Years ago I worked with the team at Tacoda on the technology for audience based targeting. Some of my work there wound up in a patent that was sold along with Tacoda to AOL. I don’t know if this patent is part of the patents recently sold by AOL to Microsoft but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. I also worked closely with Joshua on a number of patents filed for by del.icio.us and sold along with the company to Yahoo. Yahoo of course has recently started a massive patent lawsuit against Facebook (fortunately none of the del.icio.us patents feature in it).
In both cases my work on the patents was done to help protect a startup company. But once that company exited the patents were in someone else’s hands who could use them any which way they would want to, including offensively. The bulk of the patents used by trolls (er, non-practicing entities) in lawsuits against USV portfolio companies are patents that were acquired from startups that had failed. The original innovators — the engineers who did the work — lose complete control over their work which has resulted in a number of high profile posts of people distancing themselves from the use of their patents.
I am therefore thrilled that our portfolio company Twitter has come up with a terrific hack of the system: a patent assignment agreement that gives the company only defensive use of the patent. The innovator retains control for any offensive use. What I love about this hack is that companies can adopt it one at a time and that it doesn’t require any change in the legal system (that’s why it is a “hack”). I also love that the company has put the agreement up on github where it can spread virally among engineers. I already know that we have several other portfolio companies that are interested in adopting the same agreement.
So if you are an engineer and care about the drag of software patents, go lobby your company to adopt this agreement. And if they don’t, go work for one that has! At USV we are supporting this new agreement and are actively encouraging our portfolio companies to adopt it.
Yesterday, Techmeme was ablaze with posts about sharing on Facebook’s Open Graph. A CNet post by Molly Wood with the title “How Facebook is ruining sharing” appears to have kicked it all off. In it she argues that the automated (“frictionless”) sharing via Open Graph apps results in a lot more noise rather than signal. Marshall Kirkpartrick at RWW holds the same view in a piece titled “Why Facebook’s Seamless Sharing is Wrong”. Robert Scoble — not that surprisingly — is more optimistic about the benefits of automated sharing despite calling his post “The Facebook Freaky Line” and Josh Constine at Techcrunch thinks we just need better tools to curate what ex-post facto what was shared automatically in his post on “Facebook and the Age of Curation Through Unsharing”.
The arguments in these pieces are mostly about signal versus noise and about what people are comfortable sharing (or unsharing - really, who would want to do that?). But somewhat surprisingly every one of these posts seems to take sharing with Facebook as single network, the one network to rule them all, as a given. Questioning that view seems to me the most important critique of Facebook’s Open Graph. I believe we will be better off in a world with a proliferation of different networks for sharing different things with different people. I personally want to share my location with a different group of people (foursquare) than my game play (Heyzap) or my music listening (ex.fm). These different networks can provide functionality and graph models (symmetric, asymmetric) that are specific to the type of content I am sharing.
Sites and apps that essentially delegate their sharing and hence ultimately their discovery primarily or entirely to Facebook are missing the opportunity to build a network of their own with features that work best for their participants. In such a world, all of these networks don’t need to live in isolation though. There is an opportunity for a network of networks to exist. Twitter is well positioned to play this role. When I have a moment on foursquare, or Heyzap, or ex.fm that I do want to share more broadly, I can always choose to broadcast it to the public network which connects everyone. That sharing to the network of networks will carry with it a particularly high signal value.
Managed to get into Google+ last night and here are some very early impressions.
First, there is a lot to learn and explore. They clearly built a ton of different things and it will take folks, myself included, a while to figure it all out. It does feel a bit like they wanted to take on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook in one fell swoop, which is a tall order.
Second, it does still feel a bit rushed because stuff doesn’t hang together all that well yet. For instance, navigating from circles to the stream page and back feels almost like you are in different services. It would seem that they put a premium on getting it out there before sanding down some of these rough edges. One theory is that this is just what anyone would do with a new product - get user feedback. It could be related though to the FTC anti-trust inquiry with a desire to get it into the wild before regulators clamp down on what Google can launch.
Third, a lot of the initial rush into the service is very clearly driven by people wanting to check it out and many of the early posts reflect that. So don’t think that one can read much into that for the long term vibrancy of Google+ (or lack thereof).
As for my questions about circles from yesterday my first reactions are that this is clearly a work in progress. A lot of people don’t have pictures attached to their Google profiles which makes pulling them into circles a bit tricky at times. The more important problems are cognitive. It’s easy to understand what my friends and family circles are. But what if I create a circle called USV and so does Christina? What is the relationship between these separate circles? What if someone outside the firm establishes a USV circle?
And the point that I raised yesterday about the potential for mismatched privacy expectations seems to already be playing itself out. Apparently (I haven’t used it yet) there is a reshare feature that makes it super easy to take content and pass it along. Anything posted to any circle can as of right now be reshared to any other circle or even the general public with a single click as this FT story points out. That would seem to fly in the face of Google’s positioning circles as a way to control reach. So either they need to change that positioning or they need to clamp down on how reshare works.
I am excited on many levels to see Google release Google+. First, it was about time that Facebook faced some head on competition. If nothing else it will make Facebook better. Competition is a healthy thing. Second, I like the idea of trying a different cut on how to organize people and relationships. We have had friends and followers, groups and lists, and now we have circles (incidentally, Etsy has had circles for a while).
There are two important issues that I am really curious about when it comes to circles.
Circles is apparently a super easy drag and drop interface (despite an invite, I am not in yet so relying on the descriptions of others). Nonetheless, Google+ still separates the creation of relationships (circles) from specific services. It will be interesting to see if that’s how people want to organize relationships as opposed to picking relationships within specific services (eg people I want to share my location with on foursquare, people who I want to shop with on Etsy, etc).
Second, I am curious about what kind of privacy expectations emerge around circles. Google is promoting these with the following language (from the Google+ site):
The easiest way to share some things with college buddies, others with your parents, and almost nothing with your boss.
In other words, Google suggests that circles will allow people to share with a higher degree of control over “reach.” Since circles don’t have a “friends of friends” problem that seems reasonable at some level, but might also wind up being misleading on another. We have a fairly clear convention around one-to-one messaging (e.g., email, Twitter DM, SMS): assumed private (although a service like Bnter runs against that). The public broadcast model of Twitter and Tumblr is also easy to understand. But what should my privacy expectation be if I share something with a circle of “college buddies”?
To be clear, I am not suggesting hat Circles can’t or won’t work. Simply that those are the two issues with regard to circles that I am most curious about because they have tremendous implications for all services with a social component (meaning: all services). Now I can’t wait to actually get into Google+ so that I can experience circles for myself.
I have had a number of conversations with entrepreneurs recently where it became clear that their own personal dislike for email/twitter/Facebook/mobile notifications stood in the way of growth. It would be nice to think that you could build a service that is so awesome that everyone who discovers it will (a) instantly get all their friends to use it and (b) keep coming back all the time. But that rarely happens. Instead, there is a lot more evidence to suggest that it is much harder to err on the side of over-notifying/over-promoting than under-notifying/under-promoting. Facebook and Zynga are both great examples of this. I strongly believe users should have an ability to opt-out, skip, turn-off, etc. But burying steps such as sharing on Twitter, or inviting friends via email, or not sending out newsletters or email notifications by default out of a sense of not wanting to be too spammy (much as I appreciate this sentiment) is a mistake. On mobile that most likely means having push notifications and integrating with the address book and using that as another way to discover presence of friends on a service and allow for invitations. As PT Barnum said so memorably: “Without promotion something terrible happens,” he said. “Nothing!”
The rumor is that Facebook will on Monday unveil a fairly full fledged webmail solution. At the same time Google is working hard on some kind of new social network. Microsoft too is trying to have email, search, social, etc. all under one roof. The rationale here seems to be one of wanting to own as much of a user’s experience as possible.
It is supported by an economic logic in which companies are making lots of money in one area and using that to subsidize other parts of functionality. Once those pieces of functionality are up and running, they provide additional information about the user, which is more helpful to someone who already has information about that user than it would be to a standalone service (the marginal value of information is super-modular).
I have started to think of this as the “mallification” of the web. If it happens as currently envisioned by the major players, there will be a handful or fewer malls to choose from. I hate malls in the real world. I much prefer making the extra effort to go to my favorite stores wherever they may be than drive to one place where a few great ones are bundled with a whole lot of mediocrity.
The web doesn’t need to be like this. On the web, each individual service is just a click away and data could flow between services in the cloud. That would be the basis for a continued vibrant online world full of diversity and innovation in each separate service.
What would it take to create this alternative to web malls? My radical proposal: a central provider that creates truly shared economics.
Google, for instance, took one step in this direction with AdSense, but ultimately kept most of the search economics for itself. Instead of building gmail itself, Google could have chosen to let other people build email services and share enough search revenues with those services to make them sustainable. Now some folks will say immediately that gmail advertising doesn’t monetize well enough to support gmail, let alone third party services. But that fails to acknowledge the value that Google can potentially derive from information gleaned from within email to the economics of core search. Put differently, what matters is total value contribution, not contribution within each service. That should also be the basis for a sharing arrangement with providers.
It will be interesting to see if one of the existing companies is willing to be more radical. Google and Microsoft are hampered by being public (although if Microsoft had given away economics to the tune that it invested in its own failed initiatives it could have a huge online economy around it now). Facebook has a potential platform with credits, but so far is pushing in the opposite direction by absorbing areas which would be fertile for third party services (chat, location). I am not even thinking about Yahoo. Finally, there is the possibility that someone else gets there, such as Twitter, but they need to first get their own economic engine to really take off.
Of course it is also entirely possible that it is too early for this radical approach. Maybe we are bound to suffer through a period of malls before we can get to a more open web services economy (a widely available actual cloud computing platform would help a lot). I for one am hoping we can avoid that interim state.
So the results are in on the first week of NFL predictions on Preditter: 10 correct calls, 5 incorrect and 1 inconclusive (tweets were 50:50). Not much to write home about, but kind of fun. Especially since Preditter now shows who was right and who was wrong. For instance, for one that Preditter got wrong see Jets vs Ravens. For a correct one check out Saints vs Vikings. There are also the beginnings of user pages. For instance, my page is at http://preditter.com/users/albertwenger (these don’t yet show which predictions were correct — coming this weekend together with leaderboards).
Games for Week 2 are loaded, so preditter away!
Each has more than 100 Million credit cards on file to enable 1-click purchases of content, apps, and virtual goods. When I compare doing anything involving payment on other platforms the experience is cumbersome to the point of being useless. My 10-year old son had no trouble hijacking my Kindle, finding the store and getting a book for himself. And that’s on the Kindle! On his iPod touch he blew through the app budget we had set for the month within the first two days of having it. It will be interesting to see who figures out how to catch up with Apple and Amazon and how they do it. In the meantime, companies like Zong with their Zong Plus offering are trying to get there independently. If they get to 10s of millions of linked credit cards, they will make a juicy acquisition target.
In writing and talking about WolframAlpha yesterday, it occurred to me how much I like being able to get stuff done without clicking around. That’s especially important when clicking around is slow (because of latency and processor speed) and clumsy (because of tiny screen), such as is the case on phones. In other words, I want to go back to the beginning with a command line. The Unix command line is of course all powerful for those who really know how to use it, but requires a lot of learning of commands and thinking about how to chain them together. For mobiles I have something slightly different in mind, an intelligent command line.
An ideal starting point for it would be text messaging and by extension twitter. In twitter, all it would take would be a new syntax, say a “?” at the beginning of a tweet. I want to be able to say things like
- ? AA177 - and get the status for American Airlines flight
- ? AAPL - and get a stock quote for Apple
- ? how old is Barack Obama - and get the answer (see yesterday’s post)
It is easy to think of many more general query types that should be handled by this command line. But with a little bit of initial setup, I should also be able to ask more personal queries, such as
- ? balance - to get my bank balance
- ? next train - to find out when my next commuter train goes (get both directions in result)
The answers to the questions would simply be delivered as an SMS reply to my phone. There are services out there today, such as kgb, which do some of this, but they tend to be needlessly expensive and don’t actually connect to an information services backend.
Somebody could implement this today on twitter using the “d” mechanism. But unless they implement all the queries I might want, I will have to remember who to send the message to for different types of queries, e.g. “d flightstatus aa177.” If twitter stepped in the middle with a “?” syntax, then it could make the connection to the most appropriate information provider for me (or create an open architecture in which I can select information providers).
Until then, the closest we have to a mobile command line is simply pointing my Blackberry browser at google and hoping for the best.
The latest salvo in the fight for owning users’ identities revolves around URLs. Google just earlier this week promoted profile search and with it URLs of the form http://www.google.com/profiles/awenger (when I signed up for gmail a long time ago I thought shorter would be better — now wish I had chosen albertwenger, as I have on most other services). Facebook is clearly getting ready to launch their version more broadly and is apparently asking users whether they would pay to have a specific word as their URL (the already have the capability, e.g. http://www.facebook.com/fredwilson).
It will be interesting to see how this plays out both in the near term and in the long run. In the near term Facebook and others (e.g. Twitter) need to make a trade-off call between free, which will foster fast growth and rapid adoption, and paid, which will slow things down but generate revenues and reduce squatting issues. This is not a case of a typical digital good. While it costs nothing to produce one, the cost to produce the second (identical one) is infinite within a service (which is another way of saying you can only have one instance of each name). To extract the most consumer surplus you would run an auction process for names, instead of a fixed price per name as is the case for domain names.
In the long run I suspect that there will be real influence on people picking names for their children or changing their own names. This would not be unprecedented. Historically, people often only had a first name which was fine when the “namespace” was your local village because hardly anyone ever traveled beyond that. I believe that the use of surnames really got going when people started to live in larger cities and mobility was increased. In the age of the Internet we all live in a global namespace.
There is also a bit of irony here around the history of identity standards. OpenID was originally developed with the premise that folks would remember and use a URL to identify themselves. That was a non-starter for mass adoption because most OpenID URLs were really long and ugly and in any case people had been conditioned for years to think about a username or at best an email address as their identifier. So I was happy to see that new implementations were using the protocols behind the scenes but created a user experience that lends itself to broad adoption. Now we may be coming full circle with meaningful and easy to remember URLs actually identifying people.