Fail, Seinfeld and Tina Fey: A Zeitgeist

I use Google Insights quite a bit—I find it a very useful way to measure interest in topics. Here’s one I keyed in just for the hell of it. Red is the word success and blue is the word fail. The chart covers from 2004 to today:

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What seems to have happened is a surge of interest in the word fail relative to the word success.

To the point where, in the past week or two, it’s become a more popular word to include in search terms than the word success, for the first time in four years.

Just to magnify that last bit:

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What does this mean? Probably not very much. But I found it intriguing. Are we now more interested in failure than success, or is it just this ridiculous new fascination with the word FAIL?

I think these Google searches reveal a lot more than we’re really giving them credit for. If nothing else, I believe they offer a pretty good idea of a celebrity’s career trajectory.

Take these clowns, for example. Here’s the gradually declining interest in Bill Gates (red) and Seinfeld (blue), revived, briefly, by the Microsoft ads:

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(The blips in 2006 and 2007 for Seinfeld, by the way, are ‘Kramer’s’ racial slurs and Seinfeld’s aptly titled The Bee Movie, by the way.)

Here are the two comediennes, Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, their careers apparently forever intertwined. Palin is of course red:

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A close-up reveals that Palin might be on the decline, whereas Tina is on the up:

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Because all these things are relative, put Seinfeld and Tina Fey (red) in the same room and you get an idea of how big a shot she has become this year:

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Just to stress that last spike:

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Seinfeld was right when he said he was a has-been. Still a funny guy though.

And I can’t resist taking a look at how Techcrunch and Scoble (blue) face up:

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Ouch. Seems Scoble started losing ground in in 2006. But hey, who knows? With this new dotcom crunch, maybe he’ll have the last laugh. Gotta admire someone who’s kept his own for 4+ years.

Talking of not leaving the party after it’s over, how does Vista shape up against XP? The chart is surprisingly revealing. Vista (red) enjoys a spike in early 2007 on its launch, but never seems to be able to shake off the XP shadow:

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That’s one FAIL, I reckon.

Who says graphs are boring?

Stumbling Into the Future

Listening to Mark Anderson’s predictions for the coming year on the BBC World Service with Peter Day. A lot of his stuff is spot on, and what I’ve been thinking (a lot less coherently):

  • Small portable computers — he’s talking about the Samsung Q1, but he could also be talking about the Nokia N95 of the Asus Eee PC. He says that there’s research showing a 7″ x 9″ screen is the optimum size for users to absorb and handle information. I haven’t seen that, but I think there’s definitely a sweet spot there, at least for users on the road (where we tend not to need to handle large amounts of data, instead focusing on what’s next up the pipe — that meeting, that story, whatever. What I think will be most interesting, though, is when the screen can adapt to the situation or environment — a foldable screen that can fit your seat size, expanding when you need it to something much bigger. 
  • Revolt by users over privacy issues. I think ex-Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble, as ever, is through his dabbling with a Plaxo screen-scraping tool, finding out before the rest of us that what we thought was our data, isn’t. (This isn’t strictly true; Facebook does allow you to export your friends’ data via a third party app called FriendCSV.) Anderson’s point was that people don’t like things like Facebook’s Beacon, which monitored users’ activity on participating websites, but I think bigger will be people’s growing realisation that all the time they’ve spent on Facebook isn’t easily transferable. 
  • Pervasive Internet: It won’t be a big thing. It’ll just be there, a place where we store and find stuff. A key element in this is flat rates for cellular data. It’s beginning to happen, but I still get a real shock when I see my cellphone bill. Speed is also an issue.

Of course, he said all this much better, and understands the wider context (oil prices, that kind of thing). But it’s good to know someone who charges $600 for a newsletter to the likes of Bill Gates isn’t that far off in his thinking from a minnow like me.

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Piracy Helps Some Countries Grow

One can only imagine Bill Gates’ discomfort: Standing silently as the Romanian president told the world that pirated Microsoft software helped his country become what it is:

Pirated Microsoft Corp software helped Romania to build a vibrant technology industry, Romanian President Traian Basescu told the company’s co-founder Bill Gates on Thursday.

“Piracy,” Reuters quoted him as saying during a joint news conference to mark the opening of a Microsoft global technical center in the Romanian capital, “helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania.” True, but as Reuters points out, 70 percent of software used in Romania is pirated and salesmen still visit office buildings in central Bucharest to sell pirated CDs and DVDs.

(And to be fair to the prez, he did actually call piracy “a bad thing”, according to another report by the AP, and said that “became in the end an investment in friendship toward Microsoft and Bill Gates, an investment in educating the young generation in Romania which created the Romanians’ friendship with the computer.”)

Actually I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that (a) this is true. In places like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines etc, the impressive and attractively priced range of pirated software available raises local savvy and interest in computing. When you can buy 100 software titles for the price of a Coke, what’s not to like? And this brings me to (b): the likes Microsoft, I suspect, actually don’t mind this situation too much, or at least may not hate it as much as they say.

I’m not the first to suggest this: Microsoft knows it can’t sell legit copies of Windows or Office to every user in these places. So it gives away what it can, or at least sells at a steep discount, to youngsters. Businesses it tries to wrestle to the ground. The rest it writes off. Sure, it would be great if lots of people bought legit copies, but better that younger people are getting hooked on it, rather than to the opposition (Linux, Ubuntu etc.) One day they’ll pay.

I’ve often wondered, for example, whether folk like Adobe and Microsoft actually aren’t at cross purposes. Sure, they’re both members of the Business Software Alliance, but whereas Microsoft know that it’s better to get a nation hooked on Windows even if it’s on pirate copies than to crack down and plunge it into the hands of the Open Source brigade, for Adobe it’s a different story. No one is really going to buy a copy of Photoshop ($400-$700), so the idea of getting them hooked doesn’t really count. Better to crack down as hard as possible, so those few who really do need it cough up. Better 10 legit copies sold now than 100 possible sales later.

Is that why Bill didn’t say anything?

Scoble Shift

Robert Scoble, Microsoft blogger and the subject of a couple of Loose Wire WSJ columns in the past, has quit Microsoft for PodTech, a podcaster and videocaster. Techmeme, the technology bloggers’ portal, is full of the news. It’s as if the Pope has quit his day job and joined AC Milan.

There’s lots of speculation, but Scoble says there was no acrimony, no scrimped expense accounts, and lots of effort on the part of Microsoft to get him to stay. For sure the loser in this is going to be Microsoft. While there are thousands of other Microsoft bloggers, none of them had Scoble’s long leash and roaming brief. For many people, especially opinion formers and early adopters, Scoble was Microsoft — more than Gates or that other guy, whatsisname (Ballmer – ed). As Mathew Ingram of the Globe and Mail puts it: “Flack or not, corporate shill or not, I think he has single-handedly done more to humanize Microsoft than all the millions of dollars spent getting Bill Gates to kiss babies or hug orphans or whatever they do to make MSFT seem less like the Borg.”

It will be interesting to see how this pans out for Scoble, and for Microsoft. Will Microsoft continue to feed Scoble the inside dope that is the staple of his blog? And if so, will he appear more or less credible as a result? Will Microsoft move to fill his shoes by hiring another high profile blogger, or move one of the 3,000 other bloggers into his unique slot? Will Microsoft revert to the Evil Empire in the eyes of the technology community, or has Scobe succeeded in convincing it that this view was outdated and unfair?

I think Scoble is a pretty unique character, and it was partly his ebullience and personal approach — not just his Microsoft access — that won him fans. That will make it harder for Micosoft to replace him, and it should make it easier for him to move his brand and followers somewhere else. (As a footnote it’s interesting that while most folk outside geekdom have never heard of Scoble, his move did get some coverage from mainstream media. Here’s one from Reuters, used by The Washington Post website.)

Flock and the Productive Web

This week’s column on WSJ.com (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about Flock, or about the things that Flock will help us do more easily, such as post to blogs, post to Flickr, turn boring bookmarks into a wealth of shared knowledge on del.icio.us, and generally make the browser a real platform for productivity:

One of the fun things about the Internet is that just when you think the game is over, somebody moves the goal posts, shoots the ref and says the rules have changed. At least that’s the way I see it with a new browser called Flock.

 You’re no doubt familiar with the Web browser wars of the mid-1990s. Microsoft’s Bill Gates came to realize the importance of the Internet late, but quickly got up to speed and crushed the poor old Netscape browser by offering Internet Explorer for free. The epilogue is that despite some upstart threats from a Scandinavian company called Opera and an open source free-for-all called Firefox, Internet Explorer still dominates the Web. In sporting parlance, it’s a bit like Microsoft has parked a big bus in front of the goal, so no one else can score.

 But I don’t think that’s the whole story. For the browser, you see, is emerging from a passive click-and-read experience to a place where you can get your work done and even share it with others.

Bill’s Vision Of Our Home Future

Bill Gates gave his big speech at the 2004 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) yesterday, and there’s been plenty of commentary on it. Here’s a view from WinNetMag’s by Paul Thurrott, that helps explain why the computer is more likely this year to make its way out of the den and into the living room. It all revolves around the Media Center PC, a PC running a new version of XP that works as a kind of hub for all your other entertainment devices. (Yes I know this doesn’t sound new, but it seems more likely to happen this than before, apparently):

With a Media Center PC connected to a TV signal in the home office, you’ll soon be able to pump content to other devices around the home. These devices will include set-top boxes that look and act like stereo components and be able to connect to a home network through a wired or wireless connection, a new generation of portable media devices, shipping this year from several companies, playing music, running movies, downloaded material, that are “small enough to fit in your pocket, has a big enough screen to enjoy movies, and is about the same weight as a wallet”, according to one of the Microsoft guys.

As Paul points out, a lot of this could actually happen because Microsoft has involved a vast number of partners to build the machines, make content, sell the stuff to you, movie companies to make the specially formatted DVD movies you could download. Concludes Paul: “The level of cooperation Microsoft engenders with its partners stands in sharp contrast to the digital-hub strategies that some of the company’s competitors have proposed and highlights the true diversity and choices we expect from the PC industry. Seeing this business model coming to the consumer electronics industry is exciting. If Gates’s keynote address is any indication, 2004 is going to be a milestone year for home computing.”

I’m more conservative: I haven’t seen this stuff in action, and given past experience I’m not 100% convinced that folk can be persuaded to buy new hardware that is not compellingly better (folk will buy a DVD player because it’s clearly better than VHS; the same was true with CDs and vinyl; tape Walkmans and MP3.) But buying a lot of new hardware just so you can beam material from your PC to the rest of your house? Are we really going to do that? I’m skeptical, but ready to stand corrected.

News: Microsoft Takes Aim At Junk, Document Search

 Microsoft’s Bill Gates has announced new junk e-mail filtering technology called SmartScreen. AP reports the technology will use algorithms to judge whether incoming e-mail messages qualify as junk e-mail and filter them out before they get to the end user’s e-mailbox.
 
More interesting, Gates demonstrated Microsoft Research’s Stuff I’ve Seen project, which is developing a tool for rapidly finding material that users have seen ? whether it was an e-mail, Web site or document. The tool is not to be incorporated in any products anytime soon, but shows people some of where Microsoft’s billions of dollars in research is going.

News: Wanted, Dead Or Alive: Virus Writers

 Microsoft is a mite upset, and is offering $500,000 reward to inform on the virus writers responsible for the Blaster and Sobig worms. (In August, if you recall, the Blaster-A worm infected many unprotected home and business computers, attempted to launch a denial of service attack against a critical Microsoft security update website, and, most importantly, mocked Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. The worm exploited a critical security hole in versions of Microsoft Windows. Just days later the Sobig-F worm, which spread on the Windows platform, bombarded email users around the world, clogging up email servers.)
 
Sophos, the anti-virus people, had this to say: “It’s no surprise to hear that they are fed up with this situation and prepared to offer a reward for the capture of these virus writers,” said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos.  “There must be people out there in the computer underground who know who is responsible for the creation of these malicious worms. Offering a total of $500,000 will be a great temptation for someone to break their silence – and do all legitimate users of the Internet a favour.”

Update: Microsoft Goes Soft in Thailand

 It’d be too much to suggest that Bill Gates reads my column, but Microsoft seem to be buying my idea (well not mine, really) that prices of their software should be geared to what local people can afford. IDG News Service’s Taipei Bureau reports that the US software company has cut the price of its Windows operating system and Office application suite in Thailand. Quoting a report released by market analyst Gartner Inc (it’s an Acrobat PDF file) Microsoft has reduced the cost of an Office and Windows package there for $40 and may do the same thing in China.
 
The move seems to be in the face of a government program which ended up selecting Red Hat Inc.’s Linux operating system and Sun Microsystems Inc.’s StarOffice productivity suite when Microsoft did not at first participate. Windows XP in the U.S. sells for between $85 and $130, IDG says, while Office XP Professional sells for about $250.
 
All this can only be good news, and bad news — eventually — for pirates.
 
 

News: Dodgy Viral Marketing

 The folks at Sophos antivirus are drawing attention to something I think is going to pose a real problem for more sincerely motivated companies: Dodgy Viral Marketing or DVM. It’s nothing new, but it’s back, and it works like this: receive an email which invites you to visit a website to view comedy video clips, such as one of Bill Gates being hit with a custard pie by Belgian anarchists. (Gratuitous picture of Bill Gates being hit with a custard pie by Belgian anarchists now follows):
 
 
Follow the link in the email, and you are invited to install an application called “Internet Optimizer” (IO) from a website run by Avenue Media NV, based in the Caribbean island of Curacao. An end-user license agreement (EULA) for IO is displayed, stating that by viewing the movie you are giving permission to send an invitation to view video clips to all addresses found in the user’s Outlook address book and via instant messaging systems: “In consideration for viewing of video content, Avenue Media may send email to your Microsoft Outlook contacts and/or send instant messages to your IM contacts offering the video to them on your behalf. By viewing the video content, you expressly consent to said activity.”
 
Whoa! Back up the cart a bit, Alfie! And that’s not all. The EULA continues: ”For your convenience, [IO] automatically updates itself and any other [IO]-installed software to the latest available versions at periodic intervals. In consideration for this feature, you grant Avenue Media access to your machine to automatically update [IO], add new features and other benefits, and periodically install and uninstall optional software packages.” Great, excellent! Come on in!
 
Needless to say, Sophos is not happy about all this, and warns folk to read EULAs properly, and look carefully at what they may be installing. Sad thing is, folk like Plaxo, which I’ve talked about at length here, don’t seem to get that they have to work really, really hard not to play similar tricks in their yearning to get viral. Lesson to marketers: Don’t treat customers like idiots, just because, confronted by free software and the chance to see software billionaires being hit by Belgian desserts, we behave like them.