Randy Pausch and the power of online media

I’ve been thinking some more about Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor whose inspirational “last lecture” became such a phenomenon over the past six months or so, and who just passed away this weekend from pancreatic cancer. I’ve written about the content of his lecture in a previous post, and again on the weekend when I heard of his death, but what I’ve been thinking about since then is how unique a phenomenon the Last Lecture video really is from a digital media point of view.

I think we take for granted sometimes how much the Web has changed our lives, in both large and small ways, and in some cases in small ways that only take on significance over time. Someone once said that people tend to over-estimate the effects of technology in the short term and under-estimate them over the longer term, and I think YouTube is a perfect example. We’ve all become accustomed to watching short clips of funny cats or skateboarders slipping and hurting themselves, or occasionally a music video or that kind of thing. No big deal, right?

But then along comes something like Randy Pausch’s last lecture, in which the almost irrepressibly upbeat professor and virtual-reality pioneer talks about achieving his dreams, and it becomes not just a viral YouTube hit, but crosses over to become a bona fide “real media” sensation, with appearances on Oprah and ABC and 20/20 and whatnot, followed by a book version of the lecture. But that’s not really the amazing part — the amazing part for me is that it became a phenomenon despite the fact that it is over an hour long. And not just that, but it features a guy doing nothing but talking. No cats. No nudity. No music.

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Wrong — Steve’s health is my business

Ever since Apple’s co-founder, CEO and resident visionary Steven P. Jobs showed up at the Apple developers’ forum looking like a stick figure in a turtleneck, there has been talk about whether he is suffering from a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with in 2004. The latest return to that theme is a piece by Joe Nocera in the New York Times about Apple and its “culture of secrecy,” in which the columnist describes how Jobs called him and said ““You think I’m an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong.” Jobs then agreed to talk about his health, but only if the details were kept off the record.

The central point that is up for debate is whether Steve’s health is a public matter or a private matter. When I wrote a blog post about Steve’s appearance — one of the first blogs to do so following the developers’ conference — I got criticism both in the comments section of the post and in private emails for raising the issue, which several people said was inappropriate and even “creepy.” I disagreed then and I still disagree now. As Nocera describes in his piece, it’s not clear when a senior executive’s health becomes a material factor for investors, requiring public disclosure. But as far as I’m concerned, the fact that the CEO of a public company like Apple is fighting a potentially terminal disease (if that’s true) definitely qualifies as material information.

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A tribute to Randy Pausch

Like many people — millions of them, in fact — I was mesmerized by Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Randy Pausch’s now-famous “Last Lecture,” a video clip that began making the rounds on YouTube last September. I saw mention of it on Metafilter just a few days after he gave it, and eventually he wound up on Oprah and half a dozen other TV shows, and his lecture was even turned into a book (he dictated it over the phone to a Wall Street Journal writer).

Why? There’s nothing magical in it, particularly; just Randy talking about his life and how he learned to achieve his dreams of working for Disney (which he did) and flying in space (which he sort of did by riding the Vomit Comet). But I found it incredibly inspiring — in part because of the sheer joy he seemed to take in his life, even though he knew he was dying of pancreatic cancer, but also because of how he talks about the people who motivated and inspired him.

It is honest and funny and touching. I highly recommend that you take 45 minutes or so and watch the whole thing.



Microsoft: Still unclear on the concept

I was going to call this post “Decoding the Microsoft memo,” but my friend Kara Swisher has that kind of trademarked already, and I don’t want to owe her any more money than I already do. But reading through the missive from CEO Steve Ballmer that she has posted made me long for someone who could translate it into English, because I don’t think Monkey Boy and I are speaking the same language. It’s not just the egregious use of euphemisms either; there are points where what Steve is saying — about the separation of the Platforms and Services division into two units, for example — shows a fundamental confusion about what Microsoft wants to be when it grows up.

I can’t remember whether Steve used to work at a car company before he joined Bill Gates at Microsoft (I’m pretty sure he worked at Procter & Gamble) but there sure is a lot of talk in the memo about driving. One of the company’s core goals, for example, is to “drive end-user excitement for our products.” My translation of that would be: “Come up with some way to force people to buy Vista and Office, whether they want to or not.” What the hell does “drive end-user excitement” even mean? I’m hoping it has something to do with building better products, but it’s hard to know for sure. Sounds like a blank cheque for the marketing department to come up with some happy videos of families smiling and using Vista to make Grandma a birthday card.

A couple of paragraphs later, Ballmer says that the company needs to “drive developers to create rich applications for Windows” to help promote Silverlight (Microsoft’s version of Adobe’s AIR). How do you “drive developers” to do something? Obviously there are incentives you can offer, but it seems to me that the best way to convince developers to come up with cool apps is to have a great platform that allows developers to do interesting things and reaches the audience they want. Apple seems to have developers beating down its door for access to the iPhone, despite the fact that it often treats developers like crap.

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Hello Knol — goodbye Mahalo?

About six months after first announcing a private beta test of its Knol project, Google has thrown the doors open, and is inviting anyone who wants to create an entry to jump on board. Unlike Wikipedia — to which it is most often compared — Google’s Knol allows authors to effectively take ownership of articles they write about topics in which they are (or believe themselves to be) experts. And instead of there just being one article on a subject, to which multiple authors contribute, Google says that it expects there to be multiple entries about a given topic, written by different people. Contributors can also offer their own edits to a particular article, which the author can choose to accept or not.

Obviously, a user-generated compendium of knowledge about a variety of topics sounds a lot like a little thing called Wikipedia, and there’s no question that Knol is going to compete with the crowd-sourced encyclopedia to some extent (Wikipedia has also been considering the addition of an “approval system,” which would make it even more like Knol). But I think Knol poses an even bigger threat to Mahalo, the people-powered search service created by Jason Calacanis — and to a lesser extent other directory-style tools like Seth Godin’s Squidoo and About.com (owned by the New York Times), not to mention Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger’s Citizendium project.

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Toronto’s Albert Lai launches Kontagent

After selling Bubbleshare — the photo-sharing service that he co-founded in what was either his third or fourth startup (I’ve lost count) — Toronto entrepreneur Albert Lai moved on to a new project that he was fairly secretive about, but which has since been revealed to be Kontagent, a new analytics platform for social networks such as Facebook. From the description given by Nik Cubrilovic at TechCrunch IT and at the newly-launched Kontagent.com website, it sounds a lot like Google Analytics, but designed for social-networking apps like the ones developers have been cooking up for Facebook ever since the site launched its F8 platform. Kudos to Albert and his partner Jeff Tseng on the news — sounds like a service that could fill a growing need.

JKOnTheRun joins the GigaOm family

Congratulations to my friend Om Malik and to the founders of the jkOnTheRun mobile blog for what sounds like a match made in blogging heaven. James and Kevin get to continue doing what they have been doing for some time now, which is focusing on great mobile-related content, and the GigaOm network expands to cover another market niche with some talented writers. It’s a win-win, as they say on Wall Street. No financial details attached, but a nice solution for both sides I would think. Mike Arrington — who has yet to acquire any blogs or bloggers — thinks this is yet another example of the great blog roll-up strategy he described earlier this year coming to pass. I don’t know about that, but it sounds like a great deal for both Om and the jkOnTheRun guys.

Digg this: Google to gobble Digg?

Maybe it’s just the summer heat getting to people, but TechCrunch swears that this time it’s for real, and Google is on the verge of buying Digg for “around $200-million.” Yes, this is pretty much the same rumour that was going around earlier this year, but Mike Arrington says the talks are back on (apparently Marissa Meyer lost interest in the company for awhile). But does it make any sense for Google to do such a thing? Eric Eldon wonders why the Web giant wouldn’t just build its own Digg, just like Yahoo did with Buzz and AOL did (with somewhat less success) at Netscape, which was later relaunched as Propeller.

I think this rumour has some legs, not because I have any kind of inside contacts at Google, but because I think a combination of Digg and Google News would make for a pretty attractive property in a lot of ways. It didn’t seem like a great fit when Digg was mostly just tech-focused, but as the service has broadened its appeal I think it has come closer to something Google would be interested in, although how much Digg has really expanded its readership is open to debate. The Internet behemoth has an obvious interest in the social side of content delivery (when you think about it, PageRank is a form of crowd-sourcing) and it might juice things up a bit at Google News — or even the search side, where the company is apparently testing user input on search results.

It goes without saying that even if the two are talking about a deal, it could go off the rails at any point over issues like price, control, etc. But all in all I think that a combination makes some sense. If nothing else, I’d like to see what would happen if Google combined Digg with Google News or turned the Digg algorithm loose on search.

Firefox Tablet — I would like one too

If you read through the various comments and blog posts about it, Mike Arrington’s proposal to crowd-source the development of a $200 Web tablet with a touch screen — in effect, an iPod Touch with a larger screen and a solid-state hard drive — is nothing short of total lunacy. Dozens of people have said that it will never work, that it can’t be done for that kind of price point, that Apple is likely already working on one, etc. All of which is probably true. That said, however, I can understand Mike’s frustration; I’ve been waiting for that kind of tablet ever since I saw them using one on Star Trek. Put me down for one 🙂

Yahoo board battle over; war continues


Looks like Carl Icahn has managed to strike a deal with Yahoo to avoid an all-out proxy battle over board members. According to a news release this morning, the two sides have agreed to a settlement that involves expanding the Yahoo board so that two Icahn representatives and Icahn himself can have seats. This effectively negates the need for the settlement proposed by Eric Jackson, which is described below — although as Charles Cooper at CNET notes, this has given the fox a seat on the board of the henhouse. So while the current battle may have ended, the war over Yahoo’s future continues.

Original post:

Before activist shareholder and billionaire takeover artist Carl Icahn got involved with Yahoo, and not long after Microsoft started making overtures towards the company behind the scenes, a disgruntled shareholder named Eric Jackson was already trying to marshal support for some big changes at the Internet company, including the departure of CEO Terry Semel, who eventually wound up leaving. Using his blog, YouTube videos and an aggressive lobbying effort aimed at institutional shareholders, Jackson managed to get a substantial amount of support and press for his campaign. Whether his efforts helped to force Semel out or not is open to debate, but it certainly helped crystallize some of the dissatisfaction surrounding the company.

Eric, who formed an activist investment fund called Ironfire Capital as a result of his efforts, is still pushing for change at Yahoo, and this morning he launched a forum on Agoracom.com, a small-cap investor-information portal based in Toronto and founded by George Tsiolis. Jackson wants an alternate slate of Yahoo directors, but not the slate suggested by Icahn; instead, he is proposing a middle-of-the-road solution, in which several Yahoo board members get to keep their spots, but others are removed to make way for some of Icahn’s substitutes (but not Mark Cuban; sorry Mark). Shareholders are encouraged to mark their voting cards as described in a statement by Eric and posted on Agoracom.

Jackson says that some investors are uncomfortable with Icahn’s proposed slate because it would remove every Yahoo board member, raising concerns about continuity and the possible triggering of a poison-pill style compensation package. The activist shareholder says that his proposal “will maximize the change so desperately needed” at the Internet company without any of those drawbacks. According to a news release issued this morning, Eric says that his “Plan B” group of Yahoo shareholders includes 150 members, who own 3.2 million shares in Yahoo! worth over $70 million. Yahoo’s annual meeting is August 1.