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Who Owns The Right to Filter Your Feed?

By - March 09, 2013

The old Tweetdeck interface.

(image) Last week I was in Salt Lake City for the Adobe Summit, on a stage the size of a parking lot. After some opening remarks about how the world is increasingly lit with data, I brought out Adam Bain, President of Global Revenue for Twitter. (He Vined it, natch.) Five thousand or so folks in the Internet marketing and media business were in attendance, behind us was a 7,000 square foot HD screen (I kid you not). I’ve been in front of a few big crowds, but this one was enormous. You could have parked a few 787s in the space.

My point is this: Bain knew he was in front of a lot of people, including nearly 200 journalists. As we worked our way through any number of predictable but important topics – Twitter’s revenue (growing but no numbers), the acquisition of BlueFin (TV analytics and more), etc. – I asked Bain to distinguish between Twitter and its competitive set. This was a relatively politic way of asking the inevitable “What about Facebook” question. It was then that Bain uttered what I thought was the most interesting comment of the day: “[With Twitter,] there’s no algorithm between you and your feed.”

Oh snap!

Facebook’s “Edge” rank has once again been in the news, as one writer or journalist after another discovers what most of us already knew: Facebook filters what you see in the Newsfeed, and the algorithm that determines that filter is a black box (one that you can influence with money, of course).

On Twitter, there’s no filter between you and your feed. If, like me, you follow 1,200 or more people, your feed is a hopeless firehose, and that’s just the way it is, Bub.

My Twitter feed is a blur to me, I dip in and out, but I never consistently gain value from it. I know there’s so much more I could be learning from it, but so far, no dice. (Four or so years ago I even asked our tech team at FMP to build a Twitter parser, we used it for a while…that’s another story…)

I’ve always been on the lookout for tools to surface the best stuff shared on the service – and I’m still looking. Summary services like Percolate are too high level (only five or so stories), and curation through tools like Tweetdeck work to a point, but require too much input and are not dynamic enough. I recently tweeted out a request for new filtering tools, and got back this list:

– Twitter’s daily email digest (which I’m not getting for some reason, so I’ll turn that on)

Tweetdeck (which I have used a lot, but stopped using when Twitter bought it, more on that below)

Cronycle (still in private beta)

– The Tweeted Times

ManageFlitter

Prismatic

– And of course Flipboard.

From a quick look at these services (some of which I’ve tried), I don’t think any of them do quite what I want them to. And that’s kind of my point. It’s great that Twitter doesn’t filter my feed, but it’s a bummer that third parties haven’t been able to solve for my problem. And of course, there’s a reason for this. Developers have left the consumer space mostly alone – Twitter has made it very clear that they don’t want anyone creating new interfaces for the consumption of your feed, and filtering services – in particular ones like Flipboard – come dangerously close to that line. 

The enterprise, on the other hand, has benefitted from the unfiltered feed – that’s where Percolate is focused, as well as Salesforce, Adobe, and many others.  Gnip has a good business selling access to Twitter’s firehose, but overall, as one might expect, the use case is more aggregate and less individual in nature.
That’s a dilemma. One the one hand there’s Facebook, which has “placed an algorithm in between” us and our feed. Facebook is controlling our experience on our behalf – and it’s questionable whether that really scales. Then there’s the noisy mess of Twitter, where I could imagine any number of super-wonderful third-party apps, yet so far Twitter has kept that ecosystem at bay. 

It’s clear that Twitter will soon offer more controls to its users – giving us various ways to filter our feed. The company recently dropped support for its recently acquired Tweetdeck apps – clearly it plans on folding that kind of functionality into its core services. Once it does, I hope the company will relax a bit and give developers the go ahead to create real value on top of an individual’s raw feed. No one company can boil the ocean, but together an ecosystem can certainly simmer the sea.

 

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The iWatch: What I Hope Apple Actually Does (But Probably Won’t)

By - February 21, 2013

(image AppleInsider) Back in April of last year, I pondered Pebble, the then-wildly successful darling of Kickstarter fame. Pebble is a wristwatch device that connects to iPhones and displays various smart things. In the piece, Does the Pebble Cause a Ripple In Apple’s Waters?, I asked whether Apple would allow such third-party hardware to play in their backyard. It struck me Apple’s entire business was about hardware. Pebble, I figured, was in for a tough road. No wonder it went to Kickstarter, I mused. VCs would never back something so clearly in Apple’s target zone. From the post:

If you watch the video explaining Pebble, it become pretty clear that the watch is, in essence, a new form factor for the iPhone. It’s smaller, it’s more use-case defined, but that’s what it is: A smaller mirror of your iPhone, strapped to you wrist. Pebble uses bluetooth connectivity to access the iPhone’s native capabilities, and then displays data, apps, and services on its high-resolution e-paper screen. It even has its own “app store” and (upcoming) SDK/API so people can write native apps to the device.

In short, Pebble is an iPhone for your wrist. And Apple doesn’t own it.

If we’ve learned anything about Apple over the years, it’s that Apple is driven by its hardware business. It makes its profits by selling hardware – and it’s built a beautiful closed software ecosystem to insure those hardware sales. Pebble forces an interesting question: Does Apple care about new form factors for hardware? Or is it content to build out just the “core” hardware platform, and allow anyone to innovate in new hardware instances? Would Apple be cool with someone building, say, a larger form factor of the iPhone, perhaps tablet-sized, driven by your iPhone?

Fast forward to now. The month’s Apple rumors have all been about the “iWatch” – the company’s next big innovation.  Apparently reliable sources – most likely now muted thanks to Apple’s exceptional PR machine – have said that 100 people are working on the device inside Apple’s HQ. And this week came news that Apple has even filed for a patent around the concept. 

If I’m Pebble, I’m not sleeping well at night.

I have no idea if Apple will actually create such a device – though I’m certain it must be testing one.

However, if Apple really wants the device to take off, the company should incorporate more than just iPhone connectivity. Here’s my wish list:

Open platform for connectivity. Any device can connect to the device, not just iOS. I know this is wishful thinking, but…for example, Google has opted for glasses as its next big thing in wearable computing. I certainly would like the two to work together. (And how cool would it be if it worked with Android? OK, sorry. Just had to ask.)

– Sensors and software that make the device the equivalent of the Fitbit or the Jawbone Up.

Integration with those apps, so that users don’t lose their data if they want to move to Apple’s hardware platform.

– As with Pebble, an open app ecosystem for the device, not one locked down into iOS. (I know…)

– A warranty on breakage. It’s one thing to ignore the criminal cracking that happens with nearly every iPhone in existence, because you can blame the consumer for dropping the damn thing. But if this thing is on somebody’s wrist, it’s going to get smacked around. And if Apple takes the same approach to breakage as it has for the iPhone, the device will be a failure.

That’s my major wish list. What would you want from the device?

That Guilty Pile of Outdated Technology

By - February 20, 2013

(image Wired) Way back in the day when I was making magazines, I was buried in print. I subscribed to at least twenty periodicals, easily twice that many came my way without my asking. It made for a huge pile of printed material on the end of my desk (stuff I really should read), and it creeped into the horizontal spaces behind me (stuff I think I should read, in case I get the time), or on my shelves (stuff I can’t throw out yet), and the damn things even spilled onto my floor (stuff I probably will never read, but feel too guilty to toss out).

I dubbed this mountain of print The Guilt Pile. Every so often, usually when it was time to move offices, I’d take inventory of the pile, and toss most of it. It always felt so good – a fresh start, a new day, this time, I promise, I’ll not let that pile accumulate again!

Then digital took over my print life, and the pile vanished.

At least, the pile of print vanished. But a new scourge of guilt-inducing matter has now taken over my desks, shelves, and storage spaces, and I’m finding it damn near impossible to toss it out. Devices: phones, tablets, webcams, gee-gaws and dongles, power cords and hard drives – I’ve got drawers full of the stuff. And every time my eye rests upon them, I feel terribly. The device stares back at me, baleful. I somehow owe it my attention, my time and energy – I feel I’m failing at some implicit contract. It’d be simply irresponsible to toss the stuff – it’s probably full of hazardous materials, and most of it is worth something, and at the very least, I should give it to someone who can make use of it. But who? And how? Much of it is…shudder…outdated! Not to mention, many of the devices have my digital fingerprints inside – I couldn’t toss them, recycle them, or sell them without first firing them up and figuring out what’s on there, and how to transfer or erase that data before sending the item to its next phase of life.

And for a significant portion of these technological devices, I’m not even sure I could find the power cords, dongles, and accessories that would make the damn things useful in the first place. The idea of getting all this sh*t ready for sale on eBay feels like Way Too Much Work.

A quick inventory around my home office turns up a couple iPhone 4s, one with a broken home button and the other with a cracked screen, a brand new Sony Internet TV, a BlackBerry Playbook (also never used), five digital cameras of various capacities and ages, four years worth of external storage devices, each smaller and higher capacity than the one before and all obviated by the one sitting next to my Mac as I write this, three old MacBook pros, two of which I’m not sure will ever boot again due to age or infirmities of one kind or another, an old webcam, two Android tablets (the old ones, not the new one), two cracked Kindles, scores of power cords and dongles, a couple of outdated Fitbits, some older Sonos gear, two ancient Airport routers, at least six old iPods, a few feature phones from the pre smartphone era, and ten or so other gadgets (GPS, digital recorders, etc).

And that’s just what I can see. I have boxes of even older stuff in my garage.

Now, I’m probably an edge case, because I buy a lot of this stuff,  and I also go to a lot of swell conferences where they give a lot of this stuff away in the goody bags. Plus, companies sometimes send me things to evaluate (which I rarely get around to doing). But such is not the case for my son, who has a similar, if smaller, cache of technology guilt sitting up in his room right now, all of it collected over ten years of Christmases, birthdays, and allowances.

It all seems like so much work. So I ignore the growing pile of tech, hoping that at some point, someone or something will come along that will solve for my Guilt Pile. I’m not sure it ever will.

But wouldn’t it be grand if you could just sweep all of it into a big box, and send it to a service where they categorized it, valued it, listed it on eBay or gave it to charity, all the while wiping your data (but sending it back to you via some cloud storage link)? They’d then ask what you wanted to do with the money – Send it to charity, buy some groceries, pick up the tab at dinner next time or….get some new devices, perhaps?

Fantasy? Or does this business already exist?

Please, someone, start it up! There’s gotta be a business model in there somewhere….

When It’s This Easy To Take Someone’s Money…

By - February 18, 2013

Earlier in the month I wrote about fraud in the advertising technology ecosystem – a post which has spawned dozens of fascinating conversations that I will continue to write about here and elsewhere. But this past weekend I encountered another kind of scam – a combination of time-honored phishing (online identity theft via social manipulation) and good old-fashioned wire fraud.

My family has been going to a small island off the coast of Massachussets for my entire life – my grandparents are buried there, my great grandmother moved there around the turn of the century (1900, not 2000!). My mother owns a cottage near the beach, a cottage that my great-grandmother purchased nearly 100 years ago.

Suffice to say, I have a deep history with the place. But with a bevy of kids and friends descending upon us each summer, my family has outgrown the cottage, so we’ve started looking for a larger place to rent. Like most folks these days, we turned to the Internet. We fired up VRBO.com, a popular marketplace for quality vacation rentals. It’s a great site for checking the market, and my wife and I figured we might get lucky and find just the right place.

We refined our search to mid-sized homes in Edgartown, MA available on the dates we wanted to stay. Most of the good places were above our desired price range, but one listing really stood out:

We are very familiar with the location of this house, having stayed nearly across the street a few years back. And boy, was the price right – about one-third that of similar homes in the neighborhood. This was a “new listing,” VRBO told us, meaning we were one of the first folks to find it. We better act quick, before this deal goes away!

We emailed the owner using VRBO’s contact widget (shown at right in the screen shot). Within hours, the “owner” had contacted us back. She was ready to send us a contract with payment information right away.

Now, I’ve been around long enough to sense when something wasn’t quite right. First off, she was using a non-personal email from Yahoo (the handle was “livinghome1234″ or somesuch). And the owner’s last name (her first was Kathy) seemed vaguely machine-generated – I won’t repeat it here just in case a real person’s identity has been stolen and re-used to portray the “owner.” When I put the name into Google, I got the kind of results that aren’t exactly comforting – a barely used Facebook page of a person in rural Pennsylvania, and a ton of “find this person” websites. It struck me that someone who owned a million-dollar home on Martha’s Vineyard probably had more of a digital footprint than this.

Secondly, the deal did seem too good to be true. Was I about to take advantage of some poor elderly woman who didn’t understand the true value of her home? Given my history with the island, I didn’t want to be the guy who did that. I decided to cross check Kathy’s name with public real estate records for the address in question.

Turns out, they didn’t match. The real owner of the property was a very nice-looking older woman who was obviously a real person – a year or so ago she had penned a sweet obit in a local paper for her dearly departed poodle. (I know the type very well, she reminded me of my Mom, who spends a lot of time on the island with her beloved golden retriever). Hmm. Well, could be that the person who contacted me – Kathy – was just an agent working on the owner’s behalf. That certainly happens a lot. I called the real owner’s number (it was listed in public real estate records), but got a full answering machine. Darn.

Cautious but still optimistic, I told “Kathy” to send me the contract.

It was about this time I got the following email from VRBO:

Ah, drat. The listing was believed to be a fake.

But hope springs eternal, no? I awoke the next morning to a contract from Kathy. It included wire transfer instructions for the full amount of the rental, to a bank based, interestingly, in the same town as the rural Pennsylvanian’s hollow Facebook page. And it had a phone number at the top – which, when dialed, informed me that the Google Voice subscriber I had called was not available.

At this point I abandoned all hope of snagging that swell house in Edgartown, and called VRBO’s fraud department. They  were nice, but not very helpful, reminding me that the site is “just an advertising service” that does its best to protect its users, but, to summarize: Buyer beware. I asked what made VRBO suspect that the listing was fraudulent, but the nice man on the other end of the phone refused to give any more information, citing privacy concerns.

So, why am I writing all of this up? Isn’t this just another pedestrian case of Internet fraud? Well, yes, and that’s kind of the point.

Think about how easy it was for the fraudster to run this scam. First, scrape all the information from a real listing (probably last summer’s in this case), and resubmit it under a different identity.  Second, create a free email account and Facebook page for an owner’s identity, just in case a renter Googles the fraudulent name (as I did). Third, leverage Google’s free phone service to provide a contact number. And fourth, set up a bank account to collect the dough. Lather, rinse, repeat! After all, if only one in 10,000 attempts gets you a hit, it costs you nothing but time to create those 10,000 opportunities. And with some simple programming scripts, even your time isn’t really that taxed.

When it’s this easy to set up fraudulent transactions, they will flourish – and indeed, within a few hours of my being told about the listing’s suspicious nature, it was up again on VRBO, under a new listing number but otherwise unchanged. (I told VRBO about the new listing, and they once again banned it. But apparently, they don’t have any way to stop someone from listing it yet again.)

A quick perusal of the community boards on VRBO (or any other rental marketplace) reveals that this kind of scam happens a lot in the listings business. And there are some pretty basic steps one should take to insure you don’t get fooled. But to my mind the larger story here is one of incentive, trust and identity. If you take a look at the incentives working on VRBO, it becomes clear how easy it is to game the platform. VRBO wants to make it as frictionless as possible to list hot properties on its site. Renters like me want to quickly score the best deal on a hot property. And owners want to connect to VRBO’s vast market of potential renters.

But VRBO’s business model is also based on trust – as consumers of the service, we want to trust that the identities of those listing their homes for rent are in fact authentic. And clearly, for the vast majority of listings, that is the case. But given how easy it is for scammers to game the system with false listings, I don’t think I’ll ever be sending money to anyone I’ve met via their platform. And that’s a shame – because if VRBO and others took the time to qualify their marketplace up front, this kind of fraud would be far less rampant.

I think there’s a lesson here for all of us in the marketing industry. There are always going to be bad actors trying to game complex systems. Back when click fraud was a major issue, our industry had one major player who had the incentive to clean it up – Google. Google was the dominant player in search, and was a newly public company that couldn’t afford to be seen as profiting from fraud. But the programmatic adtech space is deeply fragmented, with scores of players, all of who are – according to many sources – reaping untold millions in revenue from fraudulent behavior. In short, the incentives to clean this up aren’t exactly aligned.

But imagine if just one major marketer – playing the role of the defrauded rentor – decides to make a public stink about fraud in programmatic exchanges, declaring they’ll never again spend money there. When that happens, our burgeoning ecosystem is imperiled. So once again, I say: It’s time for us to get further out in front of this problem. I’ll have more on how we might do so in future posts. Meanwhile, wish me luck in finding a place to stay this summer – from now on, I’ll be working with real humans who work on the island and know the owners personally. It might cost me more, but at least I’ll have a place to stay at the end of the day.

An Embarrassment of Pitches

By - February 07, 2013

Man, sometimes you have to venture out onto the real web to realize how far much of the “professional sites” have to travel before they have a viable model.

Case in point: The San Jose Mercury News. Today the paper (yeah, I’m calling it that) published an interesting-sounding piece entitled Silicon Valley job growth has reached dot-com boom levels, report says.  It was widely retweeted and otherwise socially circulated. It’s been a while since the Merc has mattered in my world, and I was pleasantly suprised to see the story pop up in my feeds. So I clicked through to the Actual Web Site to Actually Read The Story.

LordInHeaven I wish I hadn’t. Look at what I saw:

 

Now, it’s going take some work to break down this hot holy mess. So stay with me.

First off, believe it or not the belly flab ad isn’t the worst part of this experience (it’s close, believe me). The worst part is the layout, which looks like – well, something you’d wrap a fish in.

There there are the ads. As the Grinch might say…the ads ads ads ads. Six or more of them in this screenshot, and three more below the fold. There’s a Verizon site wrapper (on either side of the page), an expandable top banner, and three medium rectangle units crammed in there. Not one of them is what you might call a “quality” ad – at least by most standards. (Do you think Verizon is happy that their site takeover is overrun by social media buttons and competing with belly flab, diabetes, Frys’ Electronics and travel pitches?) If you bother to scroll down (who would?) there are three more pitches waiting for you there.

And check out the number of beacons and trackers on the right, in purple. That’s Ghostery, which I run on my browser to see who’s laying down data traps. Man, Merc, that’s a lot o’ data. Are you doing anything with it? (I’m guilty of the same, as a commentator points out below.)

It’s late, I’ll stop. But before I go, one more thing: I just don’t believe that’s the same person Before and After in that belly fat ad. Oh, and what was I reading again? Ah, never mind.

It’s Time To Call Out Fraud In The Adtech Ecosystem

By - January 26, 2013

A confusing landscape = ripe opportunities for fraud.

As part of research I’m doing both for the book and for my upcoming conference (the CM Summit, more on that soon), I’ve been in pretty extensive conversations lately with dozens of key players in the advertising technology industry. I find the ecosystem that has developed  to be fascinating, complex, and ripe with opportunity (and deeply important to the future of our society, not just marketing). I’ll be writing about it quite a bit in coming months. But before I do, I wanted to call out a growing issue that our industry will have to tackle sooner rather than later.

Just as in the early, wild west days of search (1999-2004), the programmatic advertising business – a multi-billion dollar marketplace growing faster than search, video, or anything else for that matter – is riddled with fraud.

That’s what many very reputable sources have told me in great length over the past few months. It’s something of an open secret, and more and more people are speaking out against it. Here’s Federated Media’s Walter Knapp on the problem, back in March of last year:

The great thing about the Internet is that it is built on the foundation of openness — from the way the domain system works to the way content and publishing are increasingly democratic. The core technologies embrace openness, sharing, linking and the ability to consume content across devices and across wired or wireless connections. Unfortunately, the openness we depend on in the digital media business is also available to people who can (and will) take advantage of this openness and exploit it for their own selfish wants.

Knapp notes two forms of fraud – ad injectors, fraudulent browser plugins that take over ad calls; and the practice of inserting an entire site into a 1×1 pixel hidden on high traffic but low quality sites featuring porn or music lyrics. Both are examples I’ve heard about over and over in my reporting. A third involves “stacking” ads one behind the other, all playing video to completion, often playing in inactive tabs. A fourth features refreshing ad calls on accelerated schedules or in inactive tabs. Yet another involves running as many ads as possible out of view, simply to gain “view through attribution” on a closed loop success metric.

More people are starting to call these practices out. AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelly prominently featured the issue of fraud in his blog post celebrating his company’s recent $75 million funding, and what he intends to use it for:

Quality We will continue to invest in cleaning up the advertising marketplace. We’re proud of our anti-piracy stance, and our 5x volume growth this year indicates that you don’t need to serve on BitTorrent sites to be an ad platform company. We are investing heavily in fighting fraud, porn, malvertising, and malicious toolbars, and we are actively working on viewability tools.

Programmatic industry watcher AdExchanger puts it this way:

AppNexus’s pledge to invest money in ad quality issues is worth calling out. The issue is becoming more pervasive as companies emerge to exploit the vulnerabilities of real-time traded inventory to data and impression fraud, malvertising, and other nefarious practices. Fraudulent activities aside, the emergence of robust ad verification and viewability tools means display ad marketplaces and buying platforms must keep a clean nose.

It’s true that many folks are working on addressing the issue, including the IAB. But the bad actors are currently far ahead of the good guys, and worse, many in our industry are turning a blind eye, hoping the problem goes away in time, without too much publicity. Why? Well, nearly everyone gets paid from fraud – the publishers, the exchanges, the data providers, and the agencies. Even the marketers,who are footing the bill, feel like they are getting value – because the success metrics they’ve set up are being  met.

But fraud hurts the ecosystem in a massive way. It means that low quality, invisible, or purely fraudulent inventory is holding down the average value of the entire marketplace – hurting high quality, engaged publishers in the process, stunting investment in quality content.

Over and over, I hear that the reason CPMs (the amount of money a marketer is willing to pay for one thousand advertising impresssions) are so low is because “there’s infinite inventory.”

Hogwash. There’s only so much time in the day, and only so many pages where actual human beings are really paying attention, and the web (including mobile) is growing at a finite pace. There are even fewer places where marketers can be assured of quality, engagement, and appropriate context. It’s time we focus on identifying them, and ridding ourselves of the true source of “infinite inventory” – fraud.

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…)

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