The new kid vs. the veteran

One of the things causing a lot of buzz in the blogosphere lately — apart from the rumours spreading like wildfire that facial-recognition startup Riya, profiled recently by TechCrunch, may be acquired by Google for as much as $60-million — is the debate over the incredible growth of Digg.com, which according to Alexa is getting close to passing the venerable Slashdot.org in terms of Internet traffic.

However you feel about that, the rise of Digg has been pretty incredible, considering it was started just a little over a year ago by Kevin Rose, one of the former hosts of TechTV. People have already started to complain about their websites crashing after a link was posted on Digg, similar to the way people used to talk about getting “slashdotted.” In fact, for part of the day today Wired.com seemed to be having problems, perhaps because a story on the company was the number one link on Digg.

As several people have commented on Slashdot — effectively providing support for their own argument — the main benefit of Digg seems to be speed in finding new links and stories (although this ranking site seems to disagree), and the main weakness seems to be the moronic level of commentary. By contrast, while Slashdot has its share of idiots (not to mention pedants) the main strength of Slashdot is the comments, which often add a huge amount of depth. As one person put it, Digg doesn’t have a “soul.”

In other words, they aren’t really competing with each other. Each is useful in different ways. I must admit I look at both, and often find myself getting more out of Slashdot’s comments than I do from Digg’s quick hits.

Don’t buy blogs — partner with them

It hasn’t been that long since America Online bought Jason Calacanis’s Weblogs Inc. stable for a reported $25-million (U.S.) — and now comes another deal that is the polar opposite. From whom? None other than Jason’s old nemesis and polar opposite himself, Nick Denton of Gawker.com and Gizmodo.com and so many other great blogs. When Jason sold his company and became part of AOL, Mr. Denton made it clear that he thought that was a mistake, and many seemed to agree — and so instead of selling, Nick has partnered with Yahoo to distribute his blog postings from a number of blogs through various Yahoo hubs (the news comes via buzzmachine.com and before that via paidcontent.org).

As the ever-astute Jeff Jarvis of buzzmachine.com points out in a post on the topic, Nick’s choice seems to be the smarter of the two. Yes, the Weblogs Inc. team cashed in for a big payout, but for a blog network it seems to make much more sense to piggy-back on the distribution and marketing of a giant such as Yahoo or AOL, not get swallowed up by it. As Scott Moore of Yahoo tells Rafat Ali at paidcontent.org, the move is part of a strategy to become “more blog aware and blogcentric,” and it is not an exclusive deal, meaning Gawker Media can do similar deals with others. For what it’s worth, I would vote with Nick on this one. Susan Mernit seems to like it too.

Update: Jason Calacanis has posted his thoughts on the Gawker/Yahoo deal, and he says it’s great news for the medium. He also notes that his deal with AOL allows him to do distribution deals with whoever he wants — which may be true, but ownership is still different than partnering.

This debate is almost Audible

The audio service known as Audible.com, which has been around for a number of years and — to be fair — was way out in front of the downloadable audio game, set off a bit of a firestorm when it announced a service that would allow podcasters to distribute their content in its proprietary .aa format, which would make it easier for them to track it and insert ads into the audio stream. Dave Winer of scripting.com, who helped pioneer podcasting along with former MTV video jockey Adam Curry, jumped on the company for using a proprietary format, and said that they were “trying to make podcasting into a replay of previous media.” Om Malik of gigaom.com said that Audible was trying to “hijack a popular trend.”

So far, so good — fair comment and all that. And both men have a point: Audible’s service may have useful features that MP3s do not, such as tracking, but it’s still a proprietary format controlled by one company. Convincing others to use such a proprietary format instead of an open standard is something Microsoft has caught flack for, and quite rightly. In any case, Mitch Ratcliffe — who helped Audible develop the service — waded into the fray and the debate quickly got personal. He responded that Om and Winer were either missing the point or being deliberately unfair to Audible, and then he called Winer a thief for downloading audio without paying for it, and said that he could have sold his weblogs.com service for more than the $2.3-million he got if he had only invested more in it along the way.

Both Om and Dave responded quite reasonably to these unfair jabs, but Ratcliffe has refused to back down. Meanwhile, Nicholas Carr of roughtype.com has taken a refreshingly middle-of-the-road stance on the whole affair. Why do such debates — which are theoretically about the technology — often descend into ad hominem attacks? That’s one for the psychologists to answer.

Hey Sony — wake up

Here’s a column I posted at globeandmail.com about Sony’s DRM rootkit fiasco:

“For a company that has so much great technology behind it, including a number of firsts like the compact disc and the portable music player, Sony Corp. often seems to behave more like a dinosaur — and a slow-moving, club-footed dinosaur at that. A case in point is the company’s recent ham-handed attempt to protect some of its music CDs by installing anti-copying software on its customers’ computers. A simple thing, you might think. Plenty of other companies do it. Sony, however, has managed to turn what should have been a non-event into a public-relations disaster, one that has helped to cement its reputation as the technology giant with the best technology and the worst execution.

The company has said that it will stop using the “rootkit”-style copy-protection software — first discovered and publicized by Mark Russinovich on his blog — but the damage has already been done. Not only does Sony look stupid as well as sneaky, but a list of the artists whose CDs have been “protected” by the company’s technology has been published far and wide. Is anyone going to rush out and buy those particular discs, or are they going to stay as far away from them as possible? If I were an artist with Sony Music (such as Canada’s Our Lady Peace), I would consider asking the company to compensate me for the effects of its reverse PR.

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Are you a user or a slave?

Robert Scoble of scobleizer.wordpress.com has an interesting post on his blog in which he tries to get at the question of Web 2.0 services whose “content,” as it were, is produced by its users — something like Flickr.com being an obvious example. The pictures are uploaded by others, they are shared with the community, and Flickr derives revenue from that and from ads that run alongside the pictures. WordPress.com (which hosts Scoble’s site, and whose software powers this one as well) does the same thing with blogs, and for that matter Google.com does the same thing by aggregating other people’s content and then selling ads related to it. What does that make you and I? “Content generator” makes it sound like some kind of soulless, Matrix-style factory. Participant? Partner? Content provider?

Anil Dash has also wrestled with this issue, not so much the naming of it but the relationship between the content service and you the person whose stuff drives the service (Caterina Fake of Flickr responded to Anil here, and Matthew Gertner responded too as did The Teutonic Spectator, who made some good points). For me, the equation comes down to why you do what you do — put pictures on Flickr, or post blog entries, or whatever. Presumably you do so because you want people to see and/or read them. The service you use — WordPress, MSN Spaces, Blogger, Flickr — helps you to do that, and then takes a cut of the attention that people are paying you by looking at your pictures or reading your blog. That doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, especially if it keeps the service free.

Sun, Google — and Gdrive?

Jonathan Schwartz, chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, gave a couple of hints recently about what Sun and Google might be working on as part of their collaboration, the one that got everyone (including yours truly) salivating about a Web-based Office suite. On his blog, Jonathan mentioned that lots of people have a need to retrieve documents and files from different computers at different times (the Sun exec has 5 computers and multiple laptops) which makes the idea of storing your files on a shared network drive somewhere more and more attractive (just one question: why not just use a USB thumb drive, Jon?). In other words, perhaps a “Gdrive” run by Google or a version of Sun’s “Grid Utility” network, which according to some critics has very few customers.

Says Jon: “The two features every single user needs are: Save, and Open. So wouldn’t it be interesting if rather than exploring your local file system on your local PC, the Save and Open panels simply looked to a network account on Sun’s Grid? Shareable like any of the mainstream photo services are today? Or how about saving to that 2.5Gb allowance Google gave you in your GMail account? And wouldn’t it be great if you could save to ODF, or translate to Microsoft Word, or generate a podcast or mp3 file – on the fly? From within any app? That would certainly put into question why you’d want to shell out $500 for Microsoft’s Office 12 when OpenOffice.org was free, cross platform, more innovative, and just more for your money. And enabled by the biggest names on the internet.” Sounds like a plan.

In the interim, you can do as Mr. Schwartz suggests and use your Gmail storage as a file system if you wish, and you can also add your name to a petition asking Google to please provide a Gdrive-type service — it’s at petitiononline.com.

Visto, RIM in for “world of hurt?”

Visto — the wireless e-mail provider whose service competes with similar “push” e-mail services from Seven Networks, Good Technology, Intellisync and of course Waterloo’s own Research In Motion — has raised another $70-million (U.S.) in financing from a bunch of venture capital groups, including Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Oak Partners, bringing the total it has raised to more than $230-million. According to a VC named Bill Burnham, who used to work at Softbank and before that was a Wall Street analyst, Good has raised a similar amount of money. Mr. Burnham feels that this is insane, given the fact that Microsoft has added push e-mail features to its Exchange server software and included them as a free upgrade.

He has a point. And what does this mean for Good and Seven and Visto? As far as Mr. Burnham is concerned, they are in for “a world of hurt.” As for RIM, he predicts it will “see its value cut by 30-50% in the next 12 months.” An aggressive forecast, but not out of the realm of possibility. Most businesses already have Exchange servers, which they are not only comfortable with but have invested a lot of time and money in, and now along comes a free upgrade that provides push e-mail to any Windows device — which will soon include the Palm Treo handheld, now that Palm has done a deal with the Beast from Redmond. An interesting time to be pouring money into a wireless e-mail vendor such as Visto. (via gigaom.com)

Netvibes rules — hear that, Bill?

The new Windows Live initiative that Microsoft launched with much fanfare recently — which was followed up by the two “sea change” memos from Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie — included an AJAX-driven customizable webpage at www.live.com, which was kind of buggy but promised to allow users to design their own home page and include RSS feeds of their choice, as well as other content. Which is a great idea, except for one thing: not only is Google already doing this to some extent with its home page, but a little startup called Netvibes.com is already doing it way better than either one of them.

I used to run my own RSS aggregator and feed reader based on a Linux server in my basement (running Debian and “feed on feeds” if you’re interested), but lately I’ve been using Netvibes.com, and it is fantastic. It is fast, customizable, accepts almost any feed — including tag-targeted feeds from Technorati.com — and updates the feeds automatically. Clicking a link opens a window with the item, and a link to open it in a new browser tab or window. When you’re done reading a feed, a simple click on a small arrow at the top of the box with the feed in it “rolls up” the window. You can also add a weather applet and a search box, and of course like most AJAX-y pages, you can drag all the boxes around and arrange them any way you want. Fast. Simple. Easy. Free.

Bill tries to rally the troops — again

The hot topic on various tech websites and blogs is Microsoft’s attempt to rally its troops and attack the new Web services market — an attempt that comes 10 years almost to the day after Microsoft tried to turn its giant ship around and get religion with respect to the Internet, a campaign that began with the famous “Internet tidal ave” memo from Bill Gates. This one begins with two memos: one from Bill G. and one from his new chief technology officer Ray Ozzie, one of the co-creators of IBM’s Lotus Notes and co-founder of Groove Networks. Tech guru Dave Winer managed to get hold of the two memos and has posted the full text of them on his website.

They make for very interesting reading — even if, as Dave and John Battelle suspect, they were written with the expectation that they would be leaked (Shelley at Burningbird thinks so too and Good Morning Silicon Valley says it might as well have been a press release.). If nothing else, the memos make it clear that Ray Ozzie is the new visionary at Microsoft, as Nicholas Carr points out on his blog. Om Malik says that despite the vision, Microsoft still appears to be looking in the rear-view mirror and ignoring the move to mobile devices or non-PC devices in their new vision. Robert Scoble says Microsofties are calling the Bill G. memo the “birthday memo” in honour of their supreme leader recently turning 50. Happy birthday, Bill.

Column: Call it YahooVo?

Here’s a column I posted at globeandmail.com about rumours that Yahoo might acquire TiVo:

“In what was no doubt a welcome ray of sunshine for shareholders of TiVo, the maker of personal video recorders announced a deal with Internet portal and search engine company Yahoo, which will allow TiVo owners to click a TV listing on Yahoo’s pages and automatically record shows on their PVR. This gave a small boost to TiVo’s somewhat beleaguered shares, but unfortunately the warm glow of the deal didn’t last for very long — the shares lost ground on Tuesday, the day after the announcement, and are still down by more than 50 per cent from their peak early last year.

Not surprisingly, the deal with Yahoo renewed the speculation that TiVo might be an acquisition target — if not for Yahoo then for Google, or Microsoft, or AOL, or maybe your Aunt Phyllis (that last one is just a joke). It might be stretching things a little to say that behind every TiVo takeover rumour there stands a disgruntled shareholder, but at this point an acquisition of the company seems to be about the only thing that might breathe some life into the share price. Although it more or less invented the PVR market, TiVo hasn’t been able to capitalize on that “first-mover” advantage, and so has been forced to watch the world pass it by.

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