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Looking Back: How Did My 2013 Predictions Fare?

By - December 30, 2013

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It’s that time of year: The annual ritual of looking back and looking forward is in full voice. Long time readers know I always make predictions around the turn of the year, and I expect my 2014 prognostications will come sometime this weekend. Meanwhile, it’s time to take a look at what I wrote a year ago, and judge how well I did.

You may recall I took a different approach in 2013, and wrote predictions mainly for things I *hoped* would come true, rather than things I expected would. I’ve been doing these predictions for nine years now, and I guess I was looking for a fresh angle. All in all, things came out OK, but you be the judge. Here are my predictions, and my short summary on how they fared.

1. We figure out what the hell “Big Data” really is, and realize it’s bigger than we thought (despite its poor name).

One can argue whether “we” figured out what Big Data is, but we sure realized it’s bigger than we thought. The Rocket Fuel IPO is one clear measure of that, the Snowden/NSA revelations are yet another. And “Big Data is going to be big” is an echoing theme once again for 2014, from the various predictions posts I’ve seen over the past few weeks. Whether or not society has a clear grip on the definition of “Big Data,” I’d argue every thinking person in our world understands it’s a concept that has significant bearing on our collective and individual future. With that in mind, I’ll declare this prediction box checked.

2. Adtech does not capitulate, in fact, it has its best year ever, thanks to … data. 

At the beginning of the year, many were predicting that ad tech was going to have a year of capitulation – but the opposite has in fact occurred. Terry Kawaja revised his charts to show a more than doubling of the companies in the space this past year, and while some might argue that a few ad tech IPOs were not high flyers- Tremor and Yume take the lead here – the fact is, they got out and are now stabilizing. Meanwhile, Rocket Fuel is a massive win, so is Criteo, and so is Twitter – which is as much an ad tech business as it is a social networking or platform company. My own experience in the space – FM’s ad tech business – only corroborates my prediction – our business had an extraordinary 2013, beating all our forecasts handily and growing at near triple digit rates on a large base from 2013.

The basis for all this growth? Data, of course, but more importantly, a more sophisticated approach to data. Criteo and Rocket Fuel were rewarded for this sophistication, and understanding how to manage this new currency of data will be at the center of value creation for 2014.

I think this prediction has also proven accurate. So far, 2 for 2.

3. Google trumps Apple in mobile 

In this prediction, I laid out that I hoped Google would steal Apple’s crown as the leader in mobile. Judging this one is going to prove tricky – Google has clearly outstripped Apple in sales and buzz, Apple still won on profit and driving high end behaviors like e-commerce. I’d argue that sales matter more in the long term, and this prediction has occurred.   However, in my 2013 post I suggested that Google would win by coming up with The Next Big Thing, like the Razr or the iPhone, and while the Nexus 5 and the Moto X are well-received devices (I have the Nexus 5, and I believe it’s far better than any iPhone out there), it’d be difficult to argue they are The Next Big Thing. And Glass – well, not yet, anyway.

I also wrote this: “Google needs to actively promote a vision that is 180 degrees from that of Apple: Open, interoperable, accessible, ungated. This allows for real innovation in UI, services, and apps. Google will win by highlighting things that only Android-based devices running Jellybean or later can do: you (consumers and developers) can interact with digital services and content in a web-like fashion.”

So far, this has not occurred – at least in the marketplace. Google did take a big step forward with Android app linking, but it’s not clear this feature is going to take off, or be implemented in a way that creates the ecosystem I was pining for in my original post.

I’d give myself a half check on this one. So far, 2.5 of 3.

4. The Internet enables frictionless (but accountable) payments, enabling all manner of business models that previously have been unnaturally retarded.

Well…sort of. Bitcoin woke us all up to a new way to pay, and culturally I think a much larger percentage of us have become accustomed to the idea that money no longer comes with the friction it once had. Credit Uber for that – but Uber is not exactly used by the masses. And Square had, by all accounts, a massive year. Still and all, the ecosystem breakthrough I was hoping for has not happened. I also predicted that major consumer-facing online platforms based on “free” – Google and Facebook chief among them, though Twitter is a potential player here as well – will begin to press their customers for real dollars in exchange for premium services. This is undeniably true. Facebook and Twitter ask us for money to promote my posts, LinkedIn keeps trying to upsell us to Premium, Google wants to sell us a better Play experience, Hulu,

Spotify, you name it, they want our money.

I got this one mostly right, I’d say – perhaps 75% right. 3.25 of 4 so far.

5.  Twitter comes of age and recommits itself as an open platform. 

I think I missed at least half of this one, but it’s worth talking about why. First, sure, if having a killer IPO is coming of age, then Twitter came of age. But the real point I was making is the one about committing to being an open platform. I predicted (again, remember these are my hopes) that the company would clarify its sometimes confusing rules of the road, resulting in some breakout new services from third parties. I also predicted Twitter would get itself into some good old fashioned tempests with Big Overbearing Governments and Corporations, much to the delight of folks who used to cheer Google for doing similar things in the past. Lastly, I predicted Twitter would roll out paid services.

So, how did I fare? It’s hard to say, definitively. I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of how important Twitter’s role is in the Open Source world, but it’s clearly committed to being an active player. As for clarifying its approach to developers and opening up an ecosystem for third parties, unless I’m missing something, I don’t think that really happened. Topsy, which is one of the most important Twitter developers, was bought by Apple, but as I posted earlier, I don’t think that was because of Twitter per se. And where are all the cool new third party apps built on top of the Twitter platform? Honestly, I don’t see them. The Twitter platform is best when used as an identity layer, so far. Nothing new there. And no breakout new apps, at least, not from third parties.

Now, on the issue of “tempests with Governments,” Twitter most certainly checked the box. While incidents in the UK, France, and other countries kept execs busy, what was most interesting is how Twitter was *not* implicated, at least directly, in the NSA fracas this year. The company also joined its peers in expressing dismay, and recently implemented tougher anti-snooping security, going beyond the HTTPS that Google, Yahoo and others have installed.

All in all, what I was going for in this prediction was the emergence of an open, robust third-party platform from Twitter, and while I can’t say it’s gotten worse, I also can’t say much happened to push it forward. So I’d say this one was mostly a miss, overall – though I’d give myself .25 for “coming of age” and committing to stand against Big Bad Government. I stand at 3.5 of 5 now. 

6. Facebook embraces the “rest of the web.”

Well, this was probably my biggest “hope” of all the predictions I made. I wrote: “I believe 2013 will be the year it realizes it’s OK to share – bilaterally – with The World That Isn’t Facebook. That means making it really easy to export your identity and data, for example – competing on service, not lock in. And creating a kickass web-based advertising network/exchange. And  learning how to play nice with the hundreds of thousands of publishers out there, pro, semi pro and amateur, who create the value that drives so much engagement on its core platform.”

Umm…not so much. I still think this strategy is crucial to Facebook’s long term value. But it didn’t happen this past year. Big miss. I’m now 3.5 of 6.

7.  By the end of the year, Amazon will have an advertising business on a run rate comparable to Microsoft.

Well, this one is refreshingly specific, isn’t it!? I should easily be able to show if I was right, one way or the other. Well, not so fast. Both companies bury their advertising revenue inside other categories, which make it nearly impossible to understand and compare the media components. By all accounts in the press and from what I’ve heard from industry folk, Amazon’s advertising business is growing very quickly. I made this prediction to highlight that, by year’s end, Amazon would be a force to be reckoned with in advertising. I think anyone paying attention to programmatic advertising would agree this is true. I just can’t prove it yet. So…give me half a check.

4 of 7 so far.

8. The world will learn what “synthetic biology” is, because of a major breakthrough in the field.

Well, it didn’t happen, at least, not in a massive way. No major breakthrough that hit a 24 hour news cycle, just a constant, steady drip of small but important steps all year long. Sigh, I missed this one completely, since I predicted “the world will learn” and unless you were really paying attention, you’d have missed that 2013 was a big year in synthetic biology. No points for me here.

So, that’s 4 of 8, or batting .500. Not an awesome year, but not bad either. The predictions where I whiffed – Facebook, synthetic biology, Twitter’s open platform – I whiffed because I badly wanted them to come true, but the facts are in the way. Lesson learned….my next post will be my 2014 predictions. We’ll see if I take those lessons to heart.

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Facebook Must Win The Grownup Vote

By - December 16, 2013

facebookdownthumbIt’s all over the media these days: Facebook is no longer cool, Facebook has lost its edge with teenagers, Facebook is now establishment.

Well duh. Teenagers aren’t loyal to much of anything, especially Internet stuff. Tonight I had four of them at my table, ranging in age from 15 to 17. All of them agreed that Facebook was over. It was a unanimous, instant, and unemotional verdict. They agreed they had to have a Facebook page. But none of them much cared about it anymore. Facebook was now work – and they’re kids after all. Who wants to work?

And when I asked if their little brothers and sisters were into Facebook? Nope, not one.

I turned to the 10 year-old at the table, my youngest daughter. I realized she had never once mentioned a desire to get a Facebook page, and seemed bored by the discussion overall. Of course, she’s already on Snapchat.

Interesting. When my now 15-year old was 10, she begged us night and day to get a Facebook page. Now, she uses it “because she has to.”

What about Facebook-purchased Instagram? Still good, but the Facebook connection is seen as a negative. Snapchat? Great, but warning signs abound (they’re not sure about whether they trust the service). Vine? Super cool. Twitter? Well….they know Twitter is coming in their lives – something that they’d dabbled in, but will grow into, once they’d learned how to be a proper public person.

You know, a grownup.

Facebook, which started as a site for college kids (OK, OK, Harvard kids), must know it has to get in front of this particular parade. Because as far as I can tell, Facebook’s future is with grownups now. And grownups are more world wise, more demanding, and more thoughtful than college kids. But the Facebook app still feels very….high school.

Maybe that’s why Facebook is talking about becoming your personal newspaper (really? A news site?!).

I wrote many moons ago about how Facebook, to win on the Internet, would need to let go of its data lock in, and compete as a service irrespective of its natural social graph monopoly. It looks like the competition is on – a generation is growing up with Facebook being an optional service – an absolutely unimaginable state of affairs just three or so years ago.

 

Do you think Facebook can make the transition? 

Apple+Topsy: It’s Not About Twitter (And Twitter Is Probably Cool With That)

By - December 03, 2013

TopsyApple

I’m going out on a limb, but a fairly stout one: Like Azeem, I think Apple bought Topsy for its search chops. But Azeem, who I admire greatly, says Topsy could become the search engine “for iOS… to index both the social Web, but also the best bits of the Web that power Siri and Apple Maps, [and] reduce the reliance on Google and reduce the flow of advertising dollars to the big G.” Certainly possible, but I don’t think Apple bought Topsy for its ability to search the web, or even for its trove of Twitter data. That might be a nice bonus, but I don’t think it’s the bogey.* Others have written that Topsy might be used to improve Apple’s iTunes/app search, but again, I think that’s not thinking big enough.

No, Apple most likely bought Topsy because Topsy has the infrastructure to address one of Apple’s biggest problems: the iOS interface. Let’s face it, iOS (and the app-based interface in general) is slowly becoming awful. It’s like the web before good search showed up.  To move to the next level, Apple needs a way to improve how its customers interact with iOS. Topsy will help them get there. Also, I think Twitter is happy that Apple bought Topsy – but more on that later.

Let me explain. First, my statement that iOS is “becoming awful.” Faithful readers know I’m not a fan of iOS. I switched to Android almost two years ago, and I’ve never looked back. But it’s not as if the Android interface is much better – I just like its chances of developing into something more powerful down the line. In the past few years, I’ve written several posts about the kind of interface I believe needs to emerge across mobile (which until last year, Apple pretty much dominated). Given my  obsession with the topic, it’s probably no secret that I view mobile’s biggest problem boils down to one of search.

In  Apple Won’t Build a (Web) Search Engine and Of Course Apple Is Going to Do Search, I argued that Apple must get into the “app search” game. Just as web search became the coin of the web realm, app search will be next. It won’t look like web search, I argued, but at its core, it’s quite similar.

That was three years ago, right after Apple bought Siri, launched iAds, and was relentlessly touting the growth of its app ecosystem. I was certain Apple was going to figure out a way to create value above the level of a particular app, using all that tasty data it had within its restrictive walled garden to build the next generation iOS interface.

But so far, Apple has failed to innovate inside its own ecosystem (unless you count minimalist icons and bright base colors as innovation). Three years later, we’re still stuck in a user interface of app-filled screens, most of which we never use, each disconnected  from the other save for the fact they happen to reside on your phone, possibly right next to each other, but otherwise unaware of the value they might reap should they magically start sharing links and data with each other. (You know, the way the web works.)

This has to change.

Google knows it, which is why I find Google Now so fascinating. Apple knows it too – the days of home screens littered with app icons are numbered. What will replace it?

My guess is some kind of intelligent, search-driven interface that “understands” you, based on the intent you signal through your use of all kinds of apps – including browser apps, of course, as well as true search apps like Siri (or Google Now). This new kind of interface responds to your voice as well as your location, your history, and anything else you might willingly (or unwittingly) feed it. It will strive to always put the very thing you need at your fingertips – something that simply isn’t possible without understanding your interactions as the equivalent of …. well, a personal interest graph.

And to do that, Apple needs a powerful engine, the kind of engine that, say, has been hard at work understanding a massive corpus of interest data for, say, six or so years. Something like Topsy.

My prediction: Apple doesn’t really care about Twitter data. The more I think about it, the more I’d wager that Twitter most likely blessed Apple’s purchase – and why not. With its newfound post-IPO billions, Twitter could have easily forced Topsy’s price well past $200 million. But Twitter is probably thrilled that Apple bought Topsy – Apple just took out a company that Twitter eventually would have had to either buy or kill. Now, Twitter is free to build enterprise value on top of its own data, as well it should, and Apple has a team of engineers who I’m guessing can’t wait to get their hands on a new kind of tweet stream – all that structured data captured, but not leveraged, off your mobile phone. It’s a win win win – if I’m right. Apple gets the tech and talent to build the guts of its next interface, consumers get a better OS, and Twitter gets to keep its cash and eliminate a potential competitor to boot.

Smart move, Apple. I hope I’m right.

*For the record, I spoke to no one at Twitter or Apple before I wrote this. It’s all my own brand of pure speculation. 

Why The Banner Ad Is Heroic, and Adtech Is Our Greatest Artifact

By - November 17, 2013

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Every good story needs a hero. Back when I wrote The Search, that hero was Google – the book wasn’t about Google alone, but Google’s narrative worked to drive the entire story. As Sara and I work on If/Then, we’ve discovered one unlikely hero for ours: The lowly banner ad.

Now before you head for the exits with eyes a rollin’, allow me to explain. You may recall that If/Then is being written as an archaeology of the future. We’re identifying “artifacts” extant in today’s world that, one generation from now, will effect significant and lasting change on our society. Most of our artifacts are well-known to any student of today’s digital landscape, but all are still relatively early in their adoption curve: Google’s Glass, autonomous vehicles, or 3D printers, for example. Some are a bit more obscure, but nevertheless powerful – microfluidic chips (which may help bring about DNA-level medical breakthroughs) fall into this category. Few of these artifacts touch more than a million people directly so far, but it’s our argument that they will be part of more than a billion people’s lives thirty years from now.

There is one exception. The artifact we’re investigating is already at massive scale, driving billions of dollars in revenue and touching every person whose ever used the Internet. That artifact is currently called “programmatic adtech,” and it is most famously illustrated by Terry Kawaja’s Lumascapes (and less famously, my own “Behind the Banner” visualization).

lumascapedisplayYes, this is the infrastructure that allows a pair of shoes to chase you across the web. How can it possibly be as important as, say, a technology that may cure cancer? Because I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.” We’re working on it. Any ideas?!)

Think about what programmatic adtech makes possible. An individual requests a piece of content through a link or an action (like touching something on a mobile device). In milliseconds, scores of agents execute thousands of calculations based on hundreds of parameters, all looking to market-price the value of that request and deliver a personalized response. This happens millions of times * a second,* representing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computing cycles each second. What’s most stunning about this system is that it’s tuned to each discrete individual – every single request/response loop is unique, based on the data associated with each individual.

Let me break that down:

1. A person indicates a request: a desire, an intent, a preference – The Request

2. Billions of compute cycles and sh*tons of data are engaged to process that desire – The Process

3. A personalized response is generated within 100-250 milliseconds. – The Response

At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request Process Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state. Today’s adtech has within it the glimmerings of a computing architecture that will underpin our entire society. Every time you turn up your thermostat, this infrastructure will engage, determining in real time the most efficient response to your heating needs. Each time you walk into a doctor’s office, the same kind of system could be triggered to determine what information should appear on your health care provider’s screen, and on yours, and how best payment should be made (or insurance claims filed). Every retail store you visit, every automobile you drive (or are driven by), every single interaction of value in this world can and will become data that interacts with this programmatic infrastructure.

OK. Let’s step back for a second. When you think of this infrastructure, are  you concerned? Good. Because it’s imperative that we consider the choices we make as we engage with such a portentous creation. This year alone, each human on the planet will create about 600 gigabytes of information, and that number is growing rapidly. What are the architectural constraints of the infrastructure which processes that information? What values do we build into it? Can it be audited? Is it based on principles of openness, or is it driven by business rules and data-structures which favor closed platforms? Will we have to choose between an oligarchy of “RPR vendors” – Google, Facebook, Microsoft – or will we take a more distributed approach, as the original Internet did?

These questions have been raised, and continue to be well articulated, by LessigZittrainWu, and many others. But we’re entering a new, more urgent era of this conversation. Many of these authors’ works warned of a world where code will eventually augur early lock down in political and social conventions. That time is no longer in the future. It’s now. And I believe as goes adtech, so goes our social code.

“Adtech” is a very important, very large application we’ve built on top of the platform we call “the Internet.” It’s driven by the relentless desire of capitalism to turn a profit, yet (so far) it has leaned toward the Internet’s core values of openness and interconnectivity. Thanks to that,  it’s suffering some endemic maladies (fraud comes to mind). It’s still a very young, relatively immature artifact. But so far, it’s more open than not. I’m not certain that will always be the case.

My argument boils down to this: What we today call “adtech” will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions. That layer deserves to be named as perhaps the most important artifact extant today.

Given adtech’s rise, let’s not forget its atomic unit of value: the oft-derided banner ad. In time the banner as we know it will most likely fade away, but its place in history is certain. One generation from now, we may not “click” on banner ads, but we’ll always be pulling into traffic, filing health insurance claims, buying clothes in retail stores, and turning up our thermostats. And those myriad transactions will be lit with data and processed by a real time infrastructure initially built to execute one pedestrian task: serve a simple banner ad.

Nearly 30 Years In Less Than an Hour

By - November 15, 2013

Pinch me: Last week I gave a “distinguished” lecture in Engineering at Berkeley. It was an honor to do so – I don’t really see myself as distinguished in any academic sense – and certainly not when it comes to engineering. (I do think my greying temples are starting to look distinguished, if I do say so….) Anyway, it was a lot of fun – in particular because my hosts asked me to spend a bit of time reviewing the past 30 or so years of my own work. Should you want to take a spin through the early days of Macweek, Wired (and HotWired), The Industry Standard, Web 2 Summit, my last book, the launch of and present adtech resurgence of FM, as well as the next book – well, here ya go. Bonus: I had a cold, so I was totally hopped up on Actifed.

Ubiquitous Video: Why We Need a Robots.txt For the Real World

By - November 13, 2013

illustration_robotLast night I had an interesting conversation at a small industry dinner. Talk turned to Google Glass, in the context of Snapchat and other social photo sharing apps.

Everyone at the table agreed:  it was inevitable – whether it be Glass, GoPro, a button in your clothing or some other form factor – personalized, “always on” streaming of images will be ubiquitous. Within a generation (or sooner), everyone with access to mass-market personal electronics (i.e., pretty much everyone with a cell phone now) will have the ability to capture everything they see, then share or store it as they please.

That’s when a fellow at the end of the table broke in. “My first response to Glass is to ask: How do I stop it?”

The dinner was private, so I can’t divulge names, but this fellow was a senior executive in the banking business. He doesn’t want consumers streaming video from inside his banks, nor does he want his employees “Glassing” confidential documents or the keys to the safe deposit boxes.

All heads at the table nodded, as if this scenario was right around the corner  – and the implications went far beyond privacy at a bank. Talk turned to many other situations where people agreed they’d not want to be “always on.” It could be simple –  a bad hair day – or complicated: a social pariah who just wanted to be left alone. All in all, people were generally sympathetic to the notion of “the right to be left alone” – what in this case might be called “the right to not be in a public stream.”

But how to enforce such a right? The idea of banning devices like Glass infringes the wearer’s rights, and besides, it just won’t scale – tiny cameras will soon be everywhere, and they’ll be basically imperceptible. Sure, some places (like banks, perhaps), will have scanning devices and might be able to afford the imposition of such bans. But in public places? Most likely impossible and quite possibly illegal (in the US, for instance, there is an established right to take photographs in public spaces).

This is when my thoughts turned to one of the most powerful devices we have to manage each other: the Social Contract. I believe we have entered an era in which we must renegotiate our contract with society – that invisible but deeply powerful sets of norms that guide “civil behavior.” Glass (among other artifacts) is at the nexus of this negotiation – the debate laid bare by a geeky pair of glasses.

Back at the table, someone commented that it’d be great if there was a way to let people know you didn’t want to be “captured” right now. Some kind of social cloaking signal*, perhaps. Now, we as humans are damn good at social signaling. We’ve built many a civilization on elaborate sets of social mores.  So how might our society signal a desire to not be “streamed”? Might we develop the equivalent of a “robots.txt” for the real world?

For those of you not familiar with robots.txt, it’s essentially a convention adopted early in the Web’s life, back when search became a powerful distributor of attention, and the search index the equivalent of a public commons (Zittrain wrote a powerful post about it here). Some sites did not want to be indexed by search engines, for reasons ranging from a lack of resources (a search engine’s spiders put a small tax on a site’s resources) to privacy.  No law was enacted to create this convention, but every major search engine obeys its strictures nevertheless. If a site’s robots.txt tells an indexing spider to not look inside, the robot moves along.

It’s an elegant solution, and it works, as long as everyone involved keeps their part of the social contract. Powerful recriminations occur if an actor abuses the system – miscreants are ostracized, banned from social contact with “good” actors.

So might we all, in some not-so-distant future, have our own “robots.txt” – a signal that we can instrument at will, one which is constantly on, a beacon which others can pick up and understand? Such an idea seem to me not at all far fetched. We already all carry the computing power and bandwidth on our person to effect such a signal. All we need is a reason for it to come online. Glass, or something like it, may well become that reason.

The instrumentation of our new social contract is closer at hand than we might think.

*We already have  deeply a meaningful “social cloaking device” – its called our wardrobe. But I’ll get into that topic in another post.

 

It’s…A Marketing Barge?!

By - November 01, 2013

google_barge_map_103113(image CBS KPIX) The #googlebarge meme has taken a very strange turn.

A rather welcome diversion from our industry’s endless NSA revelations, the enigmatic barge floating off Treasure Island had been widely assumed to be a floating data center of some kind. But today a local CBS station is reporting that the massive box is custom built for….marketing. No one suggested *that* when I asked for wild speculation yesterday. Answers ranged from “a place to store Google’s cash” to “a hide out for Microsoft’s next CEO,” but “a seaworthy rival to Apple’s retail stores”? Nope, no one was that drunk on Halloween.

From the CBS story:

The project, which has been in the planning stages for more than a year, was created at Google[x], the secret facility that Google reportedly runs near its corporate headquarters in Mountain View. It is personally directed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and is Google’s attempt to upstage rival Apple and its chain of popular retail stores, sources said.

A source who has been onboard the vessel, which is moored off San Francisco’s Treasure Island under tight security, told KPIX 5 the first three floors are designed to serve as “dazzling showrooms” that can be outfitted with chrome features and floor lighting. There is an upper “party deck” meant to feature bars, lanais and other comforts so Google can fete its upscale customers.

The barge can reportedly be taken apart quickly and shipped to anywhere in the world.  Like, say, Davos. The thing’s apparently one huge, mobile marketing stunt.

Kind of makes sense, no?

A World Lit, Literally, By Data

By - October 21, 2013

data bulbsAs you work on a book, even one as slow to develop as if/then, certain catch phrases develop. People ask you what the book is about, or the shape of its core argument, and some of the descriptions start to stand out and  hit home. One of those is “a world lit by data,” an idea I’ve been toying with for some time now. It’s a metaphor that’s not entirely worked out, but it seems to get the job done – it paints a picture of a time when everything of value around us – everything we “see” – has a component of data to it. In a world lit by data, street corners are painted with contextual information, automobiles can navigate autonomously, thermostats respond to patterns of activity, and retail outlets change as rapidly (and individually) as search results from Google.

The tortured bit of the metaphor is in asking you, the reader, to believe that we will live in spaces full of data, just as we live in spaces filled with light (be it natural or man made). Everyone understands the idea of light as metaphor. But data? Well, to my mind, they are quite connected. Without light, we can’t (easily) take in information about our physical surroundings. In darkness there is far less data. Equating “light” with “data” isn’t too much of a stretch.

Now, the interplay of light and “information” is dangerous but well-trodden ground. After all, in the Old Testament, the first thing God did after creating the physical (Heavens and Earth) was to turn on the lights. And after further contemplation, Christians decided that before Light, there was The Word, which was God’s will made flesh (John 1). Since then, of course, “the word” has come to mean, well, encoded information, or data. Loosely put (and I know I’m on thin ice here) – first we establish the physicality of that which we don’t fully understand, then we bathe it in light, hoping to understand it the best we can.

Given this metaphor, it was fun to see this headline in Quartz: A plan to turn every lightbulb into an ultra-fast alternative to Wi-Fi. The recent “li-fi” spec sends data utilizing the same frequency as light – literally, it uses a light bulb as a carrier of information. Seems my “world lit by data” metaphor is getting quite real, indeed.

 

 

Here Are the Companies I Chose For OpenCo SF This Year. Damn, That Was Hard

By - October 01, 2013

opencosfI spent about an hour today choosing which companies I plan to visit during next week’s OpenCo. And I have to say – despite my obvious bias as a founder of the event – the difficulty I had deciding only gets me more excited about participating. There are just so many great organizations opening their doors during this two-day festival, and it makes me so proud that this thing is, well, happening. I mean, it’s really happening – 135 or so companies are letting the public come inside, and they’re talking about what makes their  organization special, what makes it tick. And for two days, I get to hang out in their space, take notes, get inspired. It’s just…really cool.

I like this so much more than hanging out in yet another ballroom at a tech industry confab. I mean, I love those conferences. It’s great to see all my pals and meet new people. But OpenCo really is different. The serendipity of each company’s vibe, the instant social network that forms around each session (“So why did you come to see Rock Health?!”), the seemingly endless choices. Nearly 2500 people have registered, and we expect to break 3,000 by the end of the week. You can’t fit 3,000 people in the ballroom at The Palace Hotel. But the city will welcome us all next week. It’s just … cool.

So here are the companies I chose, and why:

Thursday, Oct. 10

9am: San Francisco Symphony (City Center). Whaaat? The symphony is an OpenCo? I know, that’s what I thought. But OpenCo Advisor Nancy Hellman Bechtle has brought many key arts players into the OpenCo fold, including American Conservatory Theatre, the American Institute of Architects, the California College of the Arts, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, the San Francisco Jazz Organization, the Children’s Creativity Museum, the San Francisco Opera, and SF MOMA. How many opportunities do you get to go hear from the leaders of these vibrant cultural institutions? Very, very cool.

Companies also going off at 9 am that I wish I could see: Event Brite, AIA, Google, and IFTTT (it was sold out already, damnit). 

wework10:30 am: WeWork SOMA (SOMA area). There are about half a dozen collaborative workspaces that will be opening their doors next week, but I chose WeWork because I liked the vibe of their mission: “Do what you love.” A focus on “beauty” in workspace seems to drive their approach, and I want to see that up close. The company has workspaces in many cities around the country, I’m hoping they’ll all be OpenCos someday.

Companies also going off at 10:30 that I wish I could see: SoundCloud (full already), Presidio Trust, Rackspace.

12:00 pm: High Fidelity, Inc. (SOMA area) Philip Rosedale’s at it again, this time with a head trip of a company that is pioneering a new approach to, well, time and space. (Rosedale founded the way-ahead-of-its-time Second Life). They’re re-imagining reality, based on, I kid you not, “sparse voxel octree data structures.” I gotta see this.

Companies also going off at 12:00pm that I wish I could see: Superfly Presents (my pals behind Bonnaroosfly and Outside Lands), Lit Motors (FULL!), Granicus, Rickshaw Bags, twofifteenmccann (did our logo design for OpenCo among other things!).

1:30 pm:  TechShop (SOMA/Downtown area). The concept of sharing resources is tearing up the old economy and making new kinds of innovation possible. I want to see it in action. From TechShop’s description: “Part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center, TechShop provides access to over $1 million worth of professional equipment and software.” I’m in.

Companies also going off at 1:30pm that I wish I could see: Wired (for old times’ sake, but it’s already FULL), Dandelion Chocolate (more chocoloate in the world is a good thing), Net Power & Light, Ridepal….there are so many….

proj frog 23:00pm: Project Frog (Mission). By this point in my schedule, I’m starting to realize how many great companies I’m missing, but … chose we must. I liked Project Frog’s description – I’d never heard of it before. “Since 2006, Project Frog has been on a mission to revolutionize the way buildings are created by applying technology to overcome the inefficiencies of traditional construction.” When on earth am I ever going to get a chance to grok that idea in action? Apparently, next week! Cool.

Companies also going off at 3:00pm that I wish I could see: Dropbox (FULL!), the Kite Pitch Doctor, Exygy (I want to work with these guys!),  Innovate SF (Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation – a great partner!), Stamen (love their work). 

 4:30pm: SF MOMA (Embarcadero). OK, I know what you’re saying. Opening with the Symphony, closing with MOMA? Well, yes. I don’t really engage with these amazing institutions in my day to day life, and I want to change that. The director of SF MOMA will present in a “on the go” space at Pier 24, because the museum is closed (it’s undergoing a massive expansion.) This is a chance to hear what’s happening at a world-class museum, from the person who’s running it. Hell yes I’m going.

Companies also going off at 4:30pm that I wish I could see: The Slanted Door  (yes, the restaurant group!), HomeJoy (starting a movement to change cleaning! I love it), Twyxt (cool service for couples), WideOrbit (adtech/platform). 

jawbone

And that’s just day 1.

Day 2, Friday Oct. 11, rolls like this:

9 am: Federated Media Publishing (Embarcadero). Well, I’m actually giving the presentation for this one, so I better have it on my sked, no? I’m really looking forward to participating as an OpenCo after helping to found OpenCo. How great is that? I’ll be talking about connecting data and publishing, because I believe independent publishers must understand their data to thrive in today’s Internet ecosystem.

Companies also going off at 9 am that I wish I could see: ACT, Jawbone (FULL!), Salesforce (FULL!), NextDoor.

10:30 am: Inner Circle Labs (SOMA). This firm specializes in PR for innovative companies in SF, and is bringing in a great panel of its own clients. I think the professional services that help startups are an underappreciated part of our landscape, and I’m looking forward to learning more about this firm.

Companies also going off at 10:30 am that I wish I could see: RocketSpace, Instructables, SV Angel  (FULL, damn you David and Ron, open more space!), gitHub.

12:00pm: Scoot Networks (SOMA). “Combining battery-powered scooters with smartphone technology, Scoot allows for quick, affordable, one way trips around San Francisco.” Enough said. I love the city bike share nets that are popping up all over the world, but in SF, sometimes you need a battery! Hey Scoot, we should do something to get folks around OpenCo, no?!

crave toysCompanies also going off at 12:00pm that I wish I could see: SF OperaTCHO (FULL!), Crave (sex toys with data!!!), CleanTech GroupGirl Ventures.

1:30 pm: Mad ValleyThis agency-driven incubator is having a lot of success lately, and though I’ve been to the space many times to see clients, I’ve never heard the pitch. I am really looking forward to getting smart on a venture I’ve been close to, but never really seen.

Companies also going off at 1:30pm that I wish I could see: Imagine H2O, Code for America (went last year!), Hotel Tonight

3:00 pm: yerdle. Look, how much stuff do you have sitting in your house that plagues you with guilt – it has value, but you’re not using it? But it’s too much work to figure out how to get it to a useful place in the universe, right? Enter yerdle – a way to share or give stuff you’ve got to those who want or need it. Love this idea.

Companies also going off at 3:00pm that I wish I could see: Bloomberg (FULL!), Viglink, isocket

4:30 pm: 99 Designs. This site has taken off, helping connect creatives and those looking for creative inspiration. I want to see what makes it tick.  I also want to learn how to become a good client of its services.

everlane

Companies also going off at 4:30pm that I wish I could see: Everlane (bespoke and transparent!), SEAGLASS, Hightail, IDEO (Full, DAMNIT).

Well, that’s it. A dozen amazing experiences await me next week, a dozen new groups of people, a dozen founders, idealists, and entrepreneurs telling their stories for us to hear.

I. Am. Stoked. Thanks to American Express OPEN Forum, Yahoo!, IPG/MediaBrands, the Mayor’s office, SFBIG, and the team at OpenCo (and all our wonderful partners) for making this possible. What an honor to say I was there at the founding of the OpenCo movement. If you’ve gotten all the way to this point in my post, GO REGISTER, IT’S FREE! 

See you out in the modern working city!

Search and Immortality

By - September 19, 2013

google.cover.inddFunny thing, there I was two days ago, at Google’s annual conference, watching Larry Page get asked questions so pliant in nature they couldn’t be called softballs. They were more like tee balls – little round interrogatives gingerly placed on a plastic column for Page to swat out into the crowd. Not that we would expect anything else – to be clear, this is Google’s event, and I see nothing wrong with Google scripting its own event. I had moderated the final session of the day, but Larry was the final speaker. Perhaps wisely, Google brought  someone else on to “grill” Page – those were his words as the interview started. (You be the judge –  a sample question: “What are your thoughts about tablets in schools?”)

Anyway, I was certainly not the right choice to talk to Larry. I know the folks at Google well, and have tons of respect for them. We both know I would have insisted on asking about a few things that were, well, in the news at the moment of that interview on Tuesday. Like, for example, the fact that Google, on the very next day, was going to announce the launch of Calico, a company seeking to solve that “moonshot” problem of aging. Oh, and by the way, current Apple Chair and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson was going to be CEO, reporting to Page. Seems like pretty interesting news, no? And yet, Larry kept mum about it during the interview. Wow. That’s some serious self control.

And yet I think I understand – each story has its own narrative, and this one needed room to breathe. You don’t want to break it inside an air-conditioned ballroom in front of your most important clients. You want to make sure it gets on the cover of Time (which it did), and that the news gets at least a few days to play through the media’s often tortured hype cycle. It’s grinding its way through that cycle now, and I’m sure we’ll see comparisons to everything from Kurzweil (who now works at Google) to Bladerunner, and beyond.

But what I was reminded of was the very end of my book on search, some 8 years ago. I was trying to put the meaning of search into context, and I found myself returning again and again to the concept of immortality.  This was my epilogue, which I offer here as perhaps some context for Google’s announcement this week:

“Search and Immortality”

On a fine sunny morning in 2003, not long after the birth of my third and most likely final child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button. I can’t explain why I turned to a search engine for metaphysical comfort, but I sensed the search might lead me somewhere—here I was writing a book about search, but what did it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things?

In an instant, Google took me to the Immortality Institute, an organization dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”

Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white.

Nothing really caught my eye. Cryonics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc., pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen. There were four ads, each no more than three lines of text. The first was someone who claimed to have met immortal ETs. Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo Shopping. These megasites had purchased the immortality keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might well find relief through . . . buying shit online. (In fact, what Yahoo and eBay were doing was the equivalent of search arbitrage— buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own sites, in the hope of capturing high-value customers).

Interesting, but I wasn’t looking to buy the concept of immortality; I wanted to understand it. I took a pass on those as well. But the second paid link pointed to the epic Gilgamesh, which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down—in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served. I clicked on the link, earning Google a few pennies in the process, and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”

Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. My search was bearing fruit. But I didn’t want to buy a book and wait for it to come. I was in the moment of discovery, the heat of possible consummation. I wanted to read that epic, right now.1 So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options.

But this time the organic results (the search results in the middle of a Google page, as opposed to the ads on the right) nailed it: the first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State University professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story. It read:

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 b.c. Although historians . . . tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on  Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 b.c. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive . . . written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets . . . found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, 669–633 b.c., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 b.c., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author in the history of Western civilization. Thanks to the speed, vastness, and evanescent power of Google, I came to know his name and his work within thirty seconds of proffering a vaguely worded query. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind. Through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, he had, in a sense, become immortal.

But wait! There’smore. Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism—the destruction of a great king’s library. As I contemplated all of this, sensing that, just possibly, I had found a way to explain why search was so important to our culture.

I read the first tablet’s opening lines:

The one who saw all (Sha nagba imuru) I will declare to the world, The one who knew all I will tell about [line missing] He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden: He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood. He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion, And then carved his story on stone.

What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay—or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the Web? Is that not what every person longs for—what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality— to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint: is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern-day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For anyone who has ever written his own name into a search box and anxiously awaited the results, I believe the answer is yes.

Something to think about, anyway. Good luck, Mr. Levinson and Mr. Page. I’m cheering you on, even if I can’t quite explain why. Maybe it’s that missing line from Gilgamesh we’re all trying to find….

*Hat tip to one of my editors Bill Brazell, for pinging me as I was writing this about this very news.