Poor Paul Allen only has $15-billion

Paul Kedrosky has posted an item about an article on Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in Bloomberg Markets, a magazine published by the financial data company, and as usual Paul has pulled out one of the most jaw-dropping facts from the multi-page article – and no, it’s not the part about Paul Allen’s 413-foot boat with the two helipads. It’s the part about how much the billionaire’s net worth has declined since he pulled away from Microsoft in 2000 and started diversifying his investments.

According to the Bloomberg piece (pdf link), Allen’s investment portfolio – the bulk of which was made up of shares in Microsoft – was worth $30-billion when he started selling his stake in the software giant and buying cable companies and sports teams and other investments. In 2003, his net worth had dropped below $13-billion. And if he had simply hung onto his stock in Microsoft and not sold? It would be worth about $78-billion, by Bloomberg’s estimates. I’ll wait while you pick your jaw up.

Obviously, $15-billion or whatever Paul Allen has now is more than enough to keep one man happy, not to mention enough to afford a sprawling “compound” near Bill’s that is worth about $130-million and a boat that cost about $200-million. Does he sit around and rue the fact that he could be worth $78-billion? That’s a question I don’t feel qualified – let alone able – to answer. But the Bloomberg article does talk about how he (along with his sister, who helps manage his investments) has started trying to prune some of his bad bets and make some more boring, financially-successful bets instead, on things like pipelines.

And why did he decide to sell off more than half his stake in Microsoft? Did he just want to diversify, or was there more to it than that? For what it’s worth, longtime PBS tech columnist Robert X. Cringely (real name: Mark Stephens) said recently that he heard from highly-placed sources that Allen started pulling away from the software company he co-founded not long after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma – and hearing Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer talking about how to get his shares back if he were to die. True? Who knows. But Allen has paid the price for that decision (along with some bad investment choices) even if he still has billions of dollars left.

Boot Camp a step, but not the holy grail

It occurred to me as I read all the other reactions – pro and con – to Apple’s Boot Camp announcement that I hadn’t written here about my reaction to it (assuming anyone really cares), which is a little odd considering that the desire to boot both Apple’s OS X and Windows is something I’ve blogged about before. I guess I was so busy writing about the news for the Globe and Mail’s dead-tree edition (the story is here) that I never got around to blogging it.

The bottom line is that I think Boot Camp is a good thing, and an interesting step for Apple to take, but it’s mostly interesting for what it implies about the future rather than what it means right now. In many ways, it’s a natural extension of the move to Intel chips, which coincidentally was also one of those things many people (including me) said was probably just a wild rumour and would never happen. When it comes to booting Windows on Intel Macs, right up until the announcement of Boot Camp most people seemed to think that doing so would be something only determined hackers would be able to achieve. Now anyone can do it, as Paul Thurrott and others including Walt Mossberg have described.

Will people want to do it? Sure they will. I might even give it a shot just to see how it works (Alec says he might too). But let’s face it – rebooting all the time is a major pain in the ass. I do it from time to time to switch from Windows to Linux, but it still bugs me because you have to shut everything down and you can’t move or copy things from one session to another. Like many people, I think the dual-boot option is just a step on the road to true “virtualization,” which will use better software tools and new processors to allow operating system to run side by side seamlessly – at the moment, running things like VMWare and VirtualPC gives you a kind of slowed-down version of the OS you can only use for non-processor intensive applications (in other words, no games).

The real question, of course, is what the long-term strategic implications of the move are. Is Apple planning – as people like Robert X. Cringely argue – to allow anyone to run Mac OS on any old PC eventually? This debate seems to have degenerated into a question of whether Cringley (whose real name is Mark Stephens) is an idiot or not, but for me the issue is what Apple sees as its core business. Is selling the OS its core business, or is the OS just a tool for winning converts to Apple hardware?

For what it’s worth, I think that Apple makes a lot more money from hardware than software, and would be happy to trade smaller sales (or less growth) in the Mac OS for a larger proportion of PC hardware sales – and a better chance of pushing its hardware sales into the living room and home-theatre direction. Kind of like Sony used to be, I guess, except better.

Yes, this really is about work – honest

You might think that this post isn’t really work-related, since it involves pictures of my recent vacation in Florida, and therefore it shouldn’t appear on a blog whose name includes the word “work” – but you would be wrong. Here’s my excuse: I’ve played around a bit with Albert Lai’s cool photo-sharing service Bubbleshare.com, but never integrated a gallery into my blog, and this seemed like a great opportunity (incidentally, Albert will be appearing on a panel at the conference Mark Evans, Stuart MacDonald, Rob Hyndman and Mike McDerment and I are organizing in May).

As Mike Arrington of TechCrunch and others have pointed out, there has been a proliferation of photo-sharing sites over the past year or so (including Smugmug.com, whose “lightbox” effect is quite cool), but one of the things that makes Bubbleshare a little different from Flickr – which I also use and love, and have integrated into my other blog at photos.mathewingram.com – is that it makes it dead simple to create and share albums. It also has some cool Ajaxy interface stuff, including the Mac-like ability to resize photo thumbnails on the fly using a slider.

Anyway, enough work talk. Here are the photos – all of which were taken on a beautiful white-sand beach on Siesta Key, near Sarasota, with an HP Photosmart H817 5 megapixel (and no, this blog isn’t going to turn into a daily dose of imagery, which in any case I highly recommend if you enjoy good photography).

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Sandi Thom – not an Internet success story?

I posted a short link the other day – one of my “items that might grow up into blog posts” – about a Scottish singer named Sandi Thom, who decided to just play in her apartment and stream it over the Web instead of touring in an old broken-down van, and how she got 100,000 viewers and was then signed to a multimillion-dollar contract with RCA. Now it turns out that that great story reported by CNN and others may not be quite as clear-cut as it seemed at first.

The first inkling that this might not be quite so incredible a tale came when an old contact from years ago sent an email about it. Adrian du Plessis was a sort of freelance securities investigator when I dealt with him back in the late 1990s, when I was writing about the stock market for the Globe and Mail – he helped dig up some of the more salacious stock scams involving the then-Vancouver Stock Exchange, which was notorious for mining and penny-stock frauds. Anyway, somehow over the intervening years he had gotten into the music business, and he said there was more to the Sandi Thom story. As he put it:

“Contrary to the PR spin, Sandi Thom is an example of old-school PR/marketing dressed up as a viral campaign. Thom is at the centre of a well-conceived and realized marketing campaign, which has used traditional news media (newspapers, radio, tv) to create interest online. And, it’s been spun as happening the other way around. It’s a fascinating study, and, very much like a stock promotion!”

So I looked around on the Web a bit, and came across a post on the music blog Chartreuse, which gave a little more detail (which also apparently came from Adrian). Apparently, Sandi Thom signed a contract with a music publisher last year — a company called Windswept/Pacific Music, which has contracts with artists such as Beyonce Knowles and The Who. And traffic stats from Alexa seem to show that Sandi’s site started to get more traffic around the time press releases and news articles appeared about her playing in her apartment, not before. No signs of her getting 100,000 viewers, in other words.

There are also comments on Chartreuse from the publishing company that indicate Sandi Thom had already been approached by a record label after singing at a regular gig, and that she had already recorded a solo album, as well as being offered the chance to record with other prominent artists – before she started the “playing in my apartment” thing.

Is that fraud? Hardly. Good marketing? Maybe – but still kind of depressing, in a way. There’s more on Adrian’s new blog.

Podcasting numbers are no surprise

Rex Hammock, who writes over at rexblog.com, is a pretty sharp guy. Amid all the discussion of the report from Forrester about the uptake for podcasting – which Forrester analyst Charlene Li wrote about on her blog – there is plenty of sound and fury, signifying little. Some are outraged that podcasting is being dismissed so easily, with just 1 per cent of people saying they download or listen to podcasts.

Don Dodge says podcasts are too slow for someone who likes to consume information at high speed (I would have to agree). Others say podcasting is a fad that has already come and gone, and is only for geeks, as my friend Scott Karp argues. In a way, Scott is right. Podcasting is pretty much just for geeks – for now.

And even some geeks haven’t quite been bitten by the bug yet – I’m as geeky as anyone, and I’ve only downloaded and listened to a few, in part because there aren’t that many times in my day when I can listen to them. But I have listened to some great ones, including ones from Amber MacArthur and from Leo Laporte and the This Week in Tech crew. They have been as good as – and in most cases much better than – anything I hear on the radio.

And here’s where Rex comes in: He points out that new technologies – or rather observers of them – suffer from “macro-myopia” (a term he got from Paul Saffo), in which their short-term effects are wildly overestimated and their long-term effects are wildly underestimated. The telephone is a great example: many early forecasters assumed it would be used as a kind of broadcast device. Alexander Graham Bell himself said he could never see business being conducted using such a device (he also thought “Ahoy! Ahoy!” was the best way to answer).

As Rex puts it:

“Today, just 18 months into the era of podcasting, a Forrester research report suggesting that only 1% of people actually listen to podcasts is being treated as if such statistics mean something. They mean absolutely nothing.”

He goes on to say that it is more than likely that there will be a “bust” of financial expectations related to podcasting, but that this will also mean little. I would have to agree. Podcasting as a term has always seemed like more of a fad to me than something long term – but that doesn’t mean downloadable audio of all kinds isn’t a phenomenon that could threaten radio, just as Rocketboom and YouTube raise issues for TV (Mark Cuban has some thoughts on that topic, not surprisingly).

Are they going to kill traditional media? Not in 18 months, no. But they are sure as hell going to shake things up, and 10 years from now things will likely look substantially different. As usual, Good Morning Silicon Valley has the best headline on their post: “Podcasting is huge, it’s just the audience that’s tiny.”

Thoughts from YouTube’s Chad Hurley

Mark Glaser over at the PBS blog MediaShift has posted an email exchange he recently had with Chad Hurley, one of the young Web 2.0 guns behind the massively popular YouTube, which just raised $8-million in a financing round led by Sequoia Capital. Not bad for a company that didn’t even exist a year ago, and has now become the go-to guy for viral video like the Lazy Sunday clip from SNL.

Interestingly enough, last time I looked at tech.memeorandum.com there was plenty of commentary about YouTube’s financial windfall, and plenty of posts about the legal minefield the company is wading through – with networks (including the one that runs SNL) asking it to remove copyrighted content, and so on – but hardly anyone had picked up on Mark’s interview with one of the guys who runs the joint.

And what he has to say is very illuminating. Will YouTube.com flame out and become just another Web 2.0 bubble exhibit? Perhaps. But Chad seems to have his head where the action is – in fact, he sounds a lot like my new friend Jeff Pulver, who was talking excitedly about micro-content and video over IP at VON Canada. Says Chad:

“Our vision is to build the next-generation platform for serving media worldwide. It is the birth of a new clip culture. There is a complete shift happening in digital media entertainment and users are now in control of what they watch and when they watch it. At YouTube, we are seeing an evolution of entertainment and media distribution รขโ‚ฌโ€ where the audience is now in control more than ever.”

I said it about Napster and Morpheus and Kazaa, and I’ll say it about YouTube – all those executives with the lawsuits and the cease and/or desist orders should spend a little more money trying to figure out how to use YouTube and a little less money filing writs with the court. Chad is right and they are wrong. It’s as simple as that. (Bonus feature: For some clues about what YouTube might be able to offer as a premium service, check the comments on Mark’s post).

Should journalists be human beings?

Scott Rosenberg over at Salon has an interesting post, which I came across after reading his post about Apple and Boot Camp (for the record, he’s not interested). It seems a producer on Good Morning America named John Green was fired after Matt Drudge posted some emails he sent around at work during the 2004 presidential debates. Apparently, ABC didn’t like the looks of this and asked him to stay home for a month. He reportedly also made mildly derogatory comments about Madeleine Albright. As Scott puts it:

“John Green had the temerity, the gall, the poor form, not just to have an opinion but to share it in an email message. Really, the guy shouldn’t just be suspended, he should be drummed out of the journalism profession without a hearing. Revoke his credentials (whatever they are)! Let’s make sure all the editors, reporters, producers and correspondents out there never have opinions.”

Scott’s point is that reporters and producers (and yes, even the odd editor) are people too, and therefore have emotions and may occasionally express them. Was it wise to put his thoughts in an email? Probably not. But any journalist who has worked in a newsroom for more than five minutes – and yes, that includes NPR – will have heard much, much worse. Seriously. It would curl your hair. As Scott notes:

“At some point we will need to give up and simply accept that journalists and editors are human beings, and human beings have points of view, and it’s better to know those biases than to pretend they don’t exist.”

An excellent point. And Marvin Kalb of Harvard’s Center on the Media and Public Policy (or whatever the heck it’s called) had a nice observation in the NYT story:

“A reporter, a producer, an editor ought to be able to sound off with a personal opinion now and again, without it becoming news,” said Mr. Kalb, a former reporter for NBC and CBS News. “At this rate, we may end up only being able to confide to our wives, under the covers, late at night. And that’s very sad.”

mesh: get it while it’s hot

After much tweaking and twisting, shaping and brain-storming, the schedule for our conference in Toronto in May is finally out of beta and available at meshconference.com. Like my fellow organizers Rob and Mark and Stuart and Mike, I am incredibly charged up about the speakers we have been able to attract to talk about blogs and Web 2.0 and all the implications of “citizen media” or the “social Web” or whatever you want to call it. Are bloggers journalists? Is podcasting the future of broadcast? Can wikis help level the political playing field? Those are some of the questions we’ll be chewing on.

In addition to the speakers that have been on the meshconference.com site since we went live with it – such as Om Malik, Steve Rubel, Tara Hunt, Dr. Paul Kedrosky, Stowe Boyd, Amber MacArthur, Dr. Michael Geist and Jason Fried – we have Rick Segal, Albert Lai of Bubbleshare.com, Jeremy Wright of b5media, Debbie Weil, and Ed “Captain’s Quarters” Morrisey on the political side, sparring with Andrew Coyne, Paul Wells and Warren Kinsella.

Check out the full schedule at www.meshconference.com – we hope it will be two of the most interesting and hopefully insightful days of Web 2.0 discussion to come along in awhile.

Phil thinks the blogosphere has peaked

One of the things I mentioned in my “items that might grow up to be blog posts” post from last night was an entry by Phil Sim of Squash about how the tech blogosphere has “peaked.” Phil, who is a bit of a curmudgeon at times – not that there’s anything wrong with that – says he’s noticed that tech.memeorandum.com is boring now, everyone is writing about the same old crap, the site’s Alexa traffic is down, and so on. The capper for Phil is that Gabe has branched out into baseball with a sports-themed version of memeo.

Gabe and Paul Montgomery of Tinfinger.com raise a number of points in the comments to Phil’s post, including the fact that Alexa’s rankings aren’t the best guide when it comes to traffic, and also that more “memetrackers” have entered the field, including Megite.com and TailRank.com. But Phil’s point seems to be larger than just that. As my friend Rob Hyndman says here, Phil seems more concerned about the idea that this slump might be part of a cyclical decline in the blogosphere, with many bloggers coming up to their two-year anniversary (in fact, plenty of them are coming up to their fourth, but who’s counting).

Phil says he found in journalism that two years was the longest you could write about something without getting bored and stale. I’d like to run that idea by someone like Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal, who’s been writing about tech for substantially longer than that and still seems pretty interested, but let’s leave that for a moment. I’ve also been writing about technology and business off and on for more than a decade now, and I don’t find it any more boring, or have any less interest in it – if anything, I find I have more interest now as a result of things like Web 2.o.

Apart from the Alexa data problem, I think Phil is confusing a normal human phenomenon with a cyclical downturn in the tech blogosphere. It’s possible that some bloggers who have been doing it for years may be feeling burnt out, and others may feel that it’s time to move on to other things – and others may be working on their own Web 2.0 projects, the way Rob and Mark and I have been working on mesh (as I pointed out to my friend Kent Newsome when he wondered whether I was losing interest in blogging).

Blogging is writing, and it’s a conversation too – and both of those things have a natural ebb and flow to them. Writing is hard (at least good writing is) and some days are better than others. And some conversations are better than others. Phil himself has wondered in the past whether it isn’t too much for one person to do consistently. I told him then that I thought maybe he was getting too caught up in the traffic thing and needed to refocus. Why are we blogging? That’s the most important thing. If it’s for traffic or attention, then that will inevitably wane – if it is from passion or desire for conversation, then I think that can endure a lot longer. Everyone has to choose.

Items that might grow up to be blog posts

Lots of people in the blogosphere post tidbits or smaller items when they either don’t have time for a longer post or they have too many things they’d like to write about. Fred Wilson does it, Kottke pretty much invented it (of course, I expect Dave Winer to take issue with me here), and Steve Rubel is pretty good at it too. So I figure what the hell – I know a good thing when I see one.

In that spirit, here’s a few things I came across recently:

  • An analyst says Google is close to launching a downloadable music store to compete with iTunes. Mark Stahlman of Caris & Co. says “The music industry is broadly unhappy with the fixed pricing and lack of subscription options at the market-leading iTunes Music Store and likely to support alternative services.” I would say that’s a no-brainer.
  • Bloomberg notes that Microsoft has signed a deal for 500,000 Windows-powered handsets for the U.S. Census Bureau, its biggest contract ever and a jab at handheld leader (and Canuck success story/legal punching bag) Research In Motion. Death knell for RIM? Hardly. More of a shot across the bow.
  • Google Real Estate launches, with a search powered by both Google Maps and Google Base. When Base first came out, many people (including yours truly) wondered what the heck it was for. Well, this is part of the answer (and autos too perhaps). My friend Stuart says travel could be next.
  • Singer Sandi Thom of London, England has been signed to a record contract with RCA based on the strength of her Internet shows, which she recorded and broadcast from her living room to an audience of more than 100,000. She was approached by several labels.
  • Not much new in the Washington Post piece about traffic on the Internet being driven by blogs and social networks such as Myspace.com, but a nice quote: “The growth in blogging reminds us the Internet is fulfilling its original promise about participation,” said Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications Inc. “This medium empowers users in such a way that they can do what they want and be heard.”
  • Phil Sim of Squash has a great, long rant about how the tech blogosphere is imploding, the whole thing is over, tech.memeorandum.com is going tits up, turn out the lights, etc. Of course, he is likely wrong, as several people (including Gabe of memeo and Paul Montgomery of Tinfinger.com) point out in the comments, but it’s a great rant nevertheless.
  • A University of Connecticut physics professor says he is building a time-travel device, and expects that time travel (of a sort) could be possible within 10 years.