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The Lost World of Yahoo

This piece was written for a commentary on the BBC World Service Business Daily about Jerry Yang’s decision to resign as CEO.

Back in the early days of the World Wide Web there was really only one name. Yahoo. You could tell it was big because it was what you’d type in your browser to see if your computer was connected to the Internet.

Without fail: Yahoo.com. It’s been around since 1994, since Jerry Yang and David Filo, two grad students at Stanford, built a list of interesting websites, a sort of yellow pages for the Internet. They called it, first, Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web, and then Yahoo. By the end of 1994 it had a million hits. By 1996 it had gone public.

And, I reckon, it’s been slightly lost ever since.

Not that you’d know that from the figures. It’s the most popular website in the world. Nearly half that traffic is actually email, according to Alexa, a website that tracks this kind of thing. Nearly everyone on the planet, it seems, has a Yahoo email address.

But there’s also other stuff: search, news, auctions, finance, groups, chat, games, movies, sports. And Yahoo has been pretty consistent for the 14 years of its life: If you look at its homepage, the place where you’d land if you typed in yahoo.com, it wouldn’t look that different in 1995 to what it looked like in 2005. The familiar red Yahoo logo at the top of the page, a little search box, and then some links to directories.

But since then things have got more complicated. The guys at Google made a better search engine, so much so that their name has become a verb, a shorthand way of saying “look up something or someone on the Internet.”

That kind of left Yahoo behind. So far, I’ve not heard Yahoo used as a verb, or a noun, at least in a positive way. And Google also figured out how to make money from it, which stole another bit of Yahoo’s thunder.

But it hasn’t stopped there. Internet speeds have got faster. We’re now connected most of the time, via computer or cellphone. Upstart bloggers have toppled big media conglomerates. So now all the big players—Microsoft, Google, Yahoo—are not quite sure what they are: Media companies? Advertising companies? Software services company? A mix of all three?

So it’s no surprise that Jerry Yang has been unable to articulate what, exactly Yahoo itself is. If you’re not sure what your company is, never mind that you founded it, you shouldn’t be sitting in the CEO’s chair.

The truth is that there are two Yahoos. Ask an ordinary user and they’ll know about Yahoo. The email program. The instant messenger. The news portal. To millions of people Yahoo is comfortable and familiar.

Ask a geek and they’ll talk about another Yahoo: all the cool stuff the company engineers are doing. Pipes, which lets you mash data together in interesting ways. Fireeagle, that blends together information about where you are. And there’s the stuff they’ve bought that most people don’t even realise belongs to Yahoo: delicious bookmarks, for example, or Flickr photos.

People may be down on Yahoo right now, and the share price isn’t pretty. But it’s still a big brand, known around the world. And, despite their frustrations, beloved by many geeks.

One day someone will come along and find a way to package all this stuff together, or sell bits of it off. Then Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web will find its way again. It just doesn’t look like that person is going to be Jerry himself.

Society’s Measure: Its Public Seating

Sit1The measure of a society should the simplest one: how it treats its foot-borne citizens.

When I lived in Hong Kong a decade ago I remember the continual battle with security guards — Toytown Police, I’d call them — in the mall where my office was. There were precious few places to sit to have lunch, even outside the building, and they would try to get me to move from even the most harmless of spots. I’d usually end up haranguing the poor old boys and throw my pickle at them.

The same callous attitude to pedestrians could be found at Times Square in Causeway Bay, an open, public space popular as a meeting spot . A sort of compromise was reached a few years ago, where, instead of having to move folk from their perches on a low, sloping kerb the owners put in frames that are a cross between a chair and a stool. As you can see, they’re designed to be as uncomfortable as possible so no one stays there too long, although this guy’s found a position he could be occupying for a while.

It’s shameful that what pretends to be a public place (‘Times Square’, for crying out loud!) is so designed as to make it nothing of the sort. But it’s also a measure of the society behind it: You’re welcome here if you keep moving, keep buying stuff. Just don’t get too comfortable.

Measured vs Spewed: The New Reviewers

(A podcast of this can be downloaded here.)

The walls of elite reviewers come tumbling down, and it’s not pretty. But is it what we want?

I belatedly stumbled upon this piece in The Observer by Rachel Cooke on a new spat between editors, reviewers and blogger reviewers, and not much of it is new. There’s the usual stuff about how bloggers are anonymous (or at least pseudonymous) and the usual tale of how one writer got her spouse to write an anonymous positive review on Amazon (why hasn’t mine done one yet!) to balance against all the negative stuff.

As Tony Hung points out, the piece gets rather elitist by the end, although I have to like her description of Nick Hornby, a great writer and careful reviewer: “[H]is words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write.” Measured vs spewed is a good way of putting it. It’s also a good way of thinking about the two very different beasts we’re talking about here.

There are two different kinds of reviews, serving two different purposes. The point here is that there are two different kinds of purposes here. If Nick Hornby likes a book, I may well buy it because I like Nick Hornby’s work. Of course, I’ll also enjoy his review as a piece of writing in its own right; chances are he’s put a huge amount of effort into it. It’s all about who writes the review. (And we need to always keep in the back of our mind the tendency, noted down the years in Private Eye, that reviewers in big name newspapers often seem to end up reviewing books by people they know, often rather well. It’s a small world, the literary one.)

If I’m reading about a book on Amazon I’m less picky about who and more about how many, and what. If 233 out of 300 people like a book on Amazon I am going to be more impressed than if 233 out of 300 people hated it. I’ll scan the reviews to see whether there are any common themes among the readers’ bouquets or brickbats. Take Bill Bryon’s latest, for example: Most reviewers loved it, and quite a few fell out of their chair reading it. Take Graeme Hunter, who writes: “Bill has managed yet another work of ‘laugh-out-loud’ ramblings, but this is his first to make me cry at the end.” That tells me that regular readers of Bryson are probably going to like it. But not everyone. One reviewer, J. Lancaster, wrote that while he was a big fan, he found the book “slow and ponderous and lacks the wit, insight and observation of, well, all his other books.” That tells me something too: Don’t expect to be dazzled all the way through.

Now note that these reviewers have attached their real names. They’re not anonymous, pseudonymous or fabrications of someone’s imagination or close family. Their writings may not be that literary, but that’s not what I’m looking for in an Amazon review. With Amazon, I’m looking to mine the wisdom of the crowd — the aggregate opinion of a group of people all with the same interest as myself in mind: not wasting our money on a dud book.

Compare what they write to the two snippets of blurb from big name publications on the same Amazon page:

New York Times
‘Outlandishly and improbably entertaining…inevitably [I] would
be reduced to body-racking, tear-inducing, de-couching laughter.’

Literary Review
‘Always witty and sometimes hilarious…wonderfully funny and
touching.’

Useful, but not much more useful than the Amazon reviews.

The bottom line is that reading a review on Amazon is like polling a cross section of other people who’ve read the same book. It’s like being able to walk around a bookshop tapping strangers on the shoulder and asking what they think of the book you have in your hand. Their responses are likely to be as spewed as an Amazon or blog review. But it doesn’t lessen their value. If all you want to know is whether the book is worth reading, you may be better served than some ‘measured’, self-conscious professional review.

This is the difference that the Internet brings us. It’s not either/or, it’s about consumers having more information about what they’re buying, and having a chance to give feedback on what they have bought. That all this is a little unnerving to those writers used to being far removed from the book-buying mob, and the pally/bitchy relationship they have with reviewers should come as no surprise. My advice: get used to it.

PS I spewed this piece out in 27 minutes. (You can tell – Ed)

Catering to the Uncommitted Diner

Here’s an idea for restaurants. It’s hard for us walk-in customers to get a good sense of what the restaurant’s food is like and whether it’s worth staying. Silly, really, because the people best positioned to help on this are sitting all around us actually eating the stuff: the other customers.

So why not encourage the prospective customers to wander around looking at people’s food and asking them whether they’re happy or not?
‘Excuse me, that looks nice, what is it? Any good?’
‘Yeah, it’s not bad, but I wish I’d ordered the fish. I heard some guy over there say it’s excellent.’
That kind of thing. Arm the prospective customers with a fork too and they can go around the restaurant not just requesting information but also soupçons from diners.

Of course, customers may not be happy to be interrupted by complete strangers prodding at their food and questioning them about it mid-mouthful, but if the maitre d’ had made it clear when they arrived that this might happen they can’t really complain. Well, maybe they can; there’s no guarantee the customer will say nice things about the food.
‘This steak tastes like a car drove over it. Don’t eat here. Get out while you can. There’s a McDonalds across the piazza.’

I can see all sorts of beneficial side-effects from this: complete strangers chatting with each other, whole colonies of inter-table conversations breaking out. People would come from miles around just for the ambiance. Chaos for the waiters, of course, but at least prospective customers get a chance to figure out whether it’s worth taking a table.

While I’m at it, here’s another solution to a similar restaurant problem: the ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ issue. You’re looking at the menu, you’re looking at the dish the diner at the next table is eating, and you can’t find it to order. You don’t feel comfortable asking the diner what it is they’re eating, but you also don’t want to confess that to the waiter.

Restaurateurs: Why not put little signs on the tables when your waiter serves the dishes? The signs could be as unobtrusive as all the other junk you put on people’s tables. It could say something like ‘I’m having the red duck curry. It’s on page two.’ You could even leave a place where the diner could give it points out of 10 (that might keep prospective diners wandering in off the street from prodding your food, as well as help prevent the person at the next table lean too far out of her chair trying to guess what you ordered.)

How about it?

Stopping Terrorists With WordStar

A glimpse into Indonesia’s high-tech war on terrorism, crime and corruption, revealed in today’s Media Indonesia Online’s story (in Bahasa Indonesia) of the president’s visit to the airport immigration office at Jakarta Airport, where embarrassed officials try to access their database of those 5,000–odd people banned from leaving or entering the country. The files are all in WordStar, a software word processing program that is at least 15 years old. (Thanks to Jerry Justianto for pointing out).

The piece describes how officials had to try opening some of the files several times, while others wouldn’t open at all. Immigration officials inspecting passports often can’t access the files, meaning, the paper says, “the officials on duty have difficulties confirming those people who pass the immigration desks are fugitives of the state or not. That’s because to open the files is awkward and there is no explanation of the distinguishing characteristics of fugitives.”

Needless to say, the president wasn’t impressed and ordered an immediate upgrade. Still I’m sure WordStar fans will be delighted to hear the software is still being used in such an important role, and the fugitives themselves will take comfort in the fact that immigration officials are unlikely to spot them as they wander through customs. One can almost imagine the scene:

Immigration officer: Passport please.
(Passenger, carrying rocket launcher and several large suitcases apparently stuffed with dollar bills, hands over passport. Immigration official starts tapping name into computer. Long pause. Passenger looks at watch. Really long pause. )
Passenger: Is this going to take long?
Officer:  Yes. I’m checking whether you’re a fugitive from justice. We’re using WordStar. So please be patient.
Passenger: Oh, WordStar. OK. (Looks around. After brief pause, makes a run for it in a flurry of dollar bills and ammunition)
(Officer, still looking at screen waiting for file to load, doesn’t notice.)
(Next passenger approaches counter. )

Next passenger: I think he’ s gone.
(Officer looks up, around, mildly surprised.)
Officer: So he has. (Pause.) Passport, please.
(Next passenger hands over passport. Officer starts tapping name into computer. Next passenger unfolds portable chair, adds cushion, sits down, starts pouring coffee out of Thermos, gives one cup to Officer. Pulls out thick novel. Reads. Officer continues to stare at screen.)
Fade

Hong Kong’s Unseen Icon

Hong Kong is a very practical city — you’ve got to be, with everyone living on top of each other — but sometimes I wonder whether it’s also an overly conservative one. For example, the other day I was very impressed at how one restaurant, which only accepts cash, brings the change in anticipation of what bill you’ll pay with. Put a HK$500 down on the bill wallet, and with a flourish worthy of a magician, the wallet is opened at another page with the change already there. Charming, and practical, saving time, and footleather.

But that’s the only restaurant I’ve seen this at. Maybe there are more, but you would think an innovation like this would quickly catch on elsewhere. So far, it seems, it hasn’t.

Jak0310(41)To me the biggest area that is ripe for some innovation like that is the Hong Kong cart/trolley. It’s ubiquitous, and as long as I’ve been visiting Hong Kong it’s been here. For those of you haven’t seen one, it’s a very simple design: four small wheels, larger than a baby-buggy, but smaller than a child’s bicycle, overlaid with a metal frame and sometimes a wooden board. The handle is a simple iron rod bent at the top. That’s pretty much it.

Now, these things are everywhere. Out to grab a coffee this morning I spotted about 30. They’re so commonplace they’re invisible, which is tricky in a place where pedestrians or cars cover every inch of spare sidewalk or road. Somehow, the folk that use these things manage to navigate their way through the throng without any ankles removed, people upended or worse.

And they are used to carry everything. I started snapping a few, but quickly ran out of space on my cellphone before I could capture the full range:

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‘A yellow-booted guy transporting live fish’

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‘Dude Unloading Boxes’

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‘Guy Shovelling Sand Into Baskets’

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‘Man (Or Woman) Pushing Chair Backs Down Lee Garden Road’

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‘Gas Cannisters Locked To A Tree’

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‘Guy Pushing Water Containers With Reading Matter in Hip Pocket’

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‘Woman Pushing Pile of Crap Down Lee Garden Road’

and the rather poignant ‘Elderly Woman With Empty Trolley Heading Off to Times Square’:

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OK, you get the idea. They’re multifunctional. They’re used by a wide swathe of age-groups and users. They’re also good for parking on Hong Kong’s many inclines:

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Indeed, you can park them more or less anywhere, secure in the knowledge that no one looks at them twice:

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Clearly these trolleys are useful. But to me they’re still badly designed. You can see as much from the various customizations that their users have introduced. In the picture above, for example, you can see the classic ‘One Rope Across the Handle Bar’ hack which helps stuff not fall off the back. Variants on these include the ‘Multi Rope Web’ which does a better job, basically by tying as much rope or string across the back of the handle as possible. Those without rope can try the ‘Piece Of Cardboard Across The Handle Kept In Place By Tape Hack’:

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All of these look aesthetically awful, but have endured as long as I’ve been coming to Hong Kong, which is 16 years. Then there’s the problem of the handle itself. Not much you can do with it, except try the “Bag Hanging Hack” which is illustrated thus:

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Or the street-cleaners (yes they use them too) “Bag Hanging Hack + Bamboo Pole with Warning Red Flag On”:

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But to me all these hacks cry out for a better design. There must be a better way of transporting stuff around in Hong Kong. Of course, there are other methods, from the old delivery bicycle:

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(I love the Chinese handwriting and telephone number painted on.) There’s also the smaller two-wheeled trolley concept:

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But the four-wheeled trolley is by far the most popular. To me it’s an icon of Hong Kong and a testament to the grit and attitude of its people that they are still as common as they were a decade or so ago. I imagine that without these trolleys, Hong Kong would grind to a standstill:

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Still, I’m no designer, but I would have thought that these trolleys could be better designed, or some of the common hacks one sees on existing models could be built into future models? Or would that ruin the Unseen Icon of Hong Kong?

Bob’s Background

Am reading Griff Rhys-Jones’ To The Baltic With Bob which is not quite as hilarious as the blurb promises, but has its moments: Bob goes along to a London art school to apply as a mature student on a computer graphics course:

‘What’s your background?’ asked the professor who interviewed him.

Bob swivelled in his chair and looked behind him. ‘Well, it’s a sort of tangerine colour,’ he said. According to Bob, this answer so amused the professor that he was instantly enrolled on the course, therefore qualifying for a large and useful grant and access to several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of expensive graphics equipment.

Kind of reminds me of those silly pub jokes we used to try out on bartenders in college:

Me: I’d like a beer, please.
Bartender: Bitter?
Me (looking into the distance, heaving a sigh): Yes, yes, I suppose I am.

or:

Me: A glass of white please.
(Not Overly Bright) Bartender: Wine?
Me: Aaaiioooowwww.

Of course, these work a lot better when you’re there. And British. And slightly drunk.