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Amazon is Amazin’ Me

By - January 17, 2013

I’m a fan of Amazon, always have been, though my relationship with the brand has, ironically, never been particularly personal. I don’t feel emotional about Amazon, I feel – transactional. This despite the fact that I have probably spent more on the site than the combined college savings accounts for my three kids (Hi Kids!).

This changed today when I got this email:

Holy. Crap. I just got given all those CDs I bought from Amazon, in a format I can use, for free. 1706 songs, to be exact, many of which I probably had forgotten about.

Now THAT is surprise and delight.This is how you leverage your past relationship with your customers to foster massive loyalty.

I read about this move, of course (it’s called AutoRip), and thought “Wow, that’s cool,” but then forgot about it.

This is the *exact opposite* of what I’ve come to expect from the music industry. With those chuckleheads, every time you change formats, you have to buy the music all over again. I have no idea how Amazon got them to play along with this, but I am sure as hell glad they did.

Now, I probably have most of this music already ripped to my iTunes, but I plan to download the whole lot of it anyway, because it’ll be way cleaner, with metadata and the like. So. Cool.

(Oh, but no, I don’t plan on using the Amazon Cloud Player. Yet. But I know that’s where you’re going with all this…)

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We Are (About to Be) As Gods. Can We Get Used To It?

By - January 14, 2013

Last month I finished another of my “must read” books - Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, by George Church and Ed Regis. While the authors don’t veer into the religious, a reader can’t help but ponder the unknown and the supernatural – because the book rather calmly takes a fair amount of what we take for granted as pre-determined in our lives  - disease, death, the nature of how things become what they are – and without too much fanfare, declares them soluble.

Church is a highly regarded geneticist with dozens of innovations to his credit, Regis is a talented science writer. Church provides the book’s voice, authority, and personal anecdotes, Regis its structure and rigor.  The combination works, though the first few chapters are a bit rough if your high school chemistry is rusty. Each time I returned to it, I found myself enjoying Regenesis, and I can’t say that for many non-fiction books I’ve read lately.

Why? Well, in the main, because the subject matter is so … revolutionary. Church and Regis liken it to the “greatest story every told” – the story of life, how it came to be, and how we – as perhaps life’s most capable expression – are close to figuring out its essence and bend it to our will. As they write:

The appearance of DNA some 3,900 million years ago makes it the most ancient of all ancient texts.

Church and Regis lay out how the human race is taking control of the core mechanisms of biology – including DNA, protein expression, and even the creation living organisms, and then draw what they believe are inevitable conclusions:

…we stand at the door of manipulating genomes in a way that reflects the progress of evolutionary history: starting with the simplest organisms and ending, most portentously, by being able to alter our own genetic makeup.

But the impact of synthetic biology doesn’t stop there. Leveraging tools now in early stages in labs and for-profit companies around the world, we soon will be able to harness what we understand to be the very laws of nature – for example, the forces which conspire to turn an oak seed into a mighty tree. If we understand DNA and its expression entirely, then why can’t we program a seed that “grows” into a house? Or create swarms of bacteria that convert waste into clean energies? Or reprogram our DNA such that we never suffer from a viral disease?

In short, the potential of this relatively new science is mind-bending. And according to the authors, we stand at the brink of a massive leap forward – analogous to where we were with digital technology back in the late 1970s. And the connection to digital is more than analogy, it’s central: core to synthentic biology is the ability to turn DNA into information, manipulate it using computers, and then express it back out to biological agents. In fact,  this bio-information loop is fundamental to “Regenesis” – and to the field of synthetic biology itself. And while we may be accustomed to the exponential acceleration of digital information processing, it’s got nothing on our progress in genetic technology, which is accelerating at four times the speed of Moore’s law:

In 1980 commercial DNA synthesis services were available, at the going rate of $6,000 for a small amount of product, only about ten nucleotides long. They were used either to find valuable genes in cellular RNA or to synthesize them. By 2010 we could make a million 60-nucleotide oligos for $500. Just as the global appetite for reading DNA seems insatiable—growing a million-fold in six years and still increasing—the appetite for DNA synthesis, or “writing,” will probably grow similarly and go in many unexpected directions.

For Church and Regis (and many others in the field), this is where the practice of engineering comes in. When the digital world exploded onto the scene in the mid 20th century, engineering wrestled it to the ground and helped us create extraordinary new things like computers and the Internet (and all their attendant applications), all based on having cheap, mass produced components like CPUs, hard drives, monitors, and the like. Biology has been stuck in a “pre-digital” age for much of the past century, but is about to burst forth as the strictures of engineering are applied. “Engineers normally had access to an ordered supply of well-defined, interchangeable, off-the-shelf parts, specification sheets, system plans, and so on,” the authors write. Until recently, such tools were not available to those who wished to construct life.

That, the authors argue, is about to change. (Church even goes so far as to encode his book – billions of times over – into DNA. Quite a parlor trick. You can read more about that here).

The book goes into far more than I’ve touched upon here. At times it preaches, or is flip, or dismissive of potential risk or counter-argument. But overall, this is an important work, one that introduces the basic elements for a debate I believe we’ll be having as society for the next few decades, if not longer. Because let’s face it, we’re not going to stop futzing with DNA, or computers, are we? So as Stewart Brand famously declared: We better get good at it.  

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson (review)

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (review)

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (review)

 

 

Phones! Now With Multitasking! Why Mobile Is About To Have Its Web Revolution.

By - January 13, 2013


While at CES last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with four extraordinary publishers – all FM authors. The topic was “2013 Trends” and I got to hear Anand Shimpi (of AnandTech), Brad McCarthy (of The Next Web), Elaine Fiolet (of UberGizmo) and Leander Kahney (from the Cult of Mac) expound on what they’d seen in Vegas.

It was a great conversation (and yes, I wish we got it on video, but alas, we did not, it was a private event for FM clients) – but one thing that Anand said really struck me. Mobile devices, he pointed out, were a few cycles behind their PC counterparts in computing power, but were rapidly catching up. A couple more generations from now, many of the “compute constrained” services that so far have been absent from mobile will start to emerge.

And that gives me hope in so many ways.

If you read me closely (and have a decent memory, which I do not), you will recall that I am no fan of the early mobile ecosystem. “AppLand,” as I’ve pejoratively called it, does not act like the web. You can’t easily link those little chiclets called apps together, you can’t share data between them, you can’t, as a consumer, enjoy the serendipity and wonder of what the open web brought the world in its first few iterations.

But I think that will change. As devices increase in power and capability, entrepreneurs and developers will push to where value lays unearthed, and they’ll most likely follow a well worn path.

One example? Multitasking.

I’ve been in this business a long time, long enough to remember when the idea of having more than one application running at the same time on a PC was a Very Big Deal. Apple finally rolled out that capability with its System 7 in 1991. Yes, you read that right – 1991! That was when you could run applications in separate windows on a Macintosh, making it easy to cut and paste between, say, Microsoft Excel and Word, or Adobe Illustrator and the Quark publishing package.

Given it was more than 20 years ago that you could, as a consumer, easily cut and paste between applications on a PC, it’s pretty funny to see how Samsung is currently marketing its Galaxy Note II “phablet” (or “Flablet”, as Leander called it on the panel). The heart of the commercial is this: You can run TWO apps AT THE SAME TIME! WOW! And you can cut and paste between them!

All I can say is this: If it’s 1991 in mobile land, that means just one thing: 1993 is right around the corner. The World Wide Web is about to hit mobile apps. It’s about time.

Predictions 2013

By - January 07, 2013

Mssr. Nostradamus

One week into the new year, it’s again time for me take a crack at predicting what might come of this next spin around the sun, at least as it relates to the Internet ecosystem. Last year’s predictions came out pretty well, all things considered, but I took an unusual tack – I wrote long posts on each of the first six, and then shot from the hip for the last one. Those last shots were pretty hit or miss, as you might expect.

This year I’m going to try something new. Instead of trying to get everything right – which often means being practical and reining in some of my more obvious biases – I’m going to make predictions based on what I wish would happen. In other words, below are things that I hope occur this year, even if the chances of them happening may be arguably slim. In the past I’ve edited out a fair amount of this impulse, as I was aiming game the odds in my favor. But for whatever reason – perhaps because this post marks my 10th year of predictions – I feel like airing it out and seeing what happens. So here goes.

2013 will be the year that….

- We figure out what the hell “Big Data” really is, and realize it’s bigger than we thought (despite its poor name). Asked in 1995 whether the Internet was overhyped, John Doerr famously said “It’s entirely possible that the Internet is underhyped.” He was right, by a long margin. This past year, no secular trend has been more hyped than “Big Data.” But very few of us even know what the hell it is. This was also true of “the Internet” in 1995. But I’ll say it here, for the record: The role of data in our personal, social, and commercial lives is far larger than the current hype. It’s bigger than the Internet – it’s as big as big can be defined, because data, in the end, is our way of defining every single entity that matters to us, and then making that liquid to to world. This is really, really big – Matrix narrative big, big in every nuance and meaning of the word. And 2013 will be the year we look back on as the moment most of us came to that realization. Related to this, we as consumers will begin to make more and more choices based on how companies treat data, in particular, on whether those companies allow consumers to control data. Smart companies will begin to market on this distinction.And yes, this is very much at the heart of my work this year.

- Adtech does not capitulate, in fact, it has its best year ever, thanks to … data. Ever since Terry published his Lumascapes on ad tech, we’ve all been waiting for the capitulation amongst those VC-backed companies. The reasoning goes something like this: There are way too many similar companies chasing the same opportunties, and far too few intelligent buyers or markets for samesaid companies. But what if the capitulation came, and no one noticed? That’s what’s going to happen in 2013. Plenty of companies will be sold, either for profits, pushes, or parts, but far more will launch and/or lean merrily forward, serving their niches well and building out their businesses, figuring out how to better leverage my first prediction. There will not be a systemic collapse in adtech, because adtech is one of the most important and edifying developments in marketing since search – the namesake of this site. In fact, given that I’m trending toward hyperbole, let me say it straight up: Besides the Internet itself, the ecosystem we are creating through adtech may well prove to be the single most important digital artifact we’ve ever created – more important than search, because it subsumes it, more important than the financial system, because it’s far more open and accessible. If we get adtech right, we may well be creating the prototype for how we manage all that “Big Data” in our lives, across all aspects of human endeavor – transportation, energy, finance, healthcare, education – pretty much anything that has a marble building in Washington DC. Of course, by the time this happens, no one will call it “adtech” anymore, but trust me – adtech is an artifact of a future we’ll all be living in soon.

Google trumps Apple in mobile. Sure, Android has already gotten larger market share than iOS, and lots of tech pundits (myself included) are making loud noises about how the Nexus 4 is a winner. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Apple still beats all comers when it comes to revenue, margin, and perception. But in 2013, what I wish for is that Google takes Apple’s crown. And here’s how it could happen: First, Google comes out with a device (maybe it’s with a partner like LG for the Nexus 4, but more likely, it’s a real Google phone, from Motorola) that is just inarguably better than Apple’s, and, it’s available at scale. The Nexus 4 is close, but it’s a half step toward what Google really needs – they need the Next Big Thing. You know, what the Razr was back in the late 1990s. What the iPhone has been for five years. And I think they’ll do it. Next, they need to recommit to their focus on interoperability and openness in operating systems. 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. On Apple’s bespoke devices, you get whatever Apple thinks you deserve. Lastly, Google will openly license the hardware platform of its world-beating phone free to all of its partners. Yes, that’s crazy, but it also gives Google the ability to win the PR war with Samsung, in particular, and continue its long record of taking what used to be costly, and making it free (it also won’t hurt Google in its endless antitrust battles around the world). Google shouldn’t fall into the rabbit hole of thinking it’s a hardware sales company. That’s Apple and Samsung’s (and HP’s and and and…) cross to bear. Google is software and services company, period end of sentence. (And yes, media is software and services).

The Internet enables frictionless (but accountable) payments, enabling all manner of business models that previously have been unnaturally retarded. Closest to my heart is payment for content, of course, but beyond media, 2013 will be seen as the year a number of forces converged to push paid services to its rightful place next to advertising as a core driver of the Internet economy. I know PayPal et al are already massive businesses, but frictionless they are not. Nor do we have a solution that crosses platforms and devices in a manner that doesn’t give pause (or headache – for example, there’s no way to track what you’ve paid for across the Internet, if you happen to use more than one service). But as I said, many forces are converging to enable such a dream: First, consumers are now accustomed to paying for services and even content online. We have Paypal, Amazon, Netflix, Xbox, various media paywall experiments, mobile devices and their app stores to thank for that. Second, one word: Square (and the companies it is disrupting or pushing to new innovations, including card companies like American Express). Third, 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. Facebook is already doing this with its promoted posts, Google with paid services around its Apps for Business. I expect both will either try to buy Box, or forward their own Box-like services in 2013. (Don’t get me started with Apple’s iCloud.) The short of this one is simple: For 15+ years, we thought mostly otherwise, but paying for services online makes sense for both customers and businesses. You all know I believe in advertising, but I don’t want to live in a world where marketers are footing the bill for everything we do digitally. That’s not good for anyone, including marketers.In 2013, the flywheel of paid will start to spin in earnest, driving down costs, but increasing overall revenues.

Twitter comes of age and recommits itself as an open platform. Twitter has confounded critics and naysayers for years, and nowhere more directly than in its developer base, who were given plenty of reasons to complain last year. Several key proponents of the service have publicly left the service, even going so far as to start competing paid services that feel more “pure.” I applaud these services, but I think Twitter is playing a longer term game, and 2013 will be the year it becomes apparent. Twitter knows a couple of things to be true: First, it cannot execute all the goodness possible in its ecosystem on its own, it needs great developers. And second, its competitive advantage, compared to Facebook or Apple (and even Google, at least as it relates to G+) will be its relative openness. So the company will clarify its sometimes confusing rules of the road for its developers this year, and some breakout new services will emerge (key to this is defining what the unit of value is for the Twitter ecosystem – IE, how does one build a business that relies on Twitter if you don’t know whether that business is in a fair value exchange with Twitter?). I’ll even go so far as to predict that Twitter will once again hold a conference for its developers (something it did once, a few years ago, then abandoned). Also, Twitter will reconfirm its commitment to being “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” and 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. And as I referred to in my previous prediction, I think it’s entirely possible that Twitter begins to test or even roll out paid services across its network this year. This makes sense for any number of reasons, one of which has to do with diversifying revenues in advance of an IPO, but the other is simply part of the secular trend I note above. Twitter is a technology-driven media company, and strong media companies have both subscription and advertising businesses. And let’s be frank: when advertising is not 100% of your revenues, you can afford to be more open and transparent in your business dealings.

- Facebook embraces the “rest of the web.” Even as Facebook continues to be, for the most part, a world apart from the principles and ideals of the open web, 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.

- By the end of the year, Amazon will have an advertising business on a run rate comparable to Microsoft. Amazon doesn’t like to talk about its advertising business, but it’s already large, and 2013 will be the year it breaks out. It will be smart, programmatic, data-driven, and rapacious.

- The world will learn what “synthetic biology” is, because of a major breakthrough in the field. When I met last year with Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, he was emphatic about a field where he felt extraordinary breakthroughs might occur: Microfluidics. Given his enthusiasm, I’ve spent a fair amount of time learning from folks active in the space, and reading up on what the larger implications might be. Without going too deep into it, microfluidics are an important enabler to the synthetic biology movement, about which you may learn far more by reading George Church and Ed Regis’ Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. I’ll be writing a lot more about this field later in the year, it’s filled with wonderful, talented people who, as a group, remind me of the folks who built the digital revolution in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The analogy is more than poetic, it’s quite literal as well. This year, it will become apparent as to why.

Well, I’ve gone on for more than 2000 words now. And yes, I’m avoiding making predictions about Yahoo, or Tumblr, or any number of others, though I certainly have opinions on them. But I think that’s enough for one year. If I could summarize my wish list for the Internet through these predictions, it’s this: More open, more real breakthroughs, and more deep understanding of the true importance of the industry in which we all participate.

Remember, these are predictions that I wish will come true. Happy New Year. Now go make all this happen, willya?

Related:

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

Predictions From Last Year: How I Did (2012 Edition)

By - January 02, 2013

Every year around this time I do two things: First I look back at my predictions from a year ago and grade myself, then I get around to making a new set of predictions. These are often my most popular posts of the year, proving the old magazine saw that the world loves a list. So who am I to buck the trend? Let’s get cracking on seeing how my crystal ball turned out, shall we?

As you can see from my 2012 predictions roundup, I took something of a new approach to the prognostication game last year. Instead of one lengthy post with all my predictions, I actually broke them into a series of posts, seven in all. I went into detail on why I thought each forecast would prove correct (save the last one, which was a series of “shoot from the hip” predictions.)

I’ll be as brief as I can with this review – this marks the ninth time I’ve done it. Overall, I’ve had a pretty good run of it. I hope 2013 keeps pace.

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media - Twitter will become a media company, and the only “free radical of scale” in our Internet ecosystem. 

I think it is fair to say this one came true in spades. Twitter is a major force in media now, a statement that could not be said just one short year ago. As I wrote in my essay: “Twitter is an engineering-driven company, but its future rests in its ability to harness the attention of its consumers, then resell that attention to marketers.” Pretty much every major move Twitter made this past year was about securing its media-based business model. Twitter consolidated its control over its distribution, introduced “Twitter Cards” to keep readers engaged on its own platform, refined it’s increasingly addictive “Discover” media feature, introduced a broader and deeper set of engagement-based advertising products, and much more. Twitter is now seen as an essential partner for every major media company in the world – the hash tag is now a television and movie marketing essential. (Oh, and I predicted that there’d be conflict with Flipboard’s CEO being on Twitter’s board. He’s not anymore.)

The second part of my prediction: That Twitter is the only “free radical of scale” in the Internet ecosystem is also true. No other company boasts Twitter’s scale, importance, and independence. I think it’s arguable that Yahoo might come back from the near dead to claim a similar status, but I doubt it. More on this as I review my second prediction below. Meanwhile, I put this prediction in the “got it right” side of the ledger.

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago - Every major player on the Internet will have to do a deal with Twitter, and Twitter will emerge as a Swiss like, open, neutral player in the battle for the consumer web.

Well…not so much. If ever I could be blamed for predicting what I personally wished would become the truth, this is it. I deeply believe that the Internet needs a distribution and application platform that is independent of business model bias (IE, Facebook has a bias toward leveraging its social graph business, Google has a Search bias, Microsoft a Windows bias, etc). I saw – and still see – Twitter as potentially that kind of a business. But the company didn’t do too much to prove my point in 2012. In fact, one could argue it went in exactly the opposite direction, though I don’t fall into the same camp as many of Twitter’s most strident detractors.

Most of Twitter’s moves – cutting off developers who create Twitter interface clients, for example – are a result of the company consolidating its core business model of serving advertisers (and, arguably, end users) a consistent, reportable experience. Other big news-creating moves – like cutting off LinkedIn and Instagram – were decisions calculated based on value exchange – Twitter felt that the companies using Twitter’s resources were getting more from Twitter than the Twitter ecosystem was getting back. I don’t find such moves to be inconsistent with my prediction on their face. I think the jury is out as to whether Twitter can find a Swiss-like position in the Internet ecosystem. The big question is whether it can quantify what “value” is for a developer, so developers can build on Twitter’s platform without worrying about shifting sands. And the big guys who have rejected Twitter as a competitor – Google with Google+, and Facebook of course – will most likely have to come around to a position that at the worst views Twitter as a real force that needs to be integrated in some way with their core products. In the long run, “co-opetition” is a proven strategy in the business world.

Meanwhile, I do find Twitter’s core DNA and philosophy to be far more “Googley” than any other major Internet company. The management team believes in transparency and openness as their True North, and I wager this philosophy will be both challenged and proven in 2013.

Overall, I’d say this prediction was about half right. A push, neither right nor wrong.

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network - Facebook will launch a web-wide competitor to AdSense. 

Now, one could argue this did not happen in 2012. But I’m going to say it has – in 2012 Facebook made several moves that changed the web-wide business of advertising significantly. First, it tested off-site advertising with Zynga. Next, it launched a game-changing programmatic ad exchange, FBX. While this network only allows access to Facebook’s domain-specific inventory, it’s a massive injection of liquidity into the overall Internet advertising landscape, and laid the groundwork for an Adsense like play across the rest of the web. What I got wrong was that instead of starting with the HTML web, Facebook started instead in the very place it was seen as weak, on the mobile web. Regardless, this mobile network is in fact a “web-wide competitor to AdSense,” if you take the web to include mobile, which I certainly do.

So I’ll score this prediction in the “got it right” camp, even if the final shoe – a PC web network – has yet to drop. It will.

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year - Despite doing well overall, Google will fumble one big play this year. 

In my essay on this topic, I predicted that Google will fumble either Google TV, Motorola, or Google+ in 2012, and then reasoned that the real story would be how the company bounced back once the fumble occurred. This prediction came true – Google blew its integration of Google+ into search earlier this year, but has slowly and surely corrected the blunder. Since then, the company has navigated any number of major issues – multiple government probes, integration of Motorola, bringing the Android beast to heel – quite admirably.
I think this one goes comfortably into the “got it right” category, but I’ll admit I didn’t predict how strongly the company would rebound from its initial missteps.

Predictions 2012 #5: A Big Year for M&A - 2012 may well be the biggest year of all for Internet M&A. 

Well, sort of. We did have the big Instagram deal, and tons of “acqui-hires”, but the year didn’t turn out as I predicted in terms of major ad-tech deals. We all thought Yahoo was going to become a buyer again, but that didn’t pan out, thanks to the CEO turnover there. On the plus side, data from Thomson Reuters does show 2012 as a very big year for exits – one of the biggest in recent history – but much of that was due to the Facebook IPO.
Overall, I’d say I missed this one, even if I do look smart for calling out Instagram in my original post.

Predictions 2012 #6: “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark - We’ll all start to question what role the corporation plays in our society and culture.

It’s very difficult to score this one, because it’s so much about cultural zeitgeist. What is the role of “the corporation” in our world, both personal and social? If nothing else, 2012 was a year where we began to ask this question in earnest. It’s the year that “the 1%” and the “99%” became cultural talking points, where we debated the role of government in moderating the profits of the few over the well being of the many, and where that debate ran all the way to last night – when the fiscal cliff was averted, in the main, by kicking this question down the road a few more months.

I think I overestimated the speed with which we will take up this question in our society. When we look back with the lens of time and history, I think it’ll be clear that the role of the corporation was a central issue of the early 2000s. But to call it in one year was premature.

For me, this one was a push.

Predictions 2012 #7: Shooting From The Hip

In which I cover a number rapid fire predictions. In turn:

- Obama will win the 2012 election, thanks in part to the tech community rallying behind him due to issues like SOPA, visas, and free speech.

Well, this one happened. Score one in the “got it right” column.

- Both Apple and Amazon will make billion-dollar acquisitions. More interestingly, so will Facebook.

Facebook checked the box with Instagram, which was really a bit below the billion dollar mark, thanks to the IPO not quite working out as expected. Apple did not take my prediction to heart, though it did buy AuthenTec for about $350 million, and speculation about its Next Big Move continue. Amazon nearly hit the billion dollar mark with its acquisition of Kiva Systems, but that deal wasn’t the one I was expecting.

So, call this one a mostly miss, which to be fair, means it was a miss….

- Android will be brought to heel by Google, eliciting both massive complaints and cheers, depending on where you sit.

I think this is happening. I can’t go into massive detail, but I think the latest version of Android is very good (I am now a user), and the Play store is For Real. I’d score this a “got it right.” I’m sure some of you may disagree, though. I’d like to hear why.

 - Microsoft Windows Phone will become the Bing of mobile (IE, move into double digit market share).

Oops. I clearly should have done my homework first. IDC predicts that double digit smartphone market share will happen for Windows in 2016. Last year, the company had about 2.6%. However, that number is higher in international markets. But I can’t claim a win based on double digit penetration in Spain. So, this one is a miss.

 - Microsoft Xbox will integrate meaningfully with the web (Kinect is key), and start to compete in social across the digital spectrum

An ecosystem is developing, but this is simply not there yet. I’m not sure if it ever will. Another miss. I clearly need to stop making predictions about Microsoft.

- IBM will emerge as a key player in the consumer Internet.

Nope. I’m not even going to pretend this happened, though I bet I was simply too early here. I may revisit this once IBM makes a move (if it ever does!). Another miss.

 - China will be caught spying on US corporations, especially tech and commodity companies. Somewhat oddly, no one will (seem to) care.

It’s happening, (more and more), but we haven’t yet had the spectacular news (like the Google hack last year) that gets folks all excited (so they then can ignore it). Instead, it seems we just see it as business as usual. I think this is a mild “got it right” – but upon reflection, it wasn’t so hard to predict in the first place.

- A heads up display for the web will launch that actually is worth using, but most likely in limited use cases.

Thanks, Google Glass!

So that’s it. In review, I made 14 predictions. By my score, I got 7 right, 5 wrong or mostly wrong, and 2 were a push.

But to be fair, four of my “wrong” predictions were in the “shoot from the hip” category. I think I’ll drop that for 2013 and focus on the ones where I put in serious thought. For those six predictions, my score was better: 3 right, two pushes, and one miss (on the M&A front).

How do you think I did?

With Google’s 2012 Zeitgeist, You Won’t Learn Much. Why?

By - December 13, 2012

Guess what? This guy was big this year. Really!

I think readers know that on balance, I’m a fan of Google. I recently switched to the Nexus 4 (more coming on that front as I settle into really using it). I believe the company has a stronger core philosophy than many of its rivals. Overall, given that it’s nearly impossible to avoid putting your data into someone’s cloud, I believe that Google is probably the best choice for any number of reasons.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t criticize the company. And every year about this time, I end up doing just that.

Because the annual Google Zeitgeist came out this week, and I’ve spent a bit of time digging into it. And once again, I’m pretty disappointed.

In the past I’ve criticized Google for failing to ask interesting questions of the massive amount of data it collects on search patterns each year. Once again, this lament applies. I honestly do not care what top ten TV Shows, Sports Stars, Songs, or even People we collectively care about, because there is *never* a surprise in those results.

But Google knows so much more….and could really tease out some insights if it cared to. Imagine if Google took its massive search query database and worked with some of the leaders in the open data movement to mine true insights? Sure, Google would have to be careful about how it released the data, but the output would be extraordinary, I’d warrant.

Instead, we find out that Gangnam Style was a big deal this year. No shit!?

But it gets worse. Not only is Zeitgeist rife with pop culture fluff, as you drill down into it by country, eager perhaps to find something interesting, it turns out Google has chosen to eliminate certain potentially sensitive categories altogether.

For the US and most other countries, for example, there is a “What is….” category, which shows the top search queries that start with “What is…” For the US, the answers are

  1. What is SOPA
  2. What is Scientology
  3. What is KONY
  4. What is Yolo
  5. What is Instagram
  6. What is Pinterest
  7. What is Lent
  8. What is Obamacare
  9. What is iCloud
  10. What is Planking

But is there a “What Is…” for Saudi Arabia? Nope. China? Uh-uh. The United Arab Emirates? No sir. Egypt? Move along.

Hmmm.

Oddly, Google did provide “What is…” was for Singapore, where people living under that “benign dictatorship” were interested in the same things as the US –  ”What is SOPA”,  ”What is Scientology” and, for politicians, who is “Mitt Romney.”

For the US only, you can drill down into all manners of other categories past the main page, including News, Science, Tech, Humanities, and Cities. Those are pretty interesting categories, but Google only provides them for the US, which is a shame.

Furthermore, I find it interesting that Google, with all of its translation technology, does not have a translation button on the results pages for countries where the majority of the searches are in languages other than English. This is most likely due to political sensitivities, because if you run some of the results through Google Translate (do you believe I had to do that?!), you get some stuff that I am sure does not please the regimes of countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

For example, here are some of the top searches for Saudi Arabia, translated (roughly I am sure) by the Google Translate service:

Student outcomes Arab Idol insurance Ramadan Series 2012 Mohamed Morsi explosion Riyadh Burma Free Syrian Army Shura Council tornado Sandy

But again, you aren’t going to get much more insight into what Saudi folks are *really* thinking about, because Google failed to ask the interesting questions, like those it has in the “News” section of the US Zeitgeist. I’d sure be interested in “Political Gaffes,” “Election Issues,” and “News Sources,” in Saudi Arabia, China, or the UAE.

In fact, for Saudi Arabia, Google has ommitted the “Top News Searches” box that is on several of the other country pages (even Egypt). Instead, the topics for Saudi Arabia (besides trending searches and people) focus on sports and entertainment stars, fashion designers, TV shows, and the like. Deep, Google. Thanks.

Now, the datasets are different for each country, and it may be that Google simply didn’t have enough trending data to surface interesting political insights for these controversial countries.

Somehow, though, I don’t buy that. This set of lists feels extremely human vetted – I’m guessing an awful lot of hand wringing went into chosing what to show and what might prove problematic to Google’s best interests were it to see the light of day.

If that is the case, I urge the company to have more courage. I bet if Google open sourced its query data sets (eliminating any chance of PII getting out, of course), I bet academics, data scientists, and just plain interested folks would let loose an explosion of insight. Pop up the rainbird of data, Google, and let the ecosystem flourish. We’d all be the richer for it.

As Long As It’s Legal, Corporations Will Act Selfishly

By - December 11, 2012

(image) There’s a hubbub in the press this week about Google employing a “Double Irish – Dutch Sandwich” tactic to funnel profits from Europe over to Bermuda, where there is no corporate income tax. Reuters reports that the company saved around $2 billion in taxes by employing the structure, which, as far as I can tell, is perfectly legal.

Of course, there’s a difference between that which is perfectly legal and that which seems, well, unseemly. Creating multiple shell companies across four nation states so as to avoid paying taxes may make shareholders happy, but it sure has pissed off a bunch of (revenue starved) countries in the EU. The article mentions the UK, France, and Italy as all investigating Google (and Facebook, among others) for potential abuse of the tax code.

To which I must say this: What else did you expect?!

Corporations will act exactly in their own best interest, period end of sentance. When it comes to saving billions of dollars, corporations won’t “do the right thing” or “step up and pay their fair share” – certainly not if there is *any* legal possibility that they can get away with avoiding doing so.

I very much doubt anything is going to change here, for any number of complicated reasons. The Irish have their own competitive reasons for ignoring US IP transfer law, the Dutch have similar reasons for allowing their corporate structures to exist. And Bermuda? Please. Google (and many other companies like it) is simply acting like a corporation – which at times feels like an excuse for a bunch of humans to act in very un-human like ways. Behold what we have created, and wonder.

Another Thoughtful Personal Essay: Fragile

By - December 06, 2012

You know that phenomenon that happens – right after you first notice a pattern, you then start seeing it everywhere? Well, here’s another wonderful personal essay, again by a young(er) author (Nathan Kontny) involved in the tech world, this time about losing a friend with whom he worked. Also part of the pattern: It’s on the SVBTLE platform, which is clearly finding great new voices.

The piece is called “Fragile” and it connects our often-unconsidered compulsion with taking care of our expensive devices to the fact that perhaps we are not taking the same care of ourselves or our relationships to others. Wonderful stuff. From it:

But what’s crazy is, as I look at all this care and attention I spend on this phone, I can’t help find myself now asking:

Do I spend this kind of time and attention caring for myself or the people in my life that I obviously love infinitely more than this electronic device?

Am I taking enough care of my body?

Am I taking care of my knees? As my mother in law with two recent knee transplants would attest, those are some pretty valuable tools to walking that can grossly deteriorate later in life, but I take for granted today.

Am I taking care of my brain? Am I sleeping enough? Am I drinking alcohol too often?

Am I taking care of my heart? Am I eating well? Am I working out enough?

Am I working on things a future me will be proud of or am I wasting time and missing opportunities I’ll regret because I spent too much time waiting for something.

One might argue that the author is going through what many of us do as we hit our thirties – we realize we’re not immortal, we reconsider how we live our lives, we rethink our priorities. Yes, we do. It’s nice to be reminded of that, and to know it’s happening and appreciated in the culture of our industry, as well.

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.

Writing Every So Often: The Personal Essay Makes A Comeback

By - December 04, 2012

Browsing Hacker News, which I’ll admit I don’t read very closely (because, well, I’m not a hacker), I saw an interesting headline: I quit Twitter for a month and it changed my thinking about mostly everything. Well, that’s going to get my attention.

I clicked through and noted the author’s name: Adam Brault. I don’t know Adam Brault (at least, not well enough to recall reading him before), but with a headline like that, I sure wanted to read the piece. It’s quite a thoughtful rumination on his snap decision to stop using Twitter for the month of November.

Some of what Brault said didn’t resonate with me, not because I disagreed, but because it’s clear he uses Twitter in a very different manner than do I. He follows people closely and feels a connection to them that I rather envy. I follow more than 1200 people, and I’ve become a bit inured to the resulting torrent.

For me, Twitter provides a first level filter, and I then use various second-order services to tame my feed. Those filters (news.me, Percolate, Flipboard, even TechMeme) depersonalize my consumption habits. No one human voice regularly makes it into my second-order filters (but a lot of publishing brands do). In short, I don’t have much personal social capital invested in Twitter, even though it’s a very important part of my life.

Brault, on the other hand, noticed that he had perhaps too much personal investment in the people he followed in Twitter. From his essay:

I had one moment of weakness last month, when I logged into my other, private Twitter account, just to check in on what the 20 people I follow on that account had been up to recently. Within minutes I felt depressed, as I learned there was a conference canceled because people attacked it as a sexist speaker lineup and the organizers just folded rather than wade through the deluge of attacks or try to fix things… I just felt horrible for those organizers… and there was nothing I could actually do other than feel bad. It served no one any benefit and it just derailed my evening….

…I’ve realized, Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually agreed to allow residence inside my brain.

Reading that passage, I felt something – I empathized with Brault. I remember what it felt like to be connected like that. And I realized I have never been connected in that way through my “new” social media. Facebook has always been a wipeout for me, LinkedIn a utility. The only “social media” I’ve ever deeply cared about are personal blogs – which for most folks younger than 30, are usually understood to be artifacts of a pre-Facebook, pre-Tumblr, pre-Twitter era.

Writing out loud on a regular basis is not for everyone. It takes a fair bit of focus and commitment to maintain a site where you write essays for public consumption. Brault mentions that it took him at least three hours to finish his post. In the early days, tons of folks took to the blogging medium, but over time, many burned out. But I sense people are coming back to this form, because it’s a pleasure to write out loud  every so often. It needn’t be a chore, in fact, it should be joyful. I’m guessing Brault – a software and web developer by trade – has taken true pleasure in the social expression his essay has allowed.

Call it a hunch, but I think a new generation of creators are realizing that if something is really important to them, then it’s worth taking the time to write a longform essay – one that best resides on a site that is theirs.

In the blog-only era of the early 2000s, folks like me had our personal site, and we also watched a set of sites that we truly followed. RSS was our Twitter, and we carefully pruned a list of other folks who we’d check each day. I let about 40 or so “voices into my brain” each day, and those voices mattered to me, a lot. Most of us even created “blogrolls” – links to folks we felt were worthy of attention (really – remember those?!). And when someone wrote something noteworthy, others in the network might write a response, always with a link back.

This pattern still happens, of course – that’s what I’m doing now. But it happens far less regularly, and without the clear social network that used to define communities of blogs. Those early communities have been eclipsed by professionalization (I remember following what Mike Arrington wrote each day, before it turned into TechCrunch The Site, for example), but also by burnout and by the easy dopamine hits of Facebook and Twitter. Add to this the lightweight reblogging ethos of Tumblr, and the recent rise of bespoke platforms like Medium or SVBTLE, and we no longer have robust communities of individuals calling and responding in bursts of essays, each emanating from a unique, independent place on the web. I think the world’s a bit poorer for that loss, even as it has become a far richer place overall.

Reading Adam’s essay, I mourned a little for the way it used to be. I’m keenly aware that I’m sounding like a nostalgic, but I take heart in this rising class of “every so often publishing.” If only there were a better way of surfacing all this good stuff….hmm.

Meanwhile, Brault’s essay had another wonderful insight worth repeating:

It’s pretty simple: if I have my email turned off and I set aside a day with no meetings and no commitments other than to the work that’s on my mind, I am going to do very good work, using my best creativity, and will produce in good volumes.

In a day with even one simple standup meeting, I feel like the entire day’s focus has a layer of thought dedicated to that meeting—light stress and perhaps some preparation fills up more than the specific calendared time slot….

…I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.

That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I feel exactly the same way. If I have just one call on a day I’ve cleared for writing, the day feels tainted. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Circling back to the point of this post, I believe that the personal-site-based essay is making a comeback. I’m finding all manner of great pieces of writing lately, stuff that’s just too good to simply retweet and forget. Like this from Vibhu Norby (I promise to write a response soon, it’s an important topic). It was on a personal site that I rediscovered Craig Mod. When I did, I added his feed to my creaky old RSS reader. I just did the same for Norby. That made me think of Matt Haughey, one of the more wonderful early bloggers. Turns out, he still writes every week or two on his site. But, far as I can tell, Matt’s site has no RSS feed. Adam Brault is on Tumblr, so no RSS there either, at least that I can find. I’ll do my best to visit from time to time, but man, I’d sure rather have all his stuff pushed my way.

Of course, the debate about whether or not blogging and RSS is a dead medium has been raging for years. Clearly, RSS is no longer a universal standard. Regardless, I find it comforting that when someone with a truly unique point of view has something important to say, they often return to their own site to say it there. I hope they all keep writing. I’ll be listening.