Forks in the Road Ahead?

Two interesting pieces in the past 24 hours that, almost in passing, look at a growing conundrum for Google: how to cope with the fact that Android is largely a profit center for Samsung and nobody else.

Horace Dediu at Asymco (From bad to worse and from good to great) looks mainly at how the mobile world’s value is mostly going to Apple. Samsung is the only other one making any money out of the whole thing:

In absolute terms the iPhone franchise created $244 billion in value while Samsung created $83 billion. The others destroyed $37 billion.

Elsewhere Horace has looked at Android economics (The Android Income Statement among others) and concludes that “Google’s benefit from the platform is modest. He concludes:

In contrast, Samsung, and Samsung alone, is benefitting greatly. It could even be said that today Samsung is the only Android profit engine.

This seems to be the case. Which prompts several questions, some of them addressed in the comments. Is Samsung likely to continue merely taking another person’s operating system, free though it is, and adding a skin or two? How does Samsung feel about sharing a brand — Nexus — with competitors like Asus?

Jean-Louis Gassée in his weekly column for the Monday Note takes a look at this (Business Model Dances). Google, he argues, have not necessarily followed Microsoft by extending vertically with the Nexus 7, but he does believe that “the gentle folks at Samsung are not going to take this with a smile and a quick genuflection.”

If they’re not cowed by Apple, they certainly aren’t going to let Google eat into their tablet business. As for phones, there’s Google’s $12.5B subsidiary, Motorola Mobility, another irritant for Samsung and other Android smartphone makers.

It’s interesting to consider whether Samsung think that the Nexus 7 is a challenger. I tend to think they’re more worried about what’s behind it: lots of content.

As Jean-Louis says, it’s going to be interesting.

Samsung and phone companies [BBC]

This is a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. It’s based loosely on my piece about possible limits to Samsung’s impressive foray into smartphones. 

The interesting thing about covering technology for a living is that while pretty much every company within the sector is very, very different, all are, or want to be, the same.

Take a mobile phone manufacturer like Samsung. These guys are huge and have gotten huge very fast. In the first quarter of 2011 they shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but in the most recent quarter shipped more than any of them. Needless to say they’ve very happy. But actually this success presents them with a huge problem. Because it turns out that making cellphones isn’t enough.

First is the problem of the software that run Samsung phones . After all a phone is just a chip or two, a screen, a battery, a microphone, a speaker, a case. Without software they just make useful paperweights.

Nearly all Samsung’s phones run on Google’s Android operating system. Which is free. Except of course it’s not. Because Google knows that the software is in some ways more important than the hardware. Ever tried to get an Android phone going without signing up for a Google account? Can you hear the clink clink of ad revenue dropping into Google’s pocket?

Samsung is an excellent maker of things, but not very good at making software. So it saves money, time and the groans of dissatisfied users by running Android on its phones. But the company  knows that this is not a good way to go in the long run, because you may end up like one of those PC makers back in the 1990s. What we call a commodity manufacturer, indistinguishable from other PC manufacturers, with price to reflect it.

So part of the problem for Samsung is not hardware but software. Then there’s another problem.

When we used computers in the old days they pretty much stood alone. Microsoft sold us Office, maybe a game or two and the thing sat alone in the corner of the room gathering dust. Nowadays every device is connected to the Internet, and we expect to be able to use that connection to interact with other people, download software, play games andbuy stuff and generally facilitate our lives.

What supports all this is an ecosystem. Payments, catalogues, developers, marketplaces, digital goods. Think Amazon. Think Apple’s iTunes and AppStore. Every Samsung phone connects to this world but most do it without Samsung seeing a cent.

Of course Samsung is trying to fix this. It has a store, it has content, it’s even hoping people will buy a smart TV that’s connected to the Internet and will let you move stuff between a Samsung TV and a Samsung smartphone.

The trouble now is, everyone wants this. A mobile phone maker wants to be a content seller, a search engine wants to have its own cellphone and operating system, an online store wants to sell its own tablet, a tablet maker wants to own its own network. No one player with big dreams can afford not to think in terms of owning the whole nine yards—the whole chain in which we the consumer live. To settle for anything less may end up meaning you settle for nothing, as just a commodity supplier of hardware, or content, or software to the others.

This is great for me as a reporter because every step takes us into uncharted territory. There are no maps for this anymore, and it will only get more interesting. 

ZTE confirms security hole in U.S. phone

This is a piece I wrote with my colleague Lee Chyen Yee on the ZTE vulnerability. 

ZTE Corp, the world’s No.4 handset vendor and one of two Chinese companies under U.S. scrutiny over security concerns, said one of its mobile phone models sold in the United States contains a vulnerability that researchers say could allow others to control the device.

The hole affects ZTE’s Score model that runs on Google Inc’s Android operating system and was described by one researcher as “highly unusual.”

“I’ve never seen it before,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike. The hole, usually called a backdoor, allows anyone with the hardwired password to access the affected phone, he added.

Read the rest at ZTE confirms security hole in US phone

 

In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule?

A piece I wrote on potential roadbumps in Samsung’s ride to smartphone dominance. 

Samsung Electronics is the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer and biggest user of Google’s Android operating system.

And, for some, that’s the problem.

Samsung’s meteoric rise – in the first quarter of 2011 it shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but is now market leader – has handed it a dilemma. Does it risk becoming a commodity manufacturer of hardware, squeezed like the PC makers of old between narrowing margins and those who control the software that makes their devices run, or does it try to break into other parts of the business – the so-called mobile ecosystem?

“It comes down to this sense of what it is they want to be,” said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum. “Do they really want to be one of the power players or are they happy enabling someone else’s ecosystem?”

To be sure, Samsung isn’t in any kind of trouble, and isn’t likely to be so any time soon. Later on Thursday, it will launch the Galaxy S3, the latest addition to its flagship range of smartphones. Juniper Research expects Samsung to remain the No.1 smartphone manufacturer this quarter. The next iPhone upgrade is expected around the third quarter.

“Android has done wonders for them,” says India-based Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta.

But still the company has its critics. They worry that Samsung has yet to address the central contradiction of it making devices that use someone else’s operating system. By licensing the free Android OS from Google, Samsung saves itself millions of dollars in software development costs and license fees, but leaves itself dependent on Google.

More at In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule? | Reuters

The Real Revolution

This is also a podcast, from my weekly BBC piece. 

While folks at the annual tech show in Vegas are getting all excited about a glass-encased laptop, the world’s thinnest 55″ TV and a washing machine you can control from your phone, they may be forgiven for missing the quiet sound of a milestone being crossed: there are now more smartphones in the world than there are ordinary phones.

According to New York-based ABI Research, 3G and 4G handsets now account for more than half of the total mobile phone market. Those old ‘dumb phones’ and the so-called feature phones–poor relations to the computer-type iPhone or Android device can–are now officially in decline.

This is, in the words of ABI Research’s Jake Saunders, “an historic moment.” While IDC, another analyst company, noticed that this happened in Western Europe in the second quarter of last year, Saunders points out: “It means not just mobile phone users in Developed Markets but also Emerging Market end-users are purchasing 3G handsets.”

So why is this a big issue? Well, a few years back it would have been hard to convince someone in an emerging market to shell out several hundred bucks for a phone. A phone for these folks was good for talking and sending text messages. That was a lot. And enough for most people–especially when the handset cost $20 and the monthly bill was even less.

Now, with prices falling and connectivity improving in the developing world a cellphone is so much more: It’s a computer. It’s an Internet device. It’s a portable office and shop front. It’s a music player. A TV. A video player. A way to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

And for the industry these people in emerging markets are a life saver. For example: The developed world is pretty much saturated with smartphones. People aren’t buying them in the numbers they used to.

But that’s not to say the feature phone is dead. In fact, for some companies it’s still an important part of their business. Visionmobile, a UK based mobile phone research company, says that Nokia–busy launching its new Windows Lumia phones in Vegas–is still the king of feature phones, accounting for more than a quarter of the market.

And they just bought a small company called, confusingly, Smarterphone, which makes a feature phone interface look more like a smartphone interface. So clearly at least one company sees a future in this non-smartphone world. In a place like Indonesia, where the BlackBerry leads the smartphone pack, nearly 90% of phones sold in the third quarter of last year were feature phones, according to IDC.

So companies see a big chance for growth in these parts of the world. But they also need the spectrum. If you’re a mobile operator your biggest problem now is that smartphone users do a lot of downloading. That means bandwidth. The problem is that one piece of spectrum is for that 3G smartphone, and another is for your old-style 2G phone. The sooner you can get all your customers to upgrade their handset to 3G, the sooner you can switch that part of the spectrum you own to 3G.

So this is a big moment. We’re seeing a tipping point in the world’s use of cellphone use, from a simple, dumb communication device to something vastly more useful, vastly more exciting, vastly more lucrative. All those people moving over to smartphones

ABI Research reckons there’ll be 1.67 billion handsets sold this year. That’s one in four people buying a new device. Forget fancy Vegas. The real revolution just started.

Carrier IQ Bits and Pieces

Some background about Carrier IQ before the hullabaloo started.

  • People had found about this before
  • Some in the industry questioned why such an expensive solution for a relatively simple problem
  • Data was available to ‘market researchers’
  • Software was installed on modems too
  • A lot of carriers were involved

This is not new. Several people have pointed this out before. This from December 2010: xda-developers – View Single Post – **warning** you can get your phone to a unrecoverable state:

On whether or not it’s possible for Sprint to dig up data after a complete Odin wipe may be debatable, but I lean toward supporting the “yes, they can” side. Sprint has been, for – as far as I can tell – a while, since the Moment at least, been including Carrier IQ in Android ROMs. Carrier IQ – which you can get more info on here (browse around there) is highly invasive, to the level of being spyware. It tracks signal data, application usage, and much else – its services and libraries are tied deeply into the system, to the point that killing just the client (not the server) will destroy the battery meter.

And this, even earlier, from a potential rival: Carrier IQ: Mobile Service Intelligence ?’s – DeadZones.com. They point out that Carrier IQ is very expensive, and has raised a lot of money, for something that is supposedly very simple (finding dropout zones). Commenters point out the pitfalls (lower battery life, data in the hands of faceless corporations):

I did not give consent for this and see the use of such software unethical. I can see no positive effect this can have for the end user. I can see many scenarios in which these corporations could heinously profit from it, though.

Back in 2008, it could claim, according to Company 2008: FierceWireless, Fierce 15 – FierceWireless, that

Carrier IQ’s client list includes Sprint and Sierra Wireless. CEO Quinlivan says the firm works with at least seven of the top 10 major OEMs. Look for the firm to increase its scale in the coming year through more vendor and carrier deals.

Huawei is a customer, not only for handsets, but also for modems: Huawei to Embed Network Diagnostic Tools into 3G Modems in 2009 says:

Announcing the partnership, Carrier IQ CEO, Mark Quinlivan, said: “These new cards will make for smoother delivery of Mobile Data services, improvements in Customer Care services, identification of network coverage gaps and increased awareness of actual user behavior.”

This from Sept 2010 Carrier IQ Powers Android Platform with Mobile Service Intelligence makes clear a number of things.

Experience = behavior for Carrier IQ, so this is not just about logging dropouts:

On-device measurement of the mobile user experience is the key to better understanding user behavior and ultimately optimizing product offerings to match market demands.

This data was not just available to the telcos. The press release also includes an unlikely end-user:

Carrier IQ enables mobile operators, device manufacturers, application developers and market researchers to improve their offerings based on direct insight into the customer experience.

As of last year, 12 leading vendors were using Carrier IQ:

Deployed on over 90M devices from 12 leading vendors worldwide, Carrier IQ is the leading provider of Mobile Service Intelligence solutions that use mobile devices to provide detailed metrics in a highly secure environment.

Locking Users In the Smart Way

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I was directed to this excellent piece, A Victim Treats His Mugger Right : NPR, via Facebook last night.  And it made me realise how publishers don’t make the most of that kind of referral.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that nowadays we tend to get more and more of our reading from peer suggestions like this. Navigating News Online from the Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that while Google still accounts for 30% of traffic to the main U.S. news sites, Facebook is the second or third most important driver of traffic. And yet all news sites do to respond to that is put a Facebook like button on their stories and cross their fingers.

What they should be doing is create what I would call “corners”, but might also be called “series” or “seasons”. The same PEJ report notes that casual visitors to a news website account for the vast majority of visitors–USAToday, for example, a third of users spent between one and five minutes on the paper’s website each month. Power users–those that return more than 10 times a month and spend more than an hour there–account for an average of 7% of total users for the top 25 news sites.

This represents a huge failure on the part of websites to get users back, and spend more time there.

And I don’t see a lot of websites doing much about it. Which is a shame, because it’s relatively easy. You just need to think of your publication as a TV network, and your content as individual brands. Or, to continue the analogy, seasons.

If I start watching Archer, or Secret Millionaire and I enjoy it, chances are I’ll set my TV to record each episode. I like one bite; I want take the whole season. It may not be smart television, but it’s smart branding. But apart from columnists and a few other regular features, we don’t think the same when it comes to our content.

Take the NPR piece. It’s about a New York social worker called Julio Diaz who is mugged. He gives him his wallet, and then, invites the mugger to dinner. It’s a touching tale, and has been tweeted 635 times, shared on Facebook more than 200,000 times and has 92 comments. And, get this: It was published on March 28, 2008. More than three years ago. I didn’t even notice that when I was pointed to the story by a friend on Facebook. And I wouldn’t have cared: Once I started reading the story I was hooked, and listened to the recording all the way through.

This piece comes from a series called StoryCorps, a magnificent oral history project for which NPR is one of the national partners. Through three permanent StoryBooths and a traveling MobileBooth it has recorded more than 35,000 interviews since 2003. It has its own StoryCorps Facebook page, with more than 25,000 followers and a lively feel to it. (I recommend watching some of the animated accounts; they’re very moving.)

My point is this: StoryCorps is like a TV series, Loyalty is built around the brand itself: People know that if they like one item, they’re sure to like the next. And yet we do so little in our media products to make the most of this human desire to hear/read/watch more of something we like. Because we are news people, we think news is enough of a brand, we forget that for most people news is not in itself a reason to visit a news website. We are instead looking for more of what we may have liked before, and if we can’t find it, we won’t come back again.

Hence the dreadful statistics mentioned above.

So how to change this? Well, looking at the NPR page of the Julio Diaz story, we see a lot of the usual efforts to retain interest. There’s the most popular slot on the right, the related stories below, and then below that More From This Series. There are also links to subscribe to the podcast of the series, and to the RSS feed for this series.

This is all good. But it’s just the start. Let’s break down what these elements are:

  • The twitter/facebook like buttons are fine. But these are just ways of driving non-users to  to the same individual piece of content–in other words, this page.
  • The related links are ways of driving casual users to other internal content.
  • The podcast/RSS are ways of converting casual users to regular users of the content.

By defining them like this, it’s clear that only the last one really has any long-term objective to it. If we can get a user to subscribe to the podcast or the RSS feed, then we have actually got a loyal user–someone who is likely to spend more than a few minutes a month on our site, and to actually demonstrate some loyalty to our brand.

(Included in this last section is the Facebook page for a publication too, but I’m not going to go into that here.)

Now it’s probably no accident that RSS and podcasts are in steep decline. (Evidence for the decline is anecdotal, because usage of readers like Google Reader are still rising, but the rate of increase is falling, according to this piece on Quora; besides, a lot of other RSS readers have died off: Bloglines was closed down last September and NetNewsWire was sold earlier this month.)

Searches for the term RSS on Google have been falling steadily since 2006:

And podcasts haven’t fared much better. Their hey day was 2005 and 2006:

I think it’s no accident that both peaked around five years ago. That was the era of Web 2.0, and now we’re into the era of Social Media, which is dominated by Facebook and Twitter. Again, no accident that both use RSS, or used,  but have since moved on, or tried to move on.

The bottom line with both RSS and podcasts is that both have had their day. Both are a little too nerdy for most people: RSS is still way too tricky for ordinary users to master, and podcasts may be relatively easy to grab from iTunes, but still require a degree of managing that clearly doesn’t sit well.

Web 2.0 has moved on, and as social media has become more popular, and the tools for using it more user-friendly, podcasts and RSS have been left behind.

But, and here is the key point, Facebook and Twitter haven’t replaced them. RSS was/is a way for me to get your content to come to me. Facebook doesn’t really offer that, and neither, if you think about it, does Twitter.

For me to see your content I have to go to your Facebook page, or, alternatively, wait for it to pop up in my user feed. The latter is true of Twitter.

RSS allowed me to decide which of your content I liked–assuming you offered more than a single feed–and then to be able to access that on any device I liked. Podcasts were similar, but for audio and video. Now both are more or less dead, and, at least in terms of building loyalty to media channels, we’re not only back at square one, we’ve allowed other platforms–Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+–to place themselves between us and our reader.

I think this illustrates the weak thinking that media has tolerated. We need, somehow, to develop successor tools to RSS and podcasts that help us to build pipes direct to our readers/users.

Some people are trying this with iPhone/iPad/Android apps. It’s a start. But it doesn’t scale particularly well: The more apps there are, the less time people will spend on them.

And, more important, it’s still making a fundamental mistake by assuming that our readers are interested in us as a brand. They’re not. They’re interested in the channels we offer–thinking of them as seasons, I hope makes more sense, because we don’t just watch anything on a channel, we watch shows we like.

So we need to break down our content in this way, and then develop tools–apps, if you like–which cater to this desire and interest in content that is directly related (not automatically selected, or ‘may be related’) to the content that a user is interested in.

This is not that hard. NPR could build an app which helps to make it easier for anyone interested in the StoryCorps series to get all that content in a more straightforward way than RSS or podcast.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Measuring interest in a series should spur imaginative regeneration, repurposing and forking of content. The piece I mentioned, for example, had clearly resonated with the audience and should be paired with follow-up stories. Indeed, the StoryCorps corner of the NPR website should be a brand in itself, a community where editors regularly interact with readers and find ways to turn those casual users into regulars.

This is not rocket science. It’s simple math. At the moment we’re allowing other platforms to determine what people read on our website, and when they do drop by, we rely on HTML code, widgets and buttons to try to keep them.

Worst, we think merely about ‘keeping’ in terms of ‘sticky': distracting the reader by luring other stories in front of their nose until eventually they get bored, or go home, or die, or something. I use the same tricks to entertain my 9-month-old. We need to be smarter than this.

Thinking our content in terms of ‘series’ might be a good place to start.

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?

Has Quora Peaked?

This chart of traffic to Quora from Google Trends suggests that interest in Quora hit a peak in mid January and has fallen off sharply since then. I thought they did a great job of building not only interest but in getting interesting, cool, knowledgeable people in early on, so as content grew in size and quality, so did people’s appetite for invites. But what happens next?

Is there a danger that the more people come on board, the less impressive the content? Is Quora an example of how social media doesn’t always scale? (I’m beginning to ask the same question of comments on news websites, which have deteriorated markedly in the past couple of years.)

Anyway, I wish Quora luck, but I suspect one plank in their platform is going to have to be mobile. I want to be able to look at Quora and ask questions of it on the move, and right now, at least on Android, it’s only a third party app that lets me do that.

2011: Year of The Media App

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I predict this year that we’ll settle on a way to make people pay for stuff they so far have proven reluctant to pay for—namely information. This won’t be done by pay walls, exactly, but by what we’re now calling apps. Apps are applications that people seem very willing to pay for when they’re doing it from a device that isn’t a desktop computer.

So people are buying these things because what’s a buck when you know you can get to hurl Angry Birds onto flimsy structures sheltering evil pigs on your device in a couple of seconds? Or listen to Yesterday on your iPod Touch a few seconds after buying it?

Compare this with the laborious process of signing up for an online subscription, or having to download, install and pay for some software and then have to enter a serial number longer than most emails you’ve written.

Others are now trying this route. Google has the Android Marketplace, which lets you do more or less the same thing. In fact, it’s even easier—you don’t get prompted for your password when you buy something. And now they’re trying something on your computer: their own browser, Chrome, now have apps which you can buy or get for free. (Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, will revolve around these apps.)

In fact these aren’t really anything new—they’re what we might call web-services which are accessible via a website, rather than by downloading software. But by packaging them up as apps Google make it easier for us to get at them and, crucially, break down our resistance to buying something online.

This is how we’ll pay for news in the future. Smart companies like The Economist will give the print edition away free with the iPad version, or vice versa, since we’ll start resisting the idea that we have to pay twice for the same information, whether it’s all glitzy and interactive or not. We will expect to be rewarded for paying for something we know we can get from somewhere else if we tried hard enough. If you’re a news organization use whatever lure you can think of to get the reader back into the paying habit again.

This is the point of the payment process. It has to be easier than getting the information/music/entertainment/book through another means. If I find a book for my Kindle ereader on Amazon I’ll check to see whether there’s a cheaper version—which there quite often is. If it’s under ten bucks I’ll buy it. If not, I’ll read the reviews below to see whether there is a free version somewhere—which is sometimes possible. If there isn’t, I’ll check out Google books to see whether the chapters I’m interested in are there.

OK, I’m a cheapskate. But my thinking is basically this: $10 is my threshold for an eBook. It might be more if I got access to a physical version, or was able to clip bits from it and store it somewhere else. But I’m not, so I won’t pay more than that. Moreover, I don’t want to be the mug who pays for something others get for free.

Everyone else has their own logic, but they’re probably not dissimilar to mine. We pay for things if we think the price is right for the convenience, and if we think that we’re not being suckered—which means that other people aren’t shelling out for it.

This is basically micropayments. It’s what we’d been hoping would happen for some time, and it took Apple’s megalomania and micromanagement to get us there. Now we’re nearly there, but we could still mess up. Some newspapers try to charge us for single articles, for example, misunderstanding that micropayment doesn’t mean microproduct. I don’t want to pay every time I visit your site: I want to pay for something that gets me seamless access to your product.

In other words, we’re paying for not having to pay (or register, or download, or enter codes, or any of that kind of nonsense.) This is why the term pay wall is so revealing—and why it’s doomed as a concept. We’re not buying information with our iPhone or Android app, we’re buying frictionless access to something—an icon on our display that may be a shortcut to a web page, or open an application,  we don’t care. All we care about is that it gets us to where we want to go, when we want to go there.

We’ve some ways to go before this works well. I can’t stand the idea that my Kindle book doesn’t belong to me in the way a real book does, and I refuse to buy any music that I can’t move around as I wish. I succumbed to buying some apps for an iPad I borrowed but Steve Jobs will rue the day if I can’t easily move them onto another iDevice if I ever end up getting one.

But the good thing is that we’ve found a way to make this palatable to people, and I am optimistic that the media, booksellers, music sellers and web developers can turn this into revenue streams that keep them going.