Podcast: Microsoft and Skype

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on Microsoft and Skype.  (The Business Daily podcast is here.)  

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To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741 

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441 
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741 
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941 
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541* 
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141* 
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132 
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

How To Use Google To Get Round Super Injunctions

Screen shot 2011 05 23 at AM 06 45 41

As you may know there’s been lots of talk about a so-called super injunction taken out by a British footballer against revealing his name in connection with an affair he’s alleged to have had with a minor UK celebrity. One British newspaper has ignored the injunction, effectively identifying him. Twitter has also been abuzz.

It amused me to notice that Google has ignored the injunction, too, effectively.

With Google Instant autosearch on, start typing “super injunction footballer imogen” and the answer–or at least what everyone assumes is the answer will appear in the drop down list below. As I’ve illustrated above, but with the name blanked out.

I’ve talked about how to get the best out of this feature before. Check out Google Suggest: Your Company + Scam – loose wire blog

The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

Podcast: Giving the Flip to Social Media

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on the PR noise behind the Flip’s demise .  (The Business Daily podcast is here; the original piece is here.)  

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741 

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441 
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741 
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941 
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541* 
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141* 
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132 
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Using Data to Find Bin Laden

Map picture

Where they thought he was and where he was.

Great piece — Geographers Had Predicted Osama’s Possible Whereabouts – ScienceInsider (thanks Daily Kos- Geographers predict Osama’s location) which tells the story of Thomas Gillespie, a UCLA geographer

who, along with colleague John Agnew and a class of undergraduates, authored a 2009 paper predicting the terrorist’s whereabouts, were none too shabby. According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 88.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night.

Here’s their original paper: web.mit.edu-mitir-2009-online-finding-bin-laden.pdf. It’s not as if these guys identified the town correctly (and the Science article has had to backtrack on some of its original assertions and the comments aren’t kind), but they got a lot of things right: They figured out he was much likely to be in a house than a cave, and in a relatively large town rather than a village, and that he was in Pakistan rather than somewhere else. They also predicted the kind of building he would be living in. In the end they were less than 300 km off.

Not bad, when you look at what the CIA was saying about him before (of course, they may have been trying to put people off the scent, but we know that it was only earlier this year that they had an idea he might be in the house:

Osama bin Laden’s Death on Twitter

(Updated timeline to include subsequent accounts)

There was, by all accounts, no Internet or phone access to Bin Laden’s compound. Had there been, might he have known about the attack in advance from social media?

This depends on what was being said on twitter, and when. Although lots of people in Pakistan are on Facebook, twitter would have been more useful. There’s no clear timeline yet about when the US launched its attack on the compound. But had Osama’s people been monitoring the keyword ‘abbottabad’ (or people who had previously mentioned the word), which would have been smart, they would have known that something was afoot:

image

notice that ReallyVirtual’s tweets are half an hour before the first news reports of the crash. His first is at 00:58 am local time:

twitter guy

his second seven minutes later:

image

But would that have been sufficient warning?

Almost certainly not. By then the operation was already over, I believe. Here’s the timeline as best as I can figure (all times are Pakistan time, i.e. GMT +5, tweets come from ReallyVirtual unless stated):

00:00 (just past) Seal helicopter take off from Islamabad?
In Pakistan, it was just past midnight on Monday morning, and the Americans were counting on the element of surprise. As the first of the helicopters swooped in at low altitudes, neighbors heard a loud blast and gunshots (NYT)
00:35 ISL 5/2/11 First helicopters arrive on the scene, according to Pakistan news blog
NYT puts it, logically, a little bit earlier, as it called it a 40 minute raid)
00:32 Obama returns to the Situation Room for additional briefing. (Timeline- The Raid On Osama Bin Laden’s Hideout – NPR)
00:50 Obama first learns that bin Laden was tentatively identified. Shortly after the raid, Pakistani leaders are briefed of the actions. (NPR)
00:58 Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
01:05 Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter :-/
? One of their helicopters stalled and could not take off. Rather than let it fall into the wrong hands, the commandos moved the women and children to a secure area and blew up the malfunctioning helicopter. (NYT)
01:09 A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S
01:10 As they took off at 1:10 a.m. local time, taking a trove of documents and computer hard drives from the house, the Americans left behind the women and children. A Pakistani official said nine children, from 2 to 12 years old, are now in Pakistani custody. (NYT)
01:30 Pakistan News: Helicopter Crashed in Abbottabad, Pakistan (story here, appears about a minute earlier)
   
01:30 No one is picking phone in Abbottabad, not even the landlines. (m0chin)
01:38 Just talked to family in Abbottabad, say they heard three blasts one after another, don’t know what really happened. (m0chin)
01:43 Hello sir, any update on the blasts? What has really happened? (m0chin)
   
01:44 all silent after the blast, but a friend heard it 6 km away too… the helicopter is gone too.
01:45 OMG :S Bomb Blasts in Abbottabad.. I hope everyone is fine :(  (han3yy)

Here’s a timeline courtesy of tiki-toki:

Seems that despite the fact that twitter broke news of the attack, the guys in the compound wouldn’t have been any better of if they’d been following it.