Netscape Diggs In and Elbows Out the Competition

AOL/Netscape has launched a beta of its new homepage that looks uncannily like Digg, a hugely popular site for techies to publish stuff and have their stories sorted by popularity. Actually it not only looks like Digg, two of the top three stories are Digg’s. AOL’s been smart tho: visit the source page and you can only do so within a big black sidebar that keeps you wedged inside the Netscape site. (You can’t resize it, but you can turn it off, but obviously by default. Meaning it will open with every external link you click on. Oh, and it’s really slow to load.)

Perhaps by coincidence, or by the efforts of a few Diggers, those two Digg stories are less than complimentary about AOL: The first, AOL Copies Digg (“Check out what this is based on”) and the second  Trying to cancel AOL (“Here’s a recording I did of a conversation between myself and AOL while trying to cancel an account I no longer needed. It was old, and I hadn’t used it in a REALLY long time, I just never got around to cancelling it. Enjoy!”)

A piece by Reuters says that this new site has “editors, which Netscape calls anchors,” who “can choose to highlight what they consider important stories.” This might be the top portion of the page, but I assume the anchors are not highlighting the two stories mentioned above. Or maybe they are, in some wild new form of self-flagellating transparency?

I won’t get into the journalistic implications of all this here. But there’s a telling comment by Netscape.com’s new general manager, dot-com news entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, to the Reuters reporter: “We don’t have to do a level of journalism that you guys do,” he said, referring to traditional news organizations. “You guys take it 90 yards, we take it the next 10.”

The reporter didn’t pick up on this. But when sites like this basically suck content from other sites, from NYT to Digg to Reuters, to form the basis of their homepage, and then link to that content within a sidebar that squeezes the original website partly out of view and off the screen plaster, that 10 yards looks mighty cheap for the yardage you get. Whose content is it now? Who’s making money off whom? And who is the smartest person in the room?

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Boingling Along

Another social annotation tool, this time called Boingle, put together by Greg Martin, who writes:

Boingle is a stripped down social annotation system that lets you annotate within web pages with the result being a simple markup (“Boingles (2)”) that looks as though it belongs in the page, much as a link titled “Comments (4)” looks normal within a blog. It is very understated in nature, and lets the annotation content itself be the star.

Social annotation, in case you’ve not done it, is a method to leave comments (annotations) on web pages so others can see them when they visit. It’s mildly popular, though of course only starts working when a critical mass develops of people using the same tool.

Boingle is a toolbar for Firefox and IE, allowing you to add comments (Boingles) by selecting portions of a webpage and then typing in comments (no need for an account; just enter your name, or anyone else’s).

I agree Boingle is understated, which is good, but not being able to see what the comments are on the actual web-page reduces its effectiveness, I suspect. Clicking on the ‘Boingles (2)’ link will open another browser window, which surfers may feel is one browser window more than they need. The other problem, I suspect is that perhaps the ‘Boingles’ links are too understated, sometimes not really being visible to anyone who isn’t looking hard for them.

I think I’d rather see the Boingles appear either as a pop-up or in the browser sidebar. But there might be sound reasons why that may not work.Anyway, great to see people exploring this avenue again.

List of all the social annotation tools I can find here. Please let me know of more I’ve missed.

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Another Way to Share

I am increasingly enjoying using the Google clipping tool Google Notebook. I like anything which lets you grab content from the web — I put together a list here a few months back which I’ve just updated; a collection of more socially oriented tools is here.. Well, here’s another: Jeteye .

Basically Jeteye is a download that allows you to not only save clips of text from the web but also images, including video, audio and animation. You can then make Jetpaks™ — an awful name for what are customized Web pages collecting stuff together like everything you need to know about Condoleezza Rice. Useful if you need to create a quick and dirty collection of stuff to share.

Reservations? It does feel a bit top down, as if the company’s trying too hard to impress and be cool. First off, you can win prizes — to me a sign a company’s got cash to burn and is trying to reach critical mass in a hurry, without necessarily having too much confidence it can do it via quality. Secondly, the front page is a bit over the top, as other reviewers have noticed. Finally. the language on the About page is a bit too breathless:

Our company stands for freer communication on the web — how we move through it, take from it, add to it, own it, and affect it — how we pull information and contribute thought, experience, opinion, and depth; expressing the possibilities, challenging the status quo and delivering a way for everyone to actively inhabit the web.
Jeteye

Built as a platform for communication, Jeteye changes how we interact with what we find on the web, providing us with transparent tools to gather, build and share what we collect.

Challenging the status quo? Still, it’s worth a try. Sort of halfway between a MySpace page and something like Clipmarks (which has another facelift, I see. Looking a lot tighter.)

The Presence Problem

Steve Smith of Lavalife makes a good point about the surge of new products which extend the use of Skype beyond the desktop. Great for mobility and wider access, bad for one of the key benefits that IM-related programs like Skype bring us: presence. (Presence merely means being able to signal whether you’re online, whether you’re free to talk, or what kind of mood you’re in, letting you determine when you’re reachable and for other to be able to organise themselves accordingly. Something the ordinary old fashioned telephone, or even raw email, can deliver. ) As Steve points out, the move to such gadgets and services like free calling in North America is pointing towards “Skype being a free cellphone, not a Presence/IM/Voice platform”:

I fear that you can’t be both. Both directions are interesting, both are worthwhile. But by trying to be both you degrade the value of the IM/presence network, and thus rob one group of users from the productivity gain they currently enjoy. It’s a bit of a conundrum, and I certainly don’t have the answer, but just watch if the value of your Skype presence indications doesn’t start to drop over the next year.

I’m a huge fan of presence, and I wish folk like Skype, and now Google with GoogleChat, would stress to users how useful it is to be able to signal where you are, whether you’re online and happy to chat, or even, as one Skype buddy has done, to make it clear in the “presence note” when you want people to call you. If more people used these tags then more people would understand how useful they are, and we could all benefit. Then, given the broad usage, such companies would be inspired to find ways to include and expand such features in these second tier products.

The Fish That Was Ahead of Its Time

This is old news but it still comes as something of a shock to me: You have probably never heard of Enfish but you see its legacy in every desktop search program you’ll come across. That’s because the company helped promote the idea that searching your own files was as useful an activity as searching the Internet. This was back in 1998. It wasn’t entirely novel (there was something called Discovery put out by Altavista), but they did it amazingly well with an application called Tracker Pro that has, in my view, never been improved upon (including by Enfish themselves).

EnfishThe software, as far as I can recall, only worked on Windows 98 but it was powerful, powerful stuff. It indexed your hard drive, network drives and removable drives in the background (OK, there were some performance issues, but nothing you couldn’t overcome) and searches were lightning fast. What I particularly loved about it were the trackers — complex searches you could save and launch from a sidebar. You could give those strings a user friendly name and then share them with other users. You could also, if I remember correctly, tag files to make for more customized, personal searches. All this in a pretty cool interface, which let you view the document, email or whatever within Tracker Pro itself.

Those days have long since been over. Enfish — Enter, Find, Share — developed in different directions. Since late last year, Enfish as a company and product basically doesn’t exist. Instead you find this message on their website:

Dear Enfish Customers, As of November 1, 2005, Enfish Software will no longer sell its own products, but rather license its technology and patents to others.

From now on the technology has been licensed to another company, EasyReach, which I’m hoping to try out. The sad thing to me was that Enfish, despite a really strong first product, seemed to veer off in the wrong direction, instead of focusing on their core strength: powerful indexing flexible search. I found this immensely frustrating, although I also found their team, including still chairman Louise Wannier, very approachable and enthusiastic. They just never quite built on the promise of their first product.

Perhaps it was just a simple case of Enfish being ahead of their time. Now all the big players are throwing out products that pretty much do what Enfish Tracker did eight years ago. But none of them has quite the style that Tracker Pro had, I reckon. Bye-bye, weird hand-shaped fish thing.

A Directory of Visualizing Tools

Update Feb 2007: Just came across some cool stuff from digg labs (the guys behind digg) who haev some coold stuff I’ve added below.

In this week’s WSJ.com column I wrote (subscription only, I’m afraid) about treemaps, tools which allow you to look at data differently:

One of the things that bugs me about our oh-so-cool information revolution is this: We show such little imagination in how we actually look at that information. Think about it. We have all this fascinating data at our fingertips and yet we have decided the most effective way of viewing it is in…a table. Or a chart. Or a list of search results (“1.7 gazillion matches — click here for next 10 results”). There has to be a better way.

A treemap “is a bunch of squares, arranged to form a mosaic. The size and color of each block mean something”. It’s probably easier to show it than to explain it:

Treemap
(from RoomforMilk, see below)

The size of blocks indicate, in this case, the popularity of each subject, shades and color indicate how recent the topic has been updated. Click on one and more information appears. Best is to check them out: they’re intuitive and fun to use. Really.

Here’s some links (yes I know this should be in the form of a treemap, but I’m not that clever) from the column and some stuff I wasn’t able to put in for reasons of space (Yes, I am aware of the irony. Yell at my editor): 

  • stack a vertical bar chart of activity, with the stories themselves moving way too fast down the screen (from digg labs)
  • digg’s bigspy an impressive scrolling list of stories, size dictated by the number of diggs.
  • swarm another digg offering. not sure what this does, actually, but it looks cute.
  • Panopticon a leading supplier of professional Visual Business Intelligence to the financial services industry as well as other fields of business. Download their free Panopticon Explorer .NET Learning Edition which lets you view treemaps of files, processes, event logs and spreadsheets.
  • Marcus Weskamp’s excellent newsmap
  • Peet’s Coffee Selector good example of a treemap at work for consumers
  • RoomforMilk lovely looking treemap of Slashdot headlines, or as the website puts it — “RoomforMilk.com is a news feed pasteurizer and homogenizer featuring Slashdot News Headlines. RoomforMilk is not even 2% affiliated with Slashdot.org.” Colors and shades indicate new/old (fresh/stale) stories, blocks indicate keywords.
  • del.icio.us most popular treemap from codecubed very cool-looking map of the most popular links from social bookmarking tool del.ico.us, by derek gottfrid.
  • Microsoft Treemapper with Excel Add-In. Simple tool “to view hierarchical data conveniently from an Excel file.”
  • Wikipedia World Population in a treemap by The Hive Group, as a demonstration of their Honeycomb technology. Very absorbing. Check out their views of iTunes’ Top 100 and Amazon.
  • NewsIsFree also uses Honeycomb.
  • CNET News’ Hot page.
  • Great recent piece by Ben Shneiderman, inventor of the treemap. Didn’t get to talk to him but I hope to at some point.
  • Wikipedia entry on Treemapping.
  • Grokker search, a kind of treemap. (Thanks to a reader of the column for that.)
  • WSJ’s Map of the Market, from SmartMoney. Uses Java, but pretty cool.

And, some software to visualize your hard drive (Windows, unless stated)

  • FolderSizes strictly speaking not really a treemap, but a good way to visualize your drives via pie charts. “It can quickly isolate large, old, temporary, and duplicate files, or even show file distribution by type, attributes, or owner. All with multiple export formats, command-line support, shell context menu integration, and much more.” $40, free trial.
  • SizeExplorer Features include folder size, graphical charts, file distribution statistics and reports (by size, extension, type, owner, date, etc.), biggest files, network support, snapshots, file management, printing of file listing, compress into ZIP file, exports to Excel, html, xml and text files, etc. $16-45
  • DiskView another pie chart approach, but useful. DiskView integrates into your Windows Explorer, pretty well. New version also indicates how fragmented files are , and, if your hard disk supports it, its health
  • SpaceMonger my favorite space-hogger hunter. Does a great job of mapping your hard drives and showing you what is taking up space. New version out soon, I’m told.
  • DiskAnalyzer Similar to FolderSizes, though not as pretty. Free tho.
  • WinDirStat free program which will create a treemap of your drive(s), based on the KDirStat for the K Desktop Environment, an interface for UNIX.
  • DiskInventory X similar to WinDirStat/KDirStat, for Macs
  • SequoiaView similar to the above. Linked to the company MagnaView, which sells commercial versions of its treemapping software “take input from virtually any information system, file or database, and support the development of an impressive range of visualizations”. (thanks, Michael.)

You can also see a bunch of posts I’ve done on different kinds of newsmaps, including some interviews with folk like Marcus Weskamp and Craig Mod, creator of Buzztracker, here. I’m sure I’ve missed lots; please do let me know either by email or comments.

 
 

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.

Catching the Spark

This is the week of hobbyhorses. I love sparklines though I’ve been very lazy in actually trying to make more use of them. Sparklines are simple little graphs that can pepper text to illustrate data. I went through a phase of using them a year ago on media coverage of technical stuff, the excessive online habits of Hong Kongers and a rather lame illustration (my first effort) at the rise and fall of Internet cliches.

Anyway, interest seems to be returning for sparklines. Here’s a good piece on Corante on Sparklines: Merging visual data with text  about a new utility that lets you create sparklines for your web page or blog:

Joe Gregorio took the idea and ran with it. He created a web-based utility that lets you input a series of comma-separated values from 1 to 100 in order to generate a sparkline you can add to any online text. To give it a shot, I entered the numbers of repeat visitors to this blog beginning on Monday, March 13 and ending yesterday, March 19.

 

A Directory of Social Annotation Tools

Update July 24 2006: Diigo is now live, combining “Social Bookmarking, Web Highlighter, Sticky-Note & Clipping to make it a powerful tool for online research, collaboration and information discovery”. Looks good; I’d be interested in hearing how people get on with it.

Social annotation, sometimes called web annotation, is back. Put simply, it’s software that allows users to “leave” comments on webpages they visit, so that others visiting the page,  and using the same software, can see their comments. Used well, it’s very useful, as useful as Amazon book reviews, say. Used badly it ends up laden down with offensive and sophomoric graffiti. A few years back (around 1999/2000, if I recall. I’m thinking uTok and ThirdVoice) there were quite a few of these around. Most have gone. Now, with social tagging and blogs, perhaps it’s time for a comeback. (I’m not including any social bookmarking tool here; I guess the distinction is that these tools allow the comments to be read without the surfer leaving the site itself. For ordinary clippings tools go here.)

Here’s the beginnings of a list:

  • WizLite “allows you to highlight text (like on real paper) on any page on the Internet and share it with everybody (or just your friends).” Nicely executed, though development has been sporadic.
  • trailfire marks “web pages that interest you and add your comments. Stitch them together to form a trail. Send trails to your friends, post them in your blog, or publish them on Trailfire.com. Use Trailfire to communicate your own view of the web.” Yes, I’m not quite sure what it means either.
  • Diigo combines “social bookmarking, clippings, in situ annotation, tagging, full-text search of everything, easy sharing and interactions.” Now live.
  • Squidoo lets you join thousands of people making their own “lenses” on their favorite stuff and ideas. It’s fast, fun and free. (And you could even get paid).
  • Jeteye enables users to create, send, view and share any type of online content, add notes and annotations and save it all in user organized Jetpaks™ through an easy drag and drop interface.
  • Chatsum “is a FREE add-on for your web browser that lets you chat with all the other Chatsum users that are looking at the same website as you.” (thanks, pieman)
  • Gabbly  “enables people to instantly connect and collaborate around any content, topic or interest.”
  • Wikalong “is a Firefox Extension that embeds a wiki in the Sidebar of your browser, which corresponds to the current page you are viewing. In its simplest form, a wiki-margin for the internet, but it can be much more.” I like this one because it makes best use of the sidebar. But it’s basic and only works on Firefox.
  • BlogEverywhere “is a simple way for you to log your thoughts and comments on any web page “without leaving it” . It enables you to have a conversation with other readers of that page.” (Thanks, Charles)
  • stickis by activeweave “is a simple and unobtrusive part of your web experience: wherever you are, stickis are there with you, helping you see, compose, and remix all the web, your way.” Still in closed alpha, so I’m not quite sure what that means.
  • Annozilla is another Firefox extension that is “designed to view and create annotations associated with a web page”.
  • Boingle “is a stripped down social annotation system that lets you annotate within web pages with the result being a simple markup (“Boingles (2)”) that looks as though it belongs in the page, much as a link titled “Comments (4)” looks normal within a blog. It is very understated in nature, and lets the annotation content itself be the star.”
  • HyLighter “extends the potential of documents as a medium for the negotiation of meaning. Use HyLighter to make what you understand more transparent and how you understand more effective.” Whatever that means. Website seems to be idle.
  • Plum Why is collecting and sharing, beyond photos and email, so hard? Why can’t I put all my favorite stuff in one place? (still in private beta; it’s not as hard as it was before, guys)

Please do let me know what I’ve left out; I’m sure there’s more. I do get the feeling that this kind of thing is going to make a comeback. But the ones which work will be those that allow either everyone, or groups of users to see each other’s comments on web pages, and to leverage tagging and other new things we’ve gotten used to see comparable pages. And some way of filtering out the silliness would be good.

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Cracking RFID With Your Phone

RFID tags and their security implications are returning to centre stage again. Adi Shamir, professor of computer science at the Weizmann Institute, has shown that it’s possible to crack passwords on RFID tags using a cellphone. In theory this could mean anyone with a cellphone could monitor traffic between a tag and a reader and collect the information being transmitted. As EE Times’ Rick Merritt writes (via Digg)

“I haven’t tested all RFID tags, but we did test the biggest brand and it is totally unprotected,” Shamir said. Using this approach, “a cellphone has all the ingredients you need to conduct an attack and compromise all the RFID tags in the vicinity,” he added.

Shamir said the pressure to get tags down to five cents each has forced designers to eliminate any security features, a shortcoming that needs to be addressed in next-generation products.

Quite a few of the comments on the Digg link are of the “why should we care?” variety:

I still dont understand what the big fuss is about RFID security. I mean who cares if someone knows that you just bought milk and eggs or that you are carrying around the latest Playboy. What could be tagged with RFID that people would so desperately need to keep private? I think that people are wrapped a little bit tightly around the issue.

This kind of response is infuriating, but predictable, and the reason why there’s still a huge gulf between the value we attach to our personal data and the value companies in the world of data collection attach to it. It is precisely the detail of our lives that is valuable to others; this detail — whether we bought milk, eggs or Playboy — comes together to form a very detailed profile of the consumer. The consumer is also a bank account holder, a patient, a credit card applicant, a driver, an employee. When all this information gathered on the individual is collated, it forms an alarmingly precise picture of their habits, their problems, their foibles — do you want a potential employer to know you read Playboy?, a life insurer to know you consume lots of fatty foods? — which might, just might, in the future prove the difference between a job, a loan, a credit card, a house.