Hey Doc — how about allowing comments?

I know I’ve been kind of a one-shtick pony on the whole blogs and comment meme, but when I spot an opportunity to flog a dead horse I just can’t pass it up. In this case, it’s the recent post by Doc Searls in which he laments the fact that he is a “gatekeeper” in the new media universe. Why would he think that? Because Seth Finkelstein, a Web 2.0 sociologist of sorts, told him so.

Doc says he doesn’t want to be a mean old gatekeeper, since he got pushed around a lot when he was younger, and so he says that he’s happy to help subvert whatever “A-lister” hierarchy has grown up in the blogosphere:

It pains me to think I’m being cruel without knowing it to a blogger who’s trying just as hard as I am — or maybe harder — to make sense of things. So, if that’s what I did with that post, my apologies to Tristan, Scott, Seth and anybody else who took offense. I’ll just add that, if ya’ll want to subvert some hierarchies, including the one you see me in now, I’d like to help.

Here’s a suggestion, Doc: How about allowing comments on your blog? Yes, it’s a pain in the ass, and yes there are going to be a lot that piss you off or get in your face. That’s part of opening yourself up — and I would submit that not having them is one of the signs that you think of yourself as an A-list gatekeeper who is above the sturm und drang of the hoi polloi (to mangle metaphors in two different languages). Even Dave Winer has decided to open his blogging up to comments, although in typical Winer-esque fashion he’s only doing it in a limited way and is grumbling about it the whole time.

Adam Green of Darwinian Web has a nice thought too, Doc: Let at least one new blogger through the gate every day. I would second that — but I also think having public comments (rather than the forums you have to sign up for that you currently have) would send a message of inclusiveness as well. Obviously, you don’t have to do this. As I tried to point out before, I’m not saying everyone has to have comments — but I do think it makes a difference. Maybe you’re like Russell Beattie and you don’t care. But given your recent post, I have a hunch that you do.

P.S. Shelley over at Burningbird has some thoughts too, about how the A-listers could do a bit more to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk. As she puts it:

I have no respect for the linking/attention games played and those who play them, and neither should you. When you see this bullshit, call it bullshit. This will do more to ‘tear down the gates’ then begging an A lister, even a nice one like Doc, for a link.

Thou dost protest too much, Robert

The Scobleizer is more than a tad upset that everyone is so excited by Google’s hosted Gmail project (he calls some of the posts “rewritten press releases”) and complains that no one is giving Microsoft any love, despite the fact that its Live domain project has been around for awhile now, and apparently has about 20 universities up and running already.

As I mentioned in a comment on Robert’s post (which you can see in the sidebar, in my CoComents box), that’s a fair point, but to drag the whole conflict of interest bogeyman into it just because a few bloggers run Google ads is way over the top – and it demeans his argument. Like Nick Carr, I find the whole thing a little bizarre. For the record, I’ve made a total of about $0.07 from my Google ads. It’s fine to complain about what you think is unfair treatment, but to impugn the motives of a host of people like Paul Kedrosky is offside (Paul’s hilarious response is here).

The bigger question, of course, is why Google’s move got so much “press” and Microsoft’s didn’t. The simple answer is that Google is cool and Microsoft is not. When it comes to email and hosted applications, Google is the upstart competitor and Microsoft is the dominant player – who wants to root for the dominant player? No one. People like to cheer for the underdog (although I admit that calling a company with a market cap of $110-billion an underdog seems a little odd).

I also find it interesting that at Dare Obasanjo’s blog, right underneath his post complaining about how little attention Microsoft gets for things, is a post about how confused the company’s marketing is when it comes to MSN and Live.com. Could that be part of the problem? Vinnie Mirchandani of Deal Architect thinks the lack of marketing support might have something to do with Microsoft’s desire to avoid cannibalizing Outlook. And old-media defender Scott Karp thinks bloggers need some kind of “Chinese wall.”

Google wants to host your company’s email

A couple of days ago, Garrett Rogers of ZDNet posted an item about something interesting he found while poking around in the Javascript source code for Google’s Gmail: the word “domain.” Putting two and two together, he theorized that Gmail would soon be offering a hosted email solution for anyone with a domain of their own – such as a corporation, for example, or a university. In other words, Google would be your email administrator, but the email would look like it came from your domain.

Nice work, Garrett – because that’s exactly what Google has done. First there was a note on the Google blog about the company providing a hosted email service for San Jose City College – which was spotted by eagle-eyed Nick Carr of Rough Type, who posted a comment called “Google attacks Outlook.” In case you thought he was exaggerating just a tad, Google then put up its hosted service beta, which was spotted by the equally eagle-eyed Paul Kedrosky.

Not to be inflammatory, but I think this is huge. Yes, some companies will be concerned about letting an outside provider host their mail, just as there are people who don’t use Gmail because they don’t trust the company, or don’t want even robotic eyes looking through their messages – or because they are worried about the government forcing Google to deliver email to the authorities.

Despite all that, I think there will be plenty of companies – particularly small ones – as well as universities and other users who will be more than happy to get out from under the thumb of Microsoft Exchange/Outlook, although as my friend Rob Hyndman notes, the MSFT package still has a lot of things that Gmail doesn’t when it comes to being a PIM. Phil Sim of Squash, meanwhile, thinks that hosted Gmail is just one more tool to lock you in, and Zack Handley says that many companies would probably find that Gmail is more than enough.

See my update here.

iStockPhoto of Calgary gets bought by Getty

Who says there’s no Web-buyout action going on in the Great White North? It may not compare with Yahoo buying Flickr or del.icio.us in terms of visibility, but in the world of downloadable stock photography, iStockPhoto.com – based in my former home town of Calgary, Alberta – has been one of the early stars, and so it’s interesting to find out that they have been acquired by stock photo giant Getty Images for about $50-million (U.S.). Thanks to Thomas Hawk for pointing that one out.

Along with Corbis (owned by Bill Gates), Getty is one of the largest players in the industry. If you see a classic or iconic shot in a newspaper or magazine or on a website, there are good odds it belongs to Getty. There’s more information on the buyout at an online photo magazine called Photo District News Online, and much discussion at StockPhotoTalk, run by Andy Goetze, who mentioned a rumour that Getty would buy iStockPhoto in a post three weeks ago.

According to the reports, Getty will continue to operate iStockPhoto.com as a separate unit, run by iStockPhoto CEO Bruce Livingstone and about 30 employees (a nice payout for them). As far as I can tell, this is one of the first signs that the world of big, expensive, global stock-photo companies such as Getty and Corbis has started to pay attention to the small, inexpensive, Web-distributed model being pursued by iStockPhoto, Fotolia.com and others.

As Thomas Hawk mentions in his post, imagine what Yahoo could do if it started trying to monetize some of the photos in Flickr. And if you want to explore this topic further, Alan Meckler of Jupitermedia.com – which also owns a stock-photo company – has some thoughts here, and StockAsylum notes that Getty is trying to soothe the ruffled feathers of its professional photographer suppliers, who might think it is going down-market.

Edgeio could become like Craigslist 2.0

In addition to running the very influential Web 2.0 site TechCrunch.com, and writing a blog called CrunchNotes.com, Mike Arrington has been working on a startup of his own called Edgeio (along with Keith Teare) – which Rob Hof of BusinessWeek got a demo of recently. Some might wonder why another kind of classified service is worth getting excited about, but the Edgeio model has an interesting and potentially disruptive twist. In a nutshell, listings of things for sale don’t have to be posted to a service such as eBay.com or Craigslist.com or BuyMyUselessCrap.com – they can live on your own blog or website, or anywhere. If they are tagged “listing,” Edgeio simply grabs them and indexes them.

This is the kind of extension of the “tagging” idea that really starts you thinking about what could be accomplished by simply tagging different items in a certain way and then indexing them. In a sense, it’s the ultimate expression of the “microchunking” idea, as venture capitalist Fred Wilson “edge” expert Umair Haque of Bubblegeneration calls it (thanks for the note, Umair). Let people find what they want wherever it happens to be. Tag a post on your blog “music review” and have it aggregrated; tag it with any number of other tags, and have them sorted and aggregated.

It’s a powerful idea, and in a way it accomplishes what the “structured blogging” crowd have been trying to get at, without all the coding and formatting. As Craig Donato of the classified search engine Oodle.com mentions in the comments below this post, there is also the “microformats” project, which is discussed here and an example of which can be seen here. A Swiss startup called Ichiba seems to be going for the same market, judging by the explanatory cartoon on their website.

On a somewhat related note, it will be interesting to see what kinds of conflicts of interest get declared when Mike launches Edgeio, given the recent story in the WSJ. Adam Green has more on that angle. Dave Winer, for one (who is an advisor to Edgeio), is already congratulating himself and wishing himself much success.”

Update:

As several people have pointed out to me, including one person whose comment appears below this post, what Edgeio has in mind isn’t exactly easy to do – the sheer brute strength required to somehow find and exclude all the inevitable spam listings would be similar to what Google and eBay.com have to do every day to prevent themselves from being deluged with fakery and phishing. So Mike and his company have set a pretty high bar to jump over, and it will be interesting to see if the product lives up to the promise.

The blogosphere is growing up

I’ve been expecting something like this to happen for awhile now: my friend Paul Kedrosky points to a story in the Wall Street Journal that looks at all the attention the “share your Wi-Fi” startup FON got after announcing an investment from Google, Skype and Index Ventures.

As the story notes, some of that attention came from people who sit on the advisory board at the company, including “citizen journalism” pioneer Dan Gillmor, David Weinberger of Joho the blog, technology lawyer and blogger Wendy Seltzer, tech commentator and Berkman Fellow David Isenberg (who has a response here) and Ethan Zuckerman of My heart’s in Accra.

Is that a big deal? Probably not. And the WSJ story has more than a little whiff of muck-raking about it, since it insinuates that all of the coverage was driven by the prospect of personal gain. I don’t know Dan Gillmor (who started bayosphere.com), but he seems like a fairly decent guy, and I don’t think he would do that. The story also mentions Mike Arrington of TechCrunch.com, but doesn’t say whether he’s advising FON or not – it just says that he doesn’t usually write about companies after he becomes an advisor.

But while the story doesn’t have a lot of actual meat, it does get one wondering why there was so little discussion (apart from at Om Malik’s blog, Glenn Fleishman’s and here) about the gaffe involving whether Speakeasy had an agreement with FON or not. The story also contains this helpful overview of the problem of conflicts of interest in the blogoverse:

That can be a murky issue in today’s clubby blogosphere, where many people including venture capitalists, lawyers and journalists write about Web issues and companies — and often, each other — with little editing. The rebound in Silicon Valley’s economy, coupled with the popularity of cheap, easy-to-use blogging tools, means there are more aspiring commentators than ever opining about start-ups and tech trends on the Web. And increasingly, it is difficult to discern their allegiances.

The point is a good one. Bloggers, particularly those who advise or sit on the boards of startups, and receive either cash or stock, are walking a fine line. Even those who regularly party with the founders and receive exclusive looks at things, like TechCrunch.com does, are walking a fine line. As the blogosphere grows up, that will become more and more of an issue, and it will help determine how others see the blogging “industry.” Adam Green of Darwinian Web, who was one of the first to pick up on Paul’s post, has a longer and more in-depth look at the various bloggers involved, and Seth Finkelstein has some thoughts too.

Update:

Doc Searls says that he has changed his bio page to include disclosures about his interest in various things, an idea he based on the Disclosures page that Berkman Center director John Palfrey (of TopTenSources.com fame) has. And Nick Carr has some worthwhile thoughts over at his Rough Type blog. Glenn Fleishman has also posted more about it on his personal blog, as have David Weinberger and Ethan Zuckerman.

It’s interesting to see the range of reactions from those involved — all the way from outrage and defensiveness (perhaps deserved) to a grudging acceptance that more disclosure might be required. Tristan Louis thinks the FON affair says a lot about how A-list bloggers have become the new “gatekeepers”, a topic my friend Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has written about more than once as well. Meanwhile, Mitch Ratcliffe has a long and thoughtful – and conflicted – post on it at ZDNet, and Kent Newsome has some thoughts as well.

Vonage pulls the trigger – out of desperation?

So VOIP pioneer Vonage has finally pulled the trigger on its much-rumoured IPO, hoping to raise up to $250-million. Over the past year there has been repeated whispering that the company was planning a stock offering – but then the rumours changed their tone, and Vonage was reported to be in talks about being acquired. Then everything went quiet. As Andy Abramson noted almost exactly a year ago, the company has been burning through money at a tremendous rate.

As my Canadian tech-blogging colleague Mark Evans notes in his take on the news the SEC filing from Vonage states the company had revenues of about $174-million (U.S.) in the nine months ended in September, and racked up losses of $189-million or so in that same period . The vast majority of those costs were for marketing, which isn’t surprising given that Vonage has been blanketing the Web and the airwaves over the last year.

Needless to say, that’s not a terribly attractive business model – which implies that founder Jeffrey Citron (who also founded online stock-trading firm Datek Online, which he later sold) – has gotten a little desperate about his ability to cash out his significant investment in the company. And he might be right to feel a little desperate, considering the fact that VOIP from cable companies, Skype and other forces – including a possible Google VOIP offering – is turning up the heat.

According to a recent survey by Sandvine, the share of VOIP minutes that broadband providers control has gone from 18 per cent last year to 53 per cent, while Vonage has 22 per cent. Good luck with that IPO, Vonage. At least Jeff Pulver might get a little something out of it.

Apple stock heads south

Call it the “Dell curse.” On January 13, Apple’s stock-market value vaulted past Dell’s for the first time, and there was no shortage of gloating in the Apple camp. In fact, co-founder and chief executive officer Steve Jobs couldn’t resist sending out a congratulatory email to Apple employees. And who could blame him? In 1997, just after Mr. Jobs rejoined Apple, Dell founder Michael Dell had said the beleaguered company should wind up its business and give the money to shareholders. So a little gloating was probably not surprising.

Unfortunately for Apple, however, the fates don’t appear to look too kindly on gloating. The same day that Mr. Jobs sent that email, Apple’s share price turned around and started heading south, and it hasn’t stopped since. It closed at $85.59 (U.S.) that day, giving the company a market value of about $72-billion. On Tuesday, however, it was trading at $68, putting Apple’s market value at $57.6-billion. Dell’s market value, in case you’re keeping score at home, is just a hair under the $70-billion mark.

When it comes right down to it, Apple and Dell don’t really compete, so comparing the two based on their market value isn’t really that relevant (unless you work at Apple and like to hold a grudge). The larger point is that the company’s share price has been sinking for the past month or so, and has lost more than 20 per cent of its value. Has the market fallen out of love with the reborn consumer electronics superstar, or did expectations just get too high? Or is it simply a blip while the market adjusts to the new Macs that are coming — the ones with Intel chips inside?

A company that is growing as quickly as Apple has been lately, with revenue increases of 60 to 70 per cent in a quarter and profit growth as good or better — and Google would also fall into that category — poses a problem for the stock market. So-called “momentum traders” are happy to trade on the assumption that such growth will continue forever, and thereby keep pushing the shares higher and higher. But “value” investors know that such growth inevitably comes to an end, and therefore they are likely to get nervous when a company with sales of about $16-billion is selling for more than $75-billion. Any sign of weakness will tend to make the latter group sell.

In this case, the signs of weakness came in two forms. The first was when Apple released its quarterly results and its outlook for the rest of the year, which occurred about a week after the comment about the company’s market value surpassing Dell’s. The most recent quarter was a blockbuster: revenue rose by 64 per cent to $5.75-billion, net income almost doubled to more than half a billion dollars, and Apple sold more than 14 million iPods during the three-month period. As a sign of how big a role its iPod sales now play, as opposed to its original computer business, sales of Apple’s digital music and video players hit $2.9-billion in the quarter, eclipsing sales of Macintosh computers for the first time.

While those results were as good as or better than the market expected, the sheer size of the iPod business started some analysts thinking about how dependent the company has become on the iPod — and how selling low-priced consumer devices is a very different business than selling high-margin computer products. As one analyst put it, the pressure is now on Apple to keep one-upping itself with cooler and cooler gadgets, such as new iPod Nano the company announced Tuesday, in order to keep the pace of growth that the stock market has come to rely on. In a sense, Apple has to run faster and faster just to keep its stock in the same place. Although Apple appears to have plenty of tricks up its sleeve — including rumours about a home-theatre product — that is still a very risky game to play.

The second weakness involves the release of the new Intel-powered Macs, which Apple has already started to roll out. While the announcement that the company would be switching to Intel chips was cheered by many Apple users, it also created a bit of a problem for the company — the problem being that plenty of consumers who are in the market for a new computer are likely to delay (and have been delaying, according to Apple) their purchases because they want the new, faster machines. As a result, the company reduced its outlook for the current quarter, and that disappointed some fans of the stock.

Is the weakness in the share price a permanent thing? That’s hard to say. If sales of the new Intel Macs are as hot as fans expect, then the stock could very well look undervalued, particularly if iPod sales keep up at the same rate they have over the past few quarters. And there’s no question that at $68 a share, the stock is probably a lot less risky than it was when it was $85 a share. But in a sense, Apple is in a wait-and-see period, and many investors are likely to wait on the sidelines until it becomes clear which path the company is likely to take.

Is a blog without comments still a blog?

Blogger and Yahoo employee Russell Beattie has been taking a fair bit of flack for removing comments from his blog – and seems more than a little defensive about it, from what I can see. Fair enough. As he points out, it’s his blog and he can run it however he wants to. He says he got fed up with having to weed out the flames and spam, and also was spending too much of his time responding to comments, so he’s returning to “old-school blogging.”

With all due respect to Russell, I’m not sure blogging without comments constitutes “old-school blogging,” although I admit that the blogosphere’s eminence grise, Dave Winer, kind of screws up my argument by not allowing comments on his blog. But even Dave has come around of late, it seems, since he has a second WordPress blog where he does allow comments. In fact, I would argue that a website isn’t even a blog at all unless it includes comments, and I know that others agree. Don’t get me wrong – a blog without comments might still be valuable, but it’s not really a blog.

Russell says that now everyone has blogs, they can just respond to him on their blog if they don’t like something he says, or want to get in touch with him – and other than that, they can hunt for his email address in his “About” page and get to him that way. As more than one person has pointed out, it’s ironic that Russell decided to do this only days after a new comment-tracking feature called CoComment.com came out (which I am beta-testing and so far quite like, but more on that another time).

As anyone who has read my previous posts will know, I think the “conversation” is part of what makes blogs so powerful (even if it’s more of an argument :-)), so I’m disappointed Russ has done what he’s done. It’s his blog, and so I wouldn’t presume to tell him what to do, but I still think it’s a mistake.

Update:

Kent Newsome has some thoughts on the subject too (thanks for the compliments, Kent) and it’s probably a fair point that Russell’s views might have been influenced by the cease and desist letter he got recently – although he didn’t mention that in his post. I would also recommend – not surprisingly – that anyone reading this should look through the comments. There’s more good stuff in there, which kind of helps make my point.

Dave Winer has also clearly caved in under the convincing weight of my arguments and decided to get back in the comment game (hat tip to Kent Newsome for noticing). Just kidding about the caving part, Dave.

Google and Orwell? Come on, people

On the assumption that posting at least two comments about something on two separate blogs means I feel strongly about it, I’ve decided to wade into the whole Google-BMW fray. So here goes:

Can’t we save the term Orwellian for something really meaningful, like a state taking some kind of oppressive action against its own citizens, or using doublespeak in the service of some great wrong? Using it to describe an Internet search engine engaging in the site-indexing business is more than a little over-the-top, I would argue. Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0, who has said in the past that he wishes bloggers would take more time with their posts and not say things just to be inflammatory, says he wonders whether “total power [will] totally corrupt Google.”

Just one question, Scott: Since when does Google have anything approaching “total power?” It’s a search engine, for pete’s sake. It indexes websites. Yes, it cut off BMW’s German site because they used hidden front pages to try and game the indexing and page-rank process – which Google has made clear is not allowed. So their site was removed. But despite the inflammatory rhetoric everyone loves to use to make it seem a lot more exciting than it really is, this is hardly a “death penalty.” There are plenty of other search engines.

Google’s market share isn’t even close to giving it the kind of dominance that would justify a term like “total power,” or make removing a site the equivalent of cutting off BMW’s “oxygen supply,” as my friend Paul Kedrosky describes it. And for Scott to mutter darkly about whether his post on the subject might earn him the wrath of the great Google, or for Alex Muse of Texas Venture Capital to wonder whether doing so might affect his page-rank is just ridiculous. Surely there are some really important issues out there that we could all be devoting some time to instead of this.