Getting Creative with the patent system

In a lottery-like windfall settlement that likely has the champagne flowing at Creative Labs’ headquarters, the compay has just gotten a cheque from Apple for $100-million (U.S.), thanks to a patent on the navigation system used in the Creative Zen players and — as it turns out — the ridiculously successful Apple iPod (and just about every other MP3 music player out there, including my second-hand Dell DJ). As usual, Steve Jobs summed it up best, by saying: “Creative is very fortunate to have been granted this early patent.” I’ll say. Staci over at PaidContent quite rightly calls this comment a candidate for understatement of the year.

It is kind of ironic — as I think one commenter at the unofficial Apple weblog mentioned — that a company whose name is Creative has resorted to suing its much more successful competitor rather than trying to outperform Apple on features, but the patent system is the patent system (broken or not), and Creative beat Apple to the punch by several months in filing the Zen patent. At one point, Apple asked the company for help with what would become the iPod, but they couldn’t agree on terms. Would it have been better for Creative to have been partners rather than adversaries? Who can say. At any rate, $100-million makes up for a lot of mistakes.

Yes, it’s always about Dave

I must admit I was somewhat interested when I saw a mention of Dave Winer’s new (or not so new, depending on whom you read) mobile “river of news” thingamajig — if only because I have used a BlackBerry and a Treo and a UTStarcom Windows device to read RSS feeds, and have yet to find anything that I really like. Google’s mobile version of its Reader comes close, but it has its flaws too. So I checked out the mobile feed that Dave set up for the New York Times, and for the BBC, and it looked OK. But it still was kind of klunky in a way that is difficult to describe, as far as navigation is concerned.

There were a couple of other things that rubbed me the wrong way too, and others have put them into words for me: Paul Kedrosky, for example, was one of the ones who noted that this type of feed is hardly new — as did Rogers Cadenhead, who admittedly has a somewhat fractious past involving Mr. Winer and some lawyers and so forth, and Josh Bancroft (although Josh seems to have modified his thoughts somewhat since).

As usual when Dave is involved, one of the irritants was just the way he puts things — not just grandstanding, as he does about how much money he makes, but also the cryptic comments that make it obvious he’s trying to get back at someone. My buddy Kent Newsome does a good job of describing this Winer M.O., although he is much kinder that I usually am.

As for the idea that Dave’s rivers of news will be easier for people to read than existing solutions, how easy is it to have to bookmark a new URL for every new mobile feed? I get the fact that he’s working on something like mobile Bloglines, which Josh said changed his mind about the whole thing — I just don’t see why he has to pretend that it’s some kind of revolution. Ian Betteridge wonders too, and as usual, Shelley has her own caustic and hilarious take on it.

Is YouTube worth $2-billion now?

So Sony Pictures has gone and bought Grouper, the online video site, for $65-million (U.S.). Okay — hands up, anyone who has heard of and/or used Grouper, apart from reading about it at TechCrunch or Mashable or some other Web 2.0 site. Pretty much what I figured. Although it is a half-decent looking service from what I can tell, it is one of half a dozen video-sharing solutions out there, and is unremarkable other than the fact that it requires you to download a standalone Windows app (a negative in my view) and it has a peer-to-peer aspect to it (Note: In the comments below, Sean says the download is only required if you want to share videos privately).

According to the math that TechCrunch came up with on a per-user basis, using ComScore data, Sony appears to be paying $70 to $120 per unique visitor (and that’s visitor, not user), compared with other recent deals for iFilm and Atom/Shockwave at about $15 to $20 a unique visitor. The one caveat, of course — as with anything that involves traffic metrics — is that ComScore’s half a million uniques is dramatically lower than the company’s own estimate of 8 million. If you use Grouper’s figure, the per-unique is about $8.

Doing some quick math, TechCrunch comes up with a figure of $2-billion for YouTube, which will make co-founder Chad Hurley happy, since the highest we’ve seen so far is $1-billion, a figure that more or less came out of thin air (using ComScore’s traffic from June and the multiple of $15 to $20 per unique, YouTube would be worth about $300-million). Does that make any sense? Maybe to a desperate movie studio or entertainment conglomerate it would (which Om points out Sony most certainly is), but that remains to be seen.

As for what Sony has in mind for Grouper, the talk is about pay-for-downloads and so on, which in typical Sony fashion will no doubt be low-quality and all crapped up with DRM. Davis Freeberg congratulates Grouper for pulling one over on Sony, while Duncan Riley says it’s just a matter of time before Sony render Grouper “so unworkable, unusable and undesirable that it will die an inglorious death.”

Rafat at PaidContent says the site has a solid management team, and maybe Sony deserves some credit for realizing when they need help, while Cynthia at IPDemocracy says it’s about speed to market. Rafat and Cynthia are very kind 🙂

Forget Digg, what about Fark?

There’s been lots of talk about blogs as a business — whether they should be or not, whether they can be or not, what a blog network like Jason Calacanis’s Weblogs Inc. or Nick Denton’s Gawker is worth, what the prospects are for new blog ventures such as Om Malik’s, PaidContent and Huffington Post, etc. And of course there has been much chatter about what Digg is (or could be) worth, thanks to the Business Week cover that said founder Kevin Rose had “made” $60-million.

Business 2.0 has a piece in the September issue looking at successful bloggers such as Mike Arrington of TechCrunch — the Great Gatsby of the blogosphere — as well as BoingBoing and PaidContent, and the Federated Media advertising network run by John Battelle, which sells ads on a number of successful sites, including BoingBoing and TechCrunch. It’s too bad the piece has a cheesy promo blurb (“Here’s how to turn your passion into an online empire”), which sounds a little too much like one of the cover-page come-ons from a supermarket checkout magazine (“Lose 300 pounds in six easy steps!”)

Nevertheless, the Business 2.0 piece is worth reading if only for one reason — to realize how staggeringly successful Fark.com is. Plenty of attention gets paid to Kevin Rose and Digg (and rightly so) and to other sites like del.icio.us, and even to political blogs like DailyKos and Instapundit, but not much gets written about the site Drew Curtis put together in 1999 and still more or less runs singlehandedly from Lexington, Kentucky (a location that could explain why he gets so little attention from the Web cognoscenti; ever been to Mike’s house for a party, Drew?).

According to the magazine article, thanks in part to FM and the attention that sites are getting from advertisers, Fark could be looking at $600,000 or so in ad revenue per month pretty soon. According to FM’s site, Fark gets about 5 million uniques a month, which makes it larger than most metropolitan newspapers. And Drew runs it with some help from a couple of tech guys. It reminds me a little of Markus Frind, the little-known web-vertising genius behind the online dating site Plentyoffish.com, which he runs more or less singlehandedly (with some help from his girlfriend) and makes more than $500,000 per month from.

In some ways, Fark was the original Digg. I started cruising it for links to stupid, funny and/or interesting links half a dozen years ago, and it is still as simple as it was then — a series of links submitted by users, with amusing tags, and a comment section for each that is often filled with sophomoric remarks. It’s not all Ajax-y, and its design is sort of garish, but people don’t seem to care. And while Kevin is on the cover of Business Week, Drew is laughing all the way to the bank. (He has some thoughts about Web 2.0 in an interview here).

The only fly in the ointment is that now Farkers (some of whom pay for extra access) know how much he is making, and they are wondering what they get out of the whole deal. Could there be a “user-generated-content” revolt brewing? Maybe Jason Calacanis will start hiring away Farkers too.

Jeff and Mark try to define journalism

Well, I have to give Jeff Jarvis credit — not just for being a tireless standard-bearer for the “new” journalism (even if I do disagree with him a tiny bit now and then), but for being able to write a post that gets a response from Mark Cuban, the irascible blogger and billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner who is himself something of a maverick. How Jeff did that probably won’t come as much of a surprise: he wrote about Cuban’s experiment in business journalism, an investigative site called Sharesleuth.

The idea behind Sharesleuth is relatively simple — Mr. Cuban hired a journalist to do in-depth reporting about dubious publicly-traded companies. The twist is that the billionaire plans to sell the shares of his targets “short” (shorts sell borrowed stock, hoping that the price will go down, at which point they can buy back enough shares to repay the loan at a lower price and pocket the difference as profit). His first target is a company called Xethanol, which is painted as a thinly-disguised stock-pumping scheme involving various disreputable characters.

Jeff’s problem appears to be that Mark is pitching Sharesleuth as the kind of journalism that protects the little guy (who is getting taken advantage of by such stock schemes), but in reality it’s just a way of making more money for Cuban himself. In other words, not journalism. He also takes some shots at the billionaire for effectively lucking into his wealth by selling to stupid companies at the right time — something that clearly gets Cuban’s dander up. Unfortunately, he responds with what I think is an overly defensive post entitled “I know you are but what am I, Jeff?

Cuban takes Jeff to task because his blog is unbalanced and unfair, which is a total red herring, since it’s unlikely that Jeff would claim that what his blog does is journalism in any sense of the word. It’s a blog, which means it opinionated and colourful. Not a great argument, Mark.

One of the reasons it’s unfortunate is that I think Cuban has a pretty good argument to make that Sharesleuth is journalism — albeit a very rigid and narrowly-defined version. In fact, it would probably be in everyone’s best interests if he didn’t call it journalism at all. It’s more like a well-researched report by a boutique brokerage firm (there’s a Canadian oilpatch firm that specializes in such reports). Is that journalism? Not really — but it’s darn close, regardless of the motives of its “publisher.” Some more discussion here by Ben Silverman of FindProfit.

Bad guitarists of the world, unite!

Courtesy of Kent Newsome’s blog, I see that the recording industry — having obviously failed to find any more babies to poison or dogs to kick — is going after guitar tablature sites such as Olga, as chronicled in the New York Times (as Slashdot points out, this isn’t the first time Olga has come under fire; the Harry Fox agency, which owns the publishing rights to most top hits, went after the tab site in 1998).

Like many other professional and amateur guitarists, including Kent, I have used Olga.net for years to find transcribed music that I am trying to learn (in my case, so that I can play old John Prine songs out on my back porch or at a campfire, rather than having to play Leaving On a Jet Plane or whatever my friends really want me to play). In many cases the music that I would come across was wrong or incomplete, but invariably someone would correct it, or post a different file so people could try them both. Kind of like an early version of social networking.

The industry (which comes under some heavy fire from J. Botter here), is arguing that tabs are a “derivative work,” and therefore are an infringement of the original artist’s copyright. Sadly, at least one lawyer (and guitarist) thinks that they might be right, and that the principle of “fair use” might not be enough to allow Olga and other sites like it to survive. I hope that he is wrong.

I think Thomas Vander Wal is right when he says this it is just another example of the tension between sharing and owning. More discussion here. And in a crashing irony, Joe Gratz — a recent law-school graduate — says the original closure of Olga was one of the things that got him interested in studying copyright law.

The eternal question — what is a blog?

It’s been quite a week for meta-blogging (that is, blogging about blogging). First we had Nick Carr taking on what he called the “innocent fraud” of the open blogosphere, and now we have A-list blogger and blog-bible author Robert Scoble — ex of Microsoft — sparking a furore over what a blog is. Next, of course, we need Bill Clinton to help us define what the meaning of the word “is” is. But I digress.

The tough part about blogging where the Scobleizer is concerned is that he is way faster than I am. He’s not in Kedrosky-esque territory, but he’s getting close. In the time between when I first spotted the discussion he started on Techmeme and when I got around to writing this, he has already posted several follow-ups, and responded to dozens of comments on both his own blog posts and others. My wrists ache at the thought of that kind of output.

It all started innocently enough (don’t they all?) with a post calling bullshit on the fact that Microsoft’s Windows Live Spaces is the world’s largest blog network. Then Scoble got into it with Mike Torres from Microsoft, after noting that more than half of what the company calls blogs are private — and therefore, Scoble argued, not blogs at all. That in turn led to this post, which drew a comment from Dare Obasanjo about how Robert was being “egotistical, narrow-minded and petty.”

At this point I think I can say that Scoble lost it. How can I tell? Because Nick Douglas of Valleywag posted a comment saying simply “Scoble, this is awesome.” I don’t think Nick meant an awesome display of intelligence and wit — I think he meant a great train wreck of a debate. At one point, Scoble even mentioned that Dare’s father is the president of Nigeria, as though that had anything to do with anything. He also trotted out the book he wrote with Shel Israel and the definition of blogging contained therein (interestingly enough, Shel stops short of supporting his co-author here).

I would never accuse Scoble of posting that kind of stuff just to get traffic, but man, it would be hard to come up with anything better if he did want to do that. At one point, he had four posts at the top of techmeme, each with its own little sub-network of related posts. Eventually he admitted he was wrong and said that Stowe Boyd had one of the best takes on the whole debacle (which I would agree with).

But my personal favourite comment was from someone called Deadprogrammer, who wrote: “The blog that can be described is not the eternal Blog. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things.” We can talk about what is a good blog and what is a bad blog, or what is an effective blog, or whatever — and I have had a crack at those myself, arguing that blogs without comments are not good blogs — but to ask what is a blog? That way lies madness, Robert.

What is YouTube good for?

We all know that YouTube is the number one place for video on the Web, right? Bigger than Google and Yahoo, with 100 million videos or so every day (although MySpace is gaining). And we know that its popularity, according to some, is based largely on copyrighted content like the Lazy Sunday video and the other TV clips and music videos people post, and that other sites offer people more financial participation in the popularity of whatever they post. And we know that YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley is a superstar and that dollar figures like $1-billion get thrown around a lot.

But is copyrighted video really what YouTube is all about? Obviously, there’s plenty of copyrighted content on there — some of which may have been uploaded deliberately by the creators, such as the new music video from Ok Go (choreographed using six Treadmill exercise machines running in different directions). And then there are the ever-popular “mashup” movie trailers like Brokeback to the Future, which is quite hilarious. But a lot of what is great about YouTube (for me at least) is the other stuff — the unusual, the weird, the bizarre, the extremely personal. And I suspect a lot of other people are the same.

On one end of the spectrum there are the stupid dog and cat videos and the “Evolution of Dance,” but there are also moments of real brilliance like the clip of 12-year-old “FunTwo” playing Pachelbel’s Canon note for note on the electric guitar. And then there’s people like the geriatric British pensioner who has become an unlikely star. But one of my recent favourites is “lonelygirl15,” who is carrying on a back-and-forth relationship with her boyfriend via webcam from her room.

Why do I find this fascinating? I’m not sure (Update: I totally missed a NYT blog post about her here). Lonelygirl — whose name appears to be Bree, and whose (apparently religious) parents prevent her from going on a hike with her boyfriend Daniel — is cute, but otherwise unremarkable. She stares into her webcam and talks about being mad at her parents, and at one point she and Daniel argue on camera about something or other. And yet, most of her video clips have been downloaded more than half a million times, and some have close to a thousand comments. She is number three in the “most viewed channels” this month, and number 25 on the most-viewed of all time.

I think that’s what I find fascinating. Is talking to complete strangers about your life somewhat disturbing and even pathological? Perhaps. And yet, it seems like a natural evolution from the blog, which evolved from the diary. Already, there are commenters who assume that Daniel and Bree are acting — and perhaps they are, in a sense. Maybe they too will get their own TV deal, just like another teenaged YouTube star called Brookers. Fascinating stuff.

Update:

The NYT’s Screens blog (by reporter Virginia Heffernan) has an email response from lonelygirl15 here.

Learning from Kiko’s failure

Just a short post to note something that I think every current or prospective Web 2.0 startup should probably read — or actually, several things, all of which are related to the demise of Kiko, an AJAX-driven online calendar that got its start in Paul Graham’s YCombinator summer camp for geeks. Kiko has effectively shut down and has put itself up for sale on eBay. The first thing worth reading is a post at the blog On Startups, which looks for lessons in the failure of the well-regarded calendar app.

The post’s lessons are not exactly rocket surgery, so to speak, but they are worth reading nevertheless — including “Google is the new Microsoft” and “Have a plan B.” Equally interesting and worthwhile, ironically (since he is critical of the On Startups post), is a post by one of the members of the Kiko design team, who posted a comment to the On Startup blog with a link to his own version of the company’s demise. Richard White’s lessons go a little farther than the simplistic “Don’t take on Google” — he notes that the day Google’s calendar launched was actually one of the highest traffic days for Kiko, because all the stories mentioned it.

Among other things, Richard (whose post has a comment from Narendra Rocherolle of competitor 30boxes) notes that Kiko lost its focus at a crucial time and thus its launch was delayed — allowing 30boxes and Google to grab more of the spotlight — and that the team tried to make the app a little too feature-rich. Kiko co-founder Justin Tan also has a post-mortem in which he mentions staying focused, and argues that an online calendar is a worthwhile thing to have and not necessarily doomed to failure (Don Dodge disagrees). All in all, definitely worth reading.

Update:

Paul Graham has his own thoughts on Kiko’s demise, which boil down to “don’t fight Google”, but David at Signal vs. Noise disagrees, and Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 says that if Google is the next Microsoft then that’s actually a good thing. Umair at Bubblegeneration says not to cry for Kiko.

Nick Carr is right — sort of

As a blogger, I naturally feel compelled to add my two cents (1.8 cents U.S.) to the blogosphere pile-up over Nick Carr’s comments on A-listers and the “innocent fraud” that blog proponents purportedly promulgate — that fraud being the idea that anyone can join the conversation, that there are no barriers to entry, that quality trumps relationships or marketing, etc. To that extent, blogging often seems to consist of bloggers blogging about other bloggers blogging (is is just me, or is there an echo in here?). Call it meta-blogging.

So why do we do it — is it because we love to write, love to think, love to have debates, like to get attention, want to get linked to on Techmeme, or to boost our Technorati rankings, or to get comments and links from other bloggers we respect and/or admire and/or envy? Yes. And to sell our books or get more speaking gigs or get invited to one of Mike’s parties, and so on. I think it’s a mistake to assume that any blogger (Nick included) is fueled by one specific desire or impulse. I would expect the vast majority are motivated by at least a half dozen, some of which may even be in direct conflict with each other. That’s just the way human beings are.

To that extent, I think my M-lister friend Kent Newsome is right when he compares blogging to songwriting, and I think my old-media pal Scott Karp is also right when he compares it to screenplays or manuscripts (incidentally, I notice that hardly anyone has made note of the fact that Kent is the one who got this debate started, which I think is at least a partial refutation of the “innocent fraud” argument). And yes, Rex Hammock is also kind of right when he compares Nick to a troll.

People write screenplays and poems and songs (and paint and draw and sculpt) because they feel compelled to do so, because they believe they have something to say, because they want attention, because they want to make money, or all of the above. They may write one thing for money and another for love, and another for attention. And why do we pay attention to them? In some cases it’s because they shock, or titillate, or because they express something unique, or because they are very good at what they do — or all of the above.

I will note one thing, as I mentioned on Scott’s blog: Nick has responded to many of the people who commented on his post, but he hasn’t answered the question I posted there, which was “Why do you blog, Nick?” I’d be interested in hearing what Nick came up with for an answer, but I suspect it is “all of the above.”