Watch out, Kindle

asus_eee_readerWatch out, Kindle, you have more and more competition every day.  They’re cheaper, they solve 80% of the “I don’t want to buy bulky books” problem, and they cater to a mass market, not just “reading enthusiasts.”  As I predicted earlier, your days are numbered if you don’t bulk up on features or come way down in price.

Yahoo finally understands the power of Mail, Google doesn’t

screenshot6Over the past few months, Yahoo has been quietly adding more and more features to their webmail solution, Yahoo Mail.  For three years (from the sidelines), I’ve been hoping they would do this, and finally it looks like they’re getting the message.  Perhaps it’s Carol Bartz’ leadership, I don’t know, but Yahoo is finally polishing and rebuilding the biggest weapon in their arsenal.

In the past few months, Yahoo Mail has added support for large attachments (via Drop.io), added various Facebook-like “apps” from companies like Evite, Flickr, and Paypal, and they acquired Xoopit to improve their photo sharing and sending abilities.  They even started allowing Facebook style “status casting” which is equivalent to the Facebook news feed, allowing people to keep track of what their friends and family are up to.

These moves show a new, long-overdue dedication to email.  Yahoo has 350 million email users worldwide, and they have finally realized that email is their Trojan horse that will let them cross-promote and upgrade users to all of their other media properties and services.  Everyone needs email, and very little innovation has happened in the email space in the last 15 years.  If Yahoo can innovate and make social networking and messaging readily accessible and imminently usable for their already enormous audience within an email context, they have a chance to create some major buzz and hold off the Facebooks of the world that are out to eat their lunch.  Just imagine if Facebook started offering actual email addresses – Yahoo would face a serious threat.  Yahoo already has massive reach, all they need to hold off Facebook are tools that let that massive audience connect with each other.

The biggest question I have is whether it is too late.  Gmail was integrated with its IM solution from Day 1, but Yahoo Mail still isn’t well tied to Yahoo Messenger.  Why weren’t my Yahoo Messenger contacts automatically added to my Mail address book so I can see my friends updates?  This is a huge oversight and has hamstrung adoption of the Yahoo news feeds and status updates, but I’m hopeful Yahoo will move to correct this.

Also interesting is that Yahoo is innovating on its email solution while Google is reinventing email entirely with Google Wave.  I haven’t had the chance to say this often, but Yahoo’s approach is right, and Google’s is wrong.  Google Wave is too innovative, too paradigm shifting to gain widespread adoption in the next few years, and unfortunately it’s the kind of product that isn’t worth anything until the people you’re communicating with use it too.  Yahoo, on the other hand, is innovating on email incrementally, making their interfaces more streamlined, and making ancillary features like attachments and photo sharing more native and intuitive.  If Yahoo can get the social piece right, too, they may start grabbing headlines with their features again rather than for their deal-making and constant games of executive musical chairs.

I love Dropbox

dropbox_logo_homeI admit it, I’m in love.  Joel and Dropbox, sitting in a tree…yadda yadda.  I am in love with Dropbox (getdropbox.com).  If you’re not familiar with it, Dropbox is a little program that lets you sync a folder on your computer with 1) a drive online in the “cloud” and 2) any number of other PCs you own.  You get 2GB of online storage for free, and can pay for more if you want.

With Dropbox, I can plunk files I’m working on into my “My Dropbox” folder, and at the speed of the Internet all my other PCs at home and at work will have that file available.  If I delete it off one, it’s gone from all of them.  If I accidentally delete it (and clear my PC’s Recycle Bin), I can find the file on the web interface.

One of the coolest features I’ve found is the ability to share folders with others.  Here at the office we have a shared Dropbox folder that we can all edit.  If I need a file for a presentation, I just put it on the shared folder and it’s available on the conference room computer or on anyone’s else’s PC in the building.  It’s like having a file server, but much, much easier.

A related program that I’ve been using religiously is Sugarsync.  Sugarsync works in much the same way as Dropbox, but it allows you to sync multiple, existing folders on your PC.  I’ve set it up so I have my “Music”, “Pictures”, “Videos”, and “Documents” folders all sync’ed separately, so I can choose which folders to sync to which PCs – for instance, I don’t need to have all my media on my work PC, so I only sync my Documents folder to it.  If I need a video or picture, I can always download it from the Sugarsync website.  I upgraded my Sugarsync to the 100GB plan so I can sync every file I have to the remote server.  Awesome benefit of doing this – no need to do backups anymore.  I can get my files on any of my PCs, and I don’t have to backup any of them.  Computing nirvana! (Yeah, I’m a geek.)

The only thing I’ve had trouble with on SS is when you delete large numbers of files – SS puts these into a Recycle Bin of their own, and those files contribute to your storage quota.  I once deleted 30GB of files just to move them somewhere else, and I went over my quota because those files were still in the online Recycle Bin.  And, unfortunately, there’s no “Empty Recycle Bin” feature…hopefully they will address this soon.  UPDATE: Sugarsync contacted me after this blog post, and let me know that: “In the desktop client, you can right click on the Deleted Items folder and select Empty Deleted Files.”

So currently I use Dropbox for the small number of files I need to work on all the time or just for transferring files between computers, and Sugarsync for my comprehensive file backup and sync solution, and it’s been working great.  I don’t worry about PCs crashing or accidentally wiping my hard drives anymore.  Let me tell you, it’s a very freeing feeling for those of us paranoid about losing years of our digital history.  Kudos to the product folks at both companies, and I’m sure both will do well.

What syncing or backup solutions have tried?

Twitter, MS, Yahoo, Hunch, and other boring news

yawnSorry I haven’t posted in a while, guys – honestly, there just haven’t been a lot of interesting developments in the digital media area lately.  So, I’ll just tackle a few smaller topics today.

Pointless Twittering: According to a study by Pear Analytics, 40% of Tweets are “Pointless Babble” with another 38% being “Conversational” (which I suppose is a step above Pointless Babble.  A small step.)  Only 3.6% of posts were classified as news, confirming my assertion that Twitter is more of a communication tool than a source of information.  If you’re in the market for pointless babble or conversation, now you know where to go.  On a side note, I love the use of the term “pointless babble” in serious research.

Celeb name power: The social media press should stop talking about Hunch.com just because it was started by a Flickr founder.  It’s not interesting and it’s not (as the press keeps calling it) social Q&A; it’s social polling, more akin to  Sodahead or even the old-school Coolquiz than Yahoo! Answers or my baby.  With social Q&A you get to ask a question any way you want and let other people answer your question.  On Hunch, you can’t ask a question at all – you have to search for decision-making wizards that other users have already created.  And even then, it’s only good for making decisions like whether you should mow your lawn or whether you should renew your World of Warcraft subscription.  If you want to know why the sky is blue or what sights to see in Istanbul, you’re out of luck.  Yawn.  The initial burst of traffic they got from the press is fading, although not as precipitously as Wolfram Alpha’s.

Dumb, smart!: Radio Shack is smart to try rebranding as The Shack because they have nothing to lose.  Their old brand stands for irritable, aggressive salespeople, batteries, and out-of-date, no-name electronics devices, so they could stand to shed some of that.  Pizza Hut, on the other hand, is nuts to drop the ‘Pizza’ and call themselves The Hut.  They will forever be associated with Jabba, and there was nothing terribly wrong with their brand as it was.  The Hut says they changed the name to allow them to broaden their menu, but I say if Burger King can sell salads, you guys can sell just about anything short of sushi.  Don’t get me started on Syfy.

Microyawn: I suppose the whole Yahoo-Microsoft deal is big news, but for the average web user, it just won’t mean anything.  Yahoo search results will look different.  Big deal.

Wake me when Google Wave comes out.  It’s way too overblown to gain any mass-market acceptance, but at least it’ll be a fun toy for tech geeks like myself.

Random 15 year-old speaks, TechCrunch and Mashable listen

Dude, teens don't like Twitter!

Dude, teens don't like Twitter!

Morgan Stanley today, in a fit of “we can do no wrong”-ness, posted a “research” report discussing the behavior of today’s teens regarding media.  The only problem was that their research was based on talking to a single 15 year-old intern at Morgan Stanley.  That’s right, they talked to one random dude.  While normally this sort of interview would be fodder for a high school newspaper, Morgan Stanley continued their quest for irrelvance by publishing it themselves.

Because the report is generally so useless, I will not be posting a link to it.  However, nothing stopped Mashable and CrunchGear/TechCrunch from posting their own coverage, including a full list of the conclusions reached by said 15 year-old.  Mashable had the sense to at least question the research, but TC went ahead and used one of these useless conclusions as their headline (talk about link-baiting):

Morgan Stanley report shows that teens don’t use Twitter, don’t buy music (but still go to the movies)

in reality neither site should have said anything about this worthless report and they definitely should not have posted the conclusions.  Guys: if it isn’t news, don’t cover it.

The real meaning of the Google OS (sans hype)

It’s always fun to see a trailblazing product get announced and then watch the press run around trying to figure out what it is, what it means, and why it’s important.  The latest occasion for this kind of tomfoolery is Google’s announcement yesterday of the Chrome OS.  Here’s my take on it:

What it is

Chrome OS is the Chrome browser plus a version of Linux that is built to run a single application: the Chrome browser.  The “applications” that run on Chrome OS are what we have traditionally thought of as web sites, pages, or services, things like Google, Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, Delicious, or pretty much anything else that starts with http.  These include services like Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets.

What it isn’t

A traditional operating system.  You can’t install Photohop, MS Office, iTunes, Yahoo messenger, AIM, or any other OS-based application you’re used to.  If you want to play MP3s, you’ll have to find a site or service that will do that like Pandora or Orb.  If you want to IM, you’ll need a web-based IM like Meebo.  If you want to edit pictures, you’ll need a web-based photo editor like Aviary’s Phoenix.

What we don’t know

  • It’s unclear if Google will build hooks into Chrome to allow it to manipulate local files.
  • It’s also unclear how much access web applications would have to peripherals.  I don’t know if I can just plug it into an iPod, webcam, or external hard drive and have it work.  Google claims that Chrome apps would run on any standards compliant browser, and that functionality just isn’t part of the current browser model, so I’m guessing these peripherals would not work.

What it means

Chrome OS, at release, will be built primarily for netbooks.  It will let you boot the netbook quickly and browse the web within seconds.  It’s good for people who want access to the web anywhere and aren’t doing heavy-duty computing like hardcore PC games, Photoshop, or even complex Excel spreadhseets or Powerpoint presentations. It definitely isn’t going to be useful as a media center.

A netbook with Chrome OS is what used to be known as a thin client or a Network Computer, but with real graphics capabilities.  It’s meant for mobile computing, and it will only threaten Microsoft’s Windows OS in the ultra-portable netbook space for the foreseeable future.  Windows 7 need not worry.

As for the press’ coverage, it’s largely regurgitations of the Google Press Release with a dash of analysis and a double helping of “maybe it’ll be important…you decide.”  But then…we have TechCrunch, which is getting harder and harder to describe as a “news outlet.”

Today Michael Arrington brags about how he predicted the Google OS in September of ’08, despite the fact that rumors have been flying since at least ’06 admittedly without the “Chrome” moniker.  In his “prescient” article, he claims

Chrome is nothing less than a full on desktop operating system that will compete head on with Windows.

Not true at all.  As Google made clear in their latest announcement, Chrome OS will still require Linux as the traditional OS it runs on top of.  He goes on to grandly pronounce

Expect to see millions of web devices, even desktop web devices, in the coming years that completely strip out the Windows layer and use the browser as the only operating system the user needs.

Firstly, the browser still needs Linux, and let’s not forget our history – the pioneers of computing have been talking about the thin client since 1993 and the similar Network Computer since 1996, both of which follow the same model as the Google OS, so he wasn’t exactly going out on a limb there.  Why he felt the need to brag about his tardy prediction again today, I can’t say.

Certainly there are still questions to be answered about Chrome OS and I don’t think it will be a game changer in the next couple years, but it is a step forward in making mobile computing cheaper and more convenient.  We’ll still need our PC’s with real OS’s to do real work, but this could indeed take a big bite out MS’s dominance in the low-end PC market, particularly when wireless data plans become more affordable.  Of course, don’t expect MS to be silent – they’re working on their own browser-based OS as well.

Update: 3:19pm

By way of Valleywag (bravo VW), I noticed Dave Winer’s summation of the Chrome OS, and he almost gets it right.  He says:

Let’s be dispassionate. Before yesterday’s announcement: 1. Chrome ran on Linux. 2. Linux was an operating system. 3. Linux ran on netbooks.  However, most people want XP on their netbook, not Linux. That was true yesterday and it’s still true today.

I think this is mostly accurate, but I think Google is trying to create a different class of device that is actually different from today’s netbooks and therefore, it isn’t a question of Linux vs. XP.  A Chrome netbook will boot directly to a browser window, and everyone knows how to use a browser, so it avoids the typical Linux geekiness.  The fact that it only runs a browser clearly makes it much less feature rich than XP, but it’s also much faster and cheaper.  Maybe it needs a new name to signify its limited abilities – micro netbook or browserbook or something…but I agree with Dave that calling this an OS is really just a marketing maneuver.

Mr. Magazine: Cater to your customers

On the newstand

On the newstand

For subscribers

For subscribers

In a recent post on his blog Mr. Magazine, Samir Husni discusses the recent trend of magazines producing a single issue with two different covers, one cover for placement in newsstands, and a different cover for their subscribers.  It seems that for distribution on newsstands, the covers were more sensational and sexy, with  more lists (8 reasons your diet isn’t working) and more lascivious content (“The Sex of your Dreams (& Hers.)”)  Notable magazines using this technique are Men’s Health, US Weekly, and Bazaar.

What surprised me about the article was Husni’s dramatic objection to the practice:

I do not believe that the single copy cover should be any different than that of the subscriber, if we are in the business of customers who count and not just counting customers. Subscribers do visit the newsstands and what they see their should match what is on their coffee table.

Husni doesn’t seem to give any reasoning for his assertions; he just thinks this is the way it “should” be.  The way I see it, if you’re not just “counting customers” and you actually think your customers count, why not give them an experience they want?  If you know that most people in a certain segment have a certain preference and you have the ability to cater to that preference, why wouldn’t you?  Naturally, newsstand issues need to be more marketing oriented, so the headlines should be more attention-grabbing.  If someone wants to put a magazine on their coffee table, they many not want lewd headlines about sex tips all over it.  So why wouldn’t you give your readers what they want?

I applaud the magazine industry for this step in the right direction.  Websites have been delivering customized experiences for years, so it’s about time that magazines took a page from our…book?

How to fix online advertising

The internet publishing industry did itself a serious disservice when first designing ads for the web.  Rather than learning from the newspaper and magazine industries, they reinvented the wheel by designing ads that were as unobtrusive as possible, and they’ve been paying for it ever since.

Remember the first standardized ad size?  It was 468×60, an amazingly small ad unit by today’s standards.  You just can’t fit a meaningful message on an ad this size (especially with today’s larger screen resolutions), and to compensate ad sizes have been creeping upwards over time…from the original 468×60 and 125×125 to
250×250 to

120×600 to

728×90 to

300×250 to

160×600 to

336×280 to

300×600 to

flyovers, pull-outs, interstitials, and a whole new set of big ad sizes.

I say it’s about time we started showing huge ads.  We online publishers have been limiting our success for years, ever since that first tiny ad size was standardized.

To see why this is the case, look at print magazines.  Those guys have huge ads.  One of the most common units they sell is a full page!  They sell full pages, half pages, quarter pages with the smaller eighth- and sixteenth-page ads getting either shoved to the back of the magazine or spanning several pages so they can tell a story.   Certainly it is true that the print mag industry is hurting these days, but that pain is because of rising printing and distribution costs and an oversaturated market, not because of their advertising model.

TechCrunch AdsOnly now are we online publishers finally seeing ad standards that are competitive with the print mag standards (One could argue that interstitials are full page ads, but most don’t take up anywhere near the whole page.)  TechCrunch whines childishly about these big ads having a poor user experience, but I posit that TechCrunch’s alternative of a superabundance of small ads create an even worse user experience than one or two large ads would.  TC shows ELEVEN ads before you even get below the fold, 10 of which are deprecated 125×125′s that allow for virtually no design, messaging or branding benefits, and they make the whole page look messy and cluttered.

Large ads are simply better because:

  1. There is more room for compelling design
  2. There is more room for compelling messaging
  3. Page layout is easier – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen page designs compromised by trying to fit a 300×250 ad.  Interstitials and full page-wide ads are actually easier to design around
When will ads on the web be this cool?  When they're large enough

When will web ads be this cool? When they're big enough

Print mags have much larger ads than websites, so do they have a poor user experience?  Of course not.  In many magazines the ads are so cool that they’re almost considered content.  Magazine readers realize that you need to see ads to get cheap/free content, and website readers only whine about big ads on websites because:

  1. We have conditioned them to see small ads
  2. Online ad creative is often poorly designed (not visually appealing, message isn’t compelling, etc.), and
  3. Online ads are often poorly targeted

We have been trying to fix the Problem 1 for 15 years, and once we do fix it, the advertising folks will fix Problem 2 for us because they’ll have much more space to work with, as they do in print mags.  As for targeting (Problem 3), AdSense was the biggest quantum leap in this space, with behavioral targeting being the next wave; there is plenty of work going on in this area.

As soon as online publishers and advertisers can fix these problems, user experience will improve, ad rates will improve, and we will finally see the maturing of the online advertising model.

Vyoom: get your pitch straight!

Rule of Product Management #675: If you’re going to post your mission on your homepage, make sure people can get behind it.  Vyoom, a new “real-time” social network presents their philosophy front and center on their homepage:

We at Vyoom believe members should be rewarded for connecting and sharing with friends, family and co-workers in a real-time environment.

Excuse me, what?  Why exactly should I be rewarded for chatting with my friends and family?  Shouldn’t the mere activity and social interaction of sharing helpful, entertaining, or personal information with my acquaintances be reward enough?  It sure is on Facebook, Twitter, email, or even in person.  Why do I need to be rewarded for this?  If I’m using your site because I want to be rewarded, I’m likely to overuse the site, flooding my friends and family with information they don’t want, and ultimately having them all block me and/or add me to their spam filters.

Further down on their homepage, they claim they have a “real-time” social network that lets me see what my friends are doing and customize what updates I want to see.  Their meta description (shown to search engines, but not on the site) describes them as a

Social network with advanced social capabilities and true real-time data streaming in both a public and a private network all in one platform

This featureset actually sounds like it might be interesting and differentiating, so why lead with the messaging about rewarding me for communicating with friends?  If you have a great new tool that will make my communications easier, lead with that.  You don’t need to bribe me.  If the product is that cool, I’ll use it and I’ll do your marketing for you by telling my friends.  This is a classic case of a split personality site – they seem to have a cool product, but their lead pitch doesn’t even mention its strengths.

And while we’re at it, Rule of Product Management #425: Avoid underlining words that are not hyperlinks.  Their homepage is riddled with underlined words that unfortunately I just can’t click on.

And you might be asking if I actually used the site…well, no.  I tried – I registered, but never got my confirmation email, and you can’t use the site at all without it.  I tried signing up with a different email address, and the registration form broke.   Sorry guys, I’m done.

Twitter is a communication tool, not an information source

michael-jackson-reportedly-set-to-marry-kids-nanny-tcpIf you’re on the digital airwaves at all these days, you’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Twitter and particularly how people are starting to turn to it for bleeding edge news reporting.  (I covered the real-time news aspect of Twitter previously.)  What most pundits and even reporters are missing in this fray is that Twitter is more of a communication tool than a source of information, and they should treat it as such in their reporting.

The distinction is an important one, and it’s growing increasingly relevant.  In the aftermath of the coverage of Michael Jackson’s untimely death, the TechCrunch blowhards bellyached about how the mainstream media didn’t recognize Twitter’s role in the story coverage.  Author Robin Wauters cites the Chicago Tribune’s coverage:

Gossip site TMZ.com, owned by Time Warner, was out in front with Jackson news and digital-era pipelines spread the word, as has happened before with other major celebrity news stories. But it was old media stalwarts that did the heavy lifting, with giants such as The Associated Press and the Web site of the L.A. Times, sister paper of the Chicago Tribune, reporting the fastest, most credible information on the emergency call for paramedics and ultimately his death.

and she complains that

Chest-beating over old media doing the “heavy lifting” for blogs and Twitter, and being faster in reporting information than those new media when it was exactly the other way around is beyond ridiculous.

Wauters asserts that Twitter and TMZ did all the “heavy lifting”, but let’s be totally clear here: Twitter didn’t do anything at all. Twitter only facilitated communication between humans; in this case it enabled the distribution of links to the TMZ story.  Twitter doesn’t have a news room, and they don’t have writers.  Twitter is a pipe, a utility, a tool; it is not a source, so stop treating it as such.

Countless news stories are spread every day over email, blogs, message boards, cell phones, fax machine, or even good old word-of-mouth, but do we need to recognize the role of those tools in news coverage?  ”I just heard the news, thank you cell phones for giving me this news!”  Do we believe these tools should get recognition equal to the actual sources of news that created the stories being passed along them?  Now that’s ridiculous.  Just because the communication tool is new doesn’t mean it is anything more than a tool.  TechCrunch, please get over yourselves and stop promoting Web 2.0 for the sake of it.

capture

Twitter is pretty sure Jeff Goldblum is dead

Jeff Goldblum, for one, can probably vouch for how little heavy lifting Twitter actually does:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jeff Goldblum Will Be Missed
www.colbertnation.com

TMZ alone should get credit for having feet on the ground (of some sort) and for getting the story first.  Stop thanking the messenger, and thank the writer of the message.