Newspapers need to get a clue – quickly

The Paris-based World Newspaper Association, a body that appears to be almost pathologically clueless when it comes to the Internet, is blustering and grumbling about how search engines such as Google News are “stealing” their content and should be made to either stop or to pay for it. Although the group hasn’t said what it has in mind, it is muttering darkly about challenging the “exploitation of content” that its members feel is going on. In a magnanimous gesture, they admitted that search engines help drive traffic to their sites, but said this didn’t justify the fact that Google and others have built their businesses on “taking content for free.”

This issue has come up before, when a representative of the European Publishers’ Council accused Google and other Web search companies of being “parasites” living off the content of others. Gavin O’Reilly of the WNA has been quoted as saying that the Web companies are engaging in “kleptomania.” Here’s what he told the Financial Times:

Mr O’Reilly likened the initiative to the conflict between the music industry and illegal file-sharing websites and said it was not a sign that publishers had failed to create a competitive online business model of their own. “I think newspapers have developed very compelling web portals and news channels but the fact here is that we’re dealing with basic theft,” he said [snip]. Services such as Google News link to original news stories on the home pages of newspapers and magazines and display only the headline and one paragraph of the story [but] “That’s often enough” for readers browsing the top stories, Mr O’Reilly said.

I must admit that I thought the WNA was out of its mind to even bring this subject up in the first place, but the comparison to the RIAA and its war against file-sharing took the association’s case well past stupidity and into the realm of farce (ironically, as Rafat at PaidContent points out, the WNA has a great blog called Editors Weblog). How exactly is linking the headline and first paragraph of a story to a newspaper’s website the same as people downloading an entire song from a P2P application? The answer: It isn’t.

As for Mr. O’Reilly’s argument that readers are often satisfied with the headline and one paragraph, whose fault is that? Maybe the WNA should try suing every user of Google News in court, the same way the RIAA has — that’ll show them. Or they could block all search engines, and get no traffic whatsoever. As James Robertson notes, this appears to be more about a cash grab than it is about the way that search engines work. Techdirt asks whether newspapers can really be that clueless, and the short answer is: Yes.

An expose on telecom bait-and-switch

I don’t know telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick, but I’m definitely interested in the subject of a new book he has written (and is selling himself using the Internet). In a nutshell, the topic of his book is a scam that the major U.S. telecoms pulled on the American government — and the American people — by effectively promising high-speed, fibre-optic Internet in return for concessions on licensing requirements and other regulations set by U.S. telecom regulators. Then they reneged on their end of the bargain.

Steve Stroh, who has been covering the telecom and networking industry as an independent consultant for some time, has written about Kushnick’s book on his blog, and so has veteran telecom consultant Gordon Cook, and Richard Stastny of the VOIP and Enum blog, and David Isenberg, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, on his blog.

Given that kind of support, I’m prepared to believe Kushnick’s version of events has some truth to it, since several of the people mentioned above have said that he has documentation backing up his claims. Beyond that, it certainly sounds like something the telecom companies would do — they may even have believed it when they said it. But the U.S. certainly doesn’t have anything like the 45-megabit-per-second connections that the telcos promised.

And it definitely sheds a different kind of light on their repeated claims that Internet content companies should be paying more for access to their pipes (something my friend Rob Hyndman has written about many times). It sounds to me like U.S. consumers have already paid for it several times over.

Google misses – but will it matter?

Google may be working on a version of the Ubuntu Linux OS, as reported by The Register, but maybe it should be spending a bit more time on a good accounting app — it just missed Wall Street’s estimates for both sales and profit for the latest quarter. The stock dropped by as much as 19 per cent in after-hours trading.

Does that matter to the company’s long-term future? Probably not. But it will likely take some of the shine off for the momentum traders, of whom there are likely a lot. And there were some troubling signs in the numbers at first glance — even if you assume that the analysts’ estimates were inflated (which they likely were). For one thing, the company’s tax rate was substantially higher than expected – 41 per cent instead of about 26 per cent – and costs were also higher than anticipated. Too much money being spent on projects like the lame addition of bookmarks to the Google toolbar perhaps?

One caveat: Even assuming that a majority of analysts are craven weasels (just kidding, guys) it is difficult for analysts to analyze a company that is not only growing at an incredible rate, but which refuses to provide any guidance on future results, or any details on current operations. That’s going to make future surprises even more likely.

Update:

As usual, some of the hysteria that is common with after-hours trading (when there is less volume and therefore more volatility) dissipated on Wednesday, but Google’s stock was still down almost 10 per cent at one point in the morning. Not surprising, given the number of momentum traders that are riding this particular horse. Although UBS has downgraded the stock to “neutral” – in other words, closing the door after the horse has left the stable – Google’s explanation that the higher tax rate accounts for the bulk of the miss seems plausible. And the company has said it will provide more details on that kind of thing.

In the end, there’s no real smoking gun in these results for the Google bears – although my friend Paul Kedrosky notes that it’s worth asking why the tax rate was so much higher than expected. And whatever the answer to that question, Google’s “miss” serves as a healthy warning to investors. As the old saying goes, bulls make money and bears make money, but pigs often get slaughtered.

Cisco buy TiVo? Dream on, TiVo fans

CNet.com has a piece up on its website that talks about how networking equipment giant Cisco Systems might be looking to acquire TiVo, the digital-video recording pioneer. The article, which is labelled “news analysis” — which in the journalism business is code for “speculation” — starts off with Cisco’s recently announced $6.9-billion acquisition of Scientific-Atlanta, one of the largest makers of set-top boxes in the world next to Motorola, and then asks the question “Who’s next?”

One response might be “Why should anyone be next?” The purchase of SA is one of the largest acquisitions Cisco has ever done. The idea that it’s going to rush out and buy something else right away is more than a little wacky. But a better response might be “Why TiVo?” As much as everyone seems to want to see TiVo get snapped up by either Yahoo, Google or Microsoft, I’m not sure that’s as likely as TiVo fans might want it to be — and I think a purchase by Cisco is probably even less likely (The Stalwart isn’t convinced either).

Why? Because — as Rafat Ali also points out at PaidContent.org — TiVo doesn’t really bring anything to the table that Cisco doesn’t already have with Scientific-Atlanta. Yes, it’s true that TiVo (and Replay TV) pioneered the DVR business, and the company has a small legion of devoted fans who love the extra features it provides. But when it gets right down to it, DVRs are a commodity, SA already makes them — including ones that do high-definition, and have interactive features for integration with the Internet (or the ability to add them) — and so there is little or no reason to pay the $500-million or whatever it would take to buy TiVo. For what it’s worth, I think the idea of Cisco buying Nintendo makes even less sense, but maybe that’s just me.

More Google-bashing — this time on Picasa

I don’t want to get into a big Google-bashing rant, after knocking their lame bookmark offering, but Phil Sim of Squash makes a good point in a post today about another Google service: Picasa, the photo-organizing software the company bought way back when. His question — and I think it’s a darn good one: Why is there no online sharing component?

It’s not like certain services haven’t already shown that people really get a charge out of sharing their photos with others, and that this can make a viable business for companies such as, say, Yahoo. So why hasn’t Google, which has warehouses full of servers it could host terabytes worth of photos on with no trouble at all, added an online component to Picasa? One reason could be that Google also owns an instant-messaging/photo-sharing app called Hello, which interfaces with Blogger.com, and it would probably rather people used those tools. But why not have Picasa do it too?

Sometimes the things Google does or doesn’t do make perfect sense. And sometimes they make me wonder what the heck is going on over there in Mountain View at the Googleplex. Get off the Segways, guys, and get with the program.

Google bookmarks — is that the best they can do?

Okay, it’s not as bad as the Google China thing, but I have to say the bookmark feature that Google just released has to be one of the lamest things to come down the Web 2.0 pike since Froogle. I mean, come on. Saving your bookmarks with a toolbar? How 1990s. Sure, you can keep them in one place so you can get to them from anywhere — Yahoo’s only had that for about two years.

Not only that, but I have to say that Google’s implementation sucks, from a whole bunch of different perspectives. One, it relies primarily on a toolbar, which I hate. I don’t need or want another toolbar offering to install itself, and I don’t care how useful it pretends to be. Whatever happened to bookmarklets and plug-ins? I thought that was the wave of the future. Of course, Google isn’t even supporting Firefox with this one yet, so there’s another strike against it. And when you go to the Google site — which you can do if you don’t want to use the toolbar — there’s no way to import bookmarks from a browser or file, or to sort them.

Then there’s the fact that there’s nothing even remotely different about what Google is doing — no digg.com-style ratings, no del.icio.us-style sharing, no integration with any other part of the Google-verse even. Kind of like the company’s blog search isn’t anywhere to be found when you’re searching Google news, which you would think would be a natural (Yahoo seems to think it is, since their search blends both). In other words, a completely ho-hum product. Why even bother?

Venture capital didn’t create the bubble

Dave Winer is a smart guy, and when it comes to Web 2.0 he’s been smart a lot longer than I have — but when it comes to investing and the stock market and venture capital, I think he might be a little out of his depth. I wouldn’t tell Dave how to put together an OPML editor, and by the same token I’m not sure anyone should listen to how he wants to “reform” the venture capital business.

Like a good friend, Robert Scoble is being kind when he says Dave’s post contains “great insight.” I would tend to agree with Paul Kedrosky that his proposed solution is more than a little on the wacky side. Even his description leaves me shaking my head. Here’s part of it:

That’s how Netscape and the dotcommers that followed went through the roof of the stock market. People who traded could see the raw power of the Internet and knew, one way or the other, that this was going to change how everything was done, from business to romance, travel, gambling, everything. So the users of the Internet bid the stock of the Internet up. And up. And up. And so on. So what did the middlemen do exactly? They invested in all kinds of idiotic things.

The point of this seems to be that “people who traded” were the ones who knew what to invest in, while the “middlemen” or VCs threw money at idiotic things like pets.com and boo.com, so we should get the middlemen out of the way and let users run things and decide what to invest in. I’m not sure which bubble Dave was watching, but I remember plenty of supposedly smart “investors” who bought stocks like theglobe.com and others all the way up into the stratosphere. Was that the fault of stupid or venal VCs? Hardly. They were just supplying what the market had already shown that it wanted: Internet-based anything, and right now.

As Nick Carr has pointed out, bubbles are born on the demand side, not the supply side. And yes, it’s true that there are problems with much of what goes on in the venture capital business, as Canadian VC Rick Segal and others have described. I’m interested to see what Rick has in mind — but with all due respect, I hope to God that he doesn’t take Dave’s advice on this one.

For more on the same topic, I think Fraser Kelton has some worthwhile points, and as usual Fred Wilson summarizes things well:

I would suggest one rule and only one. Be the entrepreneur’s partner. Help him or her. Be there for them. Support them. Counsel them. Share the risk with them. Have fun with them. Laugh and cry with them. And make boatloads of money with them. It’s a time tested formula and it will work forever.

Meanwhile, Rick Segal has obviously been thinking about all this as well — as he hinted in an earlier post — and does what I think is a great job of distilling what the “new” startup landscape looks like, and asking the question (my paraphrase): “If you don’t need much money, and you don’t need a lot of hardware or software, and the Web gives you lots of points of contact, what do you need VCs for?” Go read his post for the answer.

Update:

Dave Winer doesn’t think much of my comments, not surprisingly. Fair enough. To answer Dave’s questions (since he doesn’t allow comments on his scripting.com blog), I am not a VC, and whatever investing I do is through mutual funds, so my track record is effectively a blank slate. But I have been writing about investing and the stock market for about 15 years now. I wasn’t saying that I’m more experienced than Dave, just that his argument for reform in venture capital is logically flawed.

Anne Zelenka, who posted some comments here, has written an excellent post on her blog that breaks down — from an Econ 101 standpoint — the elements of Web 2.0 that make it different from Web 1.0, and why the venture capital business just keeps getting harder.

Bubble Zen: When is a bubble half-inflated?

Lots of talk in the blogosphere about Chris “Long Tail” Anderson’s piece on The New Boom in Wired magazine. In it, Chris says point blank that what we’re all seeing — the multiple VC rounds for startups with virtually no revenue, the $30-million buyouts of del.icio.us, not to mention the $4-billion or so for Skype — isn’t a bubble, it’s a boom. So there.

A boom perhaps, but not (phew!) a bubble. There’s a difference. Bubbles are inflated with hot air and speculation. They end with a wet pop, leaving behind messy splatters. Booms, on the other hand, tend to have strong foundations and gentle conclusions. Bubbles can be good: They spark a huge amount of investment that can make things easier for the next generation, even as they bankrupt the current one. But booms – with their more rational allocation of capital – are better. The problem is that exuberance can make it hard to tell one from the other.

How can Chris be so sure? Because “the Internet and digital media are clearly not fads” and “some silly bubble-era ideas are starting to actually make sense – perhaps a lot of sense.” But the key, he says, is that it costs less to start and run a Boom 2.0 company, and that means less venture capital, and less venture capital means “fewer venture capitalists hustling for early exits at high valuations. That, in turn, reduces the pressure to go public and translates to fewer undercooked companies launching IPOs on hype alone.”

A fair point — and one I’ve talked about with friends recently: where does that leave VCs? Hunting around for deals to do, and watching companies grow and be acquired with no VC money at all. For what it’s worth, Om Malik says he thinks the new boom is about halfway over. How does he know that? He’s not saying. That’s a Zen koan kind of question: How do you know when a bubble is half-inflated?

My friend Mark Evans isn’t so sure about the non-bubble talk, and I think he is right to be cautious. As we all know, the phrase “it’s different this time” is what got investors into so much trouble last time around. Nick Carr also makes a good point, which is that entrepeneurs are not the ones who make a bubble a bubble, since they are the “supply” side of the equation — the problem is the “demand” side, i.e. the market. When it becomes frenetic, then the rules go out the window. Kent Newsome says everyone is swinging for the fences instead of being content with a single.

Blogs are good and bad for PR — BluePulse

Earlier today, I came across a link on Steve Rubel’s blog to the story on MobHappy about something they wrote regarding BluePulse, a cellphone app startup. As described by Steve and by Carlo of MobHappy, the site wrote something positive about BluePulse, but then Carlo questioned whether the company’s app really ran on “any phone” as it said on the website. Someone wrote back and said the copy on the site said “almost any phone” — and sure enough, when Carlo checked, it did say that.

Of course, Carlo being smart enough to know about Google’s cache, he soon found a copy of the original page, and posted it — along with a discussion of how the incident was an example of “how not to deal with blogs.” And he’s right — it is. But there’s more to it than that, interestingly enough. Although the comments on Steve’s blog said that BluePulse was ignoring the whole thing, there’s now a long and apologetic comment on MobHappy from one of the founders of BluePulse.

According to Alan Jones, he realized the copy was wrong and asked a developer to change it, and was going to get back to Carlo and apologize — but before he did, an over-eager employee responded in the comments. As he describes it:

“Luke is an enthusiastic, talented young guy… he’s also a new and enthusiastic blogger. He’s not a PR person (neither am I) and he’s definitely not an asshole. Sitting in the same room as the developer, he got word of the change I’d asked for, and took it on himself to let you know. Luke has made an important error of judgement in pretending the text was never changed. However, I don’t think it serves anybody’s interests to go making him out to be anything sinister. Come on, he’s a technical sales guy, and this is his first job out of college – who among us haven’t made an error of judgement in our early 20s?”

Alan goes on to say that blogs have been an important part of BluePulse’s success, and he says he is sorry about how things worked out — and I’m sure Luke is pretty sorry too (although he didn’t say that). I think this one is a good example not just of how companies can screw up in dealing with blogs, but how they can make it right too — and I hope Alan’s explanation and apology get the same kind of coverage his screwup did (at least Thomas Hawk and BoingBoing have made note of it).

Google and the Me2 revolution

My friend Rob Hyndman has a great post up about how the Web is playing havoc with the traditional structure of the advertising industry. But he’s not talking about things like how Google’s AdSense is revolutionizing the ad business, or how Craigslist.com is disemboweling the newspaper industry’s main profit engine, or any of that stuff. Rob’s point is a little deeper than that. He wonders if Web 2.0 doesn’t make traditional advertising a whole less effective, by allowing people to instantly fact-check and reality-check the ads they are subjected to. In that sense, Google itself provides the tools to make its own ads less relevant — an interesting snake-eating-its-own-tail conundrum.

“I’ve been noticing lately that over and over again the advice and information provided on the blogs of real people who share my interests and experiences are providing much more compelling information than any advertising that reaches me. Putting aside for now the question of branding, I’m finding that I’m repeatedly turning to blogs to find authentic and trusted buying advice from people who share my interests.”

This “democratization”of advertising, as Rob calls it, threatens a lot of the advertising that companies have grown accustomed to using, from TV ads to billboards and magazine spreads, all the way down to packaging. Yes, those tools can still raise “brand awareness,” but their message can also be almost instantaneously fact-checked and tested against the opinions and analysis of literally hundreds of people with a simple Google search. Not long ago, you would have had to read Consumer Reports magazine to get that kind of sample. Obviously there’s a lot of noise too, and blogs can (and will) be used to help extend brands and advertising. But the Web has changed that relationship fundamentally.

Plenty of food for thought. I recommend you read the entire post.

Update:

I just came across a link from Rex Hammock’s blog to a piece written by Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the world’s largest independent public relations firm, in which he discusses what he calls the Me2 Revolution — very much on the same theme as Rob’s post. And an unidentified advertising guy who calls himself Brand Cowboy has some thoughts about the concept of brands in the new media world (thanks for the tip, Stuart)