of this journey.

Fear Is A No No – Except at Night

By - May 20, 2010

I love Fred’s thoughts on being an entrepreneur – he backs some of the best. I don’t write often here about my own experiences, but I can tell you, I certainly will, once the dust settles and I am not actively running a company. Upon reflection, I realize I’ve been doing this a long time. In fact, I’ve been starting companies since 1987, though my first real startup as a founder was in 1992. (That was Wired).

In today’s post, Fred writes:

If I look back over 20+ years of entrepreneurs I’ve backed, the ones who were anxious and afraid of failure most certainly had worse outcomes than the ones who were agressive and confident. You simply can’t be tentative in a startup. You have to go for it at every chance you get.

And if the leader of the organization is anxious, his or her fear pervades the organization. Everything comes from the top in a company. So it is best to have to have a leader who exudes confidence….So if you are starting a company or building one, face your fears and move past them. It’s critically important to your company.

I agree – in the day time, at work, in front of your staff, your investors, and your partners – you must exude confidence. They are looking at you as True North – and your company is the ship sailing by that particular bearing.

But what Fred doesn’t reference – though I know he is well aware of it – is what happens in the dead of night – at least for just about every successful entrepreneur I know. As dark gathers and you attempt to put the work away to steal a few hours of sleep, you are inevitably visited by questioning spectres – waking apparitions of failure dancing in the shadows of your doubt, dodging your attempts to force them into the light of reason. For more nights than I (or my wife) care to count, I’ve entertained and processed a thousand failure-filled scenarios, each frolicking endlessly in my mind, each disappearing as quickly as they came, unless captured, quickly and with mixed results, in scribbled notes on index cards, or, if I truly capitulate, in the gloaming of my newly awakened computer monitor.

It’s enough to make you mad. But then again, this particular madness is embraced, again and again, by a certain breed, and folks like Fred keep giving us money to embrace it. Were I more devious, I’d call Fred a pusher of sorts, a dealer in madness and joy. In fact, I’m quite certain that’s what he is.

I’ve been starting companies for a solid 18 years now, and for at least half of those years, I’ve been visited by these spirits nearly every single night.

May they never yield.

Google's New Mission? "To Organize the World's information (Unless It Starts With "i") ….."

By - May 13, 2010

googmission.pngI had a good call today with Dennis Woodside, who runs North American Sales for Google, and Susan Wojcicki, who runs products. Both are long timers at Google, Susan is pretty much a llfer – she joined in 1999.

Both are joining me on stage at the CM Summit next month, a first for Google to have ad products and sales represented in one onstage interview. We had a great catchup and prep for the conversation, which I think will be enlightening.

After we hung up, I contemplated my earlier posts about Google’s brand, and realized I had forgotten to talk to them about one question that’s lingered in my mind for some time. In essence, it’s this: “What is Google’s brand to you? To your customers?” Then I imagined their response – something along the lines of “our mission hasn’t changed – we’re still focused on organizing the world’s information, and making it universally accessible.”

True – that mission certainly covers most of what Google does today (though it’s a mouthful for the average consumer to grok). But then something struck me – and its name was Apple.

Allow me to explain. Earlier in the day I was in the offices of Adobe, meeting with various folks and talking business. Apple was very much on everyone’s minds given Adobe had just launched its “We (Heart) Apple” and “We (Heart) Open” campaign (see my post here).

All this was stewing in my head as I contemplated Google’s mission on the drive home. And it struck me – Google was born back in the late 1990s, when it seemed inevitable that everything – all the world’s knowledge – was going to be on the web, eventually. It was just presumed that the web would swallow the world – and for ten years, it largely did.

But in the past year, that world has fractured, and increasingly, a new planet has emerged, one that is best represented by Apple. It’s the Planet of the Apps, and while it’s rich in experience, data, and information, it’s largely sealed off from Google’s (or anyone else’s) search spiders.

This is another way of pointing out what folks have called the SplinterNet or the Fractured Web, but somehow, I found it rather poignant to think that Google’s ambitious mission is, in a very real sense, threatened by Apple’s approach to the world. No longer can we assume that “The Web is the World” – because increasingly, it’s not.

This is due, in part, to Google’s own ambition – had it stayed a pencil – just search – Apple probably would not see the company as a threat. I wondered to myself, as I drove home from San Jose, whether Apple would let a third party search engine, one that was not competing for mobile, location, commerce, media access, etc – crawl its App World and bring it out into the light?

I’m starting a dialog with folks from Apple on Friday. I’ll ask. I’m guessing the answer is no, but it’s worth a shot. One can dream, after all. I’ve been doing just that for 25 years in this industry, and I’m not going to stop now.

The iAd: Steve Jobs Regifts The Mobile Marketing Experience

By - May 10, 2010


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We’re used to buzz around Apple, and in particular, we’re quite used to buzz about how Apple goes to market. CEO Steve Jobs is widely considered the greatest marketer alive, and nearly every marketer I’ve worked with has expressed sincere admiration for the magic the man is capable of weaving. His products are brilliant, and the cult around Jobs and his work are extraordinary.

But with iAds, Apple has moved from the business of making ads to the business of selling them. And in the past month or so, Apple’s new team – folks formerly known as Quattro Wireless but now sporting brand new Apple business cards – have started making sales calls at a handful of major brands and their agencies.

These freshly minted Apple folk must feel like the won the lottery – just a few months ago, they were duking it out with ten other mobile networks, competing on price, ROI, network quality and scale, ad format, and Lord knows how many other factors. Now marketers are literally lining up to buy into the launch of Steve Jobs’ next great thing.

And that next great thing is called iAds – which Jobs, in typical fashion, introduced last month as the answer to all those mobile ads that “suck.”

I guess he means what those folks from Quattro sold (and still do, by the way, under their original brand name). Because from what I can tell, there’s almost nothing new in iAd, save the wrapping paper.

Then again, wrapping paper is what takes an ordinary object and turns it into a gift, and therein lies the genius of Jobs.

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You won’t find anything about iAds on Apple’s site (there are a few for “iAd,” but if you’re trying to understand what they are, you’ll be disappointed). Instead, details about the program are leaking out through blogosphere speculation and reports of recent sales meetings. I’ve spoken to several folks who’ve been in those meetings, and this post, the first of a series, will be my best attempt at making sense of the iAd narrative.

And it’s quite a classic tale – one most of the press is eating up. Early reports echo Jobs’ points about how iAds are different, but fail to check whether, in fact, iAds do anything particularly new.

Apple’s press release reads: “iAd, Apple’s new mobile advertising platform, combines the emotion of TV ads with the interactivity of web ads. Today, when users click on mobile ads they are almost always taken out of their app to a web browser, which loads the advertiser’s webpage. Users must then navigate back to their app, and it is often difficult or impossible to return to exactly where they left. iAd solves this problem by displaying full-screen video and interactive ad content without ever leaving the app, and letting users return to their app anytime they choose.”

Jobs elaborated at launch, claiming that iAds would bring more “emotion” and “engagement” to what was before a noisy and crap filled environment.

Well, yes and no. Yes, in that iAds are *only* rich media experiences (once you click on a standard banner, of course). And yes, in that Apple is controlling all the creative for iAds (clients will have approvals and submit materials, but Apple alone is doing the actual development – to ensure quality control – and most likely, to maintain the mystery of iAds in general. Classic Jobs).

And yes, in that at launch, only a selected few marketers will be “allowed” to run iAds. And as has been widely reported, those brands have to pay quite a price to get into the launch portion of the program. Given the steep price tag (reportedly up to $20 million, and I’ll be getting to that in a follow up piece), it’s almost a certainty that the ads will be of high quality – only the most established brand marketers are going to play at this level.

So yes, the actual ads inside an iAd will be better, in general, than an “average” mobile ad experience. But then again, a Superbowl ad is generally better than an “average” television ad, ain’t it?

So…. no, there’s nothing new here. Anything you can do with an iAd, I’ve confirmed with numerous very knowledgeable sources, you can do with AdMob or any number of other networks.

While it’s true that a lot of mobile ads link to web sites, rather than to rich media experiences that keep the user inside an app, it’s also true that AdMob, among others, has been using what’s known as a webview (using the video friendly HTML5 standard) to deliver exactly what Jobs packaged as “new” since at least last Fall. And let’s not forget, Jobs failed to buy AdMob, which was his first choice – Google won that bidding war.

And given that AdMob has 70% reach into the iPhone/Touch/Pad world (according to the company), Apple isn’t really selling anything new with iAds. In the words of one agency source who recently sat in an Apple pitch meeting: “iAds are the same thing you could get before, wrapped in a nice box with a bow on it.”

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Ahh…there it is: The gift. Steve Jobs’ brilliance lies in his ability to make everything seem magical. The true gift Apple is selling right now? A Golden Ticket into Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. A chance to be associated with the greatest marketer in the history of the industry.

Think I’m kidding? Then consider this: Apple is telling marketers willing to pony up for the launch that Steve Jobs will mention their brand on stage as he launches iAds this summer. “That is worth a hell of a lot,” one agency chief told me.

That, my friends, is the bow on the box. The box itself? That’s Apple products – the environment in which the advertisers’ message will be seen. And marketers like nothing more than to be associated with quality environments.

In fact, during presentations to prospective clients, Apple’s sales force takes out an iPhone to demonstrate what iAds look like. And here’s the kicker: They unveil the phone with a flourish and utter these magic words: “This is actually Steve Jobs’ personal iPhone.”

They may as well be showing Willy Wonka’s cane to a room full of children.

What Apple is selling with iAds is – Apple itself. As well they should. But they are also selling into a marketplace that, for the most part, doesn’t really understand mobile marketing. The market is still relatively small – well under a billion dollars globally this year – and major marketers have yet to embrace the format. They don’t realize that most of what Apple is pitching them can be done already.

And in the end, it doesn’t really matter. By isolating the rich media execution and claiming it as his own, Jobs has once again identified a marketing opportunity and redefined it as unique. In the process, he’s driving innovation and awareness in the mobile market. Nothing wrong with that.

But if I were a marketer considering laying out $1mm, $10mm, or more on iAds, I’d make sure I understood what my goals are.

In my next iAd-related post I’ll be focusing on just that topic: deconstructing the ROI on an iAd. Because once the launch is over, it’s all about value for money spent. And there are a lot of unanswered questions here – including publisher inventory and terms, blind vs. directed networks, targeting and terms of service for use of iTunes data, issues of third party networks, FTC regulation, and other policies, and much more. Stay tuned.

Update – I should have mentioned that there are at least two unique properties to an iAd that you can’t get elsewhere – the targeting, which reportedly is based on what apps a particular user has downloaded from iTunes, and the “ViP” program, which is, in short, the ability to link directly to your app in the iTunes store. Of course, anyone can link to the iTunes store from an ad, the difference here is this is a “proprietary Apple approved link.” Not sure what that means, but it should become clearer when the program is live in the wild.

My HP Input Output Interview

By - April 29, 2010

For those of you who might want to watch what I’m on about these days, this is a pretty good overview.

UPDATED: Fixed the autoplay with sound issue.

On Google's Brand

By - April 22, 2010

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Yesterday a reporter from Cnet called and asked me a few provocative questions. He was writing a piece on Google as a marketer, and wanted my point of view. I’m not sure when his piece is coming out (or if my thoughts will be included), but our conversation helped me crystalize my thinking around Google and its brand, so I figured I best get it written down.  

Regular readers may recall one this prediction for 2010:

Google will make a corporate decision to become seen as a software brand rather than as “just a search engine.” I see this as a massive cultural shift that will cause significant rifts inside the company, but I also see it as inevitable. Google, once the “pencil” of the Internet, has become a newer, more open version of Microsoft, and it has to admit as much both to itself as well as to its public, or it will start to lose credibility with all its constituents. While the company flirted with the title of “media company” I think “software company” fits it better, and allows it to focus and to lean into its most significant projects, all of which are software-driven: Chrome OS, Android, Search, and Docs (Office/Cloud Apps).

The reporter’s question let me unpack this a bit. He asked me why Google isn’t doing a major brand campaign, given that most other large Internet-driven companies have – including eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, and Apple.

A few years ago, I might have answered thusly: Google doesn’t need to do brand advertising, because Google’s service *is* the brand builder. But today, my answer is quite different: Google isn’t doing brand advertising because Google doesn’t know what its brand means.

And you can’t do brand advertising if you can’t say what the brand means.

Think about that for a second. Up until a few years ago, it was quite simple to say what the Google brand meant. Put simply, Google = Search. Or, to add a few words, Google = The Best Search Service On Earth.

Now, is that true today?

Well, certainly you could argue that Google still means a great search environment. But the brand also means far more. It’s the brand which stands in opposition to the iPhone – the Android Pepsi to Apple’s Coke. The same is true in the office suite – Google Docs are the Pepsi to the Coke of Microsoft’s Office. Google Chrome? The Pepsi to Internet Explorer’s Coke. And there’s a ton more – photo sharing, blogging platforms, social networking, ecommerce solutions, enterprise platforms, media (YouTube, Knol, etc.)….well you get the picture.

And Google = Search doesn’t cover all that. Nor, honestly, does the company’s corporate mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” You could shoehorn the Nexus One into that mission, but it’s not a comfortable fit.

Until Google figures out what its brand means in a post search world, it won’t be doing any brand advertising. And given who its competing with – Apple, Hulu, Microsoft and Amazon, among many others – I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Foursquare – I Wish It Was Better For Me…

By - April 06, 2010

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I’ve been using Foursquare for a few months now, and I’m impressed with the service on many levels. But I have to be frank – the most impressive thing about it – at least in this test group of one – is what it *could* be, not what it is.

First, the caveats. I use Foursquare, for the most part, on a Blackberry, which means the app is limited by RIM’s hardware and software. This means – as just one example – that when I’m checking in, the process is often fraught with poorly triangulated data (the Blackberry app uses cel towers, not GPS, to determine where you are). In plain English, that means that the app sometimes thinks I’m in Marin when I’m in San Francisco, Mill Valley when I’m in Ross, or fails to properly figure out where I am at all. Not good for a location-based service.

This also means that I want to rely on the web-based service as a backstop for much of my interaction, and, well, the web-based version of the service ain’t very good. It’s clearly not built to help folks like me, and, perhaps for the majority of folks, that’s just fine. But for me, not so much.

Another caveat is that I’m pretty much “not in the demo” – at least as I understand it. I’m not in my early 20s, and I don’t go out a lot in search of connection (despite the “Bender” badge I earned for having breakfast with my kids. Enough said there). So I get almost no value from the “Tips” that are offered on any given venue I check into – mainly because I’m not looking for tips (if there are even any to find). I check into places I know pretty well already, and if I do go somewhere I’ve not been before, I find the app does a pretty poor job of surfacing tips, or any other value above the ambient satisfaction of just declaring “I am here.” Again, that’s not a good thing. I expect more from Foursquare than just the momentary fun of checking in. To me, checking in is a search (see here for more on checking in as the newest field in the Database of Intentions), and so far, the “search engine results” are pretty thin.

Not “being in the demo” also means I’m not looking to hook up – either with a roving band of urban nomad pals, or … well, anyone else, for that matter. For me, the biggest “hook up” that’s happened due to Foursquare so far is when my industry pal Josh Felser introduced me to a fellow who had just captured what had once been my mayorship of the Bay Club Marin. It was fun to meet the guy, and yes, Byron C., I’m coming for you…but honestly, after three months, I expected a bit more…human contact. Compared to three months of using Facebook or Twitter, Foursquare just ain’t doing it in the “connect me to other interesting humans” category.

Before you dismiss my thoughts as the rantings of an old man irrelevant to the Next Big Thing, recall that I’m very, very enthusiastic about this space in general. And, to my mind, if Foursquare can’t make itself Deeply Useful to a guy like me, well, the chances it’ll scale past the level of Mildly Interesting To A Few Million Hipsters is pretty low.

Now, let’s get past the caveats. I’ve got a number of things I wish the service would do, but doesn’t (or if it does, I’m not aware of it, and that’s an issue as well). Also, I’ve got a number of gripes, perhaps, again, that might be resolved by my own education, but my thesis is if a web service isn’t either initially self explanatory (IE, Amazon), or confusing but fascinating (Twitter) it’s not worth spending time on.

So far, Foursquare has not unfolded in any particularly interesting way beyond checking in. That, to me, is both a problem and an opportunity. Now that I’m in the habit of telling my “friends” where I am – what else? To me, that’s a critical problem with the service, one worthy of digging into.

It strikes me that businesses may have an answer to this question, but not at scale – yet. For example, if every X times I checked into the Bay Club, the club itself gave me some value – a discount at the pro shop, or my name in lights behind the counter (well, maybe not that, but you get the picture) – well, now that would be adding a lot of value. But getting hundreds of thousands of venues to figure out how to add value to Foursquare is a tall order, and so far, the examples of small businesses doing so are few and far between.

So what might Foursquare do, beyond just letting me compete with scores of others for the “mayorship” of the Bay Club? I’m not sure, but solving that problem should be at the top of the company’s list of To Dos….right behind ….figuring out what, exactly, a “friend” on Foursquare really is.

So on to that. Now I understand I’m not a normal use case, but I currently have hundreds of pending “friend requests” on Foursquare. Most of these requests are from people I don’t know. Given that I have 5000 friends and nearly 1000 pending requests on Facebook – where my policy has been “don’t be a d*ck” and just say yes – it’s not surprising that folks who I don’t know have reached out to connect on Foursquare. (Do they do that with you as well, I wonder?)

But here’s what I don’t understand about the service: What’s the value of a friend on Foursquare? On Twitter, I understand “followers” – they are folks who chose to read what you create. It’s sort of like a more personal and connected version of this site’s RSS feed. And I understand the same kind of connection on Facebook or Linked In – these are business, personal, and even “possible” friends – folks who I may one day meet and who may become colleagues or friends.

But on Facebook, I can keep folks in that third category at a distance – there’s no chance that, by declaring something on Facebook, folks might walk up to my table at Picco and create a socially awkward moment (well, at least there’s no chance since I made sure my Foursquare checkins don’t broadcast to Facebook status updates!).

With Foursquare, however… not so much. So I’ve tried to manage my Foursquare friends by the simple maxim that, at any given moment, should we find ourselves checking in to the same location, I’d have a decent chance of remembering who that person was.

This means I’ve got a lot of pending requests on Foursquare that I’d have easily approved on Facebook (and of course on Twitter, all of this is moot. Anyone can follow you). So sorry folks waiting for a reply from me – either I’m not sure how or why I might know you, or I’ve not been able to figure out the Blackberry app and approve you in the first place. Either way…not a good thing.

This is a long way of saying that the service is, to my mind, poorly instrumented from the point of view of social relationships.

Lastly, for now anyway, the service is deeply lame in terms of search. Everything is instrumented toward location, so you can’t search for stuff that isn’t near where you happen to be. When I wanted to find the location “Federated Media” just now, so I could link to it, the service found nothing. Why? Because I was “near Fairfax, CA”, and Federated is in SF. That’s just a terrible user experience – one I could write an entire post about, but I won’t (continue to) bore you.

And when you do find a place or a person, their checkin and other Foursquare history is not there, or it’s impossible to find. Also….not good.

I could go on, but I think given it’s late and your patience may be wearing thin, I’ll stop here and ask you all to help me out. What do you think of Foursquare? What am I missing? Is it living up to your expectations?

The service is enjoying an early Twitter like hype, and I certainly like both its founders and its backers. Dennis Crowley will be speaking at the CM Summit in June (that is, if he’s not too peeved at me for my Thinking Out Loud here), and I am, as anyone who reads this site knows, a huge fan of Fred Wilson, a Foursquare investor.

But because I see the huge potential lurking behind Foursquare, I can’t help but be honest. I’m close to losing interest in the service, despite my raging optimism about the space it represents.

Well, with one caveat. I’ll fight to the death to retain my nominal mayorship of FM’s San Francisco headquarters, of course. Keep trying, Jonas!

Hooey

By -

My Signal post is up over at FM. In it I ranted a bit about all the iPad hype, which is particularly dense here in the Valley:

The iPad is not going to change the world this week.

The world takes a long time to change. It doesn’t happen in one machine, or one year, or even one decade. Now, what the iPad represents – new approaches to user interfaces, sophisticated, third-generation software applications that are connected to and feed the Internet – yes, this is a very big deal.

But let’s not wrap all that change, which will take time to unfold – into one device and one launch. It’s ridiculous. Think back over ten years of Internet innovation – back to the year 2000. And as much as the Web has evolved, think how long it took us to get from the Treo to Android, or GeoCities to WordPress. It takes time, folks. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves

April Fools!

By - March 31, 2010

I was going to post…

…That Twitter had been sold, for 1.75 billion, to Google (who would pay that, I’d reckon).

…That MySpace had been sold, for 250 million, to Viacom (who would pay that, just to rub it into Murdoch’s face).

…That Google had announced it was only kidding about China, and was ready to play ball again with the PRC.

…That Facebook had made all public actions available in its API (oh wait, that’s going to be true!)

….That Foursquare announced it was no longer doing high profile deals and instead was going to focus on its product.

….That Yahoo and AOL were merging.

….That Microsoft had won the iPhone and iPad search business

…That Apple was opening up the iTunes store to web crawling, made peace with Adobe, and was launching an effort to create an SDK that ported iPhone/Pad apps to Android

…That Amazon had launched a payment business to compete with PayPal

…That eBay had bought Skype, again.

….and that Nokia had bought RIM.

But…April’s Fools is so boring now, ain’t it?