Archive for August, 2009

I Told Ya So

By , 31 August, 2009, No Comment

Virginia Heffernan’s column in the New York Times Magazine is one of the highlights of my weekend. It might be because she writes so wittily; it might be because I read the magazine on the treadmill and her column, which appears within the first ten pages, is often the last thing I read before I become too sweaty and tired to think straight.

But I digress.

Her column this week is about the Facebook Exodus, the impending backlash of users fleeing the site because they are frustrated with its increased busy-ness and diminished privacy. On the one hand, I think she nailed the trend. On the other hand, I’m a wee bit bitter since I’ve been saying as much on this blog and elsewhere for awhile, and I’m not alone.

What do you think? Can the Facebook bubble burst?

Apocalypse 30: Bellyaching in Britain

By , 30 August, 2009, 1 Comment

This past week saw the International Television Conference in Edinburgh, where various stars of British screen life pontificated on, what else, the future of media. The show stopper was a keynote lecture by James Murdoch where he railed against the BBC, Ofcom and government’s role in media more generally. His language was inflammatory and his politics insufferable, but I found myself agreeing with him about the economics of the emerging media model.

Here’s the core of his argument: we live in a world where there is no longer radio journalism and TV journalism and print journalism and web journalism, but simply journalism. Stories–whether told in words, pictures or sound–are all going to be transmitted the same way, as a combinations of 1s and 0s to be read on laptops and mobile phones. Murdoch calls this the “all-media market,” and the people who provide it “branded mediators.” Clumsy phrases, but they do the job.

On Ted

By , 27 August, 2009, 3 Comments

Ted Kennedy was hardly my favorite politician. I have always looked askance at the politics of personality epitomized by the Kennedy clan and now, also, by the Obamas. I usually roll my eyes with indifference over sex scandals. I am unswayed by electoral pitches based on personal morality or emotional connection. Most of the Kennedy obits have emphasized–as his positive qualities–his oratory and his personal loyalty; and–as his failings–alcoholism and violence. Some write-ups have been eloquent, some banal, but to me, they felt irrelevant.

What I did respect about Ted Kennedy was his effectiveness.

Conspiracy Theory Monday

By , 24 August, 2009, No Comment

While others were beaching it up, I spent my weekend poring over the responses from Apple, Google and AT&T; to the FCC over the iPhone-GoogleVoice snafu. AT&T; essentially repeated its earlier statement, with more umph—it takes no responsibility for what happened and says Apple was acting alone.

Apple tried to hedge it, first claiming that the GoogleVoice application hasn’t been rejected but is ‘still under review’ then listing reasons why it might deserve to be rejected. A host of tech commenters, led by Michael Arrington, called the first claim a bald-faced lie, and I’m inclined to agree. The FCC wouldn’t be investigating this if the application-rejection hadn’t provided the smoking gun. The FCC would not launch an investigation if Google’s complaint was simply that the process was just taking too long.

On the second point, however, I’m inclined to think Apple has a point. Not a legal case, to be sure (on legal grounds, I fully support them getting an FCC walloping), but a business one.

Notes from the Googleplex

By , 21 August, 2009, No Comment

I’ll admit, I feel a wee bit smug today. After musing about Google for many many months on this blog, I’ve managed to report out some of my ideas about data-as-a-commodity in a cover story for the UK’s New Statesman. If you’re going to read it, I suggest you also read WIRED’s take on the subject. I was less than floored by the WIRED piece, but I am curious as to how you think they compare.

Beyond the satisfaction of getting this analysis out there, I found this project fascinating, not least because I learned that Google’s PR officer reads this blog and follows tech reporters on Twitter. That’s PR101, of course, but it’s notable that Google, for all its exceptionalist rhetoric, works just like any other firm of its size.

Finally, because my colleagues were in London, I was in New York and Google was in California, this piece was reported, written and edited at odd hours of day and night, with snippets of text sent between us over a veritable menagerie of technologies. We each took raw notes in Word, then posted them to a shared Google Document (for the uninitiated, this is a service that allows you to host a document on the web so multiple authors can see it). We outlined and drafted the piece on Adobe’s BuzzWord (a similar service that also allows to share comments on the document), and sometimes used GChat (Google’s instant messaging service) to tweak individual sentences or paragraphs before updating the central file. Then we fine tuned it with our editors in old fashioned Word attachments.

In the process, I learned what each of these software programs is best for: GoogleDocs is great for sharing big chunks of raw text, but useless for organization. Adobe is the best for comments and in that sense, the best collaborative tool, but it’s Flash-based and unsuited to older computers.  Word is the easiest place to get a holistic picture of whatever you’re working on without getting sucked into the minute-by-minute changes.

None of these programs offers you everything you need. For most of the last ten days, I had Word, Google Mail/Chat, Google Docs, and BuzzWord open at once. Usually, I was on the phone too. The frenzy was a reminder that there are limits on the world-flattening capacity of computers. In the end, the best writing happened when we were on the phone with one another, writing each sentence together instead of dividing the work, and with one of us taking centralized control for typing. In other words, we wrote best when we slowed down instead of using technology to speed us up. A sobering thought for tech-evangelists.

Updated: Memes travel fast. The BBC ‘s Maggie Shiels makes similar points about BookSearch.

Belated Thoughts on the Dear Leader

By , 19 August, 2009, No Comment

I’ve been thinking for a few days that I wanted to say something about Bill Clinton’s 11th hour trip to North Korea to negotiate the release of two American journalists held hostage by Kim Jong Il’s honchos.

While everyone’s thrilled that the journos are back safe, there has been much handwringing about whether it was acceptable to have a former President meet with a brutal dictator who routinely calls for this country’s demise, to have the two sit for joint photos and a meal, and whether, as some sources said, Clinton had given any sort of ‘apology,’ on behalf of the United States for the two women having entered NK to begin with. (It seems like he gave some verbal apology but did not bring any message on behalf of the government).

Personally, my relief at seeing the two journos come home rather outweighed any cringe reaction I had to the photographs. Moreover, when it comes to the actual fact of Clinton’s going there and answering Il’s request for the backchannel, I was pleased. See, by throwing a tantrum that effectively said “I want attention from a popular ex-leader,” Kim Jong Il acknowledged that he wants access to things of value in the international community, ie the status conferred by a meeting with Bill, and that his power domestically is in some way contingent on having that access. That means he can be bought.

That is, in essence, what Hillary Clinton meant when she compared NK to a petulant child begging for attention and suggested that it needed to be dealt with forcefully. Granted, force is the opposite of what Bill brought them last week, but the point is this: a regime that wants something from the United States is one that can be bargained with. The purpose of force, if it needs to be used, or Hillary’s strong language, is to push that regime to the point where the price at which it can be bought in bargaining is something we can stomach. Dinner with an ex-President, especially if it keeps that ex-President out of other people’s bedrooms, is a perfectly fine price for me.

The FaceFeed Ponzi Scheme

By , 14 August, 2009, 1 Comment

So I’ve been a bit swamped this week with several projects I want to blog about soon. As I result, I missed out on the chance to join the wave of insta-hype surrounding Facebook’s big move to buy FriendFeed. Late to the party as I am, I have a few thoughts.

The conventional wisdom that has formed around the deal is that Facebook is trying to get through FriendFeed some of the ‘live’ features it now lacks and at which insurgent Twitter excels. In particular, as Jason Kincaid points out, FriendFeed shows at the top of a page the most recent items commented on, not just the most recent items posted.

To be honest, I’m not sure this is something I’d want to see on Facebook. Effectively, this would mean turning each comment into its own status update in the News Feed. Given that well over half of the updates in my News Feed are uninteresting or irrelevant (no offense, friends, but the photos of your lunch food are just not ‘news.’), the likelihood that I care what others have to say about them (‘Hey, that’s tasty-looking? Where did you get it?’) are slim-to-none.

The reason it is valuable to Facebook is because it wants to keep enticing corporate and brand users of the site–people who set up a FB to get fans, not friends–and those people are interested in having their updates go viral. Keeping them at the top of fans’ feeds for multiple days, a FriendFeed-style system would certainly help. (In Twitter’s system, every ‘retweet’ or reply to a post is treated as a separate post.)

Even if Twitter is better at this kind of broadcasting than Facebook, neither site has a method in place to monetize the free marketing it’s giving to companies yet. Twitter has no ads; Facebook has tons of them–often really annoying ones promising me services I can’t type on a PG-13 blog– but no profits. There are more users who ignore the ads that ones that click through and advertisers aren’t going to pay much for real estate on a page that delivers poor click-through results.

The promise social networks keep making to the venture capitalist backers is that one day, the profits from advertisers will come, so they should keep investing in growing the user base. The promise social networks make to advertisers, meanwhile, is that one day, an infinitely large user base will make their ad dollars worth it. This deal takes my skepticism to a new level: the VCs have been convinced to let Facebook, a money-loser, spend money to buy FriendFeed, another money-loser, in order to get those future users and future ad dollars that will pay back everyone on the chain.

In other words, social networks promise each audience–VCs and advertisers–future returns based on investment collected from the other group, and pay out returns to neither. Instead, they sustain and rollover those promises over multiple years, increasing the amount of money invested and the number of layers of investment over time. Last I checked, that strategy was called a Ponzi scheme.

Is Goldman Evil?

By , 7 August, 2009, 2 Comments

Some weeks ago, I read a mediocre rant about the alleged “evils” of Goldman Sachs. I rolled my eyes at yet another knee-jerk-populist, unproductive reaction to the recession. The next day at the gym, Chris Matthews had the author, Matt Taibbi, on, and began drooling all over him as some kind of investigative tour de force. The meme caught on. Not only has Taibbi been on TV nonstop, but friends who usually scrunch their noses in confusion at my business-journo world have been chatting me up constantly about the Goldman conspiracy and crediting Taibbi with discovering it. Allow me to correct the record.

According to Taibbi, Goldman Sachs deliberately inflates speculative bubbles by finding or manufacturing securities out of worthless assets and selling them to the public as secure; then they  get themselves out before it crashes; or, they rely on high-placed alumni to to save them. Moreover, they’ve done so in “every major market manipulation” of the last century. His case studies: The Great Depression, the DotCom Boom, the Housing Boom, the Commodities Boom (ie high gas prices), The Bailout, and (coming soon to a theater near you), Cap and Trade. This argument, which I’ve summarized in one paragraph, takes Taibbi  (get this!) 10,000 words. I’m going to explain why he’s a hack in 1/10 the space. Still a long post, for which I apologize.

Good News that Makes Me a Little Bit Mad

By , 2 August, 2009, 5 Comments

The FCC is investigating Apple’s decision to disable third-party iPhone apps that let users access Google Voice from their phones, and to reject Google’s own application providing the same service. At first, most tech commenters were eager to exonerate Apple by blaming it all on Big Bad AT&T;, who, as a telecom provider, obviously have a competitive reason to block any VOIP technology.

But as the FCC letter to AT&T; points out, AT&T; has no problem letting users access Google Voice over AT&T;’s network when they do it on a BlackBerry. As the FCC’s decision to send a letter to Google too highlights, there are legit fears of Google from Apple’s side as well: Google has its own phone, where it gets to engage in its own application cherry-picking.

Now Apple, who obviously don’t have anything approaching a monopoly on handsets, can’t be accused of monopolization (using market power to eliminate competitors) as Microsoft was a decade ago. AT&T;, if it turns out they were involved, could be accused of using market power over networks/connectivity that way. What Apple would be on the hook for is colluding with AT&T; in a way that bars competition. Even though it’s clear that banning Google Voice bars competition–ie VOIP competing with AT&T;’s network–it’s unclear to me whether that competition threatens Apple directly. Google, broadly, poses a threat to Apple, but this specific feature might not if it improves the appeal of the iPhone. I don’t know enough about the part of antitrust law that covers collusion (as opposed to the section covering monopolization) to know if the colluding company must be enhancing ITS OWN market power/eliminating ITS OWN competition to be guilty. Commenters, please help out?

On the whole, however, I’m glad the FCC is looking into it–that’s what antitrust regulators are for. What upsets me is that the regulators seem disproportionately inclined to take on cases of companies that upset consumers, where it’s clear how the man-on-the-street is negatively affected by the practice at hand. So because most consumers like Google, hate AT&T; and could care less about Apple, this case makes sense to the Feds.

Meanwhile, the Feds do not bite as often at companies who might be violating anti-trust law in a way that restricts the market at either a more abstract, or simply a less consumer-facing way. Consumers love Google and resent/mistrust the big names in paid content, so the Feds have, until this administration, overlooked the fact that behind the screens Google is establishing a sealed monopoly of online data that prices out whole sectors of content creation, whether that means new web-based news organizations or music, or book or film distribution channels, and impairs the monetization capacity of other sectors that might one day move online.

If the laws bar restrictions on competition (which they do), those laws need to be applied indiscriminately to all companies not only because that’s what rule of law means but also because the unchecked power of companies we like now may prevent the creation of companies we would like tomorrow.