What’s the big deal with Yahoo and RSS?

As TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington was one of the first to report, Yahoo is integrating RSS feeds into its new Ajax-powered Yahoo Mail (which is based in large part on Oddpost, the webmail company Yahoo acquired last year) and into its My Yahoo news and email alerts. There’s no question that this is a good thing — the more traction RSS gets, the better it will work. And as Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web points out, the fact that Yahoo is doing it across its various offerings is a way of “bringing RSS to the masses.”

But is it a good way? Maybe so. Some people sure seem to like the idea, including Charlene Li of Forrester Research, who says it’s just what she’s been waiting for. Even the often grumpy Dave Winer says that Yahoo has “hit a home run.” Michael Parekh seems to like the move as well, although Steve Rubel of Micropersuasion says it still has a few kinks that need to be worked out. Scott Gatz really likes it a lot, but then he works for Yahoo.

I must admit that I’m a little non-plussed by all the cheering (as is Paul Kedrosky)– and it’s not just because I didn’t get an invite to Yahoo’s beta test. Yes, it’s good to have RSS spread far and wide, but it’s not like Yahoo just drank the Kool-Aid on that subject — RSS feeds have been available as part of My Yahoo for at least a year or so, and all the company has really done is incorporate what Oddpost had into its new email service. It doesn’t even have any really cool features as far as I can see. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t feel any particular need to have RSS incorporated into my email — I’d rather use a standlone Web-based reader like Bloglines.com or netvibes.com.


Russell Beattie is a little over-excited about the whole thing — “insanely excited” is how he puts it — but I must admit he has a point when he says the most interesting thing about the announcement is the part that no one paid much attention to (including me), which is RSS alerts via SMS. News alerts from any blog or RSS feed to your phone, in other words. Now that has potential — and not just for RSS feed spam.

Online classifieds become a battleground

Online-classified service Craigslist.com is extremely popular, with close to 9 million unique visitors in September according to some estimates. So how much is it worth? (figuring out how much various Web services are worth seems to have become a new sport).

Based on Om Malik’s rough rule of thumb from recent deals for companies such as MySpace.com and Weblogs Inc., which he said produced an average value of $38 (U.S.) per unique monthly visitor, Craigslist would be worth about $330-million (by way of comparison, that’s about 16.5 times the company’s revenue, which is higher than the range that Jason Calacanis thinks is reasonable for an online property, but a lot less than the almost 70 times revenue eBay agreed to pay for Skype, based on the $4.1-billion price tag).

The value of Craigslist might be about to go down, however, as the online classified game heats up. There’s Google Base, for example, which admittedly is rather confusing to use and therefore perhaps less of a threat (or more, depending on who you believe). And then there’s a little company whose name begins with “Micro” and ends in “soft.” The behemoth from Redmond is rumoured to be launching a new online-classified style service codenamed “Fremont,” according to various sources, including TechCrunch.

Ask Google for a diagnosis

Plenty has been written — both pro and con — about using Google as a source of medical information. People with rare diseases or those who have been ignored by the medical system have found it useful as a way of dealing with their symptoms and of finding others with the same disease. Doctors, meanwhile, find that they get bombarded by inane questions from hypochondriacs who use the Web to convince themselves they have some life-threatening disorder, and others warn that people who turn to the internet for help can often wind up with inaccurate information.

Venture capitalist and polymath Paul Kedrosky, however, points us to another emerging phenomenon — doctors and other health-care professionals using Google to help make a difficult diagnosis. He links to a letter from the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, in which the author describes how a medical researcher typed a list of symptoms and descriptions from a biopsy report — on a child with a skin ailment — into Google and arrived at the correct diagnosis, which was then confirmed by DNA testing. It’s true that the Web is filled with a lot of mis-information, hoaxes and hype — but the right answer is often in there too somewhere.

Can TiVo change its stripes?

Personal video recorder company TiVo Inc. said Monday that it plans to roll out a new feature that will allow users to choose certain commercials, based on keywords, and then have them inserted into TV shows that they have recorded with their TiVo (Dave Zatz has a description of how this would work, taken from a patent application by TiVo).

That might sound a little odd considering one of the main benefits of having a TiVo is that you can fast-forward through the commercials, but it’s obvious that the PVR company is trying to find new revenue sources and is willing to consider just about anything. This new feature sounds a lot like an attempt to create a kind of Google AdWords model, but with TV instead of the Internet.

Is that even possible? Carl Howe, a former Forrester Research consultant, says he thinks it is “a brilliant idea,” — the Googlization of TiVo, he calls it (he goes even further to say that he sees Google buying TiVo because of the information it will be able to collect based on its new advertising model). Others disagree.

Om Malik, for example, notes that paying users of TiVo — who are already paying for something that others can get for virtually nothing through the PVR offered by their cable company — might be less than enamoured with the new service. AdWords works for Google because its main service is not only free, but is so useful that people don’t mind having ads served to them, not to mention the fact that the act of searching is more closely aligned with targeted ads than, say, the act of watching CSI:Miami.

Stephen Baker of BusinessWeek is also skeptical, as is Cynthia Brumfield from IPDemocracy. And I would have to say I am too — TiVo’s move seems more like a Hail Mary pass by a struggling company than anything else.

Flickr vs. Webshots

Thomas Hawk, a Flickr fan who writes a technology blog at thomashawk.com, recently linked to an interesting post by Norwegian engineer and blogger Eirik Solheim, who compared Flickr — the former Vancouver-based photo site that is now part of the Yahoo empire — with Webshots, a photo site that is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

A chart mapping the traffic patterns from both sites (courtesy of Alexa.com) is quite instructive, in that Webshots has been going steadily downward in terms of “daily reach” while Flickr has been going steadily upwards. Flickr is about to pass Webshots, and the site hasn’t even been in existence for two years.

As both Thomas and Eirik note, this is likely because Flickr is a much better example of a “Web 2.0” service. In other words, it does a better job of taking advantage of the interactive Web. It is easy to use, it has a simple interface with not a lot of cluttered advertising, and it emphasizes community through the use of tags, groups, comments, contacts and so on — not to mention RSS feeds for everything and an open API. A lesson to be learned, and not just for photo sites.


Narendra Rocherolle, one of the founders of Webshots, has taken issue with the Web 2.0-style comparison between that company and Flickr for a number of reasons, including the fact that he says Photobucket is also growing just as quickly as Flickr and is not a Web 2.0 company. Leaving aside the “what is Web 2.0” question, I would argue that Photobucket is growing because it also encourages sharing (or distributing), just in a different way than Flickr — and both do so in ways that Webshots doesn’t. That is the important point, I think.

Update 2:

A story from Associated Press makes a similar point about Mapquest, although you have to read between the lines. Mapquest is the most popular map site, but is facing increasing competition from Google — in part because of features such as satellite images (which Mapquest used to have, but got rid of because it didn’t think they were useful) but also because it doesn’t have an open API. That means if you want to do “mash-ups” like beerhunter.ca you have to use Google, and I would argue that is a crucial difference — not just in useability, but in the way the two companies are structured — and that in turn ultimately affects how attractive the service is.

Wired editor says RSS rules

Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson — also the author of a book on the so-called “long-tail” phenomenon — has an interesting post on his blog, in which he notes that he spends most of his time reading the 150 blogs he subscribes to, and only reads something in a mainstream media outlet if a blog he is reading links to one. “If there’s something relevant to my interests in the Wall Street Journal, the daily NYT or some other news site, I assume one of the blogs I read will point me to it,” he says.

That could cause a sort of echo-chamber type of problem, of course (what if those other blog writers don’t read any mainstream media outlets either?). In any case, Chris says he reads blogs because they add something to the regular news or idea flow, in one of three ways: they add value with “a unique perspective or analysis,” they add it with unique information, or they add value by “providing a unique filter/lens on content available elsewhere,” (which sounds a little like number one).

As he points out, this is not just a smart strategy for blogs, “it’s a smart strategy for any content creator in an era where the tools of production and distribution are fully democratized and the marketplace is flooded with commodity competition.” I couldn’t agree more. And that applies in spades to newspapers and magazines, media formats that have been dying a slow death for the past 20 years, long before the Internet became a phenomenon. All the Web has done is to make the process more obvious, and speed up the rate of decay.

The reason Chris likes blogs is because they filter the news in all sorts of interesting ways, giving you dozens of different viewpoints — like having a newspaper edited by a whole pile of different people, instead of just one or two. And it gives it to you in “micro-chunks,” as VC Fred Wilson calls them. That’s appealing in all kinds of ways — ways that a newspaper isn’t.

Blog ads’ mainstream appeal

If you happen to run into a newspaper editor or publisher and they look a little dazed, or seem to be frantically checking over their shoulders, they have good reason — the interactive Web and specifically Web advertising (which grew by about 34 per cent last quarter) are creeping up on them with ever-increasing speed. If you want to rub it in, just show them an article that ran in the New York Times this week, all about a major advertising campaign that Budget Rent-A-Car ran — something that would normally have appeared in a newspaper.

And where did it appear instead? On about 177 blogs, including Gizmodo.com and Buzzmachine.com. The guy in charge of the campaign, Scott Deaver, said that what is “most valuable about nontraditional media like blogs is their ability to ‘actively engage the consumer’ compared with ‘passive TV spots’ and other traditional choices.” Plus, the Budget campaign cost about $20,000 — which wouldn’t buy you much in either a newspaper or on television. Budget chose the blogs by searching Technorati.com for blogs that got a lot of traffic and were updated regularly.

Blogs: shallow and egotistical?

Nicholas Carr of roughtype.com — the guy who wrote a critical and much-cited post earlier this year about the amorality of Web 2.0 — is up to his old skeptical tricks again in a recent post entitled “Jellybeans for breakfast.”

In it, he writes about how blogosphere proponents like to think of what they are doing as a deep, Socratic dialogue on issues — but Nick says that “experiencing the blogosphere feels a lot like intellectual hydroplaning – skimming along the surface of many ideas, rarely going deep. It’s impressionistic, not contemplative. Fun? Sure. Invigorating? Absolutely. Socratic? I’m not convinced. Preferable to the old world? It’s nice to think so.”

He goes on to say that “for all the self-important talk about social networks, couldn’t a case be made that the blogosphere, and the internet in general, is basically an anti-social place, a fantasy of community crowded with isolated egos pretending to connect? Sometimes, it seems like we’re all climbing up into our own little treehouses and eating jellybeans for breakfast.” Agree or disagree? I can see Nick’s point — and it’s true that blogging can sometimes deteriorate into a clubby exercise in mutual back-patting, about issues of interest to small group of geeks.

I would have to agree with some of the comments on his post, however (including one from Seth Finkelstein), which argue that many readers of the MSM (mainstream media) have just as shallow a relationship with what they are reading. At least blogs encourage discussion. It’s up to us to ensure that the discussion is worthwhile.

Is downloading theft?

While browsing my RSS feeds using the Ajax-y goodness of netvibes, I came across a post made by Toronto-based venture capitalist Rick Segal, who is a partner with J.L. Albright Ventures — a VC group that has investments in Q9 Networks, Nuvo Networks and FUN Technologies (which just sold control to Liberty Media for $195-million). The post was a response to one from Fred Wilson, another VC based in New York City, who was writing about peer-to-peer networks and the music industry and how the two should get together in the interest of serving customers such as himself.

Rick took Fred to task for saying that he had no problem with downloading music if he couldn’t find it somewhere legally, and said this made him a lost customer rather than a thief. Rick said this was disingenuous, however, and used this metaphor: “The clerk went in the back room, I couldn’t wait so I took the candy bar but if the guy had been at the counter I would have gladly paid for it. Extreme example? Yes, but it is to make the point. Let’s just call it what it is.” In other words: theft.

But is Rick right? I don’t think so — and the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with me. In a ruling in 1985, they specifically said that copyright infringement is not the same as theft because the “thief” does not “assume physical control over copyright, nor does he wholly deprive its owner of its use.” In other words, the candy-bar example — not to mention the entire concept of music “piracy” — tries to take legal concepts that pertain to physical objects and apply them to creative works that have no physical attributes, in the sense that they cannot be “taken” the way a candy bar can be taken.

In the case of someone like Fred downloading music, the only loss that can be shown (and then only theoretically) is the loss of a potential customer. Some copyright experts have even argued that downloading should fall under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, the same way listening to the radio does. In any case, I would have to disagree with Rick and argue that Fred is right to say he is more of a lost customer than a thief. A copyright infringer, perhaps, but not a thief.

Hey look — we’re winning! Honest!

There’s a story on the Associated Press wire about an agreement reached between the Motion Picture Association of America and BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen — and after reading about three sentences it becomes obvious that the primary intent of this “agreement” and the press release is to show that the MPAA is winning in its fight against on-line “piracy,” as they like to call it. All Bram has agreed to do is not let people search for copyrighted works using the search function at bittorrent.com — but that’s not how 99 per cent of people find content (copyrighted or otherwise) to download with BitTorrent anyway. This agreement either shows a complete misunderstanding of how BitTorrent works, or a desire on the part of the MPAA to make the crackdown look like it’s working, on the assumption that few people will know how it works, or care. Nice try.


BoingBoing.net has a link to a piece in Variety that explains it well, and makes it clear that this is part of a larger potential deal with the MPAA in which movie studios would use a modified version of BitTorrent to let users download movies on demand. Darknet has some skeptical (and largely true) comments about the abilities of mainstream journalists to describe things accurately. And Xeni Jardin has a nice piece on the topic in Wired magazine. Om Malik has also weighed in, and raises the question of whether becoming legit (or trying to look as though it is) will hurt BitTorrent.