When I worked at Yahoo it was at the height of a cultural trend called Web 2.0. The fashion was to put stickers of various startups all over the front of your laptop so people could see how hip you were. I was running into many interesting people so I took a different approach and asked them to sign my laptop with a sharpie instead.
When the laptop started to give out, before handing it back Yahoo IT and took a snapshot for posterity.
Here are some of the names. Click on the photo above to go to the Flickr page that has them tagged.
Ever since it began selling ads 10 years ago, Facebook has been combating doubts about its value to marketers. Search engines like Google offer advertisers a direct link to people seeking out particular products, while television remains the dominant way to reach a mass audience. Now, Facebook claims, it can provide the best of both.
Facebook stock sailed past analyst expectations last month and its stock hit an all time high. It looks like brand advertisers are coming on board now that Facebook has the audience to fulfill the promise of hitting targeted demographics, at scale.
This should be cause for concern at Yahoo (not mentioned in the NYT article) who was the traditional online goto for brand advertisers. The market has since spoken.
I had a listen to the second part to This American Life’s excellent two part series on patent trolls (the first part is here) and how the use of weaponized software patents is squashing innovation.
The podcast outlined the plight of entrepreneurs too afraid to start business for fears of being sued out of existence by shell companies that own broadly defined patents for no other purpose than to shake down founders too cash strapped to defend themselves. While listening, I recalled an episode that took place while at Yahoo where we were the victim of exactly this type of attack. Here’s how it went down.
It was late-2007 when Todd Sampson, the co-founder of MyBlogLog, the small social network acquired by Yahoo earlier that year, contacted me to tell me that we (Todd and I worked together at MBL while I was at Yahoo) had been contacted by a small company in Israel called Girafa notifying us that the screenshots used on the site were in violation of a patent owned by Girafa.
It was a classic shakedown. Girafa explained that they were preparing a lawsuit in the amount of $5 million but there was an out. We could avoid litigation if we licensed their software. The price? $5 million.
You can imagine our surprise. Todd has tied together a couple of open-sourced software packages to create a screenshot process that ran on an old PC that literally sat under one of the engineer’s desks. The software was a bit temperamental and would sometimes fall over. We would get complaints for users that their website needed a refreshed screenshot which was our queue to go over and restart the screenshotter machine. It happened enough times to be a minor pain in the neck so we were open to licensed software or web service that was a bit more stable but $5 million was certainly more than we were willing to pay.
Yahoo legal was on the case and they told us that not only MyBlogLog but also delicious and Yahoo Bookmarks were named in the suit along with Alexa (part of Amazon) as well as a few other companies were also part of the suit. All during the course of the lawsuit, we had to have several meetings with the legal team at Yahoo (who were great) but also had to keep copies of all our correspondence and take care when we eventually moved the machine to a Yahoo data center to ensure the screenshot software was not integrated with any other parts of the Yahoo infrastructure to ensure that other divisions in Yahoo couldn’t get ensnared in the lawsuit. At some point Todd had to give a deposition and he even spent an afternoon over at the Internet Archive looking through the Wayback Machine archives to locate old screenshots from HotWired which we remembered used to take screenshots of sites back in late-90’s.
I left Yahoo before I heard what happened so, after listening to the This American Life podcast, I poked around to find out the rest of the story.
I am not a lawyer but from what I can tell, the lawsuit was initially thrown out in late-2008 but documents and paperwork continued to be filed (in hopes of continuing the suit?) all the way into late 2010.Thge Girafa nonsense tied up the courts for a solid three years. Think of the untold wasted hours!
In June of 2011, Google swooped in and purchased Girafa’s patents, supposedly as insurance against any action against Google’s use of thumbnails in their instant preview search results feature. Let’s hope the Girafa patent will stay dormant where it is and not be unleashed again by its new owners to cause a new round of havoc and hand-wringing.
If you go to girafa.com there’s a sad notice that the service has been discontinued. A sad final chapter for a service that caused nothing but pain and consternation.
This was the weekend everyone signed up and joined Highlight or Glancee. TechCrunch has written about it and Robert Scoble has been going on about how viral these location-based services are. No doubt about it, these new apps which run in the background on your phone and let you know when someone you know (or might like to know) in in your proximity, are going to be all the rage at SouthbySouthwest.
If you don’t know the details of how these services work, read Scoble’s review (The Two Hottest Apps You’ll “Run Into” at SXSW) where he goes into depth on both Highlight and Glancee. These “people discovery apps” (Scoble’s term) have been around before (Sonar and Loopt to name a few) but I would agree with Scoble that the timing is right this year for the early-adopter types descending on Austin next week to take these services to the next level.
I’ve been using both apps for a few weeks and can see how they could be useful while travelling and open to meeting new people. They are especially powerful when there is a compelling reason driving you to make new connections. Trade shows and conferences are a prime venue for this behavior. This was what was on my mind when I was with the MyBlogLog team and we developed our own version of the people discovery app to show off our API at an O’Reilly eTech conference in 2008.
You can read about “Meetspace” on TechCrunch or ReadWriteWeb. It was a small java app that ran on a Blackberry or laptop. It was tied to your YahooID and would pop-up a little notification that another MyBlogLog user was nearby. As Highlight does today, we added a feature that would compare your profile interests with the other person’s and give you shared interests (“talking points“) that you could use to strike up a conversation.
Because Meetspace used bluetooth, not GPS, to detect proximity, the range was shorter compared to Highlight and Glancee. This worked to our advantage because, at the conference where we released the app, it allowed us to track when you were in the same room as someone as opposed to in the same general area. We kept a running log of the total time spend in the proximity of others and let users see who they spend the most time with over the course of the conference which usually meant they were the people attending the same tracks as you. Combined that with basic details of their company and interests and you had quite a powerful social networking tool.
Now for the cautionary tale. Meetspace was launched as an experiment. It was designed to show what you could do with the MyBlogLog API and while we didn’t plan on it being a new feature, we thought it might be an interesting way to bring the virtual social network into the physical world if it caught on.
It never had a chance.
Shortly after the eTech conference I received a call from the legal department at Yahoo. I forgot who was on the phone but he basically opened the call with, “You are going to shut Meetspace down, right?” as if it was beyond debate. I gave him my arguments for why we should let it run, (it was opt-in, it was innovative, it helped demonstrate our API) but all this fell on deaf ears.
The trump argument by legal was that if anyone were to be harmed in any way, and if the police were to require discovery to see if anyone else were around while harm was being done, the police could use the Meetspace app as reason to require Yahoo to turn over their user logs. Yahoo did not want to run the risk of having to turn over these logs to the police. End of story. Game over.
Hopefully it’ll be different for Hightlight and Glancee this time around.
HTC announced two phones with dedicated buttons for Facebook. The touchscreen Salsa and ChaCha (pictured below).
Running Android Gingerbread 2.3.3, HTC modified the Sense UI to integrate the Facebook into the experience. According to the HTC press release,
The Facebook button on HTC ChaCha and HTC Salsa is context-aware, gently pulsing with light whenever there is an opportunity to share content or updates through Facebook. With a single press of the button, you can update your status, upload a photo, share a Website, post what song you are listening to, ‘check in’ to a location and more. For example, you can take a photograph of friends on your phone and upload it instantly to Facebook by simply pressing the button. Or let your friends know what song you’re listening to by pressing the button while listening to music on the phone. The track is automatically identified and shared on Facebook.
Dedicated hardware keys are nothing new (see Yahoo button on Japanese feature phone below) but HTC has taken advantage of the phone sensors and software to give this button multiple uses, as long as your preferred social network is Facebook.
Shipping in Q2 2011 across Europe and Asia and launching exclusively with AT&T “later this year.”
Warranted or not, the great delicious.com shutdown scare of December 2010 teaches us all an important lesson about the sustainability of cloud services.
If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product.
This quote paraphrased from blue_beetle on metafilter is very apt. Companies that offer free services to their users do so in the hopes they make a return on their investment to run a service. If you’re not paying for a subscription to use a service then you’re paying with your perceived attention through advertising. Let’s ignore the fact that there are multiple ways that Yahoo could have used the delicious corpus of annotated links to increase value across their network. The fact is nothing comes for free and if the owner can’t figure out how, they are within their rights to pull the plug. We all need to be aware of this fact in the same way that we need to read the fine print on any free checking or 0% financing deal we get in the mail.
The old adage still applies. Make sure that everything you put in you can take back out. Delicious has an export feature built into their API so that if you every get twitchy, you can grab your data and take it elsewhere. I would never put my blog onto a platform, hosted or not, that wouldn’t let me pull it back out. Beware of one-way streets.
So all this moving about and looking for a new home for your stuff brings up an old debate. Should you host your own data?
In the past this was not a realistic option for most. The costs and complexity of setting up your own domain and software was far to difficult and expensive. But it’s worth revisiting. The cost of hosting your own server has come down dramatically. Maybe it’s time has come when we can push things to the edge. Stephen Hay challenges us to ask why not:
What if we flipped this all on its head? What if we hosted our own data, and provided APIs for all these webapps so that they can use our data? … So instead of having our own websites aggregate our own data from other people’s websites, we’ll let other people use the data from our own websites. Photos, meaningfully tagged, can be pulled in by Flickr via our own personal API, if you will. We provide the structured data, Flickr provides the functionality. The sharing. The social. Why not?
Imagine a world where I pay $100/year to host all my stuff (blog posts, bookmarks, status updates, photos, videos, etc) which can offset that by services paying me for access to that content. Each service can “pay” me by providing a service that plays to their strength:
Yahoo pays me for access to my hosted photos with the collective photo tagging and geo-location tools on flickr.
Google pays me for access to my blog by sending me traffic and offering ad rev share.
Facebook pays me for access to a feed of my posts and likes by offering a social layer of my friends.
Twitter pays me for access to a feed of my status updates with distribution.
For the cost of a single month’s cable TV bill I now can pick and chose which service I use and turn off and on each one at will without fear of migration. Today I “host” my money at a bank and point all my monthly bills to that bank, why can’t I do the same with my digital savings? Bundling blog software with a hosting account was a business I helped set up at Six Apart. Adding email, photos, videos, and bookmarks and putting a nice user-friendly front end onto it could be a real opportunity for an clever hosting provider.
One final thought. If each of us hosts our own data, companies would be much more likely to standardize how they integrate with our data and make it easier to mix and match datasets. It’ll be in their interest to offer the best tools for data to flow in and services to flow out. With users and data aggregating into just a handful of large players, it is not in a company’s interest to offer these tools, it’s better for them to lock users and data up to prevent loss of audience and attention used to monetize those users.
That’s a topic for the next another post (which is posted here)
Dan Theurer, one of the original evangelists of the Yahoo Developer Network, gave a talk (which I unfortunately did not attend) about lessons learned from building YDN. His slides are well worth a glance for anyone interested in building a developer community around their APIs.
On Friday I’ll hand over my badge, laptop, and Blackberry, finishing up three years at Yahoo. I’m leaving MyBlogLog in the good hands of Todd Sampson to drive the product vision and manage the engineering team and Tilly McLain who will look over the day-to-day care and feeding of the site and community.
My self-proclaimed tag line on the internal company directory is turning Yahoo inside out. This has been my personal mission since I joined Yahoo a little over three years ago. There is great stuff to be shared at Yahoo, as long as you let people get to it in a way that’s useful to them.
I enjoyed working with people who shared my passion to transform Yahoo into to a modern platform. It hasn’t been easy – opening up programmatic access to Yahoo is fraught with many built-in conflicts. Third party content licenses, traffic guarantees, and international legal constraints all make it difficult to let services flow completely free. It’s an industry-wide problem. Much of the way the advertising industry measures the impact of their online campaigns is rooted in the pageview metric which runs counter to providing the best of what you’ve got via an API call. For folks such as ComScore (who help advertisers evaluate rates) an API call doesn’t count as a pageview or roll up into a CPM so it’s a hard to argue letting people get at data without forcing them to come to a pageview to get it.
But consumer demand on the internet is like a natural force. If you don’t go with the flow, the market will route around until it finds what it needs. As with ripped music files, if you don’t provide your data via an API and figure out how to build a business off of that, folks will scrape your pages or go to your competitor. Yahoo gets this and there are many people working to provide a structured way to get at their data in a sustainable way that can guarantee that they will be able to continue to provide it. Pay a visit to the Yahoo Developer Network site to see what’s there and watch this space as there’s more in the queue.
With this as a backdrop, I was invited to take my thinking to a new company and a new industry. In a few weeks I’ll be joining Nokia and working to make their devices more socially aware. The Nokia s60, iPhone, Blackberry and Android (rumored) application stores give us developer ecosystems around each device. What will the world be like when devices can communicate with each other via social networks, across device platforms, across mobile carrier networks? Much the same way the web browser has unified communication across Mac & PC, the mobile web will do the same for “broadband-enabled” cell phones. Add GPS (location), Bluetooth (proximity), integrated camera/video and a voice interface and you’ve got a whole new set of opportunities that are just too good to pass up.
Imagine this use case. Your phone knows your alarm goes off at 6am every morning, that you drive the San Mateo bridge every weekday on your way to work at around 7:30am. It’s entirely possible for your phone to automatically check traffic conditions before you leave sometime after you awake and let you know that there is heavier than normal traffic and suggest an alternate route and read it out to you in a phone call, while you drive. If you’ve got your calendar in there, there is no reason that your phone can’t offer to call ahead and let the people in your first meeting know that you’re running late. All the pieces are in place to make this happen, automatically, right on your device. That’s the kind of service that will enhance your life, that’s the kind of service suite I’m excited to build.
Thank you to everyone who lent an ear to my crazy talk in the early days and pointed me to others who would listen and helped me build a band of believers. A nowhere near complete list of shout outs include:
Toby Coppel, Gerry Horkin, Dave Vockell, Gil Ben-Artzy, and David Katz, who took me under their wing in Corporate Development and helped me refine my message into bite-sized Powerpoint presentations and introduced me to the Harvey Ball.
I’m going to take a week off to re-charge before the new gig kicks off at the Nokia offices in Mountain View. I’m looking forward to working with one of the original Yahoo bloggers, Russell Beattie. It’s been awhile since I’ve been a regular in the South Bay so if you’re interested in getting together, drop me a line.
There are so many things I could say right now about Microsoft walking away from the table this past weekend. More than anything, I feel like someone peering up over the parapet and looking at the smoke clearing from the battlefield.
There’s some cool blogging going on over at next.yahoo.net, a relaunched corporate blog that highlights the hacker culture at Yahoo.
Sure, they just posted a short video of sound bites spliced together from interviews (Ricky Montalvo is a master) I did at a recent all-night hackathon. But there’s also other great posts including Havi’s summary of a thread on implicit & explicit which includes the complete video of David Weinberger‘s opening keynote from the first Defrag Conference held in Denver earlier this year which is well worth seeing.