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The Searchblog Social Front Page

By - January 17, 2013

I’m a fan of Paul Berry & Co’s new curation platform RebelMouse (I’m also a small investor). Many content companies have adopted the service as their “social front page,” including TIMETechCrunch, the USA Network and many more. Now thanks to the folks at RebelMouse (and my wizards at Blend), Searchblog has a similar page. You can see it here, I’ve also added it to the navigation bar at the top.

RebelMouse organizes the things you tweet, post to Facebook, etc. into a clear, coherent presentation, and give each person the tools to arrange them however they want. It’s pretty cool. Check it out!

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Twitter’s Makin’ Media

By - January 16, 2013

Sure, it’s a marketing ploy perfectly in line with one of Twitter’s most important advertising segments – entertainment. But Twitter’s Oscars Index is a well executed piece of media. It reminds me of the various executions FM used to do on top of Twitter, back in the day – ExecTweets with Microsoft, ATT’s Title Tweets and CupBuzz, etc. Worth checking out.

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.

A Month In With The Nexus 4: Google Strengths Emerge

By -

It’s been a month or so since I bailed on the iPhone and went all in on Google’s flagship Nexus 4. I’ve been keeping mental notes on the transition, and thought it might be useful to others if I sketched out a few observations here. Also, I imagine some of you will have good input for me as I learn to navigate the Android OS – like any new environment it has its share of ticks, tips and tricks that, if you don’t know them, are rather hard to crack. Once learned, however, they are extremely useful.

For example, I didn’t know going in that the standard keyboard has a “swipe” feature, which lets you quickly drag your finger across the keys as algorithms figure out what words you are trying to make. It works so well I haven’t bothered to download the alternative keyboards readily available in Google’s (vastly improved) Play store. In fact, overall the text input system of the Nexus is so much better than the iPhone, it makes me wonder what’s wrong with Apple – until, of course, I start to think more broadly about the two companies, and it becomes far clearer. Apple’s ecosystem is the product of a careful manicured, top-down design approach. Google’s is more messily bottoms up. For years, Apple’s devices have been far superior to Android. But the collective intelligence of Google’s approach is starting to lap the fabled Cupertino icon.

Which brings me back to the Nexus’ text input. Just as I was starting to use the “swipe” functionality, I noticed the little microphone icon next to the space bar. It’s the same icon that I’d been using in the Google Search app on my iPhone, which worked startlingly well. I’ve found that the Nexus 4′s voice input is close to magic – it’s become a cocktail party parlor trick, in fact. It runs circles around Apple’s Siri – as countless head to head comparisons with friends who have an iPhone 5s has proven. It makes texting and answering short emails almost fun. It’s changed how I think about communicating, for the better.

Why is it so good? Because Google is, at its heart, a big data processing and learning machine. Its roots as a search company means it looks for signals inside unimaginably large datasets, and refines its results over and over until it starts to get things right. That’s what it’s done with its voice recognition engine, and it’s paid off handsomely in a software win inside Android. And I believe increasingly, it’s going to be that software+cloud processsing+iteration+UI loop that will mean Google wins over Apple this year (one of my predictions from last week as you may recall).

Other notes about the phone: It’s slick, literally. It’s covered in Gorilla glass that gives it a great feel, but it will drop out of your hands if you are not careful. The Nexus 4 is still in limited release, and when I got mine, protective cases were backlogged. Not anymore. But in the past month I did manage to crack the back glass, obscuring the otherwise excellent camera lens. It was not easy to figure out how to replace the cracked glass (an entire ecosystem has already developed around Apple’s similar problem, our family has probably cracked half a dozen iPhones in the past few years). I ended up getting a new phone from a colleague at Google – not service I expect your average consumer is going to get, I will admit. I expect one of Google’s major challenges this year will be customer service. It’s not obvious, from the evidence, if Google is really going to lean into being a hardware servicing company.

Once you do get a new phone, the magic of Google’s cloud approach shines through. When you fire up a new device, nearly everything you had already installed on your previous phone just automagically shows up again – because it’s all stored on Google’s servers. All I had to do was reset my mail accounts and re-enter my passwords for my favorite apps, and I was good to go.

From what I have heard from those who use Apple’s iCloud services, it’s not that easy over in iOS land. I don’t have experience with iCloud, because I don’t like Apple’s approach (it seems hell bent on figuring out ways to lock you in and start charging you), but my wife is an iPhone user who has had nothing but pain moving from one iPhone to the next using the service. Google’s approach is free, easy, and it’s covered under a far more liberal data philosophy (I’ve written about that in The Nexus 7 and The Cloud Commit Conundrum: Google Wins).The key to it all working is to have a single Gmail account, it seems, which I have now. Google has definitely falled down on this point in the past – I still have phantom Gmail accounts lurking out there that are not connected to anything, but seemed important to create for some reason or other in the past. Connecting all your points of contact with Google – Calendar, Docs, Picasa, Google+, etc. – is still sort of confusing. I’m uncertain, for example, how to get the right pictures onto my phone, as Google seems to automatically favor Google+ galleries, but I am uncomfortable uploading pictures there as I don’t know how they might be seen by others.

Centering my Google life around one Gmail address means I have to check that Gmail at least a few times a day to see if anything important has changed. I use my own email under the battellemedia.com domain, and also have an email with FM. I’d like to see them all in one place, but that requires I perform some unnatural acts of IT (reconfiguring for POP from IMAP, for example. I know it’s possible, but I don’t want to deal with the work.)

Thanks in part to the torture of working with the calendar and contact applications native to Macintosh and iOS, I’ve recently migrated to Google Calendar and contacts. I cannot report that these are perfect solutions, but as I start to depend on them exclusively, I am learning their quirks, and finding they work fine. I’m still figuring out the contacts piece. I have more than 10,000 contacts and they are a mess. I am uncertain how best to clean them up – in particular, where to put the energy. Right now I am still connecting my old Outlook system to Apple contacts on the Mac via Plaxo, and then updating Google contacts via the Apple contacts. Google maintains a copy of the mess in its cloud, but I’ve not tried to clean that copy up, because I fear it will just be repopulated with bad data from Apple or Plaxo. In short, I am still treading water in this department. Any and all suggestions gladly taken. I wish someone would fix this once and for all.

Now, a phone is supposed to in fact be a phone, and in that department the Nexus 4 is fine. It’s not better or worse, just fine. It has some hitches in the OS, but nothing worth writing home about. It does run hot, but it also runs very, very fast. I remember testing a Galaxy 2 that was really slow feeling. This phone is far superior.It’s also way faster than my iPhone 4, but that’s to be expected, it’s a newer model.

I have a lot more to learn about the Nexus and its Android environment. I don’t like endlessly futzing with my phone, so I haven’t really tricked it out yet. I have all the apps I used on my iPhone installed, and they all work fine. One irritation: One app that I paid for on the iPhone (a GPS tracker for rides and runs) does not acknowledge the paid relationship for its Android version, forcing me to pay again for the new platform. That’s just wrong, IMHO, but it’s not the fault of Android or Google.

The Nexus 4 is a “pure” Google phone – it’s made by LG, but it’s unlocked (I just popped in my AT&T sim from my old iPhone) and the software is all Google driven. It’s in limited production – I understand it’s been in and out of stock in Google’s store. Right now, it’s sold out. That’s a problem, or perhaps, that’s Google’s plan. Either way, it can’t yet be seen as a direct competitor to Apple – it’s not available at scale. But given my experience anyway, I think it should be soon. I dig the device and don’t miss the iPhone at all. So far, so good.

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?

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Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

Predictions From Last Year: How I Did (2012 Edition)

By - January 02, 2013

Every year around this time I do two things: First I look back at my predictions from a year ago and grade myself, then I get around to making a new set of predictions. These are often my most popular posts of the year, proving the old magazine saw that the world loves a list. So who am I to buck the trend? Let’s get cracking on seeing how my crystal ball turned out, shall we?

As you can see from my 2012 predictions roundup, I took something of a new approach to the prognostication game last year. Instead of one lengthy post with all my predictions, I actually broke them into a series of posts, seven in all. I went into detail on why I thought each forecast would prove correct (save the last one, which was a series of “shoot from the hip” predictions.)

I’ll be as brief as I can with this review – this marks the ninth time I’ve done it. Overall, I’ve had a pretty good run of it. I hope 2013 keeps pace.

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media - Twitter will become a media company, and the only “free radical of scale” in our Internet ecosystem. 

I think it is fair to say this one came true in spades. Twitter is a major force in media now, a statement that could not be said just one short year ago. As I wrote in my essay: “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.” Pretty much every major move Twitter made this past year was about securing its media-based business model. Twitter consolidated its control over its distribution, introduced “Twitter Cards” to keep readers engaged on its own platform, refined it’s increasingly addictive “Discover” media feature, introduced a broader and deeper set of engagement-based advertising products, and much more. Twitter is now seen as an essential partner for every major media company in the world – the hash tag is now a television and movie marketing essential. (Oh, and I predicted that there’d be conflict with Flipboard’s CEO being on Twitter’s board. He’s not anymore.)

The second part of my prediction: That Twitter is the only “free radical of scale” in the Internet ecosystem is also true. No other company boasts Twitter’s scale, importance, and independence. I think it’s arguable that Yahoo might come back from the near dead to claim a similar status, but I doubt it. More on this as I review my second prediction below. Meanwhile, I put this prediction in the “got it right” side of the ledger.

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago - Every major player on the Internet will have to do a deal with Twitter, and Twitter will emerge as a Swiss like, open, neutral player in the battle for the consumer web.

Well…not so much. If ever I could be blamed for predicting what I personally wished would become the truth, this is it. I deeply believe that the Internet needs a distribution and application platform that is independent of business model bias (IE, Facebook has a bias toward leveraging its social graph business, Google has a Search bias, Microsoft a Windows bias, etc). I saw – and still see – Twitter as potentially that kind of a business. But the company didn’t do too much to prove my point in 2012. In fact, one could argue it went in exactly the opposite direction, though I don’t fall into the same camp as many of Twitter’s most strident detractors.

Most of Twitter’s moves – cutting off developers who create Twitter interface clients, for example – are a result of the company consolidating its core business model of serving advertisers (and, arguably, end users) a consistent, reportable experience. Other big news-creating moves – like cutting off LinkedIn and Instagram – were decisions calculated based on value exchange – Twitter felt that the companies using Twitter’s resources were getting more from Twitter than the Twitter ecosystem was getting back. I don’t find such moves to be inconsistent with my prediction on their face. I think the jury is out as to whether Twitter can find a Swiss-like position in the Internet ecosystem. The big question is whether it can quantify what “value” is for a developer, so developers can build on Twitter’s platform without worrying about shifting sands. And the big guys who have rejected Twitter as a competitor – Google with Google+, and Facebook of course – will most likely have to come around to a position that at the worst views Twitter as a real force that needs to be integrated in some way with their core products. In the long run, “co-opetition” is a proven strategy in the business world.

Meanwhile, I do find Twitter’s core DNA and philosophy to be far more “Googley” than any other major Internet company. The management team believes in transparency and openness as their True North, and I wager this philosophy will be both challenged and proven in 2013.

Overall, I’d say this prediction was about half right. A push, neither right nor wrong.

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network - Facebook will launch a web-wide competitor to AdSense. 

Now, one could argue this did not happen in 2012. But I’m going to say it has – in 2012 Facebook made several moves that changed the web-wide business of advertising significantly. First, it tested off-site advertising with Zynga. Next, it launched a game-changing programmatic ad exchange, FBX. While this network only allows access to Facebook’s domain-specific inventory, it’s a massive injection of liquidity into the overall Internet advertising landscape, and laid the groundwork for an Adsense like play across the rest of the web. What I got wrong was that instead of starting with the HTML web, Facebook started instead in the very place it was seen as weak, on the mobile web. Regardless, this mobile network is in fact a “web-wide competitor to AdSense,” if you take the web to include mobile, which I certainly do.

So I’ll score this prediction in the “got it right” camp, even if the final shoe – a PC web network – has yet to drop. It will.

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year - Despite doing well overall, Google will fumble one big play this year. 

In my essay on this topic, I predicted that Google will fumble either Google TV, Motorola, or Google+ in 2012, and then reasoned that the real story would be how the company bounced back once the fumble occurred. This prediction came true – Google blew its integration of Google+ into search earlier this year, but has slowly and surely corrected the blunder. Since then, the company has navigated any number of major issues – multiple government probes, integration of Motorola, bringing the Android beast to heel – quite admirably.
I think this one goes comfortably into the “got it right” category, but I’ll admit I didn’t predict how strongly the company would rebound from its initial missteps.

Predictions 2012 #5: A Big Year for M&A - 2012 may well be the biggest year of all for Internet M&A. 

Well, sort of. We did have the big Instagram deal, and tons of “acqui-hires”, but the year didn’t turn out as I predicted in terms of major ad-tech deals. We all thought Yahoo was going to become a buyer again, but that didn’t pan out, thanks to the CEO turnover there. On the plus side, data from Thomson Reuters does show 2012 as a very big year for exits – one of the biggest in recent history – but much of that was due to the Facebook IPO.
Overall, I’d say I missed this one, even if I do look smart for calling out Instagram in my original post.

Predictions 2012 #6: “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark - We’ll all start to question what role the corporation plays in our society and culture.

It’s very difficult to score this one, because it’s so much about cultural zeitgeist. What is the role of “the corporation” in our world, both personal and social? If nothing else, 2012 was a year where we began to ask this question in earnest. It’s the year that “the 1%” and the “99%” became cultural talking points, where we debated the role of government in moderating the profits of the few over the well being of the many, and where that debate ran all the way to last night – when the fiscal cliff was averted, in the main, by kicking this question down the road a few more months.

I think I overestimated the speed with which we will take up this question in our society. When we look back with the lens of time and history, I think it’ll be clear that the role of the corporation was a central issue of the early 2000s. But to call it in one year was premature.

For me, this one was a push.

Predictions 2012 #7: Shooting From The Hip

In which I cover a number rapid fire predictions. In turn:

- Obama will win the 2012 election, thanks in part to the tech community rallying behind him due to issues like SOPA, visas, and free speech.

Well, this one happened. Score one in the “got it right” column.

- Both Apple and Amazon will make billion-dollar acquisitions. More interestingly, so will Facebook.

Facebook checked the box with Instagram, which was really a bit below the billion dollar mark, thanks to the IPO not quite working out as expected. Apple did not take my prediction to heart, though it did buy AuthenTec for about $350 million, and speculation about its Next Big Move continue. Amazon nearly hit the billion dollar mark with its acquisition of Kiva Systems, but that deal wasn’t the one I was expecting.

So, call this one a mostly miss, which to be fair, means it was a miss….

- Android will be brought to heel by Google, eliciting both massive complaints and cheers, depending on where you sit.

I think this is happening. I can’t go into massive detail, but I think the latest version of Android is very good (I am now a user), and the Play store is For Real. I’d score this a “got it right.” I’m sure some of you may disagree, though. I’d like to hear why.

 - Microsoft Windows Phone will become the Bing of mobile (IE, move into double digit market share).

Oops. I clearly should have done my homework first. IDC predicts that double digit smartphone market share will happen for Windows in 2016. Last year, the company had about 2.6%. However, that number is higher in international markets. But I can’t claim a win based on double digit penetration in Spain. So, this one is a miss.

 - Microsoft Xbox will integrate meaningfully with the web (Kinect is key), and start to compete in social across the digital spectrum

An ecosystem is developing, but this is simply not there yet. I’m not sure if it ever will. Another miss. I clearly need to stop making predictions about Microsoft.

- IBM will emerge as a key player in the consumer Internet.

Nope. I’m not even going to pretend this happened, though I bet I was simply too early here. I may revisit this once IBM makes a move (if it ever does!). Another miss.

 - China will be caught spying on US corporations, especially tech and commodity companies. Somewhat oddly, no one will (seem to) care.

It’s happening, (more and more), but we haven’t yet had the spectacular news (like the Google hack last year) that gets folks all excited (so they then can ignore it). Instead, it seems we just see it as business as usual. I think this is a mild “got it right” – but upon reflection, it wasn’t so hard to predict in the first place.

- A heads up display for the web will launch that actually is worth using, but most likely in limited use cases.

Thanks, Google Glass!

So that’s it. In review, I made 14 predictions. By my score, I got 7 right, 5 wrong or mostly wrong, and 2 were a push.

But to be fair, four of my “wrong” predictions were in the “shoot from the hip” category. I think I’ll drop that for 2013 and focus on the ones where I put in serious thought. For those six predictions, my score was better: 3 right, two pushes, and one miss (on the M&A front).

How do you think I did?

Retargeting Is Just Phase One

By - December 21, 2012

Toward the end of the year, annual predictions come out (I’ve been guilty of this for nearly ten years now). I was perusing these from Triggit founder Zach Coelius, and his ninth one hit me right between the eyes:

Retargeting will be taken out of the tactic box marketers have been myopically placing it into, and instead they will recognize that retargeting is simply the first step to a sophisticated data driven marketing strategy.

Retargeting, or the practice of showing you ads from sites you’ve recently visited, is all over the web these days, and many folks revile the practice. But as Zach points out, retargeting isn’t the end game, it’s just the beginning.

It’s actually a good thing that we as consumers are waking up to the fact that marketers know a lot about us – because we also know a lot about ourselves, and about what we want. Only when we can exchange value for value will advertising move to a new level, and begin to drive commercial experiences that begin to feel right. That will take an informed public that isn’t “creeped out” or dismissive of marketing, but rather engaged and expectant – soon, we will demand that marketers pay for our attention and our data – by providing us better deals, better experiences, and better service. This can only be done via a marketing ecostystem that leverages data, algorithms, and insight at scale. And we are well into building that ecosystem – to my mind, it’s an artifact of humanity that is far larger and more significant than my original idea of the Database of Intentions.

More on that soon, but for now, just a short note to point to Zach’s post. It’s going to be a very exciting year to be in our industry. Expect my predictions, and round up of how I did in 2012, in the coming week or two.

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.