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The Internet Big Five By Product Strength

By - January 05, 2012

As I have written in previous predictions, I’ve been focusing on the Internet Big Five lately, and expect that to continue this year, as the group, collectively, are something of a “character” in my upcoming book (as is Twitter, the “free radical”). Other characters include “The Government” and “Corporations,” so expect predictions about those players in the next few days. But today, I want to focus on the Big Five as a whole. I’ve been staring at these companies, trying to understand their strategic imperatives, which is why I found myself making yet another chart.

This one focuses on core product lines where all (or most) of these companies are playing. For me, these product lines, taken together, are the basis of what we might call “the operating system of our lives.” And since the book is about how we will be leveraging our lives over digital platforms in one generation, it struck me as important to assess where each of the Big Five is right now (what they have already built) and where they are weak (what they need to build to compete).

Here’s the chart:

As you can see, I’ve laid out the same five companies, listed top to bottom by market cap. From left to right are columns of various product lines or offerings that I’ve determined are crucial areas that any player in the “OS of our life” must address. I’ve keyed each company against each product line with one of four scores, from “Strong” – where a company already dominates – to “Weak” – where a company either does not play, or has an anemic offering. The terms “Developing” and “Improving” demonstrate that the company is making progress in that area, from either a weak position (“Developing”) or a middling position (“Improving”).

The product lines I determined were worthy of inclusion mirrored many of the territories found in the Web 2 Summit Points of Control map, with some key additions. Starting from the left: If you’re going to be the “OS of life,” it helps if you have experience building operating systems. Next, it’s critical that you have the ability to distribute products and services, in particular entertainment, to folks on your platform. This means dealing with Hollywood, and the Big Five are in various states of disarray with regard to that issue. Third is Productivity Software, which some of the Big Five may well just punt on (Facebook and Amazon, perhaps). Fourth is Advertising Solutions – where all of the Big Five are either major players or developing solutions. Next are Tablets and Phones, which perhaps could also be called a distribution play but are far more than that. After that is Search, which kind of started this whole Web 2 thing back in the day – I gave Apple a “developing” here because of Siri, which I view as a search interface. Next up is Social, which is pretty self explanatory, Payment, a key point of control, and lastly Voice, which I believe (perhaps wrongly) as a critical aspect of user interface.

Why on earth did I go to the trouble of doing this? Well, because it helps me Think Out Loud about how these companies are going to play out over the next couple of years. If you buy that all of these companies need strategies in most of the areas I outline above, then looking for relative weaknesses and strengths of each is an interesting exercise. In fact, if you really squint, you may well see some patterns in future M&A (the subject of my next prediction post, in fact).

I could go on for pages about how I came to each score. For example, I gave Facebook a “developing” in OSes, even though the company really doesn’t have an OS like Windows or iOS. Why? Because I view Facebook as an OS layer on top of the Web, though of course not in the classic sense. And why did Amazon get a “developing” in Voice? Because it just bought a company in the space, just like Apple did with Siri in 2010. I’ll spare you the details of all the rest, but very much invite your comments on the chart. I labeled it “Draft 1″ for a reason. What categories of product did I miss? Were my scores fair? Comment away, please!

Update: I spaced on Xbox/Kinnect, and have updated the chart wrt to Ent/Dist for Microsoft, thanks for the input!
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Searchblog 2011: The Year In Writing

By - January 04, 2012

I’ve done this a few times in the past, and this year I’m feeling the need to review all I wrote in 2011, and highlight the best posts (at least, by my own measure). Even though my writing in the past year withered to an average of two or three posts a week, I still managed to get some meaningful ideas out there, and I intend to redouble my efforts in 2012. Herewith, my list of favorites from the past year, in order of appearance:

Predictions 2011 The first substantive post of 2011, by my own reckoning last month, I did pretty well.

What Everyone Seems to Miss In Facebook’s Private or Public Debate… I make the point that a company with this much data should be accountable to the public.

The InterDependent Web In which I expand on my concepts of the Dependent and Independent Web.

File Under: Metaservices, The Rise Of  In this piece I outline a vision for an app world that works,well, like the web should work. One of the top tweeted stories of the year.

Google, Social, and Facebook: One Ring Does Not Rule Them All I forgot I wrote this, but given how Google subsequently dropped Twitter and forced Google+ to the top of its results, re-reading it makes me sad. I wish Google would take my advice.

Do We Trust The Government With The Internet? Surprisingly, I argue that we should.

The Rise of Digital Plumage In which I talk about my concept of instrumenting our digital identities with as much care as we instrument our physical bodies.

The Internet Interest Bubble I’ve been always in the camp of “we’re not in another bubble,” but in this piece, I argue we do have perhaps too much interest in the whole story, at least, too much interest in rather shallow parts of the story.

KSJO 92.3 – Good Product, Bad Marketing. A Case Study One of my favorite anecdotes of the year.

Pandora’s Facebook Box Musings on my desire to use some other service to rethink my Facebook profile.

A Report Card on Web 2 and the App Economy It wasn’t a good score.

Why Color Matters: Augmented Reality And Nuanced Social Graphs May Finally Come of Age Got a ton of comments, but I was wrong about Color. I stand by the principles of the post, however.

A Funny Coincidence, or a Glimpse of the Future? A coincidental glimpse of the future, alas.

Plato On Facebook Change always augurs complaint.

Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow “Every major (and even every minor) player realizes that “data is the next Intel inside,” and has, for the most part, taken a hoarder’s approach to the stuff.”

Web 2 Map: The Data Layer – Visualizing the Big Players in the Internet Economy A reminder of how much work I did each year getting Web 2 together.

We (Will) Live In A Small Big Town In which I dream of a world where corporations are listening, but not lurking.

What We Hath Wrought: The Book It becomes real, at least, to me!

The World Is An Internet Startup Now One of the most shared pieces I wrote last year.

Time For A New Software Economy As opposed to an app economy.

Google+: If, And, Then….Implications for Twitter and Tumblr Initial reactions to the new service.

“The Information” by James Gleick I read and reviewed a fair number of books this past year, but this one stands out.

Looky Here, It’s Me, In an Ad, On Facebook! Is This Legal? Allowed? Who Knows?! Turns out, it was not allowed. But now Facebook allows it on their own ad network (more on that soon).

Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications) Not surprisingly, one of the most tweeted stories of the year.

We Need An Identity Re-Aggregator (That We Control) This was one of my major issues of the year. It ain’t going away.

The Future of Twitter Ads I found myself writing more and more about Twitter as the year went on.

Facebook As Storyteller On Timeline and industry journalism.

Google = Google+ One of the most shared stories of the year on all counts. In which I argue that Google+ is way more than a new social network. It’s a play for the soul of Google, its brand.

I Wish “Tapestry” Existed It’s too hard to innovate in the area of metaservices for apps.

Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie Highly read piece on my re-entry to Facebook. I should write a followup on my experience so far.

Government By Numbers: Some Interesting Insights Tons of data on government as a percentage of GDP, etc.

Brands as Publishers One of my chestnuts.

You Are The Platform Summary of one of the most important themes to emerge from the Web 2 Summit last year.

The Problem and the Opportunity Of Mobile Advertising A story of where we are and where we might go.

The World In One Generation: Population Trends This blew up on StumbleUpon. Go figure.

“We need some angry nerds” SOPA rears its head.

The Internet Big Five Part of my book work (as are others above, come to think of it), and increasingly part of this site going forward.

On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme It’s not dead.

2011 Predictions: How Did I Do? Not bad.

 

Well, there ya go. A fair number of “favorite posts” for what was a pretty light year of writing. Looking forward to 2012….

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago

By - January 03, 2012

My predictions this year will be pretty focused on the Internet Big Five (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook) but the first two focus on Twitter. Why? Because Twitter is poised to become a critical “free radical” whose presence affects the actions of all the Big Five players. And 2012 will be the year this becomes readily apparent. In short: In 2012, every Big Five Internet company will need to have a clear Twitter strategy. At the moment, not all of them do.

What do I mean when I use the term “free radical”? Well, taken loosely from molecular chemistry and biology, free radicals are particles with open shells or unpaired electrons – they cause change in otherwise stable systems. I take the term with a bit more license, however – to me Twitter is the only Internet service at scale that has yet to ossify into a predictable platform with a massive revenue base to protect. This fact, plus the company’s liberal philosophical bent toward free speech, positions Twitter as something of a shape-shifting arms merchant in the ongoing battle between the Internet Big Five. Believe me, any one of the Five would kill to own Twitter, several of them have tried to buy the company over the past few years. It’s now clear that Twitter’s path is one of independence. To succeed, it must become the Swiss bank of social intent, providing its services in some kind of useful way to each and every one of the Big Five.

2011 has already set the table for how this year is going to play out. In short, Microsoft and Apple embraced Twitter, Google and Facebook rejected it, and Amazon stayed on the sidelines, for the most part.

Last year, Google allowed its search deal with Twitter to expire (not for lack of trying, I am sure), and then rolled out Google+, which is clearly a Twitter competitor (sure, it’s also a Facebook competitor, but let’s keep this post focused, shall we? Google+ replaced Twitter in Google’s search service. Enough said.). Microsoft, on the other hand, was happy to renew its deal. It’ll do more with Twitter in 2012, to be sure.

Last year was the year Facebook pretty much copied everything Twitter does, up to and including the “Subscribe” feature, which is pretty much a full copy of Twitter inside the Facebook walled garden. Meanwhile Apple embraced Twitter wholeheartedly, with a deal that clearly benefited from Facebook negotiations gone south. And as I said earlier, Amazon didn’t see much reason to work with Twitter, save adding a few new handles to its corporate identity.

In 2012, every Big Five player is going to have to reckon (again) with Twitter. And it’s my hope that Twitter’s approach to these Internet behemoths is to force them all to play by the same rules. In other words, no exclusive deals for any of them. If Google wants to integrate Twitter natively into Android (the way Apple has with iOS), why, great. Twitter won’t refuse to do so because Apple objects. Should Microsoft care to build Twitter natively into Xbox Live, again, no problem, but sorry Microsoft, Twitter keeps the right to allow Sony or Nintendo (or, gasp, Facebook proxy Zynga) the same option. When Amazon starts publicly acting like a full-blown media company (and not just a distribution or ecommerce player), it will cut a deal with Twitter for distribution and data, quite possibly in the advertising network space. Amazon’s competitors will have nothing to say about it. And if Facebook ever wakes up and realizes that Twitter might play a part  in its strategy in some important way, Twitter will be more than happy to figure out a deal, even if Google objects.

In short, the Internet Big Five need a neutral player they can all draw on for value and features that any one of them can’t (or won’t) do – for any number of reasons. This is the role Google played in the first five years of Web 2.o (but increasingly can’t play due to conflicts with owned and operated properties like YouTube, Android, Google+, Places, etc.). For now, Google and Facebook still think they can out-Twitter Twitter. Microsoft and Apple have already punted on competing directly. I’m predicting 2012 is the year Google and Facebook come around and work with Twitter in some new, significant way, as will Amazon.

This is a pretty risky prediction to make, to be sure. Sitting here in January of 2012, it’s quite easy to argue that the folks at Facebook and Google see absolutely no reason to work with Twitter. But there’s an important reason to work with Twitter that hasn’t become quite evident, yet. And that has to do with the concept of openness and the need for third party validation in the eyes of government and consumer scrutiny. More on that in a future prediction.

Related:

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

By -

2012 is going to be a year of contrasts – of consolidation of power for the Internet Big Five, and fragmentation and disruption of that power due to both startups as well as government and consumer action. I’ve spent the past few weeks jotting down thoughts for 2012, and hope to do the Year That Is About To Be justice in the following set of posts.

Yes, I said “set of posts,” because for the first time since the birth of this blog (that’d be nine years ago), I’m going to post my predictions one by one. Why? Well, because I’d like to dig in a bit on each. If I do it all in one post, we’d have a *very* long read, and most of you are just too busy for that. I don’t plan to release these posts slowly, I’m just going to write till I’m done, so ideally I’ll be done in a few days. And when I’ve finished, I’ll post a summary of them all, for those of you who want all these predictions in one easily linkable place.

So let’s start with Prediction #1: Twitter will become a media company, and the only “free radical of scale” in our Internet ecosystem. 

Let me break this into two parts. First, the media company angle. We’ve seen this movie over and over again, with Google and Facebook the most notable “new media companies” of the past decade (and Microsoft the most reluctant). Most engineering-driven Valley companies resist the mantle of “media company,” though Facebook seems to be adapting rapidly to that fact. Its key executives make a point of declaring themselves in the business of selling advertising, and if the new Timeline feature isn’t a play to create the world’s biggest media company at scale, then either A/I’m crazy or B/no one else is paying attention. I doubt the latter is true. The former, well…

Now, Twitter is an engineering-driven company, but its future rests in its ability to harness the attention of its consumers, then resell that attention to marketers. If that sounds crass, I don’t mean it to be. Twitter has a chance to do what Google did – at least initially – provide a platform for advertising that actually adds value to the ecosystem in which it lives. Twitter’s initial platform for ads is pointed generally in that direction – Promoted Tweets only get “resonance” if people engage with them, for example. But it’s about to get more complicated.

Here’s why. When Twitter rolled out its mostly-lauded new design late last year, it added a new section to all of our accounts. Can’t remember what it’s called? You’re probably not alone. Twitter’s new “#Discover” section reputedly addresses what I’ve called the service’s greatest problem and opportunity: How to filter all that Twitter noise into a signal that adds unique value to each individual account.

If Twitter gets #Discover right, it’s created an extraordinary media consumption machine. But so far, #Discover ain’t there yet.

You know what is close to there, when it comes to creating a new kind of media consumption service? Flipboard. And that might make for a few uncomfortable board meetings over at Twitter HP, because Flipboard CEO Mike McCue sits on Twitter’s board. Inevitably, Twitter’s #Discover needs to beat Flipboard at its own game. In the end, Twitter may have to buy McCue’s company (or Mike may have to recuse himself from an awful lot of meetings).

And that’s not the only thing that’s “complicated” about getting #Discover right. As Flipboard has already figured out, once you curate copyrighted material at scale, and then want to sell ads against your curation, things get tricky. This is why Flipboard has spent so much time negotiating rights deals with major publishers.   And this will become a major part of Twitter’s work in 2012; work that, to my point, is the work of a media company.

Once Twitter fixes its #Discover problem, an entirely new front opens up for the company in terms of advertising. I find consuming Twitter on Flipboard eerily similar to reading a good magazine, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And good magazines already have a good advertising model called the full-page ad (and the two-page spread). I predict that Twitter’s rise as a media company (along with the success of Flipboard and various at-scale “magazine-like” apps like Wired and The Daily) will augur a new ad unit we can either swipe past, or engage with. New formats like these need a scale player to really drive them into the minds of ad buyers, and Twitter will be that driver (yes, there’s Zite, and Livestand,  Google’s supposedly upcoming Propeller, and and and…but.) This ad format will be a huge hit with marketers, and the subject of many fawning industry press mentions.

My second post will expand on the latter part of my first prediction: Twitter as the only “free radical at scale.” Watch for that later today. And Happy 2012!

Related:

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

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.

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…

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

By -

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?