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TextPlus Adds Free Calling – Watch This Space

By - December 13, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I met with the CEO of TextPlus, and wrote up my experience here. I mentioned he has some news coming, and this is it: TextPlus, which is a popular free text messaging service, is launching free calling between TextPlus members today. Calling to regular lines is pretty cheap to boot (like 99 cents for 40 minutes).

Why am I writing this up? Because it makes me wonder….TextPlus is a fast growing service that is leveraged over the Apple iOS world I call AppWorld. It serves at the whim of a gatekeeper, in this case, Apple (you can also get it for Android, which is growing faster). Apple, in turn, must keep its carriers happy by selling tons of iPhones (and iPads) with plans that lock customers into paying a pretty penny for data and voice connectivity. And I am not sure those carriers are happy with the idea of a fast growing app that helps teenagers (TextPlus’ main constituency) bypass those profitable service plans. It’s like a built in way to teach the next generation of customers how to cut the cord.

Sure, there’s always Skype and Google Hangouts and such, so perhaps this isn’t such a big deal. But then again, maybe it is. With Wifi coverage growing quickly these days, TextPlus – perhaps the name now should be CommPlus – is one to watch, IMHO.

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Neal Stephenson on Important Work

By - December 12, 2011

(image) An interesting interview in the NYT  I missed from last week, with noted author Neal Stephenson. In it, he riffs on something that’s been bugging me as I work on the book. Asked about “the future of computing,” he responds:

“I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen,” he said, and began discussing what the future was supposed to have looked like, back in his 1960s childhood. He ticked off the tropes of what he called “techno-optimistic science fiction,” including flying cars and jetpacks. And then computers went from being things that filled a room to things that could fit on a desk, and the economy and industries changed. “The kinds of super-bright, hardworking geeky people who, 50 years ago, would have been building moon rockets or hydrogen bombs or what have you have ended up working in the computer industry, doing jobs that in many cases seem kind of ignominious by comparison.”

Again, a beat. A consideration, perhaps, that he is talking about the core readership for his best sellers. No matter. He’s rolling. He presses on.

“What I’m kind of hoping is that this is just kind of a pause, while we assimilate this gigantic new thing, ubiquitous computing and the Internet. And that at some point we’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, that was interesting — we have a whole set of new tools and capabilities that we didn’t have before the whole computer/Internet thing came along.’ ”

He said people should say, “Now let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things.”

I know that many of us in the Internet industry believe we are working on things that are changing the world. But it’s worth asking ourselves if honestly that’s true. We’ve got some really big problems to attack, and we need the best minds of our generation on them.

Stephenson’s thoughts are elucidated in more detail in a piece he wrote for World Policy here.

Instrumenting People Into Location Services

By - December 08, 2011

So this week a well known VC made the trek to my writing retreat in Marin, and we hung out in a room that until this year was a large storage closet behind my garage. I rethought the space, soundproofed it, added a hodge-podge of AV gear and musical instruments, and named the place the “Ross Social Club”  – on Foursquare, anyway. I haven’t really told anyone that I gave the place a name, but it was sort of an experiment – would anyone ever check in there besides me?

Now I chose that name for various reasons I won’t get into here (another story, one I’ll be glad to tell you over a bourbon). But I like being able to name a space on Foursquare, and it’s become a habit for me to “check in” whenever I actually use the room. It’s like  leaving a digital breadcrumb for me, a record of my new relationship to music (I’m learning to play the drums). A lot of friends hang out there too, often playing their own instruments or riffing on the whiteboards I’ve hung about the place. But  I don’t make it a habit to mention the room’s Foursquare doppelganger. It seems a bit … forced. And as far as I know, many of them don’t use the service.

On the same day I created the RSC on Foursquare (and probably because he asked me what I was doing on my phone), one fellow did check in. With some whimsy, he added a tip: “Try the wings.” It’d make you laugh if you’ve ever been there, trust me. Since then, in the past nine months, countless folks have been through the place, but only one other person has checked in.

Anyway, yesterday this well-known VC came by, and we met in the RSC mainly because it was too loud in my home office (construction going on outside). And as he walked in and sat, he put his iPhone down on a nearby table, as did I. I thought about asking him to check in, but….then I forgot. We spoke for an hour or so, reviewing all manner of things in our industry, discussed our business, and on his way he went.

Then I thought to myself – hey, he should have checked into that space. Then there’d be a record of his visit, and that’d be cool. Kind of like a guestbook of sorts.

But…I don’t even know if the fellow uses Foursquare. And he of course had no idea that the Ross Social Club was “lit up” on the service. And I wasn’t sure mentioning it to him wasn’t, well, kind of dorky.

You see all those social instrumentation and nuance problems I’m having?

Anyway, here’s a thought on one way to add just one wrinkle of nuance to location services. While I’m sure at some point in our collective future the concept of a “place” being digitally “alive” and communicable will be commonplace, at the moment, it’s rare and noteworthy.

As a transition between the two, I’d love a feature on Foursquare (or any other location service, er…say Google, or Facebook, or Twitter…) that allows me to send someone who I’ve been with somewhere (like the VC) an invitation to check in post facto. It’d kind of be like saying “Hey, send your phone over to my house. I’ll check you into the Ross Social Club.” The idea is, he didn’t know he could check in (and I forgot to tell him about it), but I can vouch for his presence there. He should get credit on Foursquare for being there (and the great Database of Intentions would get another bit of data), but he’s back in San Francisco now, so there’s no way for him to check in. But if he “sent his phone over” to me, I could do it for him.

Of course he wouldn’t actually send his phone over, the service would verify me as trustworthy and let me check the VC in on his behalf. But it’d add a rare human element to the service, and I for one would see many uses for it. If nothing else, it’d drive more interaction between people around the platform, and isn’t that what we all want anyway?

Just a random thought. OK, on with work…

The Internet Big Five

By - December 07, 2011

As I work on the book, I’ve come to use a shorthand for five companies that I’ve determined are critical drivers of what kind of society we’ll be living in one generation from now. At the moment I’m focused on just Internet companies, though I also plan on looking at other categories, such as energy, food, and health.

My terminology has evolved in the past week from “the Five Horsemen” to simply “The Big Five.” I’ve got a few reasons for this. First, the Horsemen analogy is a bit negative (given it evokes the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse). Second, there’s a rather fun reference for the “big five” that has to do with personality traits (see this research, or this, for example). One goal of my book, which I should probably explain at a later date, is to tease out the essential character and philosophy – perhaps you could call it the personality – of each of these key Internet players. If corporations are people (in the US, anyway), I wonder what kind of people these companies might be?

I don’t think you’ll be surprised by my choice of the Big Five, but I do hope you’ll find my reasoning for their selection worthy. As you can see from the chart, the five are: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook.

If you’re wondering if these companies are in some kind of order, the answer is yes. They are in order of current market cap (Facebook is a private market cap, the company is rumored to soon to be public at a valuation that would place it ahead of Amazon). But there’s more to the selection of this Big Five than just market cap. In fact, there are four main criteria for making it into the Big Five.

First, as I began to describe above, the companies must have financial heft, both in terms of large equity capitalizations, significant cash on hand, and a defensible core profit making machine. This gives them the ability to throw their weight around: they can make strategic acquisitions (like Google’s acquisition of Motorola), and they can leverage their profit centers and cash positions in any number of ways that offer them flexibility to play the corporate game at the very highest levels.

Second, the companies must have scale in terms of direct reach to consumers. By this I mean their brands are used as meaningful platforms by hundreds of millions of people on a frequent basis.

Third, the companies must have deep engagement with those consumers, the kind of engagement that builds brand and creates massive stores of useful data. The relationship between the brand and its customer has to be meaningful and consistent (therefore creating permission to extract a premium and offer new products and services). It takes an ongoing service relationship for such engagement to occur – Microsoft with Xbox or Windows, for example, or Facebook with its core service. On the chart, I’ve ranked engagement and data on a scale of one to ten, based in part on my work on the Web 2 map earlier this year, and partly on my own experiences. (As with other parts of this chart, I ask for your help in codifying this metric, should you be so inclined.)

Fourth, the companies must have significant experience building platform operating systems that are defensible and supported by a vibrant developer community.

The Big Five play in each of these four categories, but there are significant differences between them all, as the chart illustrates. Let’s look at each in turn:

Apple has the strongest financial position of any of the Big Five, quite a feat when you consider the company was essentially bankrupt just 14 years ago. It’s one of the top three companies in the world by market cap, and has the largest cash position of any technology company, period. Its core profit driver is its device business, which may be under attack (from Android and others), but appears defensible. Through its Macintosh and iOS platforms, it reaches hundreds of millions of consumers on a daily basis, not to mention the millions who circulate through its retail stores and various software applications. Apple has a deeply engaged set of core users, but I’ve given the company a score of 6 because a lot of the engagement which occurs with Apple’s brand and products is indirect – I’m using a Macintosh to prepare this post, but I’m not directly engaged with Apple’s products as I do it. I’m using services that layer on top of them. I’d argue this is less true with iTunes, the iPad and the iPhone, and I’d wager that’s how Apple wants it – they want to deepen engagement with their customers, and iOS is how they are going about doing that. What data Apple collects is not easy to find  – but it certainly has to be deep. And Apple has long term and ongoing experience creating OS platforms, so I’ve scored the company highly there, though not as high as Microsoft, which has more reach.

Microsoft  is the second strongest of the Big Five in terms of financials. While it’s certainly not been a growth stock in the past decade or so, it’s a profit machine, and its revenues are massive. Windows and Office have been consistent defensible profit centers, allowing the company to pursue search, online publishing, and gaming, among other key businesses. For the same reasons as Apple, I’ve given Microsoft a middling engagement score – its massive Windows base is not very engaged at a brand level, but the twenty-odd million folks on the Xbox Live platform certainly are. As a data powerhouse, Microsoft is a wildcard – it has not leveraged the data created by our interactions with Windows and Office – at least not in ways I can divine. It does have tons of data around Xbox, Bing, and its move to the cloud should make it a key player here soon. And when it comes to experience creating and driving developer ecosystems in the OS space, Microsoft has the deepest experience of any of the Big Five. (And no, I am not going to get into arguments of whether those OSes are better or worse than one another – for now anyway).

Google ranks third in financial heft, but its reach across the web is unmatched by any of its cohorts in the Big Five. Its search business profit center is a monster, though the company faces threats from Bing on one side, and Facebook’s social web on the other. I’ve scored Google equal to Apple in engagement – it’s clearly far stronger as an engaged brand on the Internet, but less strong in its Android business, despite Android’s larger base. And of course, Google was built from the ground up as a data machine. As for experience in operating systems and developer ecosystems, Google is still in early stages. Android and Chrome are both relatively new and not fully baked.

Amazon has never been a major hoarder of cash, but the company has been on a roll of late, and is building both its reserves and its market cap. However, its profit center – ecommerce – is arguably not as defensible as others in the Big Five (though one could reasonably argue Amazon has locked in its consumers with extremely smart services such as its recommendation engine and Prime shipping programs). The company’s reach into consumers is smaller than any of its peers in the Big Five, and it has just begun to play its device engagement hand via the Kindle platform. Of course, nearly 150mm of us are already deeply hooked into Amazon’s commerce engine, and that’s a significant data advantage. As for operating system and developer experience, let’s not forget Amazon Web Services – the compute and storage layers of what might be called the web OS. Amazon has an enviable position in these critical areas of the emerging cloud ecosystem, though they are, in the main, indirect – for now. But those services must give Amazon a view into data that is the envy of its fellow Big Five companies.

Facebook is the youngest of the Big Five, and has pretty much no publicly available financial information. It’s fair to assume it’s the weakest of the Big Five financially, but that is set to change in the next year. It already boasts a massive valuation in the private markets, and once it goes public, it could have upwards of $10billion or more to play with. It has massive reach and deep engagement – nearly 1 billion of us use the service, half of us use it daily. Facebook’s data trove is enviable, and its moves into nearly every aspect of our lives – from payment to media, will create even more of it. The company also has created a huge base of developers for its platform, but the ecosystem is incomplete compared to vertically integrated OSes like iOS, Mac or Windows. Given its youth, I’d argue Facebook has the most to prove, but certainly has earned its place in the Big Five.

I’d love your input on the Big Five. I plan to use this post as a milestone of sorts, as I begin the journey of writing about their impact on our culture in the coming generation.

Facebook and the FTC Announce A Deal, For Now

By - November 29, 2011

The Federal Trade Commission and Facebook have come to terms on consumer privacy, an issue the FTC formally raised in an eight-count complaint earlier this year. Both sides have announced the pact in their own particular way.

On Facebook’s blog, CEO Mark Zuckerberg strikes a diplomatic tone with a dash of mea culpa.

“Overall, I think we have a good history of providing transparency and control over who can see your information,” he writes. “That said, I’m the first to admit that we’ve made a bunch of mistakes. In particular, I think that a small number of high profile mistakes…have often overshadowed much of the good work we’ve done.”

Over at the FTC website, FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz and his press team are a bit more, well, strident. In reviewing the original complaint, the FTC nearly crows:

“The social networking service Facebook has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”

The release goes on to categorize the issues at hand in a pretty prosecutorial fashion:

“The FTC complaint lists a number of instances in which Facebook allegedly made promises that it did not keep:

  • In December 2009, Facebook changed its website so certain information that users may have designated as private – such as their Friends List – was made public. They didn’t warn users that this change was coming, or get their approval in advance.
  • Facebook represented that third-party apps that users’ installed would have access only to user information that they needed to operate. In fact, the apps could access nearly all of users’ personal data – data the apps didn’t need.
  • Facebook told users they could restrict sharing of data to limited audiences – for example with “Friends Only.” In fact, selecting “Friends Only” did not prevent their information from being shared with third-party applications their friends used.
  • Facebook had a “Verified Apps” program & claimed it certified the security of participating apps. It didn’t.
  • Facebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did.
  • Facebook claimed that when users deactivated or deleted their accounts, their photos and videos would be inaccessible. But Facebook allowed access to the content, even after users had deactivated or deleted their accounts.
  • Facebook claimed that it complied with the U.S.- EU Safe Harbor Framework that governs data transfer between the U.S. and the European Union. It didn’t.

The proposed settlement bars Facebook from making any further deceptive privacy claims, requires that the company get consumers’ approval before it changes the way it shares their data, and requires that it obtain periodic assessments of its privacy practices by independent, third-party auditors for the next 20 years.”

Zuckerberg makes the point that Facebook hasn’t exactly been sitting on its hands when it comes to these issues.

“For Facebook, this means we’re making a clear and formal long-term commitment to do the things we’ve always tried to do and planned to keep doing — giving you tools to control who can see your information and then making sure only those people you intend can see it….In the last 18 months alone, we’ve announced more than 20 new tools and resources designed to give you more control over your Facebook experience….

…privacy is so deeply embedded in all of the development we do that every day tens of thousands of servers worth of computational resources are consumed checking to make sure that on any webpage we serve, that you have access to see each of the sometimes hundreds or even thousands of individual pieces of information that come together to form a Facebook page. This includes everything from every post on a page to every tag in those posts to every mutual friend shown when you hover over a person’s name. We do privacy access checks literally tens of billions of times each day to ensure we’re enforcing that only the people you want see your content. These privacy principles are written very deeply into our code.”

I think this kind of back and forth between the institutions we entrust with our data – like Facebook – and those we entrust to oversee the common good – our government – is healthy and good for society. The bigger question, to my mind, is what kind of culture we are becoming as we decide to share all this information, regardless of whether we truly understand or even consider the implications of doing so.

The settlement will enter a period of public comment for the next month, then, presumably, it will be finalized.

A copy of the settlement can be found here.

 

Help Us Shape The Signal Conferences in 2012

By - November 22, 2011

I’ve spent the better part of a few days thinking through the theme(s) of FM’s Signal series of conferences for the upcoming year. I’ve got a ton of thoughts scrawled across my whiteboards, but then a thought woke me up in the middle of the night – why don’t I ask all of you what you think are the most important trends for digital marketing in 2012? (This crowdsourcing thing, it might just take off…).

So I signed up for PollDaddy and created my first ever Searchblog poll. You can pick three of the choices below, and/or add your own topic at the bottom. So help a brother out, and let me know what you think!


Facebook and Commenting Systems: Still Some Open Questions

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I’ve always been quite interested in commenting systems for the Independent Web, and when it came time to redesign this site, I chose to use Disqus, an independent company that is a leader in the space. Disqus has its detractors, but it has many more fans. The company has nearly 1 million sites using the services and is rolling out new features very quickly.

I did make a conscious choice to *not* use Facebook’s Commenting system. And while I could have justified the decision on pure features (I think Disqus still wins there), it’s more based on my belief in the Independent Web. I prefer to not have this valuable portion of my own domain controlled by a major identity platform with which I have some basic philosophical differences. (In short, I do not agree with the company’s stance on identity, among a few other things).

However, I was curious if others felt the same way. Apparently, the answer is no, if the numbers are any indication. Last night I asked this question on Quora: How many websites use facebook commenting? I’m curious if the service is growing, slowing, or flat?  I also emailed people I know at Facebook, and tweeted it. By this morning, Facebook gave me the answer (oddly, it did not show up on Google search, but that may because the two companies are retarded when it comes to sharing access to each other’s platforms. That’s a whole ‘nother story).

In short, Disqus was at around 750,000 sites as of May of this year. Four months later, in August, Facebook reported that it was at 400,000 sites. That’s darn good given the service is not yet one year old.

Now my question is this: What is the makeup of sites that use Facebook Comments versus Disqus, WordPress, or others like LiveFyre? I’d wager the sites using Facebook tend to be larger publishers, as well as very small publishers who are mainly hobbyists. I’d be very interested in the answer to that question. Any takers?

The Problem and the Opportunity Of Mobile Advertising

By - November 18, 2011

I hate to pick on the good folks at TextPlus, because I like the service (and my kids do too). But my family recently had an experience that reminded me how stunted the advertising ecosystem remains in the (relatively) new world of apps.

Quite serendipitously, after that experience I had the pleasure of meeting the CEO of Gogii, the company behind TextPlus. More on what I learned from him in a moment. But first, to the problem.

TextPlus is a star in what I’ve come to call “AppWorld,” that Jobsian funhouse mirror universe of apps (TextPlus also on Android, where I’m told it’s growing faster than in iOS). Parent company Gogii is backed by Very Serious Venture Capitalists like Kleiner Perkins and Matrix Partners. Clearly, this is a horse that smart money is backing.

But smart money cannot an ecosystem fix – at least not so far. With some notable exceptions, the mobile advertising ecosystem has been pretty broken. A few reasons why:

1. Every app maker I have spoken to tells me that they mostly rely on third party ad networks. They then complain that those networks “don’t understand our business” and are not aligned with their core interests. These networks provide limited visibility into future revenues, and the ads they deliver are rarely if ever targeted well.

2. These third party ad networks sometimes pay well, but most of the time, they pay very poorly. If an app is going to make it, they have to depend on Apple’s iTunes store and iAds (which brings with it its own set of gordian policy and business strategy issues) or on their own sales force, which is difficult, as most apps don’t have the scale to build and execute salable ad products.

3. Bad actors and practices often creep into how networks execute campaigns on third party apps.

Which brings me to my experience with TextPlus.

I recently helped my daughter set up her TextPlus account. We downloaded and configured the free version (you can buy an ad-free version for a few bucks, more on that later). After about three minutes, my daughter was happily texting my mobile number. It was a cool experience – my daughter doesn’t have a “real phone” yet, but now she can text me just like her older siblings. She proudly held her iPod Touch up to show me her latest text, then asked me why my phone number didn’t have a name like “Dad.” I thought about it for a second and realized she hadn’t set up any Apple contacts yet. So I opened the Contacts app, put myself in there, and reloaded TextPlus. Sure enough, there was “Dad” in the text stream. My daughter was radiant.

As I was about to hand the iPod back to her, however, the entire screen was taken over by an ad for Cadillac. That was bad enough, but to make matters worse, I couldn’t figure out a way to make the ad go away. I had to wait for 15 seconds or so, till the ad cleared. The moment of delight between my daughter and I was ruined (my unscripted burst of expletives probably didn’t help).

In those 15 seconds, my opinion of both Cadillac and TextPlus dropped precipitously. It wasn’t the actual ad – the creative was pretty good in fact (the image at left is not what I saw, but I didn’t manage to get a screengrab). What angered me was the interruption and the lack of fit – why on earth would Cadillac push an ad to a girl who couldn’t even drive yet?  Given I am pretty deep in this industry and aware of the points I made above, I figured it was entirely possible that both Gogii and Cadillac had no idea this experience was happening to me.

Turns out, I was right. And therein lies one of the big problems (and opportunities) in the mobile advertising world.

Rather than bang out a post about how terrible my experience was (I was tempted), I lobbed a call into Gogii to ask if perhaps the ad was a mistake. Over the years at FM, I have had enough experience with similar issues in the HTML web to know it was certainly possible. As it happened, the CEO of Gogii (based in LA), was in San Francisco the next day. We set a meeting.

Scott Lahman is a mobile and gaming veteran, having held senior positions at Activision, EA, JamDat, and now as founder of Gogii. He came by the FM offices and within a few minutes we cleared up the Cadillac ad question – a third party network had “snuck” the ad past TextPlus’s filters. Lahman hates when that happens, but … it happens. He was aware of it (other customers had complained) and he had already addressed the problem.

With that settled, we could dig into the bigger issues of the mobile advertising landscape, from the point of view of a Serious App Maker like Gogii. Gogii has more than 25 million downloads, a very engaged and attractive base of customers (millions of teens), and has begun to build out a content driven social element to its service. It also has some big things planned that I’m not allowed to talk about yet.

While Gogii sells an ad-free version of its app, its future is deeply tied to advertising. This initially seems counter intuitive given you can buy your way out of ads on TextPlus for a few bucks – for life. That’s a pretty low estimate of the lifetime value of a customer. Clearly, something else is going on. At the moment, Gogii has one product that it sells at a premium – essentially a home page skin – but it makes the rest of its revenue from the networks.

Given all that, I wondered how Lanham felt about the three points I made earlier in this piece.

In short, Lanham told me, the mobile advertising industry is about five years behind the HTML web in just about every way. Which is interesting when you think about what was going on in web advertising back in 2006.

Back then, FM was one years old, but our model was gathering steam. Successful websites (the TextPluses of the world) were growing like crazy, but struggling with poor ad network revenue streams. There was a glut of inventory in both traditional media sites as well as “the Independent Web” – sites like Boing Boing, Dooce, NotCot, etc. – but there was no scaleable way to bring truly engaged marketing into the picture. Of course, since then the FM model and many like it have evolved to bring real revenue and relationships to the ecosystem. We’re not where we want to be, of course, but we’ve come a long way.

But at the same time as this progress was beginning, that same glut of inventory was feeding a new set of players – the second-generation ad networks. It was about five years ago that those networks were snapped up in a frenzy of M&A. AOL already had purchased Advertising.com. Google bought DoubleClick (and its nascent exchange business). Yahoo bought Right Media. Microsoft bought AdECN. There was a lot of froth in the marketplace, as the major players realized Internet advertising was ripe for consolidation and new business models.

Since then, we’ve seen the rise of exchanges, demand side platforms, and programmatic buying. We’ve also witnessed the attendant response from the publishing world – supply side platforms like Lijit, hand wringing from premium publishers like ESPN, and innovations in ad products like conversation targeting, which can’t be bought on exchanges (at least, not yet.) We’ve seen online advertising split into two large buckets: “Unsold” or remnant inventory, where the networks mainly play, and “premium,” where publishers (or their partners) create more engaging executions that resonate for brands.

Put another way, a lot has happened in the non-mobile web, and it’s all about to happen again, but faster, in the mobile web. There’ll be a lot of consolidation (the firing shots were, of course, AdMob/Google and Quattro/Apple), there’ll be engaging new products (think really new) that scale across federations of quality apps like TextPlus, and there will be new technology solutions that will, more likely than not, be snapped up for prices that don’t seem to make a ton of sense.

Which is all a long way of saying that I think things are about to get far more interesting in mobile advertising, in particular for apps that comprise “the Independent Web” of the mobile world. It’s about time. In a future post I hope to delve into some of the architecture, data, and business model issues that will need to be addressed if we really want to see a truly independent world of apps thrive. I for one certainly do.

Whisperings of the Future Surround Us

By - November 17, 2011

Yesterday I met with Christopher Ahlberg, the PhD co-founder of Recorded Future, a company I noted in these pages back in mid-2010. Ahlberg is one of those rare birds you just know is making stuff that matters – a scientist, an entrepreneur, a tinkerer, and an enthusiast all wrapped into one.

He ran me through Recorded Future’s technology and business model, and I found it impressive. In fact, I’m hoping I can employ it somehow into my book research. And that conditional tense of “hoping” is the main problem I have with Ahlberg’s creation – it’s a rather complicated system to use. Then again, what of worth isn’t, I suppose?

Recorded Future is, at its core,  a semantic search engine that consumes tens of thousands of structured information feeds as its “crawl.” It then parses this corpus for several core assets: Entities, Events, and Time (or Dates). Recorded Future’s algorithms are particularly adept at identifying and isolating these items, then correlating them at scale. If that sounds simple, it ain’t.

The service then employs a relatively complicated query structure that allows you to project the road ahead for your question. For example, you might choose “Amazon” as your entity, and then set your timeframe for events involving Amazon over the past two months and into the next two months. Recorded Future will analyze its sources (SEC filings, blogs, news sites, etc) and create a timeline-like “map” of things that have happened and are predicted to happen with regard to Amazon over the next eight weeks. You can further refine a search by adding other entities or events (“earnings” or “CEO”, for example).

How does it work? Well, turns out the Internet is rife with whisperings of the future, you just need to learn how to listen. That’s Recordable Future’s specialty. As you might imagine, Wall Street quants and government spooks just love this stuff. I’d imagine journalists would as well, but most of us are too strapped to afford the company’s services. Embedded below is a new feature of the site, a weekly overview of a news-related entity.

Recorded Future’s engine is not limited to the sources it currently consumes. Not only is Ahlberg adding more every month, his customers can add their own corpuses. Imagine throwing Wikileaks into Recorded Future, for example.

Perhaps the coolest aspect of the service is a visualization of how entities relate to each other over time. Ahlberg showed me a search for mobile patents, then toggled into a relationship graph. Guess what entity broke into the center of the graph, connected to nearly everything else? Yup – Motorola.

Did I mention that Google is an investor in Recorded Future?

As I said, I hope to start using the service soon, and perhaps posting my findings here.

You Are The Platform

By - November 08, 2011

A funny thing happens to me after each Web 2 Summit – I tend to curl up for a week or two and shut down my idea receptors. It takes a ton of output to curate the show, and then running it for three straight days is rather like running an intellectual and social marathon. You’re “on” the whole time, scrambling backstage, pretending to have it together onstage, greeting amazing minds, cheering them on, delivering what I hope will be thought provoking interlocution, and, of course, remembering to thank everyone for giving so generously of their time and treasure.

So when people ask me what I thought of the show, or what the key themes were, I usually have something of a blind spot. I can remember everything up to the start of the event – all the preparation, preproduction interviews, the endless research, etc. But once we kickoff (in this case, with an interview with Sean Parker), it goes kind of black. My next memory is usually the final cocktail party on day three. I know my Dad and my wife are usually there, and I know I have a fine bourbon in my hand. And I’m happy. And I want to sleep.

Which I’ve done a lot of these past two weeks. But this last show was too rich to not review a bit, in particular for themes that should inform our collective decisions as we move our industry forward. In this post and I hope in others this Fall, I hope to outline some of those themes.

The first one that really jumps out at me is one I’ll title “You Are The Platform.” That phrase was used by Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation in her talk at Web 2, and echoed by Jeremie Miller, founder of Singly and the Locker Project. But before we get to those two, I want to start with Chris Poole, founder of 4Chan and Canv.as, where he outlines a problem with how we currently think about who we are online.

Poole argues that identity is prismatic, and that both Facebook and Google force a “fast food” approach to identity – one size fits all. “They shouldn’t set the bar” for what identity is, Poole argues, “we should.” (Each of the videos below are just five or ten minutes).

How do we do this? Baker argues we have to take control of our data, away from a “20th century factory model,” where the platform for our data is highly centralized (IE on Google, or Facebook, Amazon, or Twitter). She asks us to think differently about managing our data:

In short, Baker suggests that we should each be the platform for our own data, determining how it’s used and in what context, depending on the kind of data (health, social, family, interests, etc).

Sounds great, but how do you operationalize such a concept? It sounds like a lot of work. That’s where Jeremie Miller comes in. His company, Singly, and associated Locker Project is an audacious attempt to “put the person at the center of the data.”

Singly and the Locker Project are in the early days, and the chances they won’t work are probably high. But the approach they augur, I believe, must ultimately become reality. This concept of “you are the platform” is really, really important, not just technologically, but socially, politically, and culturally. Watch this space.