Janus Friis turns into Janus Friisky

Friis.jpgI know that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Web 2.0 or anything like that — apart from possibly illustrating how a guy who used to help people download copyright-infringing music files can become a Hollywood-sized celebrity, complete with airborne scandal — but I couldn’t help noticing that Janus Friis of Skype and Joost fame was discovered recently trying to join the Mile-High Club with his paramour, Christina Knudsen, step-daughter of Bond actor Roger Moore. The ever-tactful and tasteful Nick Carr refers to this as Mr. Friis trying to start a new “peer-to-peer network” with Ms. Knudsen, a line I wish I had come up with. Blogger Pat Phelan, meanwhile, notes that the pair might have consummated their relationship but flight attendants stopped them Joost in time. (hat tip to Luca Filigheddu). Incidentally, the Great Dane’s real name appears to be Janus Friis Degnbol, at least according to the recent statement of settlement in the Kazaa lawsuit (pdf link).

Is Digg the future or just a feature?

No matter how you slice it, getting to a million registered users is a pretty impressive achievement for Digg, a service that Kevin Rose and Jay Adelson and a couple of others started as a lark after TechTV shut down and Kevin was looking for something to do. It may be true that the million number has a lot of holes in it, as some of <a href="http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/03/07/digg-hits-1-million-registered-users/#comments“>the commenters over at TechCrunch have pointed out — multiple accounts, etc. — but still impressive nonetheless.

kevin rose.jpg A year ago, Digg had about 200,000 registered users, which means the user base has increased five-fold since then. Some of that could be a result of Digg’s branching out into topics other than just technology, but I still get the impression that the vast majority of what gets submitted to Digg — and certainly what makes it to the front page — is technology-related (I haven’t seen any data, that’s just a hunch). And Pete Cashmore at Mashable takes issue with the one million number too, in a post entitled “Kevin Rose Fan Club Signs Up One Millionth Member.” Louis Gray has some other numbers from other Web 2.0-type services, including StumbleUpon and delicious, both of which have over a million registered users.

The question in my mind is: how much bigger can Digg possibly grow? Could it get to two million users? Maybe. StumbleUpon.com is getting close to that. Could it get to five million or 10 million? I’m not so sure — especially if it continues to be mainly focused on technology, and the user community continues to be dominated by a particular type of fanboy/nerd/hoodlum personality the site has become notorious for fostering. Frantic Industries has a good post about Digg and the million mark here.

I think Digg-style features make sense for all kinds of sites, including things like Dell’s IdeaStorm. But whether the site itself is destined to get much bigger remains an open question. What do you think?

Can Sony get anything right?

After many rumours, Sony has launched an online “virtual world” called PlayStation Home to go along with the somewhat underwhelming PlayStation 3 game console. And while there are plenty of raves out there about how super-cool it is, and what a Second Life “killer” it is, colour me skeptical.

PlayStation home.jpgIs it fair for Pete Cashmore at Mashable to say that Sony’s virtual world — which no one has even really used yet — “crushes” Second Life with a “superior platform?” I’m not so sure. I have a lot of respect for Pete, but I don’t see what’s so superior about Sony’s platform exactly. Yes, it sounds like users can share music using PlayStation Home, and perhaps even video as well, and those are things that would make Second Life pretty useful as well. But Sony’s effort still sounds kind of sterile to me. It sort of looks like a really nicely designed shopping mall where you can only buy things from one company.

Others have noticed the same thing — that Sony appears to want to control everything, as usual. Ian Betteridge picked out the same paragraph in Gizmodo’s description to focus on that caught my eye, where it says:

“It doesn’t seem to have an economy in it like Second Life, as far as we saw, so all your money will be sent to Sony when you purchase arcade games, furniture, and more clothing for your avatar.”

That sounds great, doesn’t it? And a blogger who writes at Rebang goes into more detail about the lack of user input that PlayStation Home allows. He says of Sony:

“If they imagine the future of online worlds is lording over a closed-wall kingdom where commoners seek audience and approval from their overlord, they’re badly out of touch in my opinion.”

Unfortunately, the fact that Sony might be out of touch — or might create something that attempts to lock users into a “roach motel” model (albeit a very nice-looking one) shouldn’t really come as any big surprise. As for the likelihood of success, Tony Hung has a great phrase in his post at Deep Jive Interests, calling it “charming, desperate and futile.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Further reading:

Anastasia Goodstein at YPulse doesn’t see Sony’s new online venture as a Second Life killer either, but the company gets some props from Jeff Nolan at Venture Chronicles.

Music is barenaked — of DRM

The Barenaked Ladies may be known for their whimsical pop songs, but the group is dead serious about the evils of “digital rights management” — the copy-protection standard used by Microsoft, iTunes and other online music stores to control their content. Not only has singer Steven Page spoken out on the issue, but the band was also one of the founding members of the Canadian Music Creators’ Coalition (CMCC), a group that is trying to counter the lobbying by large foreign record companies when it comes to copyright legislation.

amiestreetlogo.jpgThe Ladies are also one of the bands that has put their music online free of any DRM controls, and has even allowed fans to take different tracks and “mash” them up into their own creations. And now the new album from the Barenaked Ladies is available from an online service called Amie Street, according to TechCrunch, thanks to a deal with the Ladies’ record label, Nettwerk Music Group. Ars Technica has more on Amie Street here.

Amie Street has a somewhat unusual approach to the online music business: instead of charging a single price for its song downloads, the way that iTunes and others do, the service starts by offering new music (none of which has digital rights management controls) for free, and then gradually increases the price based on how popular the song is — to a maximum of 98 cents per track.

Amie Street keeps 30 per cent of the revenue, and the rest goes to the band or their label. Members can also earn revenue by recommending a song that goes on to become popular. According to a previous feature from TechCrunch, the service launched last summer and was founded by three students from Providence, Rhode Island. But will a pricing system that is based on demand work for music? George Scriban of Global Nerdy is skeptical.


Although the Barenaked Ladies’ songs started at free, they shot up to the maximum price of 98 cents relatively quickly, thanks to the publicity surrounding the service. The songs were available starting on Tuesday, March 6 and by the next day they had been listened to more than 14,000 times.

Grazr gets $1.5-million financing

Not sure whether to call this an exclusive, but it might be as I type this: my email friend Adam Green just let me know that Grazr.com — the embeddable feed-browser app — just closed a $1.5-million round of financing from two angel investors, and has added the legendary Dan Bricklin, creator of VisiCalc, to its board. There are more details on Adam’s blog.

In a nutshell, Adam says the lead investors are Bruce Twickler and Louis Page, Boston-area angels. Both have worked with him in a previous lifetime, back when Adam was the chief technology officer at Andover.net. That company, which rose to prominence during the late 1990s as a portal for Linux-related news and content and eventually acquired Slashdot and went public, raising $72-million or so, was itself acquired by VA Linux in 2000 for a little over $1-billion, and Adam took a break and went to Harvard to get a Master’s degree in Science (he’s got a bio here.) Then he got interested in feeds and helped start up Grazr with Michael Kowalchik. TechCrunch had a pretty favourable piece about Grazr last fall, written by Marshall Kirkpatrick.

Grazr is a mini-feed browser, which displays an OPML file — essentially just a list of feeds — in a small, configurable window, like the one I’ve embedded in this post. You can browse through the list using the controls on either side of the window, and the newer version of the app allows you to plug any URL or OPML file into an address bar. I have one in my sidebar as a kind of interactive blogroll, and Ian Delaney does a similar thing at Twopointouch.

In a sense, Grazr is a little like Bitty Browser, but specifically for RSS feeds. And the company says that it has plenty of things in the pipeline to add to the app, including ways of monetizing it through corporate co-branding, etc. Best of luck to Adam and the rest of the team at Grazr.

Microsoft does video deal with AP

This could be a pretty big deal: Beet.tv is reporting an exclusive — that Microsoft has signed a deal with Associated Press, the giant wire service, to “develop an online video platform for thousands of U.S. newspapers, television and radio stations to upload, publish and monetize locally-created video.”

AP video.jpgThe Beet report says that the system is in trial with about 30 newspaper publishers and broadcasters including The Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle and the Rocky Mountain News, and the program is expected to go live in about a month. This is reportedly an extension of the Online Video Network, which the software company and the wire service set up about a year ago to distribute Associated Press video to about 1,600 member websites (including the Globe and Mail, where I work).

The new system is aimed at the 7,000 newspapers, TV and radio stations that belong to AP, who will be able to create their own content locally — either by staff or through user-generated content initiatives — and then upload it and generate revenue from it. Beet.tv says that for the 1,000 TV stations that belong to AP, “the opportunity to publish and monetize video is immediate.”

Microsoft takes a cheap shot at Google

When giving a speech to a particular interest group, it’s not uncommon for a speaker to take a stand that is sympathetic to that group, but Microsoft lawyer Tom Rubin seems to go a little overboard in a speech he was to give today the Association of American Publishers. In effect, Rubin paints Google as the enemy of publishing — and in fact of copyright in general — because of the way it scans books for the Google Print project.

google-print.pngIn prepared remarks that the Financial Times and the New York Times have written about today, Rubin lumps Google in with companies that:

“create no content of their own, and make money solely on the back of other people’s content, [and] are raking in billions through advertising and initial public offerings.”

This is almost a word-for-word transcription of the argument that gets trotted out by everyone from the World Newspaper Association to the Belgian agency Copiepresse — which “won” its recent Quixotic case against Google for the heinous crime of driving traffic to its websites (more on that here) — and of course book publishers as well. “Look at all the money Google makes by linking to our content,” this argument goes. “We should get some of that.” One publisher actually made the idiotic comment that Google’s scanning is the same as saying “it’s OK to break into my house because you’re going to clean my kitchen.”

Rubin also says in his prepared remarks that Google:

“systematically violates copyright, deprives authors and publishers of an important avenue for monetising their works and, in doing so, undermines incentives to create.”

While Google is evil personified, of course, Microsoft is the book publisher’s friend. Why? Because Microsoft asks permission before it scans a book and Google does not. To publishers and other content owners, this is tantamount to theft — even if Google never shows more than a few sentences to the public, the AAP and others argue that simply by scanning those books Google is breaking the law. Is that true? Well, that depends.

In a piece written he wrote in 2005, Google CEO Eric Schmidt responded to this claim by saying that critics:

“argue that making a full copy of a given work, even just to index it, can never constitute fair use. If this were so, you wouldn’t be able to record a TV show to watch it later or use a search engine that indexes billions of Web pages.”

Google’s Book Search FAQ notes that the “fair use” exemption (the text of which is here) allows both individuals and corporations — yes, even those that make money — to copy and use material in certain ways without having to ask for permission (there’s a great overview of the issue in this New Yorker piece). And the U.S. courts have ruled in the past that Google’s web cache, which is effectively a carbon copy of billions of copyrighted works, is fair use.

Belgium, of course, might disagree. And as Stanford’s primer on fair use states: “Unfortunately, weighing the fair use factors is often quite subjective. For this reason, the fair use road map is often tricky to navigate.” You can say that again. And meanwhile, Microsoft seems happy to use copyright law as a big stick with which to bash their major competitor. Classy move.

Further reading:

Danny Sullivan has a long and thoughtful critique of Rubin’s speech here, although I would disagree with his assertion that books are somehow different from the Web and therefore Google needs to ask permission before indexing them (Danny also has an even longer post on the issue of online copyright here). Also worth reading are Cynthia Brumfield at IPDemocracy and Don Dodge, who should get some props for taking a shot at his own company.

Bloggers are parasites — so what?

I kind of missed this one a few days ago, there being so many other things to blog about — YouTube and the BBC being the main one, I think — but Nick Carr’s latest post about bloggers and parasites sparked my interest again. I know that issues from more than two days ago are effectively ancient history as far as the blogosphere is concerned, but indulge me.

parasite.jpgAs far as I can tell, this particular round of commentary about bloggers being “a parasitic medium” got started with a piece by Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review, in which he asked several online media pros what they thought. Journalism professor Rich Gordon, for example, had one of my favourite responses, in which he said that:

“There is a long tradition *within journalism* of publishing and broadcasting the work of people whose primary contribution to discourse is opinion and analysis.

Bloggers fall squarely within this tradition. They are parasitic only if your definition of journalism consists only of original reporting.”

An excellent point. There are all kinds of people working for mainstream media outlets — and not just columnists, editorial writers, opinion writers and analysts, but often reporters as well — who base a lot of what they do on the raw material provided by others. With reporters, it is often the work of wire services such as Reuters or Bloomberg, which tend to get a lot less credit for their role than they probably should in many cases.

Nick Carr takes a long — and inimitably Carr-like– look at this issue, and admits he used to throw the “bloggers are parasites” criticism around too, until he realized that parasites can be a good thing. Now, he says he is happy to be one. True to form, he throws in a long quote from a book about London in 1834, and a passage from Socrates in the comments. Classy.

Meanwhile, Jason at Webomatica thinks that the relationship between bloggers and journalism is symbiotic, and so does Brian Chin at Seattle PI, and I would go along with that. If journalists aren’t watching and learning from the blogosphere, then they are missing a key ingredient in their diet.

Yer patents are teh SuXx0r!

According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is planning to launch a trial project in which outsiders will be able to comment on proposed patents that are working their way through the (incredibly time-consuming) patent application process. In effect, people will be allowed to post comments on patents and then other users will be allowed to vote on those comments, a la Digg.com.

patent.jpgThis proposal is almost certain to bring out the anti-“wisdom of crowds” folks (yes, I’m talking about you, Nick, and your pal Andrew). After all, why would we let something as sophisticated as the U.S. patent system be opened up to the yobs and yahoos who pollute Digg.com and Slashdot and every other social network out there? Why indeed. Perhaps because somewhere out there is a person who knows something about one of the patents the USPTO is looking at, and can help the office decide whether there is prior art, whether the invention is too obvious, etc.

In the past, the problem (or at least one of them) has been that patent examiners are snowed under by applications and in many cases either don’t have the time or the expertise to ferret out evidence of “prior art,” which is patent lingo for an invention that is similar to the thing a person wants a patent for. In extreme cases, this can help produce multibillion-dollar patent infringement trials such as the one that tied up Research In Motion for so many years.

“For the first time in history, it allows the patent-office examiners to open up their cubicles and get access to a whole world of technical experts,” said David J. Kappos, vice president and assistant general counsel at IBM.

New York Law School Professor Beth Noveck, who helped spark the trial project (which relied on advice from CmdrTaco of Slashdot.org), says it will bring about “the first major change to our patent examination system since the 19th century.” And the Post story notes how ironic it is that the body looking over crucial technology patents is woefully lacking in actual technology — and in some cases is prevented from even using the Internet.


Tony Hung at Deep Jive Interests doesn’t think it’s such a great plan, and has come up with a whole pile of reasons why.

Can a newspaper be a social network?

So USA Today — the same newspaper that helped reshape the traditional paper business about twenty-five years ago — has launched a redesign of its website that incorporates a laundry list of “social networking” features: blogs, comments on stories, tags (keywords), voting on stories and user pages complete with uploads of photos, etc.

social.jpgMy iconoclastic friend Paul Kedrosky notes that much of the high-fiving about these features is “overdone,” and that USA Today has been getting some fairly predictable comments from readers about how they wish the paper would go back to the way it was (Don Dodge has more here). And that is to be expected. Let’s face it, some people just don’t like change. We got many similar comments from readers when we did a redesign at the Globe and Mail website over a year ago, and introduced comments on news stories — the first major newspaper to do so in North America (at least to my knowledge).

Paul’s concerns aside (and Tony Hung notes that Netscape experienced the same thing), I think getting more social with readers is something newspapers have to do, if they want to have a chance of avoiding the inevitable decline that legendary investor and gazillionaire Warren Buffett referred to in his recent remarks. But do readers want to socialize with their newspaper, or with the journalists who work there?

I think some do. Some may just wish to consume the news and be on their way, and that’s fine. Some folks don’t want to be social. But some may want to take advantage of networking tools, and to socialize in some way with the other readers of a newspaper, and I think theoretically a media outlet could become a social destination in some way. Whether USA Today can make that happen remains to be seen.

Further reading:

Stowe Boyd makes some good points about the new USA Today design here, including the fact that user profiles can’t include any external info (flickr streams, etc.) and the user blogs provided by Pluck have no RSS feeds or other features. The tags are also internally generated only.

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 says the paper should get kudos for trying. And Read/Write Web has a poll based on the title of my post.