Tag Archives: YAHOO! INC.

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?

The Big Chill Hits Google

So is Google, like, the new Yahoo?

Google is closing some of its services, or at least no longer supporting them. Which for me is a tad sad, since I’ve always loved prodding around inside the Googleplex, convinced that one day all these disparate services would come together in the same way Google Docs, Calendar and Gmail have. I thought Chrome would be the centerpiece of all this. Now, maybe not.

But no. Jaiku is now open source, meaning it’s not going to become Google’s competitor to twitter or anything like that. For me Jaiku had tons of potential because it seemed to understand that many of us work from our cellphone as much as our laptop. Anyway, it’s not going to happen.

Google Notebook is also on the deathlist. Another shame: While I never used it as much as I should have done, I have been busy divining a catch-all answer to everything, and the Notebook app, and its Firefox extension, was a key part of it. Google has said it’s no longer supporting it, but existing users will be able to continue to add and access their material.

The other thing they’re dumping is Google Video. It always took a back seat to Youtube, but for me that was a good thing. No inane comments, and no restrictions on file size. The result was a mostly classy collection of videos. Gone.

So what should we use instead?  Well much of what you do in Google Notebooks could as easily be done in Evernote, while others recommend Zoho Notebook. Jaiku? Well, Facebook and twitter, and I guess FriendFeed, have already moved into the space that Jaiku looked so likely to dominate, once upon a time.

I feel sorry for the guys who started Jaiku. They were an impressive and fun bunch, when you could understand them. I hope they walked away with a decent stash.

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.

A Beginner’s Guide to Saving an Old Computer

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

What should you do with an old laptop that is so slow you have time to down a cup of coffee while it gets ready?

A reader wrote to me recently: “I would be very grateful for your advice on how to make my very old (1999?) Toshiba Satellite 2545CDS laptop work faster and less erratically.”

His symptoms may be familiar to you: “Composing this message in Yahoo Mail becomes a hardship. The cursor moves slowly or disappears, to suddenly reappear. The computer is always doing something other than what I want it to do — the hard disk drive light is flickering madly, the drive is whirring, but the cursor won’t move.

“Using the Delete or Back Space key is particularly exciting: you press the key many times and nothing happens until the machine wakes up and wipes out your whole sentence. Appending files to messages takes hours, and when you leave to go to the bathroom the computer has put itself on standby.

“It takes me a whole cup of coffee to wait for the laptop to get ready to do two things simultaneously like proofreading a document in PDF format while listening to AccuRadio Classical.”

The reader goes in a similar vein for several pages in the best description of a computer past its sell-by date I’ve come across. He concludes: “Other friends have told me it is time to buy a new laptop, and I now have a much faster Toshiba Portege.”

But understandably, he’s reluctant to let go of this piece of hardware, with plenty of hard disk space remaining, and better inboard speakers than its successor. So what to do?

This reader has done the first thing right — clean the Registry. The Registry on Windows machines is the place where all the information about your programs and settings is stored. Windows refers to this file a lot, so the bigger it is and the more messy it is, the slower your computer runs (and the bigger the chance of errors.) So you should keep it clean.

The easiest way to do this is via a program called CCleaner (no, that’s not a typo; the first C stands for something a family paper like this can’t mention.) CCleaner is free from here: http://www.ccleaner.com/. Download it.

Then, just to be on the safe side, create a Restore Point in your system in case you don’t like what CCleaner does (you’ll find System Restore under your Accessories/System Tools menu. CCleaner will also let you save a backup of your registry before making any changes).

When you’ve created a Restore Point, run the “Scan for Issues” on CCleaner’s Issues tab (it may take some time). Then click on the Fix Selected Issues button. When this is finished your Registry should be a lot cleaner — meaning the computer will be faster. A bit.

Next stop is to defragment the hard drive. This tidies up the files on your hard drive so they will load more quickly and new files can find a place for themselves without having to split into smaller bits. Think of it as cleaning up after a raunchy party: the files are the wine glasses and plates piled up in the sink, the kitchen cupboards are your hard drive where they all need to go.

Windows has a pretty good defragmentation tool called Disk Defragmenter in the same menu as the System Restore program. Run that — and drink another cup of coffee or six while it’s doing it. It could take some time.

This should speed up your computer. But it may not be enough. There could be several reasons for this. One is that the hard drive is overloaded. (If so, delete the big files until at least half the hard drive is empty.)

My reader is clearly not having this problem: He reports using only 1.5 gigabytes of the 4 GB hard disk. In this case, you may be better off cleaning the hard drive of everything and starting again.

This is not a step to be taken lightly: It involves backing up all your data, collecting all your serial numbers and installation disks for software you have, and then canceling all hot dates for a few days as you laboriously reformat your hard drive and install the operating system, the drivers for your external devices, software programs and settings, and then the files you saved from before.

It’s like war: boring and scary in equal measure. Boring because watching a progress bar move slowly from left to right isn’t fun, and scary because you occasionally get heart-stopping moments where you think you’ve lost an important file forever, or the whole process stops for no apparent reason.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but neither would I recommend you outsource it — at least until you’re absolutely sure you’ve backed up every single file, e-mail, photo and password you might need again. But if your computer is not responding to lesser measures, this might be the best way to go.

Another tip: If your computer is an old one, don’t try to force fancier operating systems onto it. If your computer was made in 1999, for example, chances are it won’t like Windows XP very much, for the good reason that XP came out in 2001 and was designed for faster chips than were available back then. Your computer won’t like it and will rebel.

Better to have an operating system that’s older than the computer. Even better, if the computer is not going to be your main device, ditch Windows altogether and install Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), an Open Source (meaning free) operating system that looks a lot like Windows, but will run quite happily on older machines.

You could still play music files, write documents and e-mails or surf the Web on it, and you’ll be considered very cool by your friends.

There’s always another option: Ditch the laptop and just use the hard drive as external storage for your other computers. But that’s for another day.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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Gmail’s Achilles’ Heel?

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I wondered what would happen when I reached the limit of my Gmail account, and now I know: I can buy more space. When I checked my account just now I found the message above and this one at the bottom of the page, in scary red:

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 By clicking on the purchase link I’m taken to a Google Accounts page, where I can buy more storage at the following rates:

  • 6 GB ($20.00 per year)
  • 25 GB ($75.00 per year)
  • 100 GB ($250.00 per year)
  • 250 GB ($500.00 per year)

Seems pretty reasonable — at least the 6GB one (and a kink in the armor of Google. As Google Operating System blog points out, Yahoo Mail is unlimited for free, Flickr is unlimited  for $25 a year, and there’s Microsoft SkyDrive.

So I signed up. The confirmation page had the sort of thing that reminds you you’re dealing with a company that still makes its money from selling you ads:

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And don’t expect the storage to appear immediately. Mine took two days and three emails to customer support for the order to be processed. Then a bar appeared below my inbox like this:

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While it’s good my problem’s been solved, it does indicate that Google aren’t just going to keep going releasing space to heavy users. I can’t imagine a lot of people using the space, so they can’t be expecting it to be a big earner. It’ll be interesting to see whether power users decide to jump ship to something cheaper. I won’t — for now.

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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.

Conflicts of Interest, And The Search for Truth

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has an interesting post about conflicts of interest, bounced off a comment by Jason Calacanis who quoted a rumor he had heard that it was possible to “buy a review at TechCrunch”. (In other words, pay money to get a positive review on the website).

There are some good points in here, and in the comments, so let’s go through them. I’m sorry if this is overlong. The issue is close to my heart.

First off, I think Michael misunderstands when he assumes Jason’s quote “just the appearance of impropriety is impropriety” means “when it comes to your reputation, an accusation is all it takes to ruin it, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.” That’s not my understanding of the term, and I think this where the root of blogging/journalism problems currently lie. (I don’t know either of these two gents personally, so I’m just basing my comments on Michael’s account.) The appearance of impropriety, in my view, means when the person in question may be seen to be doing something improper, whether or not they are. Example: taking a ride on a corporate jet to Barbados of a company you cover for your paper. Maybe it’s a freebie with a holiday tagged on the end. Maybe it’s the only way you can interview the CEO because he’s too busy and you’re stuck in Barbados in your suit waiting for a flight back. But it may appear improper to readers, who wonder whether you’re going to be unduly influenced by the high life, so you probably don’t want to do it. Or you insist you pay for the ticket yourself. Or you take your own flight to Barbados and stay in a separate hotel. The appearance of impropriety is important. You as a reader want to be sure your journalist/blogger understands this important concept.

Actually, Michael does get it, as he writes “I want to state quite clearly that I have never taken a payment for a review and never will. Sure I’ve been offered money for a review a couple of times. But it would be completely unethical for me to take it. I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that. Companies that have offered to pay me have never been written about on TechCrunch.” In fact, Michael might consider actually naming these companies if they don’t back off quickly, to warn readers that they may be trying the same stunt with less ethical bloggers.

Then Michael explores the idea, put forward in the chat by Steve Gillmor, that “we all have conflicts, there is no such thing as objectivity.” Michael agrees. I don’t, and this is where I get worried. He uses examples from NYT, allegedly running a puff piece about a company because its CEO is allegedly influential within the NYT, and an AOL blogger who writes glowingly about an AOL which I won’t repeat here, because I don’t know about them, but he concludes that neither case is unethical: “I personally don’t think either of these cases are unethical. Because I know that human interaction drives all of this stuff, I know to factor that in when I read stuff.”

Ouch. This cannot stand uncontested. If true, the first case is highly unethical. The second, if true and if the writer pretends to be an objective commentator and doesn’t declare his connections to the company he’s writing about, is definitely so. Wherever there is a conflict of interest, ethics rears its ugly head. If the conflict of interest is not resolved — the writers not recusing themselves from writing about the subject, or not declaring their interest and consequent lack of objectivity, it’s unethical.

Then there’s the larger issue about whether there is no such thing as objectivity; this is more nuanced than Michael allows. Objectivity may not exist in the eyes of any commentator, but it should remain an aspiration, a guiding path. We all try to be objective as journalists/bloggers, or should be trying to be, or else we are letting down our readers. To declare that there is no such thing is to me a cop-out, a way of throwing up our hands and saying, “it’s too hard! Why should we even try?”

Then Michael talks about what he calls more subtle conflicts, for example, how he’s not being favored by Google PR because he’s harsh in writing about them. Meanwhile Yahoo et al include him in news embargoes because, he wonders, he often writes positively about them. Or when a company takes him to lunch? “Or writes something positive in their blog about TechCrunch before I write about them? Or here’s the read mind bender – what if I don’t write about a competitor to a company that I like? Doesn’t inaction count as much as action when we’re talking about conflicts?”

These are not, in my view, mind benders. There are clear rules for these things among credible journalists. First off, companies that don’t include people in their PR mailings because they don’t like what they say are childish, and need to be exposed. But it doesn’t matter; a good reporter/blogger shouldn’t be relying on a steady feed of early press releases anyway. To do so becomes unhealthy, the writer becomes lazy and dependent, and will (or should) quickly realise the chalice is poisoned: The goodies will keep coming if you write nice things. We laid into the White House press corps for accepting this a few years back: Why aren’t we decrying the same thing in technoland?

Yes, it is all about relationships, but not ones that depend on you always writing nice stuff. Free lunches: Don’t take them if you think it is in exchange for something. (In fact, if you can, don’t accept them at all. They’re not really free, as the saying goes.) As a writer you have to do whatever you need to do to maintain your freedom to write whatever you think is right. If that means keeping folk at arms’ length, do it. If it means having shouting matches every so often with industry sources who feel personally let down, do it. But keep your freedom to write what you think is right.

Michael’s conclusion: “Our lives are full of conflicts and thinking that envelopes full of cash are the only way people get paid off means you are watching too many made-for-tv dramas. Put everything you read through a filter and form your own opinions on things. Don’t look for the golden fountain of objectivity. It doesn’t exist.”  Once again, I’d say no. Find the voices you believe are objective and listen to them. Of course there’s a filter; I’m a white middle-aged Western male who lived too long in the wilds of Asia. I’m bound to see things differently. But you’ll quickly tell what I believe in, and if you share the same beliefs, you’ll probably trust me to do the right thing. 

Finally, Michael does clearly state his position on consulting, advisory roles etc. and he’s dead on. In fact, I think his post raises important points and does a good job of looking for a path through them. But we shouldn’t forget (and here’s my bias creeping through) that journalism has been battling, to lesser or greater success, with these issues for centuries. There are clear rules laid down when a journalist works for a reputable institution, and, contrary to popular opinion, most journalists extract some pride in trying to follow them, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. (I was, as were all attending journalists, thrust an envelope with $100 in cash when I attended a relaunch of Indonesia’s intelligence agency a year or so back, before I realised what was in the package. it took me weeks to not only return the money to the right place but to ensure there was a record that I had returned the money.)

Bottom line: There are ethics, they are well-established and we should seek them out, declare that we will abide by them and then abide by them. It is a struggle and none of us is perfect (definitely not me), but we should try to be. It is not an excuse to say that in this Web 2.0 world the ethics are different. We should not be so foolish as to think we have invented a new world. If we ignore this, I’ll wager, the idea that blogs might become an impartial and important source of information will quietly and quickly die because no one will believe anything we write.

It’s Downhill From Here: Web 2.0 Awards

It’s a sign either that Web 2.0 has become an important and integral part of things, or that matters are getting out of control, but here’s another of what you should expect to be a long line of Web 2.0 Awards. This one is from SEOmoz, of whom I’ve never heard before, but which is actually a search engine optimization consultancy. In ordinary speak an SEO company sells its services to web sites that want to get higher rankings on Google. Why is a company dedicated to fiddling search engine algorithms making awards to companies claiming to be part of some new Internet Holy Grail?

I have no idea, but the scent of snake oil and hype can’t be far away. Web 2.0 is, for those of you who don’t spend your whole day reading memeorandum, is the term used to describe a growing — now, fast growing — array of web services aimed at the end-user. What used to be a niche area of interest only to pie-in-the-sky bloggers is now attracting big money, not least because there is a lot of money out there and not many places to put it. So now more or less anything new, and not so new, can be called Web 2.0, especially if it’s got the words “tagging”, “social”, “AJAX”, “mashup” in it somewhere, and if it’s not spelt correctly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long been a fan of what is now being called Web 2.0. I loved del.icio.us, and I love tagging. I love stuff that is simple to use, and put together with passion. It’s just that awards like this merely highlight how entrenched, predictable and money-oriented the whole thing has quickly become. Now, with Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and AOL dropping silly amounts of money to buy up some of these services, there’s no real way to measure the enthusiasm, commitment and longevity of any of these services. Money attracts people interested in money — or primarily interested in money — and while I’m sure not all, or even many, of the 800 or so Web 2.0 services now available are purely motivated by greed, we won’t know. So, as an end user, why bother investing time and effort in them?

Another problem with Web 2.0 stuff is that each service requires a degree of commitment from the user. Some services are beginning to understand they cannot merely offer walled gardens of service, where you enter your data — photos, appointments, bookmarks or whatever — but cannot access that data through any other service than theirs, but they are few and far between. Until we can do that, these services will remain smallscale, niche affairs that most people beyond early adopters won’t bother with. Indeed, the very plethora of services now appearing doesn’t lead to critical mass, it leads to critical failure, because the chances of two people finding that they use the same service and therefore can share their data falls the greater the number of services on offer.

People talk about a bubble a la 2000. Could be. I would be more afraid of just simply too many services chasing too few interested people. There are three main areas here:

  • Social networking sites follow more of what I’d call The Trendy Restaurant Model. Patronage tends to be fashion-driven and short term. Everyone flocks to MySpace because that’s the trendy place (or Consumating, or wherever). Then they move on (does Rupert Murdoch know this, by the way?).
  • Then there’s the Long Stay Parking model: bookmarking, business networking, project management and calendar tools. Here the payback for the user is longer term — the more one adds data, the more useful it becomes over time. But why should I bother adding data if there are a dozen very similar competing services, and if I can’t easily move that data to a rival service if I get a better deal, or prefer their features? Or even if I want someone who is not a member of that service to be able to access my data? The likes of Flickr, LinkedIn et al which dominated their corner don’t need to worry too much here, because they’re the default choice for anyone considering using a service in that space. But elsewhere long stay parking is asking a lot of the user. Too much, I suspect.
  • Then there’s the shorter term Eat and Rush Buffet model: here I’d include things like online editors and collaboration tools like Writely or Campfire. Great for one hit sessions of collaboration, but no real loyalty on the part of the user (and no great business model.) This in a way is the heart of Web 2.0: short, sweet services that individuals don’t need to invest much time or data in mastering. But how many of these can the Internet support without a business model?

There are other areas, I guess. And this is not to say that some services currently finding themselves being called Web 2.0 won’t thrive and dominate. But the arrival of awards, issued by a “search engine optimizer” (which puts SEOmoz top, for now, of the Google news search “web 2.0, awards” which I suppose was the point of the exercise), makes me start reaching for my gun. Or the door. Or the sickbag.

PR Newswire Gets Delicious

It’ll be interesting to see how Yahoo, new owner of social bookmarking and tagging pioneer del.icio.us, tries to bring the whole tagging shebang to the wider marketplace. Here’s an early example of how it might work. PR Newswire, a news release service, has announced a partnership with del.icio.us, to allow visitors to PR Newswire’s public website to tag individual news releases issued by PR Newswire members and post them into their personal profiles on del.icio.us.

The feature appears as a button alongside existing RSS, email and print button above each press release:

Prnew

Click on the link and it takes you to your del.icio.us account (if you have one) and prepares a new entry. Nothing that revolutionary here, you may say, but I’d suggest that this is one of the first examples of del.icio.us breaking out of the usual blogosphere world. PR Newswire is, after all, for journalists, who are not known for their passion for things nerdy.

Of course, it’s a great way for PR Newswire to spread their news releases around, as the press release itself admits:

Once posted in a personal Del.icio.us profile, the news release is accessible to the thousands of users who search Del.icio.us for information regularly.

Indeed, this is one of the great strengths and weaknesses of del.icio.us. On the one hand it’s great to see what other people are tagging, and to get access to a live list of the latest exciting websites. On the other hand, how soon is this list going to be polluted — if it’s not already — by people promoting their own stuff or just by people tagging stuff that’s not very interesting? The irony of del.icio.us, in my view, is that it was wonderful while it was being used by people in the know, but it becomes less useful the more popular it gets and everyone starts tagging American Idol and Britney Spears websites.

That said, the popular feed of del.icio.us remains as nerdy as ever.

IVR Cheat Sheets, And Dirty Tricks?

The IVR debate rumbles on. Could automated voice phone systems be better than just having a human answering the phone? Is it better to cheat the system? Paul English’s cheat sheet has appeared more than 100 TV and radio stations in a month. One company, Angel.com, has been fighting back, first with a pretty harsh broadside, but now appears to have replaced it (the page redirects) with a more measured ‘IVR Cheat Sheet for Businesses’, figuring, I guess, that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Anyway, I got an interesting take on it this morning as a comment appended to my blog from someone who identified herself as Kate, with a believable-looking email address. ‘She’ wrote:

Paul English makes some great points. I saw his piece on ABC World News Tonight and he’s bringing to light that most companies operating in the IVR space have shoddy systems. In my opinion, Angel.com is one of the few companies in the IVR industry trying to change things, however, with web-based next generation systems that link to CRM systems. Small businesses are finally able to create IVR systems (using a self service model if they wish) that are even more sophisticated than what large industry is using. My Dad uses the system for his online ebay store selling vintage posters and autographed baseballs. He’s able to provide far better customer service using Angel.com’s system than he would ever be able to provide on his own. The boon to small business of using these inexpensive, next generation IVR systems is getting lost in the debate.

That’s one well-written comment. I was impressed (as I imagine, would be Angel.com. Not only can they be linked with the little guy (and who wants to bash the little guy?) but they get to bash some of their competitors too). But not being cynical about the posting, I allowed it through and emailed ‘Kate’ with a request to interview her father. If true, it’s a valid point and one to explore.

What I didn’t expect was for the email to bounce. Not that unusual, especially with comment spam, but not when the given name (‘Kate’) jibes with the email address (‘katerobins@yahoo.com’). Why go to the trouble of putting a believable fake email address, especially when you presumably would be quite happy if someone followed up and got a bit of publicity for your eBay-selling dad? Baffled, I checked the IP address where the comment came from: a Verizon address in Washington DC. Not, coincidentally, that far from Angel.com HQ in McLean, Virginia.

I wish I could say my sleuthing took me further. But I could find no Kate Robins in the phone book, no sign of someone with that Yahoo address on Google, or anyone on eBay who might be her dad (not that surprising; it’s a big place). I’ll keep looking, but if anyone knows Kate Robins, her dad, or could shed any light on this, I’d love to hear from them. I’d hate to think that my blog is being used by anonymous shills to do damage limitation exercises for the IVR/CRM industry. On the other hand, if Kate does exist and just mistyped her email address, I’d love to follow up the angle she suggests.