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Reporters Need to Understand Advertising. But Should They Be Making It?

By - February 17, 2013

(image) I know that when I do write here, I tend to go on, and on – and those of you who read me seem to be OK with that. But sometimes the best posts are short and clear.

That was my thought when I read Journalists Need Advertising 101 by Brian Morrissey, writing in Digiday last week. In fewer than 500 words, Morrissey issues a wake up call to those in journalism who believe in the old school notion of a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising:

What’s crazy is journalists seems almost proudly ignorant of the business of advertising. …it’s time journalists take a real interest in how advertising works. I’d go even further. It’s time they get involved in making it. Hope is not a strategy, as they say, and it’s better to deal with the world you live in rather than the world you wish you lived in.

Morrissey goes on to state that the banner ad – the staple of content-based business models for the past 20 years – is “going to zero,” and that the future of the business is in native, integrated content marketing. Journalists, he reasons, need to understand this and get with the program – which means helping to create the content for advertising.

Now, if you’re read me closely, you probably can imagine me nodding my head enthusiastically (though I think display is here to stay, in a renewed model). After all, I’m the one who wrote On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”  and The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good last year. I’ve been on about “native” for more than six years. The company I started in 2005 has been executing native programs since 2005. FMP has a “CM” practice that works with nearly half of the Fortune 100 doing content marketing and native advertising placements. Scores of our top publishers regularly make content for brands. And now that I think about it, it was a decade ago that I taught courses on the business of journalism to graduate students at Berkeley – because I believed that ignorance of business models spells doom for the fourth estate.

So I generally agree with Morrissey’s points – but with one possible caveat. I fully believe that great creators of content should be, well, creating great content on behalf of brands. The best filmmakers are also the best creators of 30-second spots, after all. But I wonder whether journalists – if defined as reporters who cover beats on a full time basis – should be making branded content if it conflicts with what they cover. A reporter’s contract with their audience is this: I will give you straight information about my beat, and I will not be unduly influenced by those I cover. It’s very hard make that promise if you are also being paid to make content for the brands you cover. Of course the truth is that anyone being covered by a reporter will try to influence them in any number of ways. But money complicates everything. The conflicts are deep – and it puts your audience’s trust at risk.

So should a reporter who covers, say, the auto industry full time, be creating marketing content for auto industry brands? I think we can debate this question. We used to live in a world of hard and fast, hierarchical rules. Now, we live in a world of communities who can and do attempt to understand each other. This is a good thing – a reporter can make his or her own decisions, explain them to an audience, and if the community accepts the result, all is well.

Whether or not you think it’s OK for reporters to create branded content about the industry they cover, I absolutely believe that reporters (and their editors, if they have them) certainly should be reviewing content created for that industry, and providing input on whether the content will resonate with the audiences and markets those reporters know best. And any media company that employs reporters should certainly have a content marketing function (if you don’t, why, give me a ring). Without input from publishers, branded content can fall flat, and fail to truly connect with an audience.

Branded content has to match its audience, and it must add value to the conversation. And most importantly, sponsor relationships must be clearly communicated. So how to do it? Branded content needs an understanding of the market, the talent to create content in that market and the ability to place its content in front of the market. If you want to be in a fast moving conversation, it’s damn hard to do all that without editors and reporters. As Morrissey points out, the flat-footed Scientology mess shows what happens when the Chinese wall between advertisers and publishers is overly imposed.

But let’s address the elephant in the room: should brands be asking reporters to make content for brands they directly cover? It’s debatable, but I’d argue it’s probably not a good idea.

Of course, this may be a question of degree. Is it OK for a reporter to write branded content if it’s not about the brand, but merely underwritten by the brand? That happens a lot already, to the point where it seems almost uncontroversial (although many “traditional” journalists decry the practice). What if the reporter writes content for a brand they don’t cover directly, but is in the industry they cover? Can auto industry reporters, for example, create content for other areas not on their specific beat, like say, for an auto insurance brand?  Is it only OK if they write whatever they wish to, editorially, but not alright if they are told what topics to cover?  I could go on for quite a while…

I’ve given a ton of thought to these issues, but it strikes me our industry hasn’t really codified a clear set of principles on the matter. And for content marketing to really thrive, we certainly should.

Perhaps a start to this conversation is the distinction between a reporter who covers a beat full time with a promise to an audience of unbiased point of view, and a strong voice in the industry who lives or dies based on their individual point of view, but isn’t a full time reporter working for someone else.  This has been a long standing point of contention since the rise of bloggers – what is a journalist, anyway? Is a blogger who regularly expresses a strong point of view on a particular industry a journalist?

Lord knows tons of folks have weighed in on this topic, but here’s my shorthand: I think everyone and anyone can be a journalist, especially bloggers. But not all journalists are reporters. There’s an important distinction here, and it’s one worth maintaining. I write a journal – this site. It has my opinion, my point of view, my voice and analysis, and every so often, a piece of reporting. But I am not a full time reporter. I believe readers are smart: They understand when someone (like me) is a voice in a particular industry. They also understand that someone with a passion who writes a site on food, or style, or entertainment, isn’t a beat reporter covering those issues full time, but rather a smart voice saying whatever they care to say, whenever they care to say it. If that person decides to take on sponsored work, that’s fine. If  the content they create is disclosed, of high quality, adds value to their community, and puts food on the table, everyone wins.

This is naunced stuff, and worth airing out. As content marketing becomes a standard in our industry, we need to open up this dialog and be willing to learn from each other. I look forward to the ongoing conversation.

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The 2013 Summit Arrives: Bridging Data And Humanity

By - February 11, 2013

Some of the more than 25 speakers already joining us at the 2013 CM Summit.

Over on the brand spanking new CM Summit website, we’ve announced our initial speaker lineup and progam theme for the 2013 event – Parting the Clouds: Bridging Data and Humanity.

This is the seventh annual CM Summit, the fifth as an anchor conference for New York’s Internet Week. It’s a direct result of nearly a year of work on my book, and inspired by research into the programmatic, data-driven world of advertising technology as well as some very deep roots in brand building and digital media.

The speakers are an extraordinary bunch – and this is just the first group. There are many more to come. For any of you who have been to previous events I’ve curated, you know we really sweat the details – in particular the intellectual framework of the program itself.

More on the theme:

In a scant few years, data has become a critical driver of business decisions – and increasingly, a fundamental currency of all human endeavor. But to marketers and consumers alike, “data” is often a poorly defined term that can elicit confusion, anxiety, and even fear.

Our society has embarked on a historic conversation around the role of data in business, government, and our personal lives. In the seventh annual CM Summit, we’ll seek to define just what data really is, and how we might bridge the concept of data to not only marketing, but to a deeper understanding of culture and humanity.

We will create more than 3.6 zettabytes of data in 2013 – roughly 565 gigabytes per person on earth. And that rate is doubling every two years as we adopt ever faster and more innovative devices – in particular, mobile devices untethered to one “desktop” or even one “phone.” Ten years ago, the very idea that someone might map their “social graph,” tweet their “status,” or “check in” at a location was unthinkable. Now it’s commonplace. What might be common ten years from now, as we begin to monitor our health in real time, and place sensors in our homes, automobiles, clothes and wallets?

How do we get our arms around such abundance and complexity? And how can businesses position themselves to compete in such an environment? 2013 will mark the CM Summit’s most ambitious and far reaching program. Rooted in the firmament of digital marketing, the event will reach out to explore the human implications of data, algorithms, mobility, and technological progress. In the past ten years, the marketing industry has built one of the most intricate ecosystems imaginable, with real-time bidded exchanges and powerful layers of algorithmic logic, all driven by massive storehouses of data. And while this ecosystem began with the desktop web, it’s spread to encompass mobile, video, and even search. At the Summit, you’ll meet the people behind this world, as well as the agencies, marketers and brands who power it.

We’ll continue our tradition of rigorous, in depth interviews, practical case studies, and eye-opening “high order bits” that will challenge traditional thinking and provide context for doing business in a data-driven world.

We work hard to earn your time and money, and I hope you’ll consider supporting this, the only executive conference I’m doing this year. It’d mean the world to me. Register here. I hope to see you in New York!

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

By - January 26, 2013

A confusing landscape = ripe opportunities for fraud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Programmatic industry watcher AdExchanger puts it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

The 140 Character Video Is Six Seconds Long

By - January 24, 2013

Twitter announced its integration of Vine today, and to put not too fine a point on it, the service is, in essence, a way to create a video tweet. If a text tweet = 140 characters, then a video tweet = 6 seconds. More details over at TNW, but this announcement is quite consistent with my post earlier this week: Portrait of Twitter As A Young Media Company.

I’ve long pined for the time when video enters the grammar of our ongoing communication on the web. This is Twitter’s bid to frame how the medium might join the conversation. It’s not a new idea – I guess 12 Seconds was three years early and six seconds too long – but it’s an idea whose time may have come. I’ve seen the iOS app, and it’s very slick, allowing for seamless pauses and cuts. And man, is the example on Twitter’s blog (embedded here) cute. I could stare at it for a long time…well, no, wait, I did stare at it for a long time. I bet you are too. Video is very … engaging when done well.

Advertisers, sharpen your six second pencils. Here’s another native format for you to consider….

Facebook Is No Longer Flat: On Graph Search

By - January 15, 2013

A sample Graph Search result for the query “friends photos before 1999.”

By now the news is sweeping across the blogosophere and into the mainstream press: Facebook is doing Search!

Well, not so fast. Facebook is not doing search, at least not search Google-style. However, the world’s largest social network has radically re-engineered its native search experience, and the result is not only much, much better, it’s also changed my mind about the company’s long term future.

Yesterday, Tom Stocky, Facebook Product Management Director, and Lars Rasmussen, Engineering Director, gave me a sneak peek of today’s much anticipated announcement (it’s gonna be a phone! A new Newsfeed! A big acquisition!). So as to not bury the lead, Facebook has built what it’s calling “Graph Search,” a solidly conceived structured-search service which leverages the company’s massive trove of personal data in any number of new ways (some obvious, some nuanced, and some glaring omissions). But before I get to the details, I want to write about why this matters so much.

Prior to seeing the new search, I was not certain Facebook would ever live up to the hype it has accrued over its short life. It’s a good service, but it’s flat – over time, it struck me, people would tire of tending to it. They set up their social graph, toss a few sheep, poke some pals (or not), “like” this or that (often off-domain), waste hours on Farmville, and then…engagement drops slowly over time. I’m also not a fan of Facebook’s domain-specific approach to the world, as many of you know. Facebook’s new search doesn’t address Facebook’s walled garden mentality (yet), but it nails the first issue. Once this search product is rolled out to all of its members, Facebook will no longer be flat.

This is a big deal on many fronts. First and foremost, Facebook has an engagement problem, particularly in markets (like the US) where its use has become ubiquitous and many of its original users are two, three or more years into the “Facebook habit.” While the company doesn’t talk about this issue, I am confident it’s real (in private conversations with people at Facebook, it’s called the “set it up and forget it” problem). If people do not constantly feed Facebook with engagement, its value attenuates over time. As the service slows in overall growth, engagement with its current base becomes critical. New connections are the lifeblood of a service like Facebook. Without a steady stream of meaningful Likes, Friend Requests, declared Interests, and such, the platform would wither.

Put another way, Facebook needed a service that layered a fresh blanket of value over its core topography. Graph Search is it.

Zuckerberg’s Engagement

One sign of how important this new search is? According to the folks I spoke to yesterday, Facebook’s mercurial founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls Search the “third pillar” of the company’s service, elevating it to the level of Newsfeed and Timeline, the two most important new features since Facebook’s launch (Open Graph is probably up there as well, but it’s true value remains locked up until there is mortar connecting it all, which Search could well be).

A team of engineers and product folk have been working on Graph Search for more than a year, and Zuckerberg has been engaged with them the entire time. The team has been in “lockdown” – a exclusive state of focus on one product so as to ship it as quickly as possible – for the past 34 days. Lockdown is a time honored and rather prestigious occurence inside Facebook, dating back to Zuckerberg’s original Facemash dorm room programming outburst. During the Search team lockdown, Stocky told me, he and Rasmussen got plenty of 2 AM emails and unexpected late night visits from the CEO.

In other words, this is A Really Big Deal for the company.

Why? Well, a quick tour of the product will explain.

What Is It? 

Graph Search subsumes Facebook’s previous search offering, which was extremely weak and focused mainly on the use case of navigation (finding people and pages).  The new service takes full advantage of the face that Facebook is, at its core, a massive structured database of tagged entities. The initial beta “indexes” four main types of these entities: People, Photos, Places, and Interests. Over time, I am told, Facebook will expand its index to include all Facebook posts and even the Open Graph – which means the “rest of the web.”

But for now, users can search across four main categories, using a slick set of intuitive verbs (“lives,” “like,” “work,” etc.), nouns (“San Francisco,” “Indian,” “restaurants,” “friends” etc.), prepositions (“before,” “with,” “in”) and pronouns (“who,” that,” etc.). This makes for a richly structured set of results: “Friends of friends who live in San Francisco and like Indian restaurants,” for example. Or “Friends who have been to Ireland,” or “Photos of friends before 1990.” Once you get the hang of it, the possible pivot points are endless, and the results are quite intriguing.

Stocky and Rasmussen, both ex-Googlers, walked me through a few intriguing use cases, one of which harkens back to one of Facebook’s original use cases – dating – and another which looks forward and presents a threat to LinkedIn’s current strength: Recruiting.

Let’s say you’re single, and you’re interested only in dating engineers who are also friends of your friends. With Graph Search, it’s ridiculously easy to find “friends of friends” who are also engineers. (And single, of course). You can look at their pictures, profiles, interests, and then ask for an introduction from whichever of your pals happens to be connected to one who looks like a good prospect (you could also just “poke” the guy if you wanted to…). Want only C++ programmers, or Indian C++ programmers, or  Indian C++ programmers under 35 years of age? Done.

Or, let’s say you work at, I dunno, Google. And you want to recruit product management talent from, say, Facebook. Again, the best way to get to that talent is probably a friend. So why not do a search for “friends of friends who work at Facebook and are product managers”? Why not, indeed.

One can imagine such functionality will create a lot of new engagement on the service. And not just from people “friending” prospective beaus or hires. Recall that when Google burst onto the scene, it prompted a dramatic response from owners of web pages, who immediately began rewiring their sites to be optimized for search. Similarly, Facebook’s Graph Search will incent Facebook users to “dress” themselves in better meta-data, so as to be properly represented in all those new structured results. People will start to update their profiles with more dates, photo tags, relationship statuses, and, and, and…you get the picture. No one wants to be left out of a consideration set, after all.

Facebook Gets More Weather

Last year I wrote a post titled “Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather.” The focus was on Facebook’s Newsfeed, and how an economy of value was now in place to game Facebook’s “edgerank” algorithm, which determines what stories show up in a person’s feed. With Graph Search, I expect a similar ecosystem will emerge. All of a sudden, two things will be true that previously were not: Facebook users will be using search, a lot, creating liquidity in Facebook “SERPS.” And secondly, there will be significant perceived value in being included in those search results, both for individuals (I want to be considered for that job at Google!) and for companies/brands (I want to message to anyone looking for a job!).

While Graph Search is in very early beta, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting that it won’t be long before Facebook integrates a product that lets marketers purchase ads in these new search results. It already has a similar product, which is by default included in suggested searches (the “auto completed” queries suggested to a user as they enter terms). At the moment, however, paid listings are not included in search results. They will be. Which means, of course, the rise of a native SEO/SEM ecosystem inside Facebook. Add in Open Graph search across the web, and presto…Google’s got some serious potential competition. (Well, not exactly presto. Incorporating Open Graph is going to take some serious chops and time. But still…).

Even without incorporation of Open Graph or Posts, Graph Search is going to change the game for brands and people on the Facebook service. As I watched Stocky and Rasmussen put their product through its paces, I couldn’t help but wonder how much new traffic the product will drive around the Facebook Platform. Will Facebook be watching “conversions” – clickthroughs from search results to profiles and pages? Of course they will! Will Facebook report those referrals to individuals and brands, much as Google Analytics does for webpage today? Not yet…but wait for it. It’ll come….

 What’s Missing: Sharing Results

I’ve already noted that Graph Search does not index content (posts) or the Open Graph, though I’m told that’s coming. But the big miss, from my point of view, is the inability to share search results.

Share search results? Who’d want to do that? Well, in web search, very few of us. That’s because with rare exception, open web search is not an inherently social action – it’s private and it’s ephemeral. But inside the walls of Facebook, it’s definitionally so. In fact, I’d argue that every single “result page” in Graph Search is a “media object” in its own right. If you search for “pictures of friends before 1990,” for example, you get the equivalent of a Pinterest board of your friends’ childhood shots. Wouldn’t you like to post that on your timeline so your pals can see it? Better yet, wouldn’t you like to export it to Pinterest or Tumblr? Of course you would (but, alas, I don’t expect Facebook will allow it, under cover of “protecting user privacy.” More on that in a second.)

Or take another example. Say you have a pal in Southern California who is despondent after being dumped by her boyfriend. You do a quick Graph Search for “single friends of friends under 30 who work in Los Angeles.” The results look pretty promising. Don’t you want to shoot them over to your pal with the subject line “Don’t despair, there are plenty of fish in the sea!” Of  course you do.

I mean, just a query like “Photos I Like” is a huge feature win for Facebook. And who wouldn’t want to post a montage of “Photos I Like” to their timeline? (Or, ahem, their personal blog?!)

For now, you can’t share the results of your searches with anyone else, and that’s a bug that should be a feature. When I brought up the issue, I was told that the privacy implications of sharing searches were extremely complicated. Because of past missteps and current scrutiny, Facebook is going to tread cautiously here (privacy was a central theme in Graph Search’s launch). I certainly understand why, but while those issues are sorted, I expect there are going to be a lot of screen shots of Graph search results being shared around the web.

Bigger privacy issues will likely arise around what might be called the Randi Zuckerberg principle – as in “Oh shit, I didn’t realize I’d show up in that circumstance!” Graph Search is going to expose all manner of privacy controls as super important, and send millions back to Facebook’s sometimes-confusing dashboards, so as to appropriately re-tool settings such that nothing untwoard shows up in this important new functionality.

And to me, this is a Very Good Thing. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled  The Rise of Digital Plumage in which I predicted that we’d all become habituated to “dressing” ourselves in structured data, so as to best present ourselves to the world at any given time. Graph Search is another important tool in our ever-growing digital wardrobe, one that motivates us to understand and manage the implications of our ever-expanding digital footprint.

Facebook just posted an announcement about its new search here.  The initial beta will roll out slowly, folks will have to ask to join a waitlist to get the service. I’ll be updating this post as the news is discussed and digested….

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

By - January 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other works I’ve reviewed:

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

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

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

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

By - January 13, 2013


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

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

And that gives me hope in so many ways.

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

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

One example? Multitasking.

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

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

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

Predictions 2013

By - January 07, 2013

Mssr. Nostradamus

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

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

2013 will be the year that….

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

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

Google trumps Apple in mobile. Sure, Android has already gotten larger market share than iOS, and lots of tech pundits (myself included) are making loud noises about how the Nexus 4 is a winner. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Apple still beats all comers when it comes to revenue, margin, and perception. But in 2013, what I wish for is that Google takes Apple’s crown. And here’s how it could happen: First, Google comes out with a device (maybe it’s with a partner like LG for the Nexus 4, but more likely, it’s a real Google phone, from Motorola) that is just inarguably better than Apple’s, and, it’s available at scale. The Nexus 4 is close, but it’s a half step toward what Google really needs – they need the Next Big Thing. You know, what the Razr was back in the late 1990s. What the iPhone has been for five years. And I think they’ll do it. Next, they need to recommit to their focus on interoperability and openness in operating systems. Google needs to actively promote a vision that is 180 degrees from that of Apple: Open, interoperable, accessible, ungated. This allows for real innovation in UI, services, and apps. Google will win by highlighting things that only Android-based devices running Jellybean or later can do: you (consumers and developers) can interact with digital services and content in a web-like fashion. On Apple’s bespoke devices, you get whatever Apple thinks you deserve. Lastly, Google will openly license the hardware platform of its world-beating phone free to all of its partners. Yes, that’s crazy, but it also gives Google the ability to win the PR war with Samsung, in particular, and continue its long record of taking what used to be costly, and making it free (it also won’t hurt Google in its endless antitrust battles around the world). Google shouldn’t fall into the rabbit hole of thinking it’s a hardware sales company. That’s Apple and Samsung’s (and HP’s and and and…) cross to bear. Google is software and services company, period end of sentence. (And yes, media is software and services).

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

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

- Facebook embraces the “rest of the web.” Even as Facebook continues to be, for the most part, a world apart from the principles and ideals of the open web, I believe 2013 will be the year it realizes it’s OK to share – bilaterally – with The World That Isn’t Facebook. That means making it really easy to export your identity and data, for example – competing on service, not lock in. And creating a kickass web-based advertising network/exchange. And  learning how to play nice with the hundreds of thousands of publishers out there, pro, semi pro and amateur, who create the value that drives so much engagement on its core platform.

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

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

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

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

Related:

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

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

By - December 13, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Microsoft, The Worm Turns Through Apple

By - December 11, 2012

(image) Wow. That’s about the sum of my initial reaction to this story from ATD: Exclusive: Microsoft Pressing Apple to Take a Smaller Cut on Sales Inside Office for iOS.

The wow isn’t that Microsoft is trying to reduce the 30% cut Apple takes on every dollar that flows through the iOS ecosystem. That’s to be expected, though I very much doubt it will happen.

The wow, to me, is how massively the world of software has changed, in particular as it relates to Apple and Microsoft.

I started covering this space in 1987, when Apple was a heroic underdog and Microsoft ruled the world. Apple built bespoke computers that struggled for marketshare in the face of the Windows hegemony. Microsoft, on the other hand, eschewed hardware but built lots and lots of software. Its core profits came from the PC software and OS businesses, but it also had a small division that made Macintosh applications. Because Microsoft’s Windows OS was a major competitor to Apple, we reporters would constantly speculate that Microsoft was was close to pulling its support for the Apple platform, just to  hasten the demise of Apple’s competing offering.

In fact, at one critical juncture in Apple’s history, Steve Jobs practically begged Bill Gates to keep making software for the Mac, then cut an investment deal with him which kept Apple in business.

But regardless of whether you bought a Mac or a PC, once you had your computer, you then bought applications for it – separately, and without any platform tax. The PC and the Mac were what Jonathan Zittrain calls generative ecosystems – anyone could build a business on top of IBM or Apple’s computers, and Microsoft certainly did.

If you had told me back in 1987 that within one generation, Microsoft would be forced to give Apple a 30% cut of its software revenue just to be available on the iOS platform, well, I would have told you to step away from the bong. What a ridiculous notion!  But that’s the way the worm has turned – Microsoft is now at the mercy of Apple, and is playing a high-stakes game of chicken. On the one hand, it needs to distribute its apps on iOS devices (iOS is particularly important to Microsoft’s cloud ambitions, and that is at the heart of this dispute). On the other, Microsoft’s DNA – remember Ballmer has been there since 1980 – is violently opposed to Apple’s pay-to-play business model.

It’s actually possible that Microsoft could abandon its commitment to building for Apple – but for entirely different reasons than any of us might have imagined some 25 years ago. Fascinating stuff.