Thursday, December 27, 2007

Facebook Platform, Twitter, and Ning Among "Hits" Says CNet

This time of year it's always fun to look back at the interesting (and not so interesting) businesses that have been spawned on the Web during the past twelve months. In doing so I came across CNet's "Hits and Misses" article published on December 11.

Facebook scored high marks for its open platform initiative that allows developers to create "widgets" that bring new features to Facebook users. Facebook also received a "Miss" for its Beacon initiative which CNet dubbed one of the "Creepy ad platforms" of 2007.

Twitter is given props for its easy (but not too easy) set of social features that don't ask too much of its users. While blogging supposes that the writer is giving something careful thought in most cases prior to posting, Twitter merely asks "What are you doing right now?" which is seemingly easy to answer for most... I think the toughest parts to truly embracing Twitter are 1) believing that every move you make would be of interest to an intelligent life form and 2) deciding that you want to unveil many moves each day to "Followers" across the 'net. I am personally working to become an active Twitterite but have not yet mastered numbers '1' and '2' mentioned above. However, I have found that an interesting facet of Twitter is the active engagement that it establishes between people relative to traditional blogging. On a blog, you know you have some readers and subscribers but you aren't sure who they are exactly and even when they post it is difficult to establish much of an ongoing dialog or relationship with those who post. On Twitter, you are able to "Follow" others who are notified you are following them and they are in-turn able to easily follow you as well. This simple difference is the main thing that is keeping me Twittering. I came to the realization that this was really powerful when I began following Robert Scoble and within a few minutes I received notice that he was also following me. Given that Scoble is one of the pioneers of blogging and open customer communication who I have been following for a while, it was exciting to create this active connection with him... Now if I can just bring myself to type What I am Doing Right Now into Twitter!

Ning is something I had never heard of and therefore I have nothing to offer in the way of novel thoughts about this CNet Hit. The gist seems to be that anyone can use Ning to create a private social network. The example CNet gives is the ever-important ability to "track and rate local lunch spots" which is a use CNet's staff actually has for the product. I am unsure of there revenue model but if they charge enterprise dollars perhaps this can become a viable business. If the strategy requires blogs to have more than a million users for the economics to work I would bet Ning will have trouble over time as I believe only a handful (maybe a dozen) social networks will have the critical mass required to generate meaningful financial returns.

Surprisingly the iPhone was not mentioned in the article. I am now seeing many who are cursing its issues and threatening (already) to move on to new and different gadgets. At lunch with my business partner at ChaCha Scott's iPhone spontaneously went black and would not turn back on for a few minutes. (Check out Scott's new blog when you have a chance).

So my question is whether the iPhone was a Hit or a Miss in 2007? What do you think about the iPhone and other products that debuted in 2008?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Google's "knol" Experiment Highlights Need for Credibility

Today Google's VP of Engineering, Udi Manber, blogged about a new project called "knol" Google is working on. This project is intended to "to find a way to help people share their knowledge".

This announcement is exciting to the ChaCha team because it validates for the masses something that we have believed deeply from the beginning - that leaving it up to the crowd to give you an answer is not a good idea when accuracy and authority count.

My sense is that Google has Wikipedia in its crosshairs with this initiative as Google sends millions of visitors to the not-for-profit everyday. By capturing this traffic rather than shuttling it off to Wikipedia, Google stands to grow revenue and extend its brand to include the provision of knowledge by actual authorities.

Friday, November 16, 2007

It is Not the Critic Who Counts...

ChaCha recently announced that we closed an additional $10 million in funding and we also started a pilot of a new service that will be launching nationally in January (we are in stealth mode on that now but expect details in early January time frame - hint: What if you could ask anything in natural language and get the answer anywhere at anytime?).

A behavior pattern I find intriguing is that of the naysayers and detractors, who really don't understand our business, coming up with all their many profound reasons that ChaCha is doomed each time we announce another positive milestone has been completed. As I see those who muse wittily (at least they try to be witty) about ChaCha's shortcomings, I can't help but wonder why anyone would feel compelled to be so negative. Then, after wondering for about two minutes, I realize that it is only natural for those who aren't truly informed of where we are headed to misunderstand our business. Additionally, the mere potential of ChaCha and the attention and involvement we have gained from visionaries such as Jeff Bezos and Morton Meyerson can prompt people to feel threatened by the possibility that we could actually become a disruptive force that gains massive global traction. In the latter case, the motives of those who are intent upon knocking ChaCha and others seem to be generated by a possible combination of envy and a conflicted circumstance where, say, you are good buddies with someone who perceives their business to be competitive with ChaCha (even though it really isn't). But what's the point in guessing why the mad bloggers and negativity generators are so darn mad? Well there probably is no point so I will not make any further attempts.

In any event, the amount of weight I place on the brilliant assessments by the usual critics is minimal due to the many cases where the critiques in question are, well... bad critiques that are poorly written as they are void of substance, depth, or any true current basis to support their claims directly (For example, how can you keep pointing to an example from a year ago where a user purposely created a bad experience because the negativity propagator induced that user to go purposely game the system? Just a thought, but perhaps your efforts could be more productively applied in a different pattern). The following random items are worthy of consideration as we consider the relative weight that should be placed on those who just love to criticize...

1) AMAZON DOT BOMB - In early 2001 many brilliant prognosticators of the blogosphere were trumpeting the almost certain demise of Amazon.com. Yeah, they had just terminated more than 1,000 employees so there was some cause for concern. But the main point is that this disruptive retail giant is now trading at record levels and it is clear that Jeff Bezos had a great plan and strategy in place for unleashing a disruptive force on the retail world unlike anything shopping has ever seen. The first time I met Jeff was actually at a Retail Systems conference in Chicago circa 2003 when Amazon had recovered and he actually put the "Amazon dot bomb" headline on the screen during his presentation and commented that his "mom did not care much for this headline". Jeff now has several billion reasons he can point to that prove he was right and the critics were, well... pontificating to get people to read their negative propaganda without any true basis for pumping so much negativity out there about Jeff and Amazon in general. I tend to side heavily with the innovator over the naysayer - and, of course, the innovator tends to create much more value.

2) Theodore Roosevelt - So you are thinking "What!? Why in the world are you thinking about Teddy Roosevelt at a time like this, Brad?" Well, this ties back to the heading of this post. It's Not the Critic Who Counts. Which is an excerpt from one of the more powerful quotes out there when considered in the context of modern media and the negativity that eminates from many (often quite popular) journalists and bloggers. The quote in its entirety is:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

"Citizenship in a Republic,"
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910


I welcome all feedback that is constructive coming from those who actually take their time to truly understand a new, startup business that dares to try something different that can truly transform the way people live everyday. However, my patience and respect for those who find it appropriate to knock startups without any solid, relevant, current data to support their claims is negligible. Especially when the person doling out the criticism is someone who is or has been an entrepreneur. As a graduate of Indiana University during the Bob Knight era, I heard a few good quotes for the critics that I won't mention here but those of you who are sports fans know what I am referring to...

Now you know my view - What are your views on the "brilliant" bashers out there?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Google Announces (are you ready?) GPhone is a Media Fabrication

Aided by creative media types, Google has officially claimed the post (from itself - although Apple is a close second) of the most amazing hype generator in the history of the world. For months, everyone from Wall Street professionals to kindergartners have been anticipating Google's answer to the iPhone - what the media has reffered to as the almighty GPhone.

Finally, on November 6, 2007 the big announcement was here. Like kids on Christmas we all ran to open our news feeds to see the bright, shiny phone of our dreams. Anticipation was building as we scrolled through the various headlines to find what we had all been waiting for...


And there it was - "Google has officially announced that is is launching (drum roll please)............


AN OPEN SOURCE PROJECT!"


So now it is known. Google's much-anticipated GPhone is actually an open source operating system project meant to make it much easier for Google (and other developers) to get all of its applications that work on the web to work on phones. If that doesn't get you excited, I don't know what will.


The SDK (software developer's kit) will be available to developers on November 12, 2007 so that corporations and coding cowboys alike can start writing applications that will run on Android.


Here is a fun little video of the primary engineers behind Android talking about the project.





To the average consumer (to the extend an average consumer was paying attention), this announcement is probably a bit underwhelming - like expecting a go-cart for Christmas and getting an engine kit under the tree and hoping with a lot of work you can drive around by the second half of 2008 instead.


The reality is that this announcement is big and it will definitely change the playing field in the mobile industry. Carriers have long maintained a walled garden where they have control over exactly what does and does not work on their devices. The operating systems and the applications written for them are proprietary so if a software developer wants to write an application for a phone that could be easily downloaded and used by consumers the task is nearly impossible.


Theoretically, an open operating system based on accepted standards could be embraced by carriers so that all developers could write software applications that could be downloaded by all interested cell phone users. This would create a vast new array of opportunities for innovation and would absolutely result in consumers receiving more value over time. In the absence of an open standard, innovation is slowed and progress is stifled.


In reality, Google's project is far from an immediate panacea for the lack of openness and standards in the mobile market. AT&T and Verizon have not signed on as supporters of this project which means that 52% of the mobile market is either doing something different altogether or taking a wait and see approach.

There is no way to predict exactly how this will shake out but I will make the prediction that a hardware device labeled a "GPhone" produced by Google will not be released anytime soon. Such a move would be disruptive to the Open Handset Alliance's charter to get all carriers, handset manufacturers, and software developers to adopt the standard.

Monday, November 5, 2007

In Japan, PC Dying and Gadgets Thriving

"More than 50% of Japanese send email and browse the Internet on their mobile phones."
It seems the days of the masses voyaging in a sheep-like herd to the PC store (or Dell.com) every time a new processor with ever more power is advertised by Intel may be coming to an end. This article offers some recent evidence in Japan of a trend toward utilizing hand held devices rather than PC's to fulfill one's computing requirements. It also indicates that gaming is done on gaming consoles such as the PS3, XBox360, and Wii rather than on gaming PC's.

From a search perspective, I believe this trend has major implications. On mobile devices users do not have the luxury of typing queries and receiving millions (or billions) of potential results. So Google, Yahoo, and the usual search suspects are coming out with their new algorithmic "mobile search" offerings. The problem is that on the mobile phone people want THE ANSWER. They don't want a bunch of links - or even one link.

So I suggest watching this trend - as mobile devices increasingly surpass PC's in popularity for performing everyday information access, the search battle will shift from the desktop to the pocket...

Saturday, November 3, 2007

What Motivates Wikipedians?

Blaise Cronin recently met with my co-founder at ChaCha, Scott Jones to discuss the advancements we are making in online knowledge sharing. During the discussion, Blaise shared an article written by Oded Nov in the November issue of Communications of the ACM entitled "What Motivates Wikipedians?"

This was of particular interest to me given the great deal of work and research we have done at ChaCha building a scalable online workforce of knowledgeable people who are motivated to help others. The article is focused entirely on the motivations and corresponding contribution levels among those who write and edit articles on Wikipedia.

One extremely important factor that is not addressed at all in the findings is that of the credibility and accuracy of information that is delivered. Wikipedia has been banned in at least one case as a credible source for definitive information which indicates that the investigation into what motivates those who provide user-generated content lacks sufficient depth. To make this data truly meaningful it seems that one must also look into what motivates those who provide accurate contributions to user-generated content projects. For now, let's just focus on the analysis in Oded's article as it is interesting and useful.

Oded asserts that user-generated content is simply another form of volunteering. And, as such, the factors underpinning volunteering activity can help explain why people contribute to Wikipedia. Those factors are fun, ideology, values, understanding, enhancement, protective, career, and social. In looking at the correlation between these factors and user contribution levels, the following key observations were made:
  • Fun ("Writing and editing in Wikipedia is fun") proved to have the strongest correlation between the level of motivation and the level of contribution.
  • Although survey respondents listed ideology ("I think information should be free") as an important motivator, there was a negative correlation between level of contribution and ideology as a motivator. Oded postulates that the best reason for this is "talk is cheap". In other words, people say they care about ideology but in reality it is not much of a motivator after all.
  • The older people are, the more they are motivated by enhancement ("Writing/editing in Wikipedia makes me feel needed"), fun, and protective ("By writing/editing in Wikipedia I feel less lonely") factors.
Given the explosion of user-generated content and the legions of people who provide their knowledge free of charge, it is clear that this powerful trend is here to stay. Oded's initial article on this topic is a useful starting point and much deeper research and exploration into the motivation, contribution, and accuracy levels will be needed before a comprehensive view on this topic can be presented.

In addition to the credibility and accuracy questions I raise above, I also wonder in which cases the content is merely shared for entertainment purposes vs. a true desire to share knowledge or answer important questions.

What do you think? Send me comments to let me know.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Google Announces OpenSocial - Reaction to Microsoft-Facebook Deal?

With the dust from the recent Microsoft-Facebook deal still settling, Google made an important announcement today about their OpenSocial initiative which is intended to put Google between popular social networks and the applications that are being developed for social network users. It is amazing to see how quickly Google has shifted (in the court of public opinion) from a fun, fast-growing upstart to a massive enterprise that is battling Microsoft for complete world domination. I would expect to see Microsoft and Facebook launching their own strategy to control the API's used to write applications for social networks and, much like the age-old .Net vs. J2EE saga, a new duel will be underway aimed at establishing control of how applications are written. This is already taking place in the mobile world where Google is expected to announce several alliances with wireless carriers to begin supplying phones powered by a Linux-based mobile operating system created by Google. Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6 will be going head-to-head with Google's new OS. Following are key excerpts ReadWriteWeb published from the announcement that MySpace is a charter member of the OpenSocial API initiative:

“Our partnership with Google allows developers to gain massive distribution without unnecessary specialized development for every platform,” said Chris DeWolfe, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of MySpace. “This is about helping the start-up spend more time building a great product rather than rebuilding it for every social network. We’re pleased to collaborate with Google to establish a landmark standard for social applications.”

As a founding member of OpenSocial, MySpace will provide critical user mass and platform guidance. The OpenSocial standards are designed to evolve through contribution from the open source community and as new features are developed by various partners. Global members of the OpenSocial community include Engage.com, Friendster, hi5, Hyves, imeem, LinkedIn, Ning, Oracle, orkut, Plaxo, Salesforce.com, Six Apart, Tianji, Viadeo, and XING.

“As the most trafficked website in the country and the most popular social network in the world, MySpace is one of the leading forces in the global social Web,” said Dr. Eric Schmidt, Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Executive Officer of Google. “We’re thrilled to grow our strategic relationship with MySpace by joining forces on this important initiative.”

Here is a screenshot of Flixster integrated within MySpace (click for full-size image):

Robert Scoble video interview with Chris DeWolfe and Eric Schmidt:

Saturday, October 20, 2007

ChaCha for Outdoorsmen

I am out in Mitchell, South Dakota on a hunting trip this weekend. It's an annual tradition that has been ongoing since I was old enough to walk. I haven't been on the trip in a couple years (and I am really not a bigger hunter - I mainly go to see old friends and spend some time with my Dad) so when I went to prepare for the trip I was unsure of the gear I needed to pack. I turned to my cousin Andrew for advice.

The ultimate sportsman, he can tell you exactly what type of gear to buy to prepare for your pheasant hunting trip on the opening weekend in South Dakota this year. Since Andrew is from Minnesota and he hunts in his home state or South Dakota almost every weekend, he knew that this year it is going to be unseasonably warm and (since it has rained heavily) extremely muddy. Thanks to Andrew I arrived prepared with waterproof rubber boots and lightweight hunting clothes.


Andrew is also a ChaCha Guide so it occurred to me that hunters using ChaCha would be much better prepared than those who might use an algorithmic-only search engine. You would need to tap into a dynamic source with deep, current knowledge of the hunting conditions to prepare properly for this trip. I think this is a great example of human powered search delivering answers that standard search engines such as Google cannot. If you Google "what should I wear for opening weekend of pheasant hunting in South Dakota this year" you currently get results about pheasant hunting in South Dakota but nothing about what you need to be wearing this season.

So whether you are planning to go hunting or heading to Desolation Canyon for a white water river rafting trip, give human powered search a try. You will be glad you did!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

So what is human powered search anyway? PART 1

Overview
There is a lot of talk about "human powered search" these days. Since co-founding ChaCha, which is lumped into this formative category, I have come to find that human powered search means many things to many people.

These meanings include human edited web pages, message board-style services like Yahoo! Answers where anyone can answer any question (and often-times the person
answering is doing so more for the entertainment value of their "answer" than anything), and true expert services where questions are asked on specific topics and people who are knowledgeable on those specific topics respond with answers.

Ask.com is not human powered search
One thing that really needs to be cleared up is the notion that Ask.com (formerly AskJeeves.com) somehow utilizes people who provide answers. It is tough to tell exactly what Ask Jeeves had in mind when it first launched since IAC offers only a brief company overview. Ask.com definitely does not fit in the human powered search category today.

Hand-written and human edited content
Many services exist today that utilize people to write web pages on specific topics. These are considered part of the human powered search category. About.com is the best known service utilizing this approach. I would include Wikipedia in this group as well. Mahalo is another recently launched service that follows this basic approach to creating web content framed in a search context. Valuable content can be created by people writing and editing web pages and this content is attractive to Google. The SEO power afforded to such human-edited sites is the primary value equation that allows them to create a niche on the web. It will never be the case that human written topical web pages positioned as search sites will change the way people access information. They definitely do not make a big impact where access to information and answers is soon to matter most - on mobile devices. Also, quality and validity of the information on Wikipedia is being called into question so frequently that it is banned by many universities as a valid information source.

Message boards
Message boards have been around since the dawn of the web. Today some message boards are oriented toward people asking questions for others to answer. These are included in the human powered search category. Examples include Yahoo! Answers and the now defunct Google Answers. Yahoo! Answers has tapped into the massive traffic of Yahoo! to gain a large base of users (90M or so). Anyone can answer questions on Yahoo! Answers once they great a login.

Paid expert services
There are also services that require users to pay for access to specific experts. These services are proving that users are willing to pay a premium for efficient access to experts online that can answer complex questions accurately.

More to come on this topic...