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The Next Stage of Mobile Quickening: Links Get Intelligent

By - October 05, 2014
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How Branch Metrics works…click to enlarge.

Early in a conversation with Alex Austin, CEO of mobile startup Branch Metrics, I had to interrupt and ask what seemed like a really dumb question. “So, wait, Alex, you’re telling me that the essence of your company’s solution is that it….makes sure a link works?”

Alex had heard the question before. But yes, in truth, what his company specializes in is making sure that a link works in a very particular kind of mobile use case. And doing so is a lot harder than it might seem, he added. Branch Metrics, a three-year old startup that began as a way to create and share photo albums from your iPhone, is now devoted entirely to solving what should be a dead easy problem, but thanks to the way the mobile ecosystem has played out, it’s just not. (Alex has written up a great overview of his journey at Branch, worth reading here).

A month or so I wrote Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh, an overview of my initial learnings as I explored today’s mobile landscape. A major conclusion: the emergence of deep linking is leading to entirely new opportunities in mobile, and the mobile marketing machine is a key place to explore if you want to understand the implications.

Since then, I’ve spent more time talking to folks like Alex, and I’ve come to another conclusion: the next step in the mobile quickening will be intelligent links.

Now, before you go Googling “intelligent links” – I’ll admit there is no clear nomenclature per se, because in the past we’ve not had a need for such a distinction. After all, on the open web, all links can be intelligent, because they can pass information from site to site via cookies, redirects, and various increasingly sophisticated hacks.

Not so in mobile.

In his wonderful post outlining Branch’s initial failures and eventual pivot, Alex notes: “The biggest growth issue we faced in our mobile app was the fact that Apple doesn’t let you track users and pass context through the install process. …To break down this barrier would mean making the mobile app ecosystem more like the functionality we’re used to on the web.”

So that’s what Branch set out to do – in essence, to make mobile work more like the web. Branch’s initial photo book product may have failed for any number of reasons, but what stood out for Alex was how hard it was for the product to self-replicate across a customer base. A customer would create a cool photo book, and then want to share it with a friend. Of course, the best way to share is via a link to the photo book – that’s the viral calling card. But when a friend clicks on the link, Branch ran into the limits of mobile apps. It gets kind of convoluted, so let me break it down in steps:

1. Customer downloads Branch and uses it to create a cool photo book.

2. Customer wants to share the photo book with her friends, which she does using Branch’s internal sharing features.

3. Branch’s sharing features generate a deep link that is sent via email (or a Tweet, or Facebook, etc).

4. Friend receives invitation via email to check out a cool photo book.

5. Friend clicks on Branch’s deep link.

6. Friend does NOT have Branch’s app installed, so is linked to the Branch app download landing page in the iTunes store.

**THIS IS FRICTION POINT #1. In an ideal world, a potential customer should not have to go through the Apple app store just to view a cool media object that’s been shared (this wouldn’t happen on the web). **

7. Friend decides to download the app, tells Apple OK, accepts the app’s terms and services, fires up the app, and….

8. Sees the generic welcome screen that the app brings up for every new user. Now he has to create a new account, set a password, etc. Confused, he wonders whatever happened to the photo book he was looking for.

**THIS IS FRICTION POINT #2. The friend just wanted to check out the cool photo book, but the information of the original URL, which pointed to the actual media object, has been lost.**

9. Friend is confused as how to actually use the Branch app to see his friend’s cool photo book. He pokes around a bit, but quickly loses interest when he sees a new notification from SnapChat, or Facebook, or whatever.

10. Friend never becomes a new customer of Branch, nor ever actually sees the photo book.

This is a deeply lame experience, and one that seriously limits any app developer’s business. “You can’t have someone have to type their password in, and go through a long install and configuration to start using the app,” Alex told me.

So Branch pivoted, and created a lightweight SDK (software development kit) that, when installed by the app maker, allows the media object in question to appear once the app is installed.

Sounds super simple, but according to Alex, it was quite complicated, not least because getting app makers to install SDKs is non-trivial. However, Branch is finding traction with scores of app makers because the company solves a major marketing problem in mobile – how to create more fluid conversion and engagement paths which ultimately lead to more customers.

This is the evolution of the intelligent mobile link – something that’s sorely needed in the mobile ecosystem. It all starts with the ability to pass data through a link – something that Apple has not allowed in the past. But Branch’s elegant hack around Apple’s shortsighted policy is one more important step toward creating a truly mobile web, one that combines the richness and device-specific capabilities of an app with the universality of an open web architecture.

“It’s like 1995″ in mobile apps, Alex concluded. “We are just figuring out how to turn on the Internet on the phone.”

When I start to think about where this goes from here, I start to get very excited – intelligent links are the beginning of a whole new mobile experience. The next step is to break down the hegemony of the app store itself – why should we have to go through an authentication, download, and configuration process just to see what’s behind a link? We shouldn’t, and soon, I imagine we won’t. Of course this has serious implications for the hegemonies of Apple and Google’s app store choke points, but in the end, both companies are all about creating great experiences for their users, right?

Take it one step beyond erasing the app store friction, and we can imagine a world where apps work like always on-call services, at the ready to execute their portion of a fluid user experience. Explaining that experience will be the subject of a future post. But for now,  amen for folks like Alex and companies like Branch Metrics. Keep up the good work.

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Else 9.29.14: Google snorts milk through its nose; Food, Things, and Marketing

By - September 28, 2014

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(image) This past week’s links are rife with people asking hard questions of Google and Facebook, and so much the better, I’d warrant. You don’t get to the lead position without raising questions. In fact, that seems to be the theme of the week – asking interesting questions – of our online services, our marketing, and our food (yes, our food). To the links:

How Facebook and Google are taking over your online identity – Quartz

Look, it’s not like we don’t realize that these two companies are tracking everything we do. We are inured, we are banner blind, we are…well, we are about to realize we have a lot more power than we thought. But this piece doesn’t make that point, unfortunately.

Websites Are Wary of Facebook Tracking Software – WSJ

Wary, but not stopping themselves from using it.

Google’s Schmidt: Tim Cook, what are you talking about? - CNBC

Put another way: Apple, you are so damn precious, so damn arrogant, STFU.

Google Responds to News Corp’s EU Antitrust Case Criticisms – TNW

Another way of looking at this might be “Google snorts milk through its nose when asked about the EU.”

Facebook Demetricator – benjamin grosser

Ah, I love a good hack. Alas, not many others do. Ever wish you could use a service like Facebook without the constant numeration? Check this out, a worthy addition to the debate. And code to boot.

The tyranny of digital advertising  (Medium)

A relatively new participant in digital advertising takes stock, and has more questions than answers. But I liked his perspective and his questions.

Every Company Is An Experience Company – Searchblog

A dude who’s been in the media business longer than not (really, I’ve been in this game more years than not, which is rather stoney) has a few ideas about where “content marketing” and “native advertising” has to go next.

Copy-Remix-Profit: How YouTube & Shapeways Are Inventing the Future of Copyright – Hunter Walk

First, make it possible for everyone to ignore dumb laws. Next, profit from it. No wonder Google is the largest investor in Uber.

Inside Solid: who will build the god platform for the Internet of Things? - O’Reilly Radar

Well, there you have it. The race is on to create the next platform we never thought we would use (but will).

Forget GMOs. The Future of Food Is Data—Mountains of It – WIRED

I had a chance to go to Hampton Creek last week. Super inspiring. I hope to write it up soon (but I’m in New York for NewCo NewYork and Advertising Week. GAH.)

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Every Company Is An Experience Company

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Illustration by Craig Swanson and idea by James Cennamo

Some years ago while attempting to explain the thinking behind my then-startup Federated Media, I wrote that all brands are publishers (it was over on the FM blog, which the new owners apparently have taken down – a summary of my thinking can be found here). I’d been speechifying on this theme for years, since well before FM or even the Industry Standard – after all, great brands always created great content (think TV ads or the spreads in early editions of Wired), we just didn’t call it that until our recent obsession with “native advertising” and “content marketing,” an obsession I certainly helped stoke during my FM years.

Today, there is an entire industry committed to helping brands become publishers, and the idea that brands need to “join the conversation” and “think like media companies” is pretty widely held. But I think the metaphor of brands as media creators has some uneasy limitations. We are all wary of what might be called contextual dissonance – when we consume media, we want to do so in proper context. I’ve seen a lot of branded content that feels contextually dissonant to me – easily shareable stories distributed through Outbrain, Buzzfeed, and Sharethrough, for example, or highly shareable videos distributed through YouTube and Facebook.

So why is this content dissonant? I’m thinking out loud here, but it has to do with our expectations. When a significant percentage of the content that gets pushed into my social streams is branded content, I’m likely to presume that my content streams have a commercial agenda. But when I’m in content consumption mode, I’m not usually in a commercial mode.  To be clear, I’m not hopping on the “brands are trying to trick us into their corporate agendas” bandwagon, I think there’s something more fundamental at work here. There are plenty of times during any given day when I *am* in commercial context – wandering through a mall, researching purchases online, running errands in my car – but when I’m consuming content, I’m usually not in commercial context. Hence the disassociation. When clearly commercial content is offered during a time when I’m not in commercial mode, it just feels off.

I think this largely has to do with a lack of signaling in media formats these days. Much has been made of how native advertising takes on the look and feel of the content around it, and most of the complaint has to do with how that corporate speech is somehow disingenuous, sly, or deceitful. But I don’t think that’s the issue. What we have here is a problem of context, plain and simple.

Any company with money can get smart content creators to create, well, smart content, content that has as good a chance as any to be part of a conversation. In essence, branded content is something of a commodity these days – just like a 30 second spot of a display ad is a commodity. We’re just not accustomed to commercial content in the context of our social reading habits. In time, as formats and signaling get better, we will be. As that occurs, “content marketing” becomes table stakes – essential, but not what will set a brand apart.

Reflecting on my earlier work on brands as media companies, I realize that the word “media” was really a placeholder for “experience.” It’s not that every company should be a media company per se – but rather, that every company must become an experience company. Media is one kind of experience – but for many companies, the right kind of experience is not media, at least if we understand “media” to mean content.

But let’s start with a successful experience that is media – American Express’ Open Forum. If I as a consumer chose to engage with Open Forum, I do so in the clear context that it’s an American Express property, a service created by the brand. There’s no potential for deceit – the context is understood. This is a platform owned and operated by Amex, and I’ll engage with it knowing that fact. Over the years Amex has earned a solid reputation for creating valuable content and advice on that platform – it has built a media experience that has low contextual dissonance.

But not every experience is a media experience, unless you interpret the word “media” in a far more catholic sense. If you begin to imagine every possible touchpoint that a customer might have with your brand as a highly interactive media experience – mediated by the equivalent of a software- and rules-driven UX – well now we’re talking about something far larger.

To illustrate what I mean I think back to my original “Gap Scenario” from nearly five years ago. I imagined what it might be like to visit a retail outlet like Gap a few years from now. I paint a picture where the experience that any given shopper might have in a Gap store (or any other retail outlet) is distinct and seamless, because Gap has woven together a tapestry of data, technology platforms, and delivery channels that turns a pedestrian trip to the mall into a pleasurable experience that makes me feel like the company understands and values me. I’m a forty-something Dad, I don’t want to spend more than 45 seconds in Gap if I don’t have to. My daughter, on the other hand, may want to wander around and engage with the retail clerks for 45 minutes or more. Different people, different experiences. It’s Gap’s job to understand these experience flows and design around them. That takes programmatic platforms, online CRM, well-trained retail clerks, new approaches to information flows, and a lot of partners.

I believe that every brand needs to get good at experience design and delivery. Those that are great at it tend to grow by exponential word of mouth – think of Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, or Earnest (a new lending company). When marketing becomes experience design, brands win.

There’s far more to say about this, including my thesis that “information first” companies win at experience-based marketing. All fodder for far more posts. For now, I think I’ll retire the maxim “all companies are media companies” and replace it with “every company is an experience company.” Feels more on key.

Else 9.22.14: Good Design Trumps Good Code

By - September 21, 2014

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This week’s Else is brought to you by good design, which trumps good code any day. And by the Alibaba IPO, which kind of pissed me off (see below). Enjoy the links!

The UX App That’s Driving Design Everywhere, From Airbnb to Zappos – WIRED

When I read this I thought – “Of course there’s an app for that.” And then I thought – “I gotta use this app!”

Pranking My Roommate With Eerily Targeted Facebook Ads  – My Social Sherpa

This is just so good, so rich, so fun. If you work in media or marketing, a must read.

Why Is Our Sci-Fi So Glum About A.I.? - NYTimes.com

Yes, my point exactly when I wrote my review of Her, which does not hew to the Hollywood narrative of AI Will Kill Us All.

Apple will no longer unlock most iPhones, iPads for police, even with search warrants – The Washington Post

Bravo, Apple, a huge play to push the data control off platform and into the hands of everyone. BRAVO.

Tim Cook Interview: The iPhone 6, the Apple Watch, and Being Nice – Businessweek

If you want to understand the new guy running Apple, this is the place to start.

Amazon Tops List of Google’s 25 Biggest Search Advertisers – Advertising Age

I wonder why? Hmmmmmmmmmm.

The $3.2 Billion Man: Can Google’s Newest Star Outsmart Apple? | Co.Design

I don’t think Tony Fadell thinks his job is to “outsmart Apple” but then again, it makes for a good headline. And the profile is good too.

Yahoo Stock Crashes As Alibaba IPOs – Business Insider

Ah yes – Alibaba. It’s not that Yahoo! exactly crashed (down 5%), but that it’s really worth very little were it not for the Alibaba holdings. That simply doesn’t make any sense.

Thoughts On Alibaba (Searchblog)

In which I think out loud about Alibaba. I am pretty sure I will piss a few folks off with this one. Sorry.

Venture Capitalist Sounds Alarm on Silicon Valley Risk – WSJ

Bill Gurley may well also have pissed some folks off, but in the end, I think he’s right in the thesis that too many companies are burning too much cash.

 

 

Thoughts On Alibaba

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(image WSJ)

A caveat before I think out loud, quite possibly getting myself into a running battle I know I can’t win: I’m not a public market stock investor, I’ve never been one, and take the following ruminations at the price they’re offered: IE, free.

But this Alibaba stock debut doesn’t smell right to me, and it’s not the company- which is certainly a huge success story inside China, driven by a scrappy founder with a laudable (if manicured) personal narrative.

That said, Alibaba’s star turn smells of collective greed, with a hefty side of whistling past the graveyard.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t have some knowledge around the deal, at least as it relates to the culture of access enjoyed by those with relationships to investment firms. I’ve missed a TON of great deals over my career, mainly due to my being a journalist (or acting like one, as it relates to holding stock) for a large percentage of my working life. But over the past few years I’ve carefully gotten into investing, mainly in early stage startups. I don’t look to invest in IPOs, but every so often, about twice a year, they get offered to me.

This is what happened with Alibaba. I was given the opportunity to – possibly – invest a small sum in Alibaba about a month ago. I figured it was a no-lose deal, so I said “sure” and I didn’t give it much more thought.

But as the IPO drew near, I reconsidered that decision. Not because I thought the stock was going to tank right after the IPO  – I knew there was far too much money at stake, at least in the short term, for that to happen. No, I second guessed myself because I realized I honestly don’t understand the company, or the powers that control it. I pinged the fellow who had offered me the chance to invest, so as to recant my investment. But in the end, it didn’t matter. His fund didn’t end up getting an allocation of precious “at the open” stock anyway.

I can only imagine what it must have been like running that allocation, deciding who amongst all the wealthy, connected individuals and firms would get Alibaba stock at the opening price. It’d be like doling out rigged lottery tickets – everyone’s a winner! One thing I am sure of – it wasn’t a fair process, and I almost ended up benefitting from it by happenstance. So here’s why I am concerned about Alibaba, in no particular order:

1. Greed. The company was considered, by everyone I’ve spoken to, a “sure bet” that would “pop at the open” just like the Internet stocks of old (and it did!).  And yet, everyone that I have spoken with also believes that Alibaba is an offering that encourages the kind of negative Wall Street behavior none of us really want to see happen again. The book closed early. The stock priced above its initial range and moved up by nearly 40% on its first day of trading. Financial institutions, uncertain if they were going to get the allocations they wanted, started currying favor and hustling and pleading and whining. There was a frenzy of money making activity going on, and it felt like…pure greed. Alibaba is the ultimate insider’s stock – pedestrian retail investors did not get access to shares at the opening price, and most likely they will be the sheep to whom the wolves of Wall Street quickly sell (if they haven’t already). Insiders – wealthy people with access to early distribution of IPO shares at the open, have already made their fast buck. And the ultimate insiders have made a huge killing: a consortium of big banks poured $8 billion into Alibaba this June at a $50 price, a quid pro quo if ever there was one for giving a Chinese company access to the US markets. This kind of behavior adds questionable value to our society. I don’t doubt that everyone who held pre-IPO or at-the-IPO shares will make money, in fact, I’m sure of it. And that smells of a rigged game.

2. Shallow understanding. If you’re reading this, and you bought the stock at $93 (roughly the price of its first public trade, up from $68), tell me – have you ever used Alibaba’s services? Do you really understand the company? I doubt it, because Alibaba is a Chinese company. Most of us here in the US don’t speak Chinese, or have a reason to use Alibaba’s services. But for some reason we all seem willing to buy into the “Chinese eBay,” or the “Chinese Facebook,” as if throwing those successful public companies’ reputation over Alibaba’s frame somehow equates to quality. It’s a “bet on China,” as most of the press puts it. Certainly that sounds good, given the country’s growth and early stages, but it leads me to wonder… will most analysts who are covering the stock have done core due diligence on Alibaba – the kind where you go to the market in question and talk to customers, suppliers, and regulators? That would mean they have access and understanding of the culture that controls Alibaba, and I’m pretty sure that culture will not ever allow such diligence to occur (more on that below). What bankers and analysts will tell you is they’ve run the numbers that Alibaba has given them, and they are fantastic. Then again, so are the numbers on Chinese GDP growth – and most well informed people I’ve spoken to say those numbers are unreliable. (Oh, and by the way, if you think the $81 billion China just injected into its own economy was a shrug, I guess you should buy Alibaba without concern). Which leads to…

3. Controlled by a corrupt government. Do you know how China works? I don’t, but I’ve talked to enough folks who have lived and worked in China to get a pretty clear picture: The economic and government culture does not hew to US standards, to put it mildly. And like every other company in China, Alibaba is ultimately controlled by the whims of the Chinese government. It’s something of an open secret that Chinese corporate culture is definitionally corrupt by US standards. So…does listing it on the US stock markets change this fact? I could be wrong (see my caveat at the top), but I don’t believe it does. At least when companies are corrupt in the United States, we have a free and open press, and a democratic rule of law, to keep them in check.  One could reasonably argue that it’s a supreme proof of our capitalist system that now Alibaba is public in the US, so it will now have to play by US regulations. I wish I could buy into that narrative, but I sense all we’ll really get is a company well versed at playing our game, rather than a company that is an active builder of value in our society and in other free markets.

Let me put this another way: Here are a list of Internet leaders who decided to forego China, because the government has made it nearly impossible for them to do business in the way that built our capital markets: eBay, Yelp, Twitter, Google, Facebook….and that’s just off the top of my head. So by buying into Alibaba, we’re buying into a system that has, through government fiat, denied innovative US companies growth in the world’s largest market, then capitalized that fiat into a stock it’s now selling back to us. Again, that just seems wrong.

4. Hazy growth outside core markets. Many observers are expecting Alibaba to come into the US and other large markets, and either buy or compete its way in, so as to fuel its long term growth. This I find to be difficult to believe, on many levels. Sure, Alibaba could try to buy…Yahoo!, Yelp, Twitter, hell, maybe even Box or Square or one of the other heavily funded “unicorns.” But…does anyone really believe it can *manage* those companies to success post transaction? To get a sense of how odd that sounds, imagine Google or Facebook buying a slate of Chinese companies and then managing them well. Sounds pretty risky to me.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, and undoubtedly I’ve managed to piss off any number of friends and colleagues across multiple industries. So let me repeat: I’m no expert in Chinese markets, nor am I a professional public market stock investor. I’m just an industry observer, making industry observations. Caveat emptor.

A Print Magazine Launch? What?!!! California Sunday Is Coming

By - September 15, 2014

CaliforniaSundayMag_Logo_JPEGA year or so ago Chas Edwards, a colleague, pal, and member of the founding team at Federated Media, came to my office for a catch up. I had heard he was cooking up a new venture, but I didn’t know the details.

Little did I know what Chas and his new partner Douglas McGray had up their sleeve – a new *print* magazine built specifically for California.

But…print is dead, right? Apparently not. Chas and MacGray have a thesis that California is ready for a well-written, beautifully designed print publication, and all that was standing in their way was the cost of circulation, a major impediment in today’s market. They solved that issue with a clever hack of today’s newspapers – California Sunday is distributed free inside selected California newspapers. In essence, they’re piggybacking the launch of their brand, adding a valauble new product to what is a staid and attenuated newspaper brand.

But that’s not the only asset the team is bringing to bear. California Sunday also has a successful event strategy – it’s folding McGray’s popular “Pop Up Magazine” series into the company as well. And it has built a studio to help brands execute content marketing inside the magazine’s pages. Oh, and it has some of the best talent in the state, from Michael Pollan to Farhad Manjoo, as contributors.

Back in 1991, I prototyped a magazine called “The Pacific” based on similar goals to California Sunday. Ten years later, I taught a course in magazine publishing with Clay Felker, the late publishing legend who retired to Northern California and always dreamt of creating a pan-state publication (he tried, and failed, with New West). Now Chas and Douglas are giving it a go, and I think they have more than a fair shot at making it work. And yes, I’m an investor!

California Sunday launches October 5. You can read more about the publication here, and follow its Twitter feed here.

Else 9.15.14: Ma, Thiel, Apple Pay, and Minecraft

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Apple-Pay-main1I’m easing back into this weekly Else column, or put another way, I missed last week’s Else due to preparations for NewCo SF, which I’m proud to say was a huge success. This week is Detroit, then New York, London, Boulder, LA, Palo Alto, but I get ahead of myself. For today, I’ll just focus on the best stories of the past 14 or so days. Much has happened in that time period, including Microsoft buying Minecraft, Alibaba filing for an IPO in the US, and yet another Apple announcement. I like the watch best, but in the shorter term, I think Apple Pay is the first mover. Bigger iPhones? Been there.

Why Apple Pay could succeed where others have had underwhelming results (ars) It all comes down to timing and getting the back end players to play nice. Apple most likely will have a hit on its hands – once they update the OS with the service.

A Cambrian Explosion In AI Is Coming (TC) THe author, former CEO of what is now Apple’s Siri service, predicts a new marketplace beyond search and the App store. Sounds like  a place I’m interested in, given this: Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh.

We’re Innumerate, Which Is Why We Love Visualizations (Searchblog) A short piece thinking out loud about innumeracy.

After Selling Out to Microsoft, Minecraft and Its Founder Write the World’s Best Press Releases (re/code) Minecraft is a phenomenon. I hope Microsoft doesn’t screw it up, but I have my doubts.

Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium? (NYT) The article does not answer the question. Which is a shame. I have a long history with the drug, not personally, but through a close relative. Too much is too much, not enough, a problem. I’m curious to learn more.

Programmatic bidding: Buy, buy, baby  (The Economist) A short intro to the practice, a longer overview of the online advertising model, with attendant concerns over privacy and surveillance, is in the print version (and behind paywall online).

Utilities of the Future (Forbes) In which a rather contra-Forbesian case is made for turning nearly the entire current sharing economy into some kind of utility.

One man willingly gave Google his data. See what happened next. (ORR) Not what you might expect. In fact, this doubter was turned into a believer that Google’s not as bad as we might fear.

The surveillance society is a step forward. But one that harkens back to our deep forager past. (Praxtime) An expansive essay about the public/private debate. Really worth the read.

Who is Jack Ma, the man behind the largest ever tech IPO? (Telegraph) Good question. Turns out, as you might expect, he’s something of a character.

Peter Thiel disagrees with you (Fortune) As long as we’re going with profiles of larger than life characters, this one is very worthy as well.

Life Break: Go See “Take Me To The River”

By - September 10, 2014

It’s rare I write about things not directly related to the Internet industry, but the film Take Me To The River, a multi-year project helmed by my friend and colleague Martin Shore, is certainly worthy of a detour. If you love music, any kind of music, this film is a must.

Martin first told me about this project more than five years ago, back then, it was going to be an album bringing together R&B legends with emerging rap artists from the Memphis area. But as he began to produce the tracks, a film emerged, one that not only tells the extraordinary musical stories, but also the story of America itself, an America that still struggles with issues of race and inequality.

Memphis is the heart of American music, from its fertile and conflicted soils have sprung some of the most influential artists in rock and roll – from Elvis to Britney, Al Green to Isaac Hayes, Booker T to the Staples Singers. But Memphis is also a network, an ecosystem, and a feeling – a place that created Stax Records, the Royal Studios, Zebra Ranch, and “the Memphis sound”, and a place where America experienced the most jolting pain of its ever-present race issue – the murder of Martin Luther King, to name only the most poignant milestone in Memphis’ history.

But if you are concerned the film might be preachy or dull, you’re entirely mistaken. Instead it is uplifting and emotional. If you ever wondered how Snoop Dogg gets his chops on, you’ll see it in this film, as he executes an impromptu duet with legend William Bell on Bell’s classic “I Forgot To Be Your Lover.” And you meet deeply soulful characters like Skip Pitts, one of the most celebrated blues guitarists in the world, as he interacts with Little P’nut, a young rap star. The result is both funny and touching, I choked up when the film noted Skip’s passing just months after recording that final session for the movie. In fact, several other Memphis legends passed away in the year between the film’s shooting and its final cut. Driven by an internal urgency that I could always sense each time I saw him over the past few years, Shore has managed to capture a piece of American music history that will live forever. The final scene – a collaboration between quintessential blues/gospel singer Mavis Staples and the genius talents of young musicians Luther and Cody Dickinson, is just brilliant and joyful. It left me happy to be alive.

Take Me to the River is debuting in San Francisco this Friday, and from there it opens across the States. Every once in a while a film comes along that reminds us why we care so much about human connections. This is one of them. Highly recommended.

 

PS – For a taste of the Zebra Ranch, here’s notes from my only visit to the place, with Martin, back in 2007. 

A Big Day For The Internet

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Today scores of big companies are taking symbolic action to defend the essential principles of an open Internet, and I support them. That’s why, on your first visit here today, you’ll see the “spinning ball of death” up on the right. For more information about the Internet Slowdown, head here.

Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh

By - September 06, 2014
chiclets

Do you really want to eat them one at a time? Me, I prefer mashing ‘em up.

Recently I began a walkabout of sorts, with a goal of ameliorating my rather thin understanding of the mobile marketplace. If you read me closely, you know I’ve been more than frustrated with what I call the “chicletized world” of disconnected mobile apps. It’s rise was so counter to everything I loved about the Internet, I’m afraid as a result I underestimated its impact on that very world.

My corrective starting point – the metaphorical bit of yarn upon which I felt compelled to tug  – was the impact of “deep linking” on the overall ecosystem. The phrase has something of a  “dark pool” feel to it, but it’s actually a rather mundane concept: Developers tag their mobile apps and – if relevant – their complementary websites – with a linking structure that allows others to link directly into various points of entry into their applications. This is why, for example, you can jump from a Google search for “Tycho” on your phone to the “Tycho” page inside your Spotify app.

So far, I’ve had more than a dozen or so meetings and phone calls on the subject, and I’ve begun to formulate some working theses about what’s happening out there. While my education continues, here are some initial findings:

1. Deep linking is indeed a Very Big Deal. Nearly all the folks I spoke with believed deep linking in mobile was the beginning of something important, something I’ve started to call…

2. The Quickening… which I believe is nearly upon us. Mobile app developers are humans driven by business goals. If the business opportunity is large, but proscribed by narrow rules, they will follow those rules to gain the initial opportunity. For example, when the convener of a new market (Apple) imposes strict rules about how data is shared, and how apps must behave with regard to each other, app builders will initially conform, and behaviors will fall narrowly in line for a cycle or two (in this case, about five years). However, once those rules prove burdensome, businesses will look for ways around them. This is happening in mobile, for reasons that come down to new competitive players (primarily Android) and to a maturation in distribution, revenue, and engagement models (more on that below). The end result: The market is about to enter a phase of “quickening” – a rapid increase in linking between apps and web-like backends, harkening a new ecosystem in which both foreseeable and unforseen “life” will be created.

2. App Installs Rule. Till They Don’t. The market for mobile apps is – predictably – driven by app installs. And unless you’re the teen viral sensation of the moment, the only reliable way to get app installs is to buy them – almost exclusively via advertising on mobile devices. Facebook figured this out, and holy cow, did the market love that. But app makers are now realizing they have to do more than get their app installed. It’s actually just as critical to get their current installed base to actually engage with their app – lest it be forever relegated to the dustbin that is our current (deeply crappy) mobile desktop metaphor.  Hence the rise of  “re-engagement advertising,” which is serving as something akin to search-engine marketing (SEM) in the desktop web.  Several folks I spoke to told me that 80% of the money in mobile advertising is in app installs, but they quickly cautioned that installs are a house of cards which will not be sustained absent the rise of re-engagement advertising.

3. We’ve Seen This Movie. Which got me thinking. Jeez, have we ever seen this movie before. It’s called publishing. You can buy crappy circulation, crappy audiences, and crappy one-time visitors, and you can also buy great audiences, but the true gauge of a publication, a service, or an app is whether folks keep coming back. And even if you have a great app/service/publication, you need to remind them of your existence more than a few times before they are hooked (this is why classic magazine circulation has three phases – marketing, sampling, and conversion). The link-economy of the open web allowed this process to happen rather naturally, but there is no such economy in mobile, at least not yet. Thanks to early decision made by the conveners of the mobile ecosystem, mobile is deeply shitty at providing business owners with a way of reminding consumers about the value of their proposition, which is why they are frantic for some kind of channel for doing just that. This leads me to hypothesize that…

4. The App Store’s Days Are Limited. Remember when Yahoo! owned Web 1.0, because it had the entire Web in its directory? Or when Google owned Web 2.0, because it put the entire web in RAM? Yep, both those models created massive companies, along with massive ecosystems, but neither hegemony lasted forever. Apple’s App Store (and Google’s) are subject to the same forces. The model may be dominant, but it’s not going to last. As one senior executive in mobile media put it: “The app store is a weigh station, not an end point.” What might replace the App Store as a model for distribution? That’s a fine question, and one I don’t have a strong opinion about, at least not yet. But I sense the Quickening will lay the groundwork for new vectors of app adoption and engagement, similar – but not identical  – to the link economy of the web. Which is why I believe…

5. Re-engagement ads open the door to new topologies (and economics) across mobile. A pretty obvious point, if you’ve managed to stay with me to this point, but one I think is worth restatement and elaboration. Re-engagement advertising is driven by a fundamental business (and consumer) need, and Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Yahoo!, and Google are all responding with deep linking topologies that enable re-engagement. This is a relatively new development, and it’s hard to predict where it might go. But one thing’s for sure – deep linking is good for both the developer and the consumer. It’s just a better experience to go directly into the exact right place inside an app that’s already on your phone. And for marketers, deep linking enables far superior “landing pages” inside their apps, driving a conversion path that is measurable and repeatable. It’s not hard to imagine that re-engagement is the beginning of a more robust economic model for mobile, one that will re-integrate much of the goodness we created when the Web broke wide open ten or more years ago. And that makes me wonder if….

6. The home screen of “chiclets” is mutable. Broadly established consumer engagement models don’t shift rapidly, and the colorful, 16×16 sudoku model of App World isn’t going away anytime soon.  But do we really believe we’ll be poking at squares representing apps forever? I don’t. A more fluid experience based on declared and modeled intent makes a lot more sense – one in which we flow seamlessly from need to need, serviced in each state by a particular application without having to pull back, chose a new app, and then dive back in. I’ve not yet spoken to many UX/UI folks, but I sense this is coming, and deep linking is a first step in enabling it. Somehow, I sense that…

7. Search is key to all of this. Hey, this is Searchblog, after all. It strikes me that search on mobile is pretty broken, because it forces the entirety of the web onto a model that has far more specific – and useful – parameters to work with. The signals emanating from a mobile phone give search entirely new use cases, but so far, we’ve got precious little to show for it. This can’t stand for long.

I’ve got a lot more thinking going on, but it’s too nascent to be of much use at the moment. Topics I’m also thinking about include mapping the dependencies of the mobile ecosystem, grokking the concept of “agency” and how it relates to search and mobile data,  the role of programmatic in mobile, and understanding the flow of money between the big platforms and the little guys.

As you can probably tell, my comprehension of this space is still very limited, but I hope this update sparks some of your own thinking, and that you might share those insights with me in comments or via email or other forms of media. I will continue my walkabout in coming weeks, and I’ll keep writing about it here. Thanks for reading.

And thanks to the many folks I spoke with so far, many of whom are working on stealth projects or agreed to our conversations on background. Hence, I’ve not quoted anyone directly, but again, thanks, and you know who you are!