Get in shape!

Jean Sini, Reshaping your business with Web 2.0A few days ago, a weighty package was delivered in the mail. Picking it up, I was briefly reminded I had skipped the gym, again, that week. This isn’t a post about how rarely I get to exercise, though.

The box was from McGraw-Hill, and in it came twelve copies of Reshaping your business with web 2.0. Now, I’m an enthusiastic reader, but twelve copies are more than what I usually get when buying books: this one is the culmination of a year of work, in collaboration with fellow co-authors Vince Casarez, Billy Cripe and Philipp Weckerle. Yes, we wrote a book! In September 2007, we embarked on the following mission: define, dissect, and qualify the applicability of the recent innovations, permeating the consumer web today, to the more structured and rarefied world of the enterprise.

We wanted to bridge and relate the two environments, and show how the tools, the behaviors, and the culture of two-way participation, of collaboration omnipresent in the evolving consumer web could benefit companies hoping to foster productivity, to tighten the social fabric of their organizations, and to share information more efficiently.

Having developed an addiction for wikis, blogs, social networks and mash-ups ever since the early days of web 2.0, to the point of starting a company focusing on social annotations and ambient blog context augmentation, I felt tickled by the challenge of recasting the practices and technologies powering the web at large to address the specific needs of the enterprise, and I couldn’t have dreamt of better partners than Vince, Billy and Philipp, all from Oracle, to do it: they kept things real every step of the way, and I found the combination of our respective view-points most fruitful in coming up with actionable recommendations for CIOs and corporate IT decision makers.

About those twelve copies: I’m giving them away, on a first come first serve basis. Just ask (and promise you’ll write a review, good or bad, of the book on Amazon) and you can have yours now, even ahead of the official release date on October 2.

Speaking of official release, we’re scheduled to talk at Oracle Open World in San Francisco, on Wednesday September 24, at 1:00pm. Book signing right afterwards: come get your signed copy. Exciting!

Apple and AT&T: for better or worse

iphoneLet’s start with a confession: my current phone belongs in a museum. The sheer sight of it has been eliciting laughs from my friends for years, and I have an inkling they’ve been laughing at me, not with me. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when they simultaneously took pity and the bull by the horns last week. My birthday was the long awaited excuse they needed to help me ditch the offending piece of hardware, and finally upgrade. And what better handset than an iPhone 3G to migrate to? You know the drill: after the initial denial phase, I reluctantly accepted that I had a phone problem, and eventually agreed that the solution was to enter the new millennium and become the proud owner of one of the shiny, trendy marvels. Resistance, after all, is futile: however conflicted I am about being manipulated into it by marketing geniuses, I do lust after the gadget like any geek out there. So I mourned the imminent retirement of my trusty Sony Ericsson T616 for an appropriate few more days, and learned to look at it as inadequate, in spite of its having survived more than its share of salt water immersions, falls, and overall careless treatment.

After calling in to check on availability, I finally made my way to the nearest Apple store, credit card and driver license in hand, ready for the fateful transaction. Why is it, then, that the same old Sony Ericsson phone, albeit newly undesirable, is still in shameful constant use?

Before I get started, let’s give credit where it’s due. I came across two posts this morning that prompted me to write: first, today’s New York Times ran a story on Comcast paying attention to customers griping on their blogs about the notoriously bad service they receive from the company. I hope someone at Apple or AT&T finds my rant, and improves the experience of purchasing a phone the next time around! I hear the initial launch, last year, went much better. Second, I read Ben’s post, where he set the stage nicely yesterday with an account of his own trip to the Apple store. He scored one of the prized devices, at least, whereas I didn’t. Here’s what went down.

I had a frustratingly similar experience to his attempting, and ultimately failing, to purchase the iPhone 3G on Tuesday, the 22nd of July. That’s well past the July 11th launch date, and the commotion, understandable on that day, isn’t as easily explained away two weeks later.

The fun began by waiting in line for an hour at the Palo Alto Apple store. The line was deceivingly short, but moved extremely slowly. When I eventually got to the front and entered the store with a sigh of relief, I learned from the employee helping me that the ten of them assigned to selling and activating iPhones at the time had managed to complete all of ten activations in that same hour! In fairness, having read as much coverage about the launch as the next guy, I knew to expect a modest pace. What I didn’t expect was that I’d go home empty ended.

The purchase experience culminated in failure when, as the Apple employee was getting errors from her PDA (ironically, a Windows Mobile Symbol device) setting me up, I ended up having to call the dreaded 611 (AT&T’s customer service) on my own cell phone. I initially tried to piece together from the AT&T agent what was causing the errors, but quickly handed the phone over to the Apple employee, hoping their shared expertise would get us all over the hurdle. She proceeded to spend another 30 fruitless minutes with the AT&T rep at the other end of the line, to no avail.

What broke down? I had checked the online eligibility tool on AT&T’s web site, so walked in confidently: I was the perfect candidate for a heavily subsidized handset. Or so I thought. It turns out I am what they call a Blue customer (or is it Orange?) and not an Orange one (or is it Blue?). Ah, fatal mistake. What on Earth does that mean, you might ask? To me, nothing: it was the first time I heard of the color scheme. But to Apple and AT&T, it seemed like a deal breaker. It appears that the cryptic codename designates me as someone who’s been silly enough to stick with the same carrier, through repeated acquisitions and mergers, for way too long.

If you think loyalty is something to be rewarded, think again: I was told my plan was “no longer supported since 2005”, in spite of its working perfectly well, to this day, for both voice and data, and costing me a hefty sum every month that AT&T seems glad to charge. No problem, just upgrade me, right? Wrong. Neither Apple nor AT&T was able to do so and activate the iPhone. I tried to plea, reverse-engineer the quirks of that black-box of a system, and bend the rules to get to the finish line: no luck.

The only option offered was to drive to an AT&T store, start again from scratch, and buy the phone there, assuming AT&T even had the phone in stock. Needless to say, the prospect of waiting another hour in line anywhere killed any haste I had about impulse-acquiring the mobile phone. I have recharged the old one (it goes for days on one charge!) and am now prepared to wait patiently for inventories to build up at the AT&T store near my place. The revolution will hit me when it hits me.

I certainly blame myself for having foolishly broken my rule of never waiting in line for a gadget and wasted the time! Neither Apple nor AT&T seemed to think any of this was their responsibility, and each politely pointed their finger at the other. I think, though, that their partnership works like a marriage: together for better or worse. Especially after a couple of weeks, they should have ironed these kinds of kinks out, and I am not inclined to cut any more slack to one party than the other when they leave a presumably sizable chunk of their customers (the blue ones? the orange ones?) stranded.

My kite board is famous

Susi Mai, Jean Sini, Plinsi KiteboardThat’s a start, I guess. The funniest thing happened last month while I was at Mai Tai Kite Camp ’08, the fantastic event put together by Bill Tai and Susi Mai. We were chatting at dinner, when I mentioned to Tom Court that I had a great board built while on a summer kiting trip to Cabarete a few years back.

I was going on and on, about how I loved the board, about its extraordinary ability to ride upwind (it’s a super compact 115cm yet heads upwind better than most 135cm boards I have ridden), about how great it pops during jumps and about its durability (yes, I have come in close proximity with my share of sand and rock). He interrupted me and asked whether the shaper was, by any chance, German. He was. After a few more questions, Tom figured out that I had unknowingly bought a board shaped by Susi’s dad, no less. We quickly produced the board and confirmed its origin with Susi: unmistakable. Here’s what Bill had to say after carefully scrutinizing the board:

I was looking at it, and it is one of the few I’ve seen that have a true concave bottom. Susi’s and yours are sculpted, the entire board has the curve, not just the bottom surface. At speed, the rail of the board itself acts like a fin and gives you a lot of stability and upwindedness. Susi was placing in course racing with that twin tip against others on surfboard directionals. Quite amazing.

The good news: I have been using the board exclusively for three years; it’s absolutely fantastic. The bad news: all this time I thought it was me getting better, and now I have to come to terms with the fact it was mostly in the gear. Oh well, more time on the water is in order. The best part: if you want one of those, drop me a line in the comments or email and I’ll try to put you in touch.

Fluid dynamics

Wait, don’t leave just yet! And don’t go dust off the old physics textbooks either. I did spend some time kite-boarding this weekend, and a refresher on aerodynamics wouldn’t have hurt, but I have a different kind of flow in mind right now: on Sunday morning, venture capitalist Fred Wilson posted his thoughts on the raging discussion around data portability. His insight? Data flow, rather than data itself, is the truly valuable currency on social networks, the one that competitors like Facebook and Google’s Friend Connect are mercilessly fighting over. He goes on to demonstrate how his kids literally depend on the many event streams going through Facebook to keep their social life in check.

Somehow this prompted me to reflect on what I perceive as a growing acceleration and fragmentation, dare I say balkanization, of influence in social media.

Here’s the thing: blogs, some ten years ago, gave an accessible conversation dissemination platform to anyone with a voice, thus creating the opportunity for more informal circles of trust and influence to evolve, beyond mainstream media, around specific topics. That was then. What we’re witnessing in 2008 is the rise of a new crop of services, from now old school Twitter to aggregators like FriendFeed, that help further tear down the barriers to entry for contribution, and push ever further the micro-chunking phenomenon.

What does that mean in terms of influence? The fragmentation bit is obvious: increasingly, memes propagate across the social mesh rather than simply across mainstream or even topic-centric publications. When republishing and aggregating services appear, they allow for the explicit consumption of vetted information and content along friend graphs. Acceleration follows: the ability to send link love rippling around those same graphs is only a click away. There are other meaningful consequences when it comes to influence. In particular, as meme velocity increases, so is meme mutation rate: ideas flowing through the social ecosystem are appropriated, augmented, altered with each reformulation – depending on where you stand, this is the true beauty of the medium, or instead the kink in an imperfect replication scheme.

For anyone in the business of surfacing influence, this translates into a clear opportunity: the ability to sense and react on the spot to emerging trends in the medium, and capture meme momentum across a broadened range of vectors, leads to unprecedented targeting options. In particular, I tend to be more optimistic on this than Matt Maroon: in a recent post on the shortcomings of ad plays on social networks, he contends that Facebook will always lag Google in terms of engagement. I agree, but only to a point: I see massive room for improvement past the current ads we see there, untargeted for the most part beyond primitive demographics. While the notion of engagement on social sites is more akin to flash mobs forming and dissipating rapidly, than to continued focus on a stable topic, engagement does happen. For instance, around events organized and propagated through the mesh. Such events exhibit many of the traits of influence I just discussed, from velocity to topic-centricity to friend-based vetting. If we’re quick enough to catch it, there’s definite engagement happening at those edges.

Cross-posted on the Buzz blog.

I’m sold!

Going OnceWe’re moving. It’s a good thing we love the food at the restaurants around South Park, though, because we’re likely to remain daily visitors there: we’re only traveling a couple of blocks. But there’s more: unlike the food, a lot else is going to change in the move.

Here’s the short, Twitter-friendly version: we’ve just been acquired by Buzzlogic. We’ve been talking to the team there for over six months: they rock. So I’m totally excited, elated, ecstatic, thrilled, stoked, and psyched about the deal. Did I mention I was excited?

A longer version follows, and you can also get more details about the news from the usual suspects.

I started Activeweave with Marc back in 2005. We built two products, BlogRovR and Stickis. Ever since, we’ve been focusing all our energy on building technology that would delight our users and help them as they go about their busy lives online. We’ve been working on doing one thing well: making it easy for you to stay informed in the face of ever growing quantities of content (some signal, some noise) fighting for your attention.

BlogRovR in particular has resonated with close to 200,000 of you, faithfully fetching posts relevant to the page you are visiting, from the bloggers you choose, and bringing them right into the browser as you go, for just-in-time context. BlogRovR connects readers and bloggers anywhere on the web where they have something of interest to say to each other. For a reader, it means seeing what your favorite bloggers have to say anywhere you surf, and for a blogger it gets your message to your readers beyond your blog or their feed reader, everywhere on the web where you have something to say.

We do this with an on-the-fly, personalized, contextual search. We’re nerds. But we don’t mind that others have thought this a mouthful and called us Techmeme on steroids, the Muhammad Ali of feed readers, or web 3.0 today instead.

We met the folks at Buzzlogic a while back and hit it off: they’ve been preoccupied with the blogosphere as well, working on technology to map conversations in a fine-grained fashion, tracking influence, and allowing their customers to better target their research and advertising. We saw the right synergies, we saw complementary business models, and we saw a great team in action.

We also saw a novel business opportunity. Buzzlogic is using an analysis of the blogosphere similar to ours to help advertisers identify its most influential regions, on which to message potential customers. Buzzlogic calls this conversation tracking. Both their current technologies and the directions in which they’re taking them align well with what we’ve done and the kinds of products we’ve been building. The more we talked about possible collaborations, the more areas of overlap emerged. It soon became clear that our technology could help inform Buzzlogic’s influence tracking, and that we would also be able to contribute personally to their future.

So, we’re moving onto even wider challenges from the ones we’ve been facing: Jean will become the Chief Technology Officer at Buzzlogic, and Marc will become Senior Vice President of Product.

The last two and a half years have been a wild ride. I remember reading on someone’s blog (where else?) only weeks before launching the company, that being an entrepreneur requires a hefty dose of irrationality: one has to find a way to brush off the countless near-catastrophic failures, the endless doubts, the crazy daily grind, and the reality of doing everything on half a shoestring, in order to thrive instead on the rare breakthrough, or the occasional unsolicited friendly message from a happy user. Indeed, we experienced all of this first hand. But as Winston Churchill put it: success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

There have been innumerable of you who’ve helped us along the way, and we can only really name a few by name. Many have helped with ideas, enthusiasm, exposure, and guidance. We’re particularly grateful to our investors, who’ve supported us financially and who’ve continued to believe in us throughout. Special shout-outs to Eric Di Benedetto, our lead investor and board member, and Esther Dyson, a key investor and advisor.

BlogRovR isn’t going away. If anything, it’ll benefit from the improvements we keep making to the underlying technology, from the talent at Buzzlogic, and from their mighty hardware too.

Just as importantly, we remain committed to respecting our users’ privacy: we’ve been clear all along about what value we deliver as you browse, and we’ve been equally clear about how we use the data we come in contact with in the process of delivering that value: we only use it anonymously and in the aggregate. We don’t store individual click-streams, and instead derive aggregate attention metrics based how you interact with RovR.

Cross-posted to the Activeweave blog.

Free: so good it hurts

Gift EconomyMike over at Techcrunch lashed out at Billy Bragg for whining, in a New York Times op-ed, about the doomed, sorry state of business for digitally distributed music. I agree that Bragg shouldn’t hold his breath for any of Bebo’s cash, and that whining isn’t going to help solve anything. But man, is Mike tough on those artists.

What’s one difference between Techcrunch and some music artist, aside from the obvious that Mike probably (hey, I might be wrong there, who knows) wouldn’t make a great living playing the guitar, while any random musician likely has little understanding of the inner workings of the Valley startup scene?

Here’s one: one the one hand, Mike and the gang get to focus on building the value of the Techcrunch property, and then enjoy the very same economies of scale he denies the artist, through unbounded distribution at little marginal cost (bandwidth). In Mike’s case, distribution is fueled by the quality of the content, spreads via the viral pathways of the blogosphere we all like to call link love, aided if need be by aggregators like Techmeme.

So Mike’s striking gold, because he gets ad impressions and prospers more or less proportionally to traffic at the site. He certainly prospers unfettered by the fixed cost of publishing Techcrunch. Great!

Yet I wouldn’t get too cocky about it: it’s not like he came up with the business model or anything. He just happens to sit at a juncture where it’s been enabled and trail-blazed for a while. Great timing, it affords him the chance to focus on content.

On the other hand I see angst-ridden artists, driven to a state of quasi-panic by the impending doom of the model they had assumed regimented their industry, for the reason Mike highlights: costless distribution, ultimately leading to the drying up of any distribution-related revenue stream. It gets worse for artists: no one is putting up with ads around the medium. All we can offer them, right now, is to hop on a bus and tour the country: concert time, baby.

Aside from Bragg’s unlikely claim to Bebo’s stash, I think it all boils down to the not-so-surprising, frightened reaction of artists as the tectonic plates shift under their feet, with no new model in sight, aside from the clearly less scalable concert and t-shirt angle. At the very least, it’s understandable they should exhibit symptoms from the growing pains of being forced into evolving a business brain, instead of focusing on creating great content, in their case making music.

So a bunch of musicians are probably feeling, right now, like kids whose favorite toy has just taken a bad fall from the table and is irremediably broken: they’re going to try hard and put the thing back together, in spite of the foregone conclusion, until they land a new toy.

I wouldn’t throw stones: the ad-supported blogosphere is our collective glass house; if all of Mike’s readers, one way or another, ad-blocked away his income source, he’d be scrambling to find a new business model too.

I brought this up in a conversation with Mike in the comments to his post. His answer: we need to deal with reality. Correct. Whether we want to or not, we all deal in reality here so, clearly, his suggestion of moving back to digging holes if your business model falls apart is always an option.

But I still think we’re missing the bigger picture, the bigger point: why feel so smug about beating up on the artists? They’re one of many canaries in the coal mine. Nick Carr, unsurprisingly, is quick to draw the parallels with the exploitation he repeatedly spots and denounces as sharecropping in the content generated by users in social networks. And commenters to Mike’s post eloquently point out that the software industry exhibits the very same costless distribution traits currently driving artists to panic. Software is on a commoditization and collision path with the same fate, and I think blogging is far from immune. Free economy all around, indeed.

What we need is a new set of business models. No time for whining, but no time for belittling the insecure artist either.

Music is only one of many instances of the collectively self-imposed and fashionable trend toward canceling the gains in productivity that economies of scale have afforded many industries until now. In Carr’s words: we’re operating under the cloud of neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy.

So while we can wait until we’re in the same tight spot as artists, and only deal with the problem then, why delay? The underlying issues are at least partially common, and solutions revolve around coming up with new, scalable models for the digital age, not around going back to an artisan model where you can only earn income from performing live, being paid by the word for your articles or by the hour for your software.

Fred Wilson, constructive as always, focuses on just that: solutions. At least in the case of music, he reminds us that royalties based on streaming make a lot of sense, and suggests what we need is infrastructure making it easy to pay for content as we go. I like that it ties right back into the simple notion, too often depicted as obsolete, that paying for stuff we consume makes sense. Until the day we truly find ourselves living in a world of abundance, it feels about right.

Photo: for a girl called zaza, by jek in the box; Creative Commons license: Attribution, Non commercial, No Derivative Works.

2008: We’re a Webware 100 finalist!

Great news on the BlogRovR front: we have been nominated as a finalist, in the browsing category, for the 2008 edition of CNET’s Webware 100. Yes, we’re up against some serious competitors: Firefox, Google Reader, Internet Explorer to name only a few. Given that we are a browser add-on to Firefox and IE, and have worked to integrate tightly with Google Reader, the last thing I think of these guys as is competition. But heck, who could ask for better company? The good news: this year, you all get 3 votes in each category, so even the little guys (that’d be us in case you’re wondering who’s the underdog between BlogRovR and, say, Adobe AIR) can get some of your love!