Tag Archives: Messenger

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?

Yahoo’s Sleazy 360°Turn?

All my posts these days seem to be rants. Phishing toolbars that don’t work. PR people peddling the same old tired story line. Sorry about that. I’m not really an angry person. But anyway, here’s another: Yahoo!, I fear, is playing fast and loose again with my privacy and the truth.

As have other folk recently, I received this morning an email from Yahoo! 360 Alerts saying

Jeremy W,
Your Yahoo! Messenger contact wants to add you as a Friend in Yahoo! 360°. As Yahoo! 360° friends, you and can stay in touch through blogs, photos and much more.
On Yahoo! 360°, you always control who sees your content. If you do not accept the invitation, nothing happens, and can only see your public content.
Accept or decline the invitation by going to:
http://360.yahoo.com/friends/waiting_room.html

Click on the link and you find a list of your Yahoo! messenger buddies who are using the Yahoo! 360° service (a sort of community thang.) You’re encouraged to add the person as a friend (although to its credit Yahoo! has the default option as ‘decide later.’ Click ‘submit’ and you’re taken to another page of content from some of your buddies who are using the service. There is no ‘Messenger contact’. There is no ‘invitation’. (Unless you think Yahoo is your buddy. My argument is that it ain’t.)  

Needless to say, it’s all a ruse to draw you further into the Yahoo! realm. Nothing wrong with that, except that

  • the original email is misleading. It makes it sound as if some specific person has invited you to join a specific service. The etiquette in such cases is to accept, or at least to see what the invitation is all about. So it’s deliberately misleading in that it’s leveraging a social aspect of the Internet to suck users further into a service. It’s not too much to call this spam.
  • I received this email because I supposedly subscribed to Yahoo! alerts. I can find no evidence for this despite an hour’s digging around the Yahoo universe.

Actually, this is just a thin end of a large wedge. Yahoo!, I fear, and others are moving back into the personal information harvesting business.

Here’s the sorry tale of what seems to be  happening: The email tells me I got the email because “You received this email because you subscribed to Yahoo! Alerts”, something I wasn’t aware of. I’m able to click on a link which allows me to ‘unsubscribe’ from this alert but that doesn’t tell me how I ended up on this alerts list and whether I’m going to get any more. The ‘alerts’ homepage doesn’t look familiar and it’s a tad suspicious that the alert was the only I ever signed up for. This all sounds very spammy to me: the illusion of being able to unsubscribe from something you never subscribed to, with no guarantee you won’t be subscribed to something else whenever the spammer, sorry, Yahoo, feels like it. 

So I tried to take a more structural approach, accepting the offer in the email

To change your communications preferences for other Yahoo! business lines, please visit your Marketing Preferences.

This link to Marketing Preferences in the email — and on pages such as the privacy page and the Marketing help page — isn’t a link to that page at all but a link to a page that, as it puts it:

Please visit your Yahoo! Account Information pages to view or edit your marketing communication preference.

(It may not mean anything, but the Web Archive, which archives much of the Internet, has no record of the Marketing Preferences page in question, http://subscribe.yahoo.com/showaccount, since April 28 2006. Could it be that Yahoo changed its policy then, and has not updated its own internal links since? )

If I click on the Account Information link I’m taken to a page of personal details where I’m asked to enter my postcode. In fact, if I enter no postcode I cannot go any further unless I choose an obscure country which Yahoo doesn’t know or care about:

Needless to say, the account information page is no help, and is in fact an effort to prise further data from you.

Once you’ve been forced to hoodwink Yahoo! into thinking you live in Zimbabwe, you’re taken to another account information page, nowhere in which is there any link to Marketing Preferences or anything else that sounds like it could let you opt out of the spurious 360 degree thang. By then I’m beginning to perspire from frustration.

Click on ‘Finished’ and, while half wishing it meant either you or the whole Yahoo! website was sucked into a black hole, you’re taken to your personalized homepage, which once again has no mention of marketing preferences. ( Digging around for help is no help, since there are only a bunch of questions there and no option to search for more.) Realizing children were born in less time than it was taking me to opt out of more Yahoo! alerts I gave up; I never could find the marketing preferences page.

In the end I find all this a bit misleading and unworthy of an institution like Yahoo!. Of course, this is nothing new: Back in 2002 users fumed over unilateral changes to Yahoo!’s marketing preferences page which reset the default for all users to opt in for spam. Seems like Yahoo might be again playing fast and loose in a bid to bolster sagging consumer interest.

The bottom line: Is what they’re doing in accordance with their privacy policy? I fear not. In their privacy page they say:

We reserve the right to send you certain communications relating to the Yahoo! service, such as service announcements, administrative messages and the Yahoo! Newsletter, that are considered part of your Yahoo! account, without offering you the opportunity to opt-out of receiving them.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of these cover getting spurious invitations from Yahoo! messenger buddies. I’m going to ask Yahoo to comment once the Thanksgiving turkey is done. Yahoo has some great services, but misleading me into signing up for another one is not the way to my heart.

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The Message Behind Instant Messaging

Be careful what you wish for. For nearly a decade I, and a lot of people like me, have been dreaming of the day when we could send an instant message to someone who wasn’t on the network as us. An instant messaging program is one that sits on your computer and allows you to send short text messages to other Internet users in real time — if they are online they see the message as soon as you’ve sent it. it’s faster than email because they get it straightaway, and it has the added bonus of letting you know whether the other person is at their computer and awake. Hence the name instant messaging. The big players, like Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google all have their own programs and networks, with millions of users. The services are free but beam ads at users through the software.

Now here’s the rub: Because there are no open standards, most instant messenger users can only trade messages with others using the same program. So if I signed up with ICQ, say, I won’t be able to chat with Aunt Marge if she only signed up with Yahoo. It’s a bit like only being able to send emails to people who use the same email service as yourself. Or only to make phone calls to other people using the same operator.

I’m not going to get into who’s to blame for all this. For the past few years I’ve been using a program that lets me include all my chat accounts in one small program, so I can talk to anyone on any service without having to run four or five different chat programs. No ads and less clutter on my screen. Yes, I do feel slightly bad using software that leaches off other people’s work, but if those other people can’t solve my communication problems with Aunt Marge I had to find someone who could.

But as instant messaging has grown, the arguments against fencing users of each system in have grown weaker. Instant messaging is no longer the province of teenagers: it’s as popular in business now as it is in the home, and many a market deal from London to Seoul has been done over instant messenger. Not only that: and the rise of voice over internet services like Skype, which include instant text messaging features, and the introduction of video chat, mean the clamor for interoperability has become harder to ignore.

Hence the recent announcement that Yahoo and Microsoft have started a test run of allowing users of their services to swap messages. This is a big step forward, although it’s noticeable that AOL, by far the biggest player in all this with their ICQ and AIM services, aren’t yet joining the party. Still, it’s good news. But there’s a sneaking worry about it all this. Why has it taken them so long? And why now? In reality, hard commercial reasons lie behidn the decision. It’s not just about helping me send a message to Aunt Marge on another network. In the recent words of Niall Kennedy (thanks, BJ Gillette), program managers at Microsoft, it’s about gathering information about us as we chat and surf so that the companies can target better ads at us. Quite reasonable for them to want to do, I suppose, but one more reason for me to be a tad suspicious about what I say or do online. For now I’m sticking with my third party, ad-free, leaching program.

How To Get Infected

What does it take to create a chain of infection? Perhaps just one credible link.

Last night I came back to my computer to see a an IM message from Josh Rowe, an Australian contact who is active in the anti-spam world Down Under. You couldn’t find a more diligent, experienced and responsible person, so when I saw his message —  http://home.earthlink.net/~gallery10/omg.pif lol! see it! u’ll like it — I didn’t think too hard before I clicked on it.

Of course, you know the rest of the story — it was a copy of the WORM_KELVIR.B which propagates via MSN messenger. According to Trend Micro, it attempts to send that message to all online MSN messenger contacts of an affected user:

When the user clicks the given URL, this worm downloads a copy of itself, named OMG.PIF, from the given URL. When this downloaded copy is executed, it downloads another malware file from the Internet, which Trend Micro detects as WORM_SDBOT.AUI.

Luckily the file had been removed by the time I clicked on the link. What intrigued me — and perhaps lulled me — was that I figured that by using Trillian I was immune to these kind of infections.

The other factor: It came from Josh, chairman of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk Mail in Australia and a pillar of Australian tech society (and a very nice guy.) So why shouldn’t I trust the link? Indeed Josh, who was very apologetic, said that he had become infected because he had received the link from someone else he regarded as having impeccable tech credentials.

So, perhaps this is the secret of good viral infection: Get one credible figure infected, and then you’re on the way to getting everyone else infected. A sort of LinkedIn for viruses.

News: FTC Gets Tough On PopUps. Well, Some Of Them

 The Federal Trade Commission has accused a California pop-up advertising company of digital-age extortion. MSNBC reports that D Squared Solutions allegedly hijacked Internet users’ computers by bombarding them with Windows Messenger pop-up ads — as frequently as every 10 minutes. The ads hawked $30 software that promised only to stop future pop-ups from the company.
 
Windows Messenger is a different beast to Microsoft’s Messenger: it’s supposed to be used for system administrators to send out bulletins to users. Instead D Squared used it to blast annoying messages. The FTC is accusing them of extortion, and with websites like Blockmessenger.com, Endads.com, SaveYourPrivacy.com. and Fightmessenger.com under their control I suspect they have a case.

News: Where Online Chat Is Going

 It’s now pretty clear where this Instant Messaging thing is going, and why Yahoo and Microsoft have suddenly started blocking third parties from piggybacking their services. Microsoft have announced a hook-up with news agency and financial data transporter Reuters allowing users of the Messenger network to chat with the 50,000 members of Reuters own internal network (used mainly by traders).
 
The idea, of course, is that the (alleged; probably much smaller) 100 million MSN users can go straight to their broker through a secure chat window. Or, as ENTnews puts it: “In theory, the combination could allow logged, real-time communications among traders and their clients. What better medium than IM for messages like “Buy!” or “Sell!” that can be immediately acknowledged by a broker?”
 
Expect to see more of this among the big boys. Yahoo are probably next up. This is not going to help ICQ users, for example, to chat with Yahoo Messenger users, but it is likely to make IM software more secure. Companies like Reuters are not going to allow instant messaging near their networks if it also brings viruses, hacking or can be easily eavesdropped.

Update From The IM Wars Front

 Seems like the IM wars aren’t over yet. Further to my postings about Yahoo and Microsoft Messenger apparently blocking third party chat aggregators like Trillian, seems the latter’s patches don’t seem to be enough to keep folk connected. CNET reports that Yahoo has begun blocking Cerulean Studios’ Trillian software from communicating with its own instant messaging software as part of its plan to limit third parties from piggybacking on its service.
 
On Thursday, some Trillian users began reporting an inability to communicate with their Yahoo Messenger contacts. A Yahoo spokeswoman on Friday morning confirmed that Trillian users’ inability to access Yahoo Messenger was the result of recent policies put in place by the Web giant. A day after last week’s Yahoo announcement, Trillian released software patches that were aimed at allowing it to continue accessing Yahoo and MSN buddy lists. But as of this week, CNET says, those patches do not appear to be working.

News: Worming Its Way Into Korea

 Warning of a new computer worm, this time from South Korea. Yonhap reports Friday that W32/Smess.worm, BadTrans, appears attached to an instant message in MSN’s instant messenger service. The worm is a mutant version of another worm called Sinmsn, which was detected last July.
 
MSN’s messenger service, which gives pairs or groups of users the capability to send instantaneous text messages to each other via the Internet, is one of the most popular communication tools in South Korea, where more than 10 million customers are connected to the broadband Internet.

News: Another Reason To Dump MSN Messenger?

 Microsoft look like they’re going their own way again. An article by IDG says it’s making changes to its MSN instant messaging (IM) service that will lock out users of third-party software that uses the service as well as users of older versions of Microsoft’s own Messenger client.
 
 
Users have to upgrade to the latest versions of MSN or Windows Messenger by Oct. 15 or they will no longer be able to log on, Microsoft spokesman Sean Sundwall said. This will lock out, at least for a while, users of IM software such as Trillian, Imici and Odigo that allow users to consolidate multiple IM accounts in one client.

Software: A Way To Avoid The Messaging Nasties

 Do a lot of online chat, or instant messaging (IM)? If you do, you’re as vulnerable to nasty folk trying to do nasty things to your computer as using email, including viruses, worms and other ways to get information from your PC, take over your PC or just to make it stop working.
 
 
The good news is that Zone Labs, who make the excellent Zone Alarm firewall (a firewall is a piece of software that tries to keep out some of these nasties), will today launch a product to specifically target IM threats to your computer. IMsecure Pro 1.0 IM traffic and blocks malicious code and spam, encrypts messages sent between IMsecure users and allows users to set rules on outgoing messages and block features such as file transfers and voice and video chats.
 
IMsecure Pro works with Yahoo’s Messenger, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, and America Online’s AOL Instant Messenger and costs $19.95. A free, dressed-down version of the product for personal and nonprofit users will be available by the end of the month. Given how useful Zone Alarm is, I’d keep an eye out for this. At the time of writing the product had not been posted.