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Does the Pebble Cause a Ripple In Apple’s Waters?

By - April 27, 2012

Ever since the Pebble watch became an cause célèbre in tech circles for its kickass Kickstarter moves (it’s raised almost $7mm dollars and counting), something’s been nagging me about the company and its product.

It’s now Valley legend that the company had to turn to Kickstarter to get its working capital – more than 46,000 folks have backed Pebble, and will soon be proudly sporting their spiffy new iPhone-powered watches as a result. Clearly Pebble has won – both financially, as well as in the court of public opinion. I spoke to one early investor (through Y-Combinator) who had nothing but good things to say about the company and its founders.

But why, I wondered, were mainstream VCs not backing Pebble once it became clear the company was on a path to success?

The reasons I read in press coverage – that VCs tend to not like untested hardware/platform plays, that retail products have low margins, etc., all sounded reasonable, but not enough. In this environment, there had to be more going on.

Now, I don’t know enough to claim this as anything more than a theory, but it’s a Friday, so allow me to speculate: Perhaps one reason VCs don’t want to invest in Pebble is because they fear Apple.

Here’s why. 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?

I don’t know the answer to that question (and doubt Apple would answer my call asking such a question), so I’ll toss it out to you. What do you all think? Is Pebble playing with fire here? Would Apple ever change its developer terms of services to cut the new company off?

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Direct Mail Ain’t Dead, Says Facebook

By - April 19, 2012

I’m a bit behind on my snail mail, so to procrastinate from writing anything useful on the book, I went through a pile that’s accumulated over the past week. Perhaps the most interesting piece of mail came from a very familiar brand: Facebook.

The letter had all the trappings of direct mail – a presorted postage mark, impersonal address label, etc. I almost tossed it, but then I thought, why is Facebook using snail mail to message to me? I guess Facebook can’t grow using only its own platform to market its wares. After all, Google is now a major brand advertiser, and probably does direct mail as well. It’s kind of interesting that Facebook is now marketing in new ways….so open it I did.

The one page letter was an offer designed for folks who run “agencies.” I don’t run one, but I do manage a business, registered in the State of California, through which I manage my writing and speaking work. Facebook clearly bought some list, somewhere, that had my name on it (oh, the irony – don’t they already have this information?). The offer was for Facebook’s advertising products – I could offer a free $100 credit to all my clients if I signed up for Facebook advertising myself. I’d have to qualify as an agency, and I’m pretty sure I don’t. So despite my desire to offer all of you, my reading “clients,” $100 in free Facebook ads, I’m afraid I can’t. But I can post (a bad photo of) the letter, in case you’re interested. The front is the offer, and the back is a case study of a company (Victory Motorcycles) that’s had success with Facebook’s platform. For the record, if nothing else.

Front:

Back:

 

 

On Larry Page’s Letter: Super Amazing Great Tremendous!

By - April 09, 2012

(I promised a bit more color commentary on Larry Page’s 3500-word missive posted last week, and after reading it over a few more times, it seems worth the time to keep that promise. I wrote this last weekend, but am on vacation, so just posting it now…)

It’s not often you get a document such as this to analyze – the last time I can recall is Google’s feisty 2004 letter to shareholders written on the eve of its IPO.

Well, eight years in, the feisty has taken a back seat to the practical, the explicative, and the … nice! The first thing I noticed were the exclamation points – Larry uses one in the second sentence, then keeps on exclaiming – 11 times, in fact. Now, I don’t know Larry Page very well, but he just doesn’t seem the type to use exclamation points. Seeing so many of them felt….off. Also, the letter had a very “softer side of Sears” feel to it, the language itself was rounded, not quite defensive (as it might have been given the news lately), but also not pointed.

Clearly, this was a new Larry – Larry in a sweater vest, so to speak. As a lover of language, I wanted to see if there were any interesting patterns, so for ease of analysis, I decided to cut and paste it into a Word doc (sorry, Google Docs, old habits die hard. Something that the Bing team knows well…).

Larry uses variations of the word “love” eight times in his post. Beautiful is used three times. “Great” gets a workout: it’s used 14 times. “Excited about” gets five. “You can,” 10, “We have,” 12. “Search” gets 22 mentions, “Google,” 32, “people,” 28.  “Users” gets 18 – I’ve always hated that word. Android is mentioned 13 times, though it doesn’t seem to be nearly as important in the document as Google+, which merits 9 mentions, slightly lower than “revenue,” which comes in at 10.

But what really strikes me is how, well, nice the language is. So many nice words – beautiful, share, improve, healthy, better, like, important, great, well, tremendous, believe, enable, best – all of these words are used at least three times, often more than ten.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to be so darn nice, it just doesn’t feel like it’s truly Page’s voice. It feels more written by committee. It lacks the zest and attitude of Page’s 2004 missive – but then again, Google has a lot more on its plate now, and a lot more to lose.

Then again, there are some zingers in there, even if they are wearing sweaters. Page makes a point of showing how the Android and YouTube acquisitions worked out in the end, a veiled (or vested?!) defense of Google’s Motorola deal. And while the word “evil” is only used once, I find it very, very interesting it was used at all. For a while, it seemed Google was backing off its unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil.” But in the letter, up it pops, though again, with its shoulders rounded: “We have always believed that it’s possible to make money without being evil,” Page writes. Then he goes into an anecdote about why revenue is necessary, starring his tragic hero Nikola Tesla.

Oddly, for a letter that is reputedly written for investors, Page never mentions Google’s stock price, which hasn’t exactly beaten the Nasdaq lately, but it hasn’t lagged, either.

In the end, the letter is a long, rambling walk through a familiar suburb. Nice, but…well, just that, nice. Maybe I was hoping that Page would come out swinging, defending Google against all the recent slings and arrows, pointedly explaining why it makes sense to combine privacy policies, integrate Google+ into search, and buy Motorola. But that’s clearly not his (public) style. I’m guessing in private, there’s a bit more fire in his pen.

If-Then and Antiquities of the Future

By - April 03, 2012

Over the past few months I’ve been developing a framework for the book I’ve been working on, and while I’ve been pretty quiet about the work, it’s time to lay it out and get some responses from you, the folks I most trust with keeping me on track.

I’ll admit the idea of putting all this out here makes me nervous – I’ve only discussed this with a few dozen folks, and now I’m going public with what I’ll admit is an unbaked cake. Anyone can criticize it now, (or, I suppose, steal it), but then again, I did the very same thing with the core idea in my last book (The Database of Intentions, back in 2003), and that worked out just fine.

So here we go. The original promise of my next book is pretty simple: I’m trying to paint a picture of the kind of digital world we’ll likely live in one generation from now, based on a survey of where we are presently as a digital society. In a way, it’s a continuation and expansion of The Search – the database of intentions has expanded from search to nearly every corner of our world – we now live our lives leveraged over digital platforms and data. So what might that look like thirty years hence?

As the announcement last year stated:

WHAT WE HATH WROUGHT will give us a forecast of the interconnected world in 2040, then work backwards to explain how the personal, economic, political, and technological strands of this human narrative have evolved from the pivotal moment in which we find ourselves now.

That’s a pretty tall order. At first, I spent a lot of time trying to boil any number of oceans – figuring out who to talk to in politics, energy, healthcare, technology, and, well, just about every major field. It quickly became quite evident that I’d end up with a book a thousand miles wide and one inch deep – unless I got very lucky and stumbled upon a perfect narrative actor that tied it all up into one neat story. Last time Google provided me that actor, but given I’m writing a book about how the world might look in 30 years, I’m not holding my breath waiting for another perfect protagonist to step out a time machine somewhere.

But what if those protagonists are already here? Allow me to explain…

For the past few months I’ve been stewing on how the hell to actually write this book I’ve promised everyone I would deliver. The manuscript is not actually due till early next year, but still, books take a lot of time. And every day that goes by without a clear framework is a day partially lost.

A couple of months ago, worried that I’d never figure this thing out (but knowing there had to be a way), I invited one of  my favorite authors (and new Marin resident) Steven Johnson over to my house for a brainstorming session. I outlined where I was in my thinking, and posed to him my essential problem: I was trying to do too much, and needed to focus my work on a narrative that paid off the promise, but didn’t read like a textbook, or worse yet, like a piece of futurism. As I said to Steven, “If I write a book that has a scene where an alarm clock wakes you up on a ‘typical morning in 2045,’ please shoot me.”

It’s not that I don’t appreciate futurism – it’s just that I truly believe, as William Gibson famously put it, that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. If I could just figure out a way to report on that future, to apply the tools of journalism to the story of the future we’re creating, I’d come up with a book worth reading. Of course, it was this approach we took in the early years of Wired magazine. Our job, as my colleague Kevin Kelly put it, was to send writers off in search of where the future was erupting, with instructions to report back.

To find that future, we asked our writers (and editors) to look hard at the present, and find people, places or things that augured what might come next. Hence, issue one of Wired had articles about the future of war, education, entertainment, and sex, based on reporting done in the here and now. While we didn’t call it such, over the years we developed an “If-Then” approach to many of the stories we’d assign. We’d think out loud: “If every school had access to the Internet, then what might change about education?” Or, “If the government had the ability to track everything we do both offline and on, then what might our society look like?” The conditional “If” question followed with a realistic “Then” answer provided a good way to wrap our heads around a sometimes challenging subject  (and for you programmers out there, we’d also consider the “ands” as well as the “elses.”)

Next, we’d ask a reporter to go find out all he or she could about that scenario – to go in search of artifacts from the future which told a story of where things might be going. (Wired, in fact, later created the popular “Found: Artifacts from the Future” series in the pages of the magazine.)

As an early reader and contributor to Wired, Steven knew all this, and reminded me of it as we spoke that day at my house. What if, he asked me, the book was framed as a series of stories about “future antiquities” or “future relics” (I think he first dubbed them “Magic Coins”)? Could we find examples of things currently extant, which, if widely adopted over the next generation, would presage significant changes in the world we’ll be inhabiting? Why, indeed, yes we could. Immediately I thought of five or six, and since that day, many more have come to mind.

Now, I think it bears unpacking this concept of what I mean by “widely adopted.” To me, it means clearing a pretty high hurdle – by 2045 or so, it’d mean that more than a billion people would be regularly interacting with whatever the future antiquity might be.  When you get a very large chunk of the population engaged in a particular behavior, that behavior has the ability to effect real change on our political, social, and cultural norms. Those are the kind of artifacts I’m looking to find.

As a thought experiment, imagine I had given myself this assignment back in the early 1980s, when I was just starting my love affair with this story as a technology reporter (yes, there’s a symmetry here – that’s 30 years ago – one generation past). Had I gone off in search of digital artifacts that presaged the future, ones that I believed might be adopted by a billion or more people, I certainly would have started with the personal computer, which at that point was counted in the high hundreds of thousands in the US. And I also would have picked the Internet, which was being used, at that point, by only thousands of people. I’d have described the power of these two artifacts in the present day, imagined how technological and social change might develop as more and more people used them, and spoken to the early adopters, entrepreneurs, and thinkers of the day about what would happen if a billion or more people were using them on a regular basis.

An antiquity from the 1980s, with its future descendant (image from machinelake.com)

Pushing the hypothetical a bit further, I imagine I’d find the Dan Bricklins, Vint Cerfs, Ray Ozzies, and Bill Gates of the day, and noticed that they hung out in universities, for the most part. I’d have noticed that they used their computers and online networks to communicate with each other, to share information, to search and discover things, and to create communities of interest. It was in those universities where the future was erupting 30 years ago, and had I been paying close attention, it’s plausible I might have declared email, search, and social networks – or at least “communities on the Internet” – as artifacts of our digital future. And of course, I’d have noticed the new gadget just released called the mobile phone, and probably declared that important as well. If more than a billion people had a mobile phone by 2012, I’d have wondered, then what might our world look like?

I’m pretty sure I’d have gotten a lot wrong, but the essential framework – a way to think about finding and declaring the erupting future – seems a worthy endeavor. So I’ve decided to focus my work on doing just that. It helps that it combines two of my favorite approaches to thinking – anthropology and journalism. In essence, I’m going on a dig for future antiquities.

So what might some of today’s artifacts from the future be? I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive list, but I do have a good start. And while the “If-Then” framework could work for all sorts of artifacts, I’m looking for those that “ladder up” to significant societal change. To that end, I’ve begun exploring innovations in energy, finance, health, transportation, communications, commerce – not surprisingly, all subjects to which we have devoted impressive stone buildings in our capital city. (Hence my trip to DC last week.)

Here’s one example that might bring the concept home: The Fitbit. At present, there are about half a million of them in the world, as far as I can tell (I’m meeting with the company soon). But Fitbit-like devices are on the rise – Nike launched its FuelBand earlier this year, for example. And while the first generation of these devices may only appeal to early adopters, with trends in miniaturization, processing power, and data platforms, it’s not hard to imagine a time when billions of us are quantifying our movement, caloric intake and output, sleep patterns, and more, then sharing that data across wide cohorts so as to draw upon the benefits of pattern-recognizing algorithms to help us make better choices about our behavior.

If that were to happen, what then might be the impact on our healthcare systems? Our agricultural practices and policies? Our insurance industries? Our life expectancies? I’m not entirely sure, but it’d sure be fun to try to answer such questions.

I won’t tip my hand as to my entire current list of Future Antiquities, but I certainly would welcome your ideas and input as to what they might be. I’d also like your input on the actual title of the book. “What We Hath Wrought” is a cool title, but perhaps it’s a bit….too heady. Some might even call it overwrought. What if I called the book “If-Then”? I’m thinking about doing just that. Let me know in comments, and as always, thanks for reading.

Architectures of Control: Harvard, Facebook, and the Chicago School

By - April 02, 2012

Early in Lessig’s “Code v2,” which at some point this week I hope to review in full, Lessig compares the early campus networks of two famous educational institutions. Lessig knew them well – in the mid 1990s, he taught at both Harvard and the University of Chicago. Like most universities, Harvard and Chicago provided Internet access to their students. But they took quite different approaches to doing so. True to its philosophy of free and anonymous speech, Chicago simply offered an open connection to its students – plug in anywhere on campus, and start using the net.

Harvard’s approach was the polar opposite, as Lessig explains:

At Harvard, the rules are different….You cannot plug your machine to the Net at Harvard unless the machine is registered – licensed, approved, verified. Only members of the university community can register their machines. Once registered, all interactions with the network are monitored and identified to a particular machine. To join the network, users have to “sign” a user agreement. The agreement acknowledges this pervasive practice of monitoring. Anonymous speech on this network is not permitted – it is against the rules. Acceess can be controlled based on who you are, and interactions can be traced based on what you did.

In the preceding paragraph, change “Harvard” and “university” to “Facebook” and – there you have it. Facebook was the product of a Harvard mindset – and probably could never have come from a place like Chicago or Berkeley (where I taught).

I called up Harvard’s IT department to see if the policy had changed since Lessig’s experiences in the 1990s, or Mark Zuckerbeg’s six or so years ago. The answer was no – machines still must be registered, and all actions across Harvard’s network are trackable.

There are many benefits associated with a “real names” identity policy, including personalized services and a far greater likelihood of civil discourse. But the reverse is also true: without the right to speak anonymously (or pseudonymously), dissent and exploration are often muted. And of course, there’s that tracking/monitoring/data issue as well…

In Code, Lessig goes on to predict that while the original Internet began with a very Chicago-like approach to the world, architectures of regulation and control will ultimately end up winning if we don’t pay close attention.

He wrote the original Code in 1999, and updated it in 2006. The word Facebook is not in either version of the text. Just thought that a curious anecdote worth sharing.

China To Bloggers: Stop Talking Now. K Thanks Bye.

By - March 31, 2012

(image) Yesterday I finished reading Larry Lessig’s updated 1999 classic, Code v2. I’m five years late to the game, as the book was updated in 2006 by Lessig and a group of fans and readers (I tried to read the original in 1999, but I found myself unable to finish it. Something to do with my hair being on fire for four years running…). In any event, no sooner had I read the final page yesterday when this story breaks:

Sina, Tencent Shut Down Commenting on Microblogs (WSJ)

In an odd coincidence, late last night I happened to share a glass of wine with a correspondent for the Economist who is soon to be reporting from Shanghai. Of course this story came up, and an interesting discussion ensued about the balance one must strike to cover business in a country like China. Essentially, it’s the same balance any Internet company must strike as it attempts to do business there: Try to enable conversation, while at the same time regulating that conversation to comply with the wishes of a mercurial regime.

Those of us who “grew up” in Internet version 1.0 have a core belief in the free and open exchange of ideas, one unencumbered by regulation. We also tend to think that the Internet will find a way to “route around” bad law – and that what happens in places like China or Iran will never happen here.

But as Lessig points out quite forcefully in Code v2, the Internet is, in fact, one of the most “regulable” technologies ever invented, and it’s folly to believe that only regimes like China will be drawn toward leveraging the control it allows. In addition, it need not be governments that create these regulations, it could well be the platforms and services we’ve come to depend on instead. And while those services and platforms might never be as aggressive as China or Iran, they are already laying down the foundation for a slow erosion of values many of us take for granted. If we don’t pay attention, we may find ourselves waking up one morning and asking…Well, How Did I Get Here?

More on all of this soon, as I’m in the midst of an interview (via email) with Lessig on these subjects. Once I’ll post the dialog here once we’re done.

 

CM Summit White Paper from 2007

By - March 15, 2012

I am in the midst of writing a post on the history of FM (update – here it is), and I thought it’d be fun to post the PDF linked to below. It’s a summary of musings from Searchblog circa 2006-7 on the topic of conversational media, which is much in the news again, thanks to Facebook. We created the document as an addendum to our first ever CM Summit conference, as a way of describing why we were launching the conference. (BTW, the Summit returns to San Francisco next week as Signal SF, check it out.)

It’s interesting to see the topics in the white paper come to life, including chestnuts like “Conversation Over Dictation,” “Platform Over Distribution,” “Engagement Over Consumption,” and “Iteration and Speed Over Perfection and Deliberation.”

Enjoy.

CMManifesto2007.01

Rob Reid + Copyright Math = Hilarious

By -

A highlight of TED this year was watching my pal Rob Reid do a short talk on the math of those who claim piracy is killing the content business. It’s short, it’s really funny, and it’s a prequel of sorts for Rob’s wonderful new comic novel, which comes out in May. Very worth watching:

San Francisco In The Spring: Come To Signal

By - February 15, 2012

Over at the FM blog, I just posted the draft agenda for the first of five conferences I’ll be chairing as part of my day job at Federated Media. Signal San Francisco is a one-day event (March 21) focused on the theme of  integrating digital marketing across large platforms (what I’ve called “dependent web” properties) and the Independent Web. The two are deeply connected, as I’ve written here. As we explore that “interdependency,” we’ll also be talking about some of the most heated topics in media today: the role of mobile, the rise of brand-driven content, the impact of real-time bidded exchanges, and more.

Signal builds on the format I spent almost a decade crafting at the Web 2 Summit – the “high order bit,” or short, impactful presentation, as well as case studies and deeper-dive one-on-one interviews with industry leaders. Those include Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, Adam Bain, President of Revenue at Twitter, Neal Mohan, who leads Google’s ad products, and Ross Levinsohn, who runs Yahoo! Americas, among others.

Others represented include Instagram, AKQA, Babycenter, Intel, Tumblr, WordPress, ShareThis, Facebook, and many more. I hope you’ll consider registering (the earlybird expires next week), and joining me for what’s certain to be a great conversation.

The Ecstasy of Telegraphy

By - February 14, 2012

My research manager turned up this gem in the course of answering a question I had about the popular response to the introduction of the telegraph in the US (a moment that informs the working title of my next book). What I find fascinating is how the invention incited an innate religious response (this editorial from a local Albany, NY newspaper is in no way unique). The logic goes something like this: Mankind has invented something that pushes the boundaries of our comprehension – we are now doing something that once was understood to be the provenance only of God. Therefore, we must remind ourselves that this invention, while seeming to contradict the supreme powers of God, in fact only reinforces His position in our world. 

The logic may feel a bit tortured, but it’s consistent with a point I make every time I explain one of the core ideas of the book – that in the 200 years between the introduction of the telegraph (early 1840s) and when my children have kids of their own (roughly 30 years from now, or  early 2040s), mankind will have completed something of a pivot when it comes to our shared understanding of the relationship between technology and God. When Morse couldn’t decide what the first telegraph message should be, he settled on a Biblical quote quite consistent with the Albany Atlas and Argus’ editorial: What Hath God Wrought? The telegraph was such a massive shift in the possible, it was best to ascribe its power to God. Humans can’t handle this power.*

But in the intervening centuries, we’ve come to realize that God isn’t going to provide an operating manual for the power we’ve unlocked, and if we’re going to get our arms around it, it’s on us to do so. We can’t throw up our hands and hope for the best. We have to shoulder the responsibility of entering these new realms of power. That’s why I change Morse’s famous quote for my working title: What We Hath Wrought. Two centuries after that first electronic message pierced time and space, what will we have built?

That’s the question my book will explore, using the tools of anthropology and journalism, and a bit of luck along the way.

*Indeed, the story of Morse’s precursor Claude Chappe, the inventor of the “optical telegraph,” offers additional pathos to the narrative. Raised “in church service,” Chappe chose an entrepreneurial path, developing a series of signal towers across France in the late 1790s. His first test message declared a far more earthly intention: “If you succeed, you will bask in glory.” But Chappe died ingloriously: He threw himself down a well in despair at accusations his invention was stolen from the military.