Tag Archives: Google

The Web isn’t dead, browsers just suck

I spent a good part of the weekend reading up on Chris “Long Tail” Anderson‘s obituary for openness, Wired Magazine’s  The Web is Dead. The article and its sidebars are a pretty dense read, but well worth it. Once again Anderson has done what he does best. He’s garnered a lot of attention making an apparently shocking claim that’s really not that shocking at all. “The Web is Dead” is a far better attention grabber than his actual thesis that Web browsers just plain suck on mobile devices.

Specialized devices, with hardware limits (screen size, lack of mouse/keyboard, etc) require specialized apps. They also tend to come with billing relationships built-in, so this is an opportunity to reset assumptions about what consumers will or will not pay for. No surprise that content producers are flocking to apps, a greenfield opportunity to find a more sustainable model for digital content.

The above is an Anderson quote from what I found to be the most interesting part of the multi-article feature, the robust debate among Anderson, Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle. It sums up the two key issues quite nicely. The browser-based Internet is challenged by the poor usability of the browser interface on mobile devices, and large content providers have failed to develop a sustainable business model for delivering high quality content over the Web.

Anderson believes the open Web is in peril because media giants like his magazine’s publisher have been losing money on it. Citing the railroads, telcos, and electric utilities of the 19th and 20th centuries as examples, standardization and lower barriers to entry eventually lead to massive consolidation because no one makes money in hyper-competitive environments. These markets (like most) evolve towards oligopoly. Anderson also points out that apps on mobile phones solve a lot of business problems — the networks are closed and provide gatekeepers, customers are used to paying for content on closed networks, and the billing mechanisms are in place to make small payments feasible.

Though touched on at times, the Wired articles fail to pay enough attention to Google’s role in this world. For the most part, Anderson and his colleagues relegate Google to Web company status. And that is a significant flaw in their hypotheses. Google is a mobile player. It might not own the networks, but it controls the fastest growing mobile platform in Android. Google’s more laissez faire approach to app developers promises a more open mobile world. Customers will demand Android remains open. (The various authors also pay scant attention to HTML 5’s potential.)

Whatever flaws exist in Anderson’s argument do not detract from the value of his main point. The threat to the open Web is less about net neutrality than big media consolidation. Furthermore, Steve Lohr carried the banner of evolution over revolution quite well yesterday’s New York Times piece, Now Playing: Night of the Living Tech.

Yet evolution — not extinction — has always been the primary rule of media ecology. New media predators rise up, but other media species typically adapt rather than perish. That is the message of both history and leading media theorists, like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. Television, for example, was seen as a threat to radio and movies, though both evolved and survived.

The open Web will survive. Advertising will survive. Apps might just be the fad – if an HTML 5 site on an Android device can deliver the app experience without the middleman, meet the new Web, same as the old Web.

What does number one really mean?

Earlier this week, Apple’s market capitalization topped Microsoft’s. From a bragging rights point of view it just doesn’t get any better than this for Steve Jobs and Apple. Even the staid gray lady, the New York Times laid it on thick.

This changing of the guard caps one of the most stunning turnarounds in business history for Apple, which had been given up for dead only a decade earlier, and its co-founder and visionary chief executive, Steven P. Jobs.

Of course, market capitalization represents Wall Street’s take on which company is more valuable. And it can be argued that neither company is worth nearly $220 billion. Remember the free market is only accurate over the long haul. The less accurate it is over time, the longer the long haul gets as defined by the experts. It’s the closest we have come as a society to perfecting the perpetual motion machine. The less accurate analysts and forecasters are, the more they are able to convince us of their importance. But I digress and would be remiss if I failed to note that the contrarians have come out in droves. A sampling from MarketWatch:

But how many times in a row can Apple pull yet another rabbit out of its hat? When a company is riding a wave of investor euphoria, its stock price already reflects the expectation of many more rabbits. Almost by definition, any unexpected developments from such companies will be bad news.

Stock talk is of virtually no interest to me. I could claim the high road as an adherent of the Random Walk hypothesis, but I’m not. Call me a proponent of the Random Mugging theory – walk down Wall Street enough times, and some punk out of Wharton will find a way into your wallet.

The last time Apple was number one

At the dawn of the personal computer era, Apple was the undisputed leader. IBM wasn’t much of a player but wanted in. IBM embraced MS-DOS and its more open ecosystem. Apple kept its platform mostly closed, and the rest is history.

Pretty much the same thing is happening now in the mobile space. Apple’s keeping its iPhone platform closed. Google’s entered the space with its open Android platform. I’m not deaf to the argument that times have changed. In an age of virus and malware attacks, privacy threats, and rampant generalized paranoia, the market may very well reward a closed and apparently safer platform. Steve Job’s bizarre promise of “freedom from porn” might play well in Peoria, assuming one can get an AT&T signal in Peoria. But we can take it a step further and put forth the proposition that the iPhone also gives us freedom from Verizon, Sprint, and T-mobile.

It really does look like 30 years ago all over again, but looks are deceiving. Only a fool underestimates Steve Job’s adaptability. Do not forget that the man who made it job #1 to kill the Newton upon his return to Apple is the man who brought us the iPad.

Excuse me if I opt not to place a wager on this race.

Final nail in my newspaper’s coffin

I canceled my newspaper subscription today. I’ve subscribed to the Boston Globe for over 17 years without interruption. The role the newspaper plays in my life has changed in some significant ways. For example, I have no idea when the paper stopped publishing stock quotes. Sometime in the late 1990s I began consuming that data online. Virtually the same story applies to out of town sports scores, election results, and weather. In fact, the newspaper is no longer a significant source of news. My typical 15 minutes in the morning with the paper would be a scan of the Op-Ed page, the obituaries, sports (for background pieces on the local teams), and the puzzles. The bulk of that 15 minutes would be spent on the crossword.

Let’s do the math. A lot’s been said about the deteriorating business model of print journalism, but let’s take a look at the value proposition made to the consumer. In my case, with the exception of the crossword, I can get everything online and I get it fresher with access to voices from all over the globe. (Online crosswords don’t do it for me, but some of the Facebook word games are downright addictive and make a fine substitute.) I’m down from spending about 30 minutes with the daily paper a decade ago to 15 minutes. Home delivery costs approximately $40/month. That’s not much, but it’s much more than what I pay for the sports package or the movie package on cable, and I spend far more time with Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sports Center. Netflix with Roku and PlayStation 3 access is only $20/month. Time spent and value received from broadband and 3G services are similar.

There’s not much news here. Every media consumer gets the math, and many took action long before me. Here’s the thing… I’m old-fashioned. I like reading the paper with my morning coffee and Corn Flakes. While many consider reading at the morning table rude, it’s somewhat more sociable than hunkering down behind a laptop screen, and you can share the paper much more easily than a laptop.

The newspapers counter that all that “free” content on the Web costs money to produce, and much of it is the product of the print team’s labors. Kill the newspaper and there’s no free online content. Agreed. So here’s my proposal. Rather than sell individual subscriptions to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, I would be happy to pay single monthly fee for all the news I consume online. That fee is shared proportionally among all the publishers whose sites I regularly visit. This could be added to my broadband bill or charged separately. The news outlets already know how much I’m willing to pay for decent journalism.

So why did I take action today? I’d like to say that something like anticipation of Apple’s tablet announcement was the spur. Or maybe the latest rev of the Kindle caught my eye. But it’s none of those. The driver delivering the paper has decided he no longer wants to deliver the paper to my door. He just tosses it on the driveway. Winters are cold here in New England, and I like my neighbors just enough not to subject them to the daily sight of me marching out for the paper in my PJs. It turns out that $40/month is exactly my limit – remove just one more feature from the offering and I’m gone. How many other newspaper subscribers are at that point?

Maybe now I’ll get through the Economist and the New Yorker every week while waiting on my tablet.

Catching the wave

Google Wave logo

A few weeks ago I received a Google Wave invite. Unlike Gmail, which I considered a must-have, I didn’t go beating down the doors of colleagues and peers in search of an invite. How much do I need another collaboration tool? Currently I use SharePoint (more on that later), Confluence (enterprise wiki), Twitter, Yammer, FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Skype. And let’s not forget the old standbys — email, list servers, web forums, SMS, and RSS. TechCrunch has a pretty evenhanded review of Google Wave.

The challenge of adopting a new communication platform is the chicken and the egg conundrum of Metcalf’s Law — the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users. Every time I asked someone about Wave, I pretty much received the same answer, “It looks really cool, but I don’t have an account and I’m not sure what I’d do with it.” One never knows with Google if the justification for the paucity of beta invites is due to infrastructure limitations or the desire to simply create hype through scarcity. A lot of people sitting on a technology not knowing what do do with it is far less desirable than having thousands of folks wanting to get their hands on it — not fully aware that they have no idea what to do with it. Get those early adopters who really want to figure it out using and talking about your technology and it will eventually come together. It’s worked for Google to great effect in the past.

Everyone wants better collaboration tools. In the media production space, Avid’s collaborative capabilities have been our differentiation for years from Media Composer to Unity to Interplay. So this is an area near and dear to my heart and paycheck. It behooves me to get to know Wave.

At the most cursory level, it’s possible to justify my initial skepticism about the value of Wave each time I log in. Of my 500+ Google contacts, only 12 (2.5%) have Wave accounts, and 25% of those I invited. But it’s become apparent that in the professional space Metcalf’s Law is only part of the formula for network valuations. Let’s use Twitter as an example. It’s such a massive network that the first thing a new user does is narrow the list of tweets he sees. It’s not just how many people are on the network, but how many people saying something worth hearing. It’s also about context. Sometimes I want to read tweets about video editing, sometimes I want to read about the Boston Red Sox. Rarely do I not have a preference. Twitter became much more valuable to me after it introduced lists. All the people who talk about media production in one list, sports fans in another, and family members in a third. Here is where Google excels — all its tools are great at filtering content. Wave is no exception, even in its embryonic state.

Getting back to that 2.5% of my contacts on Google Wave. While a dozen people do not a valid network make, I note that these people are all thought leaders in their space — my cousin the professor with the DBA, the director at Avid working on cloud computing and SaaS deployments, the executive director of AICE, faculty at USC. These are precisely the people who will create a network that I will value. Google’s onto something, again.

So here’s the challenge for would-be collaborators. Managing the Wave. Back in the 1990s Lotus was incredibly successful getting large enterprises to deploy Notes. Everyone could collaborate, and everyone did. Most installations were not well managed, and databases sprouted like mushrooms. In fact my first gig in IT consulting was working with a team at a Fortune 500 company to migrate thousands of databases into a single intranet. The project ran out of money before it ran out of Notes databases.

To quote Stan Lee: With great power comes great responsibility. Misuse of SharePoint has already begun infecting corporate knowledge management the way Notes did. Google Wave with its looser structure has exponentially more potential to wreak havoc. As the TechCrunch review notes, it’s imperative IT and knowledge management pros get ahead of this Wave, and third parties such as Avid build the right hooks into these platforms to make them useful instead of overwhelming.

Can Google save mobile carriers from themselves?

Last year when Sprint started offering mobile video, and again this past spring when Verizon launched V Cast, I had high hopes for mobile video. Just out of b-school I was brimming with ideas. Unfortunatelty most didn’t have a hope of getting off the ground because getting on the carriers’ closed networks would be too costly. Remember these are the same companies that charge $2.99 for a ring tone when you can buy the whole song for $0.99.

By the way, the ring tone business is one hack away from total elimination. While a greedy little content producer like me can be persuaded that buying a song from iTunes doesn’t entitle me to play a little bit of that song every time my phone rings, that’s going to be one tough ethical case to make to the Kazaa generation. Have at it carriers.

The poor mobile carriers seem to forget that they are a commodity. They supply a dumb pipe. Trying to add value to their networks with exclusive content (or services) is a fools errand. Any content worth making available to millions of Verizon customers is worth making available to millions of T-Mobile customers. Unless the carrier’s willing to pay through the nose for exclusive content, it won’t be exclusive and they will be forced once again to compete on price. If the carrier does pay through the nose, the customers aren’t going to pay enough for it to make it worthwhile.

Here’s one way of looking at it. Let’s say the NFL wants to sell the rights to game summaries to wireless customers. Now if any organization understands marketing, it’s the NFL. They know exactly how many people want that content. They probably have a reasonable assumption about how much those people would be willing to pay. And they are also smart enough to know that very, very few people are going to switch carriers on the basis of NFL highlight availability on a 2″ screen. This last point is lost on the carriers. It’s a phone, not a lifestyle enhancement device. Until every carrier offers great reception everywhere (and they are not even close to that benchmark) people are going to choose a service based on reception. Verizon owns me. Cingular has no signal in the Kingpin Interactive northeast regional headquarters complex. Neither does T-Mobile, and Sprint has a poor signal. So I’m stuck, and VZ could charge me almost anything it wanted.

So I don’t care if Cingular has the NFL exclusively. I’m not going anywhere. And the NFL knows this. It would charge an exclusive carrier enough to make up for all that lost revenue from people like me who have been indentured by carriers. That’s why there are no NFL highlights on mobile phones. It’s a shame. I’d love access to game highlights around the NFL when I’m sitting in Gillette stadium at half time or in the parking lot for an hour after the game. But that’s only eight times a year. The better business model would be to buy a la carte from the NFL. But the stupid carriers don’t get this. They could make money selling me bandwidth to get to the NFL, but they can’t make money selling me the NFL. (If the NFL could ever pull this off, it can use Gotuit’s nifty ITV technology to tag the highlights I want and save a limited number of them on my phone.)

So how is Google going to fix this? I was reading Charlene Li’s blog the other day. She had a Forrester colleague review Google’s local service on mobile phones. Charlie Golvin noted this:

While the carriers may bemoan the fact that Google is taking traffic from their own yellow pages and directory information services, in truth this is a very good thing for them. The familiar Google interface as a simple extension of the desktop experience will drive users to consume more data on their phones, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean revenue for carriers like Sprint who price data flat, it means that consumers are shifting their behavior from voice to voice and data — which is the most significant impediment to the adoption of other data services today.

It’s great when an analyst gets it.

If the carriers wise up and let the Googles of the world do what they do best, they can make a living with their dumb pipes. But if they continue to try to become media moguls, they will fail.

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