Did the clouds just get darker?

Dark clouds over Bournemouth from freefoto.com

In February 2010 three Google executives were convicted of a privacy violation in an Italian court and received suspended prison sentences. The reason for the trial and conviction: they allowed people to upload a video to Google Video showing someone being bullied. It was two hours before the video was removed following complaints.

“It is like prosecuting the post office for hate mail that is sent in the post”

The BBC covers the story in more detail here.

The trial sets an interesting precedent and could have far-reaching consequences for social media and cloud computing services. In particular the costs to provide such services if content is supposed to be pre-screened and the viability for organisations to use them for business data. Will Internet Service Providers be held to the same level of account if an employee complains about data an organisation stores using online business services? China is not the only country with a government wielding local power to disrupt global Internet services. And although Italy is singled out in this example, Australia has been planning to introduce strict filtering controls that could restrict access to social networking sites. The UK is exploring how to prevent illegal downloads and considering blocking broadband access for those accused. The list goes on… Providers of online ‘cloud computing’ services will find more turbulence as they cross political borders.

References:

Image courtesy of freefoto.com licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

The value in Twitter

This is a post about Twitter. If you’ve never used or heard about Twitter, the Wikipedia page for Twitter will give you a brief introduction. Come back when you’ve read it. 🙂

I love Twitter. Twitter has introduced me to some great people and really demonstrates the value in weak connections. Strong connections inevitably create an echo chamber – if you are talking to the same people sharing the same interests and opinions, deja vu becomes familiar 🙂 I remember reading a Japanese quote once, went along the lines: “If more than two people are in agreement, at least one is not required.” Kind of makes sense. (I’ve got a feeling it was as harsh as: If two people are in agreement…) Weak ties broaden your horizons and connect you to a whole new group of people. Diversity thrives on weak connections. And diversity is great for challenging assumptions and generating new ideas.

People often ask if Twitter is just a simplified version of Instant Messaging. Nope. With Instant Messaging (IM), you have a list of contacts you can chat to. But to chat means to specifically start a conversation, to interrupt. With Twitter, you can talk at will, regardless of whether or not anyone is listening (simple tip: Tweet rubbish and nobody will). If people don’t want to be interrupted, they simply ignore Tweetsville. They don’t have to set their status to Busy or pretend to be Offline to avoid a conversation. To Tweet or not (and to follow or not) is entirely optional, for all sides of the conversation.

Instant Messaging (IM) is about strongly-connected networks. You start a conversation with someone who is on your contacts list or if you know their IM address. You can’t see other conversations unless you are specifically invited into them. There is no serendipity in IM. Twitter is about loosely-coupled networks. You can view every Tweet from every person with an open account (you can have a hidden one if you want). By default, you get see Tweets from people you choose to follow. It’s up to you if you want to respond. And up to others if they want to reply.

Whilst some users stick to the ‘What are you doing’ theme (and offer ‘too much information’ about their dietary habits – you know who you are, Marmite sandwich lamb), it can offer so much more – great for sharing links, one-liners, ad-hoc conversations and making announcements. And Twitter has one IM feature that is brilliant – the ability to send a direct message (but only to someone who is following you). Direct messages are also sent out as emails and text messages to mobile phones. Fantastic if you don’t have the mobile phone number and want to get in touch.

Not convinced? Here are some examples:

  • I spotted Guy Kawasaki‘s tweet and was able to review a draft copy of his upcoming book, sent comments via email and he gave me some start-up advice in return. Happy days.
  • Comcast spotted Mike Arrington‘s rants about his broken Internet connection and got in touch to sort it out. His rants turned into praise of equal volume. (He has 20,000 followers on Twitter. Most churches would dream of such participation.)
  • I muttered and moaned about Zoho in a Tweet. They responded on Twitter and Email within the hour.
  • Steve Clayton was asked a question he didn’t know the answer to (amazing, but true), a tweet for help and the answers flocked in
  • I saw Euan Semple tweeting to some chap called Sleepydog. I met said Sleepydog, aka Toby Moore, at a conference last week. We even Tweeted where we were sitting to organise a meet-up.
  • Loic Le Meur announced an early bird special for his LeWeb conference in December on Twitter… and then tweeted with updates about how many tickets were left. Would they have sold so quickly without Twitter?
  • I saw Euan Semple tweeting to some chap called Stephen Dale. Started following him. He saw me tweeting with Rob Gray whom he had also met. Rob introduced me to Stephen in London two weeks ago.
  • When a blogger was arrested in Egypt, he managed to send a quick SOS on Twitter (no time for anything else) and people who saw it helped get him released. His interpreter has not been so lucky
  • I hear about important news first on Twitter. Stuff that matters inevitably gets talked about by someone in the network. Even the BBC seems to Tweet about news before it appears on their 24-hour TV channel

By the way, all the above links lead to Twitter pages. If you’ve never visited Tweetsville before, you’ll need to create an account and login to view what they say. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Waste 5 minutes of time.

Just about any business could gain benefits from using Twitter. It taps into what seems to be an innate animal trait – the desire to communicate, instantly. To synchronise. (I had never looked at it this way until Ken Thompson’s brilliant session at the NLabs Social Networks conference). Anything that connects with our genetic make-up has value. And, alas, the potential to be exploited. Although that has yet to happen on Twitter (service is to damn unreliable!)

The challenge for Twitter is that I would never pay for the service. It’s a feature, not a platform. A lot of people have asked how can Twitter monetise it’s product. Getting users to pay for it is never going to be an option. (More so, whilst the service is still unreliable and prone to unexpected downtime.) Twitter is a messaging tool. People are no longer used to paying for messaging tools, whether it’s IM or email. The current forms of online advertising work in information-seeking environments, not human-seeking ones like communication tools and social networking sites. But Twitter has some serious value tied up in its rather clever feature. Analytics could discover patterns between conversations, links and networks…

Next stop: FriendFeed. And it’s a platform, not a feature…

Further reading:

Advanced Savers

I try to use trains a lot (even more so now, thanks to rising fuel prices) and there is one pattern in particular that really irritates me. Regardless of train operator, it appears all ticket collectors have been on the same ‘How to reduce your passenger levels’ training course.

The announcement overheard today went along the lines (the train was about to depart the station):

“If you have an Advanced Saver ticket, it must be for this train. The departure time will be printed on your ticket. If your ticket is for a different time it will not be valid. You will be required to purchase a new ticket for this journey if you choose to stay on the train.”

In other words, get off the damn train if you bought a cheap ticket and it wasn’t for this time.

Now, to be fair, the rules are pretty clear when you purchase Advanced Saver tickets. But here’s the irony. This train was the last one before rush hour started. There were all of 5 people in my carriage. Why oh why would the train operator want to throw people off an empty train? It creates the double-whammy of saving nothing (the reduced weight is unlikely to make a dent on the amount of fuel used to run the train) and potentially adding to over-crowding on the next train, exacerbated by a bunch of pissed off customers.

By all means, have the rule. But for goodness sake, allow the ticket collectors to use their brains. If the train is empty, turn a blind eye. Gently remind the passenger about the rules and make it clear that an exception can be made this time only because the train isn’t full. You have happy customers and more space available on the next train, which might be busier than yours. If the train is full, enforce the rule to the letter. That’s only fair to those who have paid for tickets specifically for this train.

I love what technology can do to make systems better. But oh so often, there are simple changes you can make to improve services, sales and profits. And they cost nothing at all.

Open versus closed disasters

The news coming in about the cyclone in Burma is terrible, with reports that the number of lives lost is likely to exceed 100,000. BBC News has coverage and links. David Weinberger has posted that donations may get to those who need them quicker if sent through International Burmese Monks Organization. See Donate to Burma.

What’s weird from an information and context perspective is how remote this disaster feels, compared to other events such as the Tsunami, Hurrican Katrina and Sept 11th. (A similar effect happend with the earthquake in Pakistan.) Is that because Burma is such a closed society, meaning there are very few first-hand on-the-spot-as-it-happens pictures and videos? Research has proven that people connect more when shown a specific story rather than massive (no matter how scary) statistics. The tsunami also occured in a region with strict controls. Perhaps having a tourist spot complete with Westerners and their camcorders helped.

If one good thing comes out of this disaster, maybe it can show the benefits of having open rather than closed societies. Let’s hope the Burmese military and government relax their grip and allow outsiders to help. Sad to write, the reports are not optimistic.

Search Ad value

A light-hearted post to start what seems to be the true (in terms of weather) first day of Spring here in Warwickshire, UK.

First, the context. Improving information findability (aka search) has been one of my key interests for the past 8 years. I still remember my induction day at Microsoft back in March 2000. During introductions, we all had to say what our browser home-page is set-to. The swats answered msn.com, the graduates – yahoo.com. Then I stood up and said ‘google.com’. Tumbleweed blowing in the wind. Few had even heard of it. Imagine doing the same today? Quickest way to secure a P45… 12 months later, whilst others were nursing hangovers from the party the night before, I multi-tasked and sat enthralled as Jonathan Kauffman explained the algorithms being introduced with SharePoint Portal Server 2001. The point of all this…

Working through year-end paperwork with my finance manager, a.k.a. my mom, at the weekend. I flourished a Google voucher before her, £30 to spend on adwords (received it in a magazine).

¨Pff, that won’t buy you much¨

Whaaaaatttttt? My blinkin’ mother is a Google expert. (She does the books for my brother’s business and it appears he is spending a fair bit more than £30 on Google ads). Then she asked me if I’d got my keywords set up correctly! 🙂 back on my turf at least and able to explain why keywords don’t really work anymore.

I still dont know what to do with the Google voucher. Business mostly comes via word of mouth and reputation with former employer…

Desperately seeking a new business model

(Side note: The challenge with writing blog posts on my mobile phone whilst travelling on a train is that I forget about them. Just discovered this one, written over a month ago and updated based on recent news. Oh, and for those of a certain age, hum the related Madonna tune to yourself whilst reading.)

‘A-ha’ moments tend to sneak up on you. It’s no shock to state that Google is top dog when it comes to searching the Internet. But the breadth of their services was made clear when helping to fix my mom’s computer. Opening the browser, I asked if she really wanted MSN as her home page. Not really was the answer. We established the sites she visited daily were: Gmail (email), BBC (news) and The Met Office (weather). I suggested we look at iGoogle.

Explaining how iGoogle worked showed just how far Google has come to dominate the information-seeking side of the Internet. Default gadgets on the iGoogle page included: Email (Google), News (Google), Maps (Google), Weather (Google) and Video (Google). Dropped in a second news gadget (BBC, some habits die hard) and ‘daily puzzle’ gadget.

Google is to information-seeking (still the current primary activity on the Internet, regardless of what the Web 2.0 crowd might say) what Microsoft was to the desktop computer in the 1990s. And when you’re the dominant player, you get first shot at taking control of the ‘next big thing’. That doesn’t mean you will be first. Highly unlikely given the next big thing usually involves disrupting the current big thing, i.e. your world. But, being the current top dog means you should have ample resources to retaliate, in round 1 at least.

When Netscape established itself as the first dominant browser for the Internet back in the mid-1990s, introducing a new world of working with information beyond the desktop, Microsoft didn’t exactly take it lying down. But that was just round 1. In the late-1990s, a couple of PhD students at Stanford tried hawking their shiny new PageRank algorithm, to no avail. The main Internet players didn’t believe there was any money to be made from search. And so Google was born.

What is/will be Google’s challenge? The two trends with the most potential to disrupt how we use the Internet are: mobile devices and social networks. New (and old) companies have already emerged as key players in both areas.

In the world of mobile devices, Google Android is going to face an uphill battle to challenge Apple’s iPhone, which has humiliated all previous efforts at making the Internet easy to access from a mobile device. But the mobile phone market is far far bigger than the target audience for the iPhone. Some of the best examples of adoption have been in developing countries, using mobile phones for activities as diverse as shepherds tracking goats, fisherman trading surplus stock and people not needing cash or credit cards to purchase goods. I’m not sure that Facebook has such a solid hold on the world of social networks. It’s a crowded playground that Google ought to be able to join through its Gmail estate. All the more so if Skype were to be bagged from eBay. The stickiest social networking sites seem to be those that also have an interface designed for mobile devices…

And we’re back to the good old Innovator’s Dilemma. In 1998, the assumption was that there was no money to be made from search, that controlled navigation (directories) better suited traditional forms of advertising – banners and friends. Google changed everything. Now, everyone wants to make money from social networks and the mobile Internet, using current advertising methods. And it isn’t working.

Online advertising works well with information-seeking activities. Social networks are not about information-seeking. They are about people-seeking and information-sharing. If advertising is to succeed on social networks, it needs to be in a different format, one suited to conversations and tribes. What can be done to encourage people to share the adverts? The mobile Internet is about information-seeking, but in a very different format to using a computer and traditional web-browser. Limited screen-size means all noise must be eliminated from a web site to make it usable. And adverts are part of the noise, no matter how concise they may be. People are unlikely to do online shopping from a mobile phone, the target for many adverts. But they are likely to have their mobile phone with them when they do real-world shopping. Add GPS to the mobile phone, and new possibilities arise. Currently, it is the mobile operators that have come up with profitable solutions. (Something Apple has recognised and leveraged with the iPhone.) I pay a much-increased monthly premium to T-Mobile in order to have an unlimited data plan. I typically use less than 20% of the included minutes/texts per month. Limited battery life and patchy network coverage ensure unlimited data doesn’t mean that much data. Along with a dearth of usable web sites…

The next Microsoft, Google, whatever will be the company that creates (intentionally or accidentally) a new business model that better fits with the new big thing than current business models that were designed for the current big thing.

Related posts:

Technorati tags: advertising; social networks; mobile Internet

Where is the value in paying for software

Two interesting articles that share a common theme – the expected value from buying software.

In The Future of Enterprise Software – I am so scared, I am so excited, Chris Balavessov writes about how Waste Management is suing SAP after purchasing a $100m system that failed to work as demonstrated. Apparently, SAP have already admitted the demonstration used to sell the software contained smoke-and-mirrors that were not part of what was being sold to Waste Management. It’s about time somebody questioned the value in some of these expensive deals. Countless organisations spend millions upon millions of dollars on ‘enterprise resource management’ and friends, only to still end up running the business out of spreadsheets. The closing comment from the article:

More so than ever, the time is coming for companies that build it right and do it right to prosper while the ones that exclusively focus on just selling it right and who-cares-what-happens-after-the-deal-closes to stare at a lacklustre or flat revenue curve. Because you really can’t fool all the people all the time.

Hear hear! Smoke-and-mirrors demonstrations wow customers into thinking certain aspects of technology are easier to set-up and use than they actually are. There is often little discussion about the hidden elements (often complex and often dependent on people and information) required to achieve what you see.

In an Interview with Donald Knuth, by Andrew Binstock, they discuss the benefits of open source programming. Whilst I don’t share Donald’s confidence about open source as a dominant business model in the future for writing software, I do agree with his take on how and when we will choose to pay for software:

I believe that open-source programs will begin to be completely dominant as the economy moves more and more from products towards services…Yet I think that a few programs, such as Adobe Photoshop, will always be superior… I’m quite willing to pay good money for really good software, if I believe that it has been produced by the best programmers

I think Apple’s iPhone is the latest example of when people will be more than happy to pay a premium for a product regardless of how cheap similar alternatives may be. Because Apple has established a brand and reputation around being ‘best of breed’ in terms of design and usability of their products. If you don’t want best-of-breed, then the preferred alternative usually sits at the opposite end of the scale – free products that deliver good-enough capabilities. To borrow a style from the old Creating Passionate Users blog, it’s the classic love/hate split where being in the middle = mediocrity = satisfying nobody and going nowhere.

Demand Curve

Regardless of cost, products need to either be very good or just good enough. People will happily jump from free to expensive (and vice versa) when the conditions are right. They rarely move linearly through the range of options. Expensive doesn’t guarantee being very good but we anticipate that cheaper means lower quality. Being average and cheap is not a successful strategy in a market where good enough is available for free. Ditto for being expensive and failing to deliver.

Technorati tag: Software Economics