On Mayer, Yahoo!, and The (Other) Customer

Mayer at the Web 2 Summit, San Francisco

(image James Duncan Davidson)

I try to let big news percolate for a few days before weighing in, and it seems even more appropriate to follow that playbook when it came to the scrum around Marissa Mayer joining Yahoo.

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The Nexus 7 and The Cloud Commit Conundrum: Google Wins (For Now)

Google was kind enough to send me a Nexus 7 tablet to play with last month, and over the past week or so I’ve had the chance to actually put it to use. Even though I own an iPad, I have serious reservations about the constraints of Apple’s iOS ecosystem (more on that below), so I was eager to see how Google’s alternative performed.

Now, before I get into details, I want to state what I think really matters here: The Nexus device – and others like it – represent a play for something extremely valuable: a hard-wired digital portal to our hearts, minds, and wallets. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are five major companies deeply engaged in this play – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. All of these companies want us to commit to their services as the basis of our digital lives – how we consume media and entertainment, how we manage our work and personal lives, where we store our most important information (including our money), and of course, how we declare who we are and what we believe (our identity). The more these companies can get us to upload our music, videos, photos, identities, purchases, browsing behaviors, etc. etc. etc. into their nebulae, the more they’ve locked us into a lifetime relationship of revenue and profit.

Put in that frame, your choice of tablet or phone is about much more than feeds and speeds or features and prices (for all that, see this Engadget review). It becomes a choice about what kind of a company you want as a partner in your digital life. Will the company let you export your data easily to other services? Will it be transparent about how your data is used? Will it have the guts to stand up to bad actors, whether they be governments or other corporations? Will the company create dashboards where you can see, edit, delete, and contest how your data is displayed?

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Google’s “Mute” Button: Why Didn’t I Think Of That? Oh, Wait…

One of my pet peeves about our industry is how slowly we change – I understand it takes a long time to gather consensus (it took three years to get AdChoices rolled out, for example) – but man, why don’t the big players, like Google, innovate a bit more when it comes to display advertising?

Well, yesterday Google did just that, announcing a “mute this ad” feature that it will roll out across its network over the next few months. The feature does what you might expect it to do – it stops a particular ad from “following” you around the web. It will look like this:

 

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Facebook’s Real Question: What’s the “Native Model”?

 

The headlines about Facebook’s IPO – along with questions about its business model – are now officially cringeworthy. It’s an ongoing, rolling study in how society digests important news about our industry, and it’s far from played out. But we seem at an interesting tipping point in perception, and now seemed a good time to weigh in with a few words on the subject.

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The Internet Big Five: Up $272 Billion in Six Months

Last December I posted on “The Internet Big Five,” noting their relative strengths and the market cap of each. Since that time, the Five have only gotten stronger, adding a cumulative $272 billion in market cap (much of that is Apple, but Amazon and Facebook – assuming the offering does as expected on Friday – have also increased quite a bit). All in all, nearly 30% increase in value for these five companies – sort of makes me wish I was an investor, rather than a writer and entrepreneur.

I’ll also check the number of engaged users for each platform, to see if there are any significant shifts, though I don’t recall seeing any in the news recently (save Facebook crossing 900 million users). It is interesting to note that Facebook, should it hold its supposed valuation, will be more highly valued than Amazon.

A reminder as to why I’ve made a point of watching the Big Five, from my original and secondary posts:

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The Audacity of Diaspora

Last Friday Businessweek ran a story on Diaspora, a social platform built from what might be called Facebook anti-matter. It’s a great read that chronicles the project’s extraordinary highs and lows, from Pebble-like Kickstarter success to the loss of a founder to suicide. Given the overwhelming hype around Facebook’s IPO this week, it’s worth remembering such a thing exists – and even though it’s in private beta, Diaspora is one of the largest open source projects going right now, and boasts around 600,000 beta testers.

I’ve watched Diaspora from the sidelines, but anyone who reads this site regularly will know that I’m rooting for it. I was surprised – and pleased – to find out that Diaspora is executing something of a “pivot” – retaining its core philosophy of being a federated platform where “you own your own data” while at the same time adding new Tumblr and Pinterest-like content management features, as well as integration with – gasp! – Facebook.  And this summer, the core team behind the service is joining Y Combinator in the Valley – a move that is sure to accelerate its service from private beta to public platform.

I like Diaspora because it’s audacious, it’s driven by passion, and it’s very, very hard to do. After all, who in their right mind would set as a goal taking on Facebook? That’s sort of like deciding to build a better search engine – very expensive, with a high likelihood of failure. But what’s really audacious is the vision that drives Diaspora – that everyone owns their own data, and everyone has the right to do with it what they want. The vision is supported by a federated technology platform – and once you federate, you lose central control as a business. Then, business models get very, very hard. So you’re not only competing against Facebook, you’re also competing against the reality of the marketplace – centralized domains are winning right now (as I pointed out here).

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Larry Lessig on Facebook, Apple, and the Future of “Code”

Larry Lessig is an accomplished author, lawyer, and professor, and until recently, was one of the leading active public intellectuals in the Internet space. But as I wrote in my review of his last book (Is Our Republic Lost?), in the past few years Lessig has changed his focus from Internet law to reforming our federal government.

But that doesn’t mean Lessig has stopped thinking about our industry, as the dialog below will attest. Our conversation came about last month after I finished reading Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2. The original book, written in 1999, is still considered an authoritative text on how the code of computing platforms interacts with our legal and social codes. In 2006, Lessig “crowdsourced” an update to his book, and released it as “Version 2.0.” I’d never read the updated work (and honestly didn’t remember the details of the first book), so finally, six years later, I dove in again.

It’s a worthy dive, but not an easy one. Lessig is a lawyer by nature, and his argument is laid out like proofs in a case. Narrative is sparse, and structure sometimes trumps writing style. But his essential point – that the Internet is not some open “wild west” destined to always be free of regulation, is soundly made. In fact, Lessig argues, the Internet is quite possibly the most regulable technology ever invented, and if we don’t realize that fact, and protect ourselves from it, we’re in for some serious pain down the road. And for Lessig, the government isn’t the only potential regulator. Instead, Lessig argues, commercial interests may become the most pervasive regulators on the Internet.

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On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”

It’s all over the news these days: Display advertising is dead. Or put more accurately, the world of “boxes and rectangles” is dead. No one pays attention to banner ads, the reasoning goes, and the model never really worked in the first place (except for direct response). Brand marketers are demanding more for their money, and “standard display” is simply not delivering. After nearly 20 years*, it’s time to bury the banner, and move on to….

…well, to something else. Mostly, if you believe the valuations these days, to big platforms that have their own proprietary ad systems.

All over the industry, you’ll find celebration of new advertising-driven platforms that have eschewed the “boxes and rectangles” model. Twitter makes money off its native “promoted” suite of marketing tools. Tumblr just this week rolled out a similar offering. Pinterest recently hired Facebook’s original monetization wizard to create its own advertising model, separate from standard display. And of course there’s Facebook, which has gone so far as to call its new products “Featured Stories” (as opposed to “Ads” – which is what they are.) Lastly, we mustn’t forget the grandaddy of native advertising platforms, Google, whose search ads redefined the playing field more than a decade ago (although AdSense, it must be said, is very much in the “standard display” business).

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

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

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

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

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Direct Mail Ain’t Dead, Says Facebook

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

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

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