new TLDs could balkanize the Internet

Dave Winer has some cogent critiques of the idea that companies can register their trademarks as new Top Level Domains (TLDs), from an intellectual property perspective. However I think the danger is more pernicious than that – allowing deep-pocketed corporations to create new TLDs at will risks the destruction of the Internet. In a nutshell, why would Google or Microsoft even bother with www.google.com or www.microsoft.com when they can simply use http://home.google or http://home.microsoft? Ultimately you will see entire ecosystems vanish behind these TLD-walled gardens. Forget about gmail.com; now you get redirected to http://mail.google. Take this further: these companies make browsers (Chrome, IE). So now if you’re locked into the walled garden of Gmail anyway and Google says “use Chrome, you don’t have to type http:// anymore” and IE users accessing Gmail see a moderately-degraded experience, then there will be forced migrations to ecosystems that don’t exist right now. Facebook is the worst offender already; imagine if they got into the same game with Opera or even worse allied with Microsoft/IE.

It can get worse. There are numerous limitations and flaws in the HTTP protocol since we have shoehorned all sorts of functionality onto what was originally just a hypertext linking platform. And support for HTTP starts at the browser. Today it’s already hard enough to write webpages for all browsers, and designers can’t code for the latest and greatest CSS/HTML spec and be confident it will Just Work. Imagine if Chrome decides to create a new protocol, g://? shorter, saves you characters on Twitter, built-in URL shortening, and much faster handling of video and pictures. Built right into Chrome! Interoperability between browsers itself is at risk here if the fundamental communication protocol itself starts to fragment; we’ve seen it happen already with HTML and CSS and browsers, but with custom TLDs the incentive to do worse will be irresistible.

The key is the ecosystem. Apps have shown us how companies move away from open protocols like RSS towards custom and closed APIs. TLDs will just accelerate and worsen the trend. Eventually your browser will run heavily customized and feature-extended HTML, with an optimized variant of HTTP that works best with the ecosystem it was designed for (be it Chrome/Android/Google or Facebook/Microsoft/Ie or Apple/Safari/iOS). Try to do anything outside that ecosystem and you’re forced back onto the “old” tools that will be slower and more unpleasant; sure, Hotmail will work on Chrome, but if you use IE it will be so much easier… switch! (to quote the Oracle of Pythia, “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”)

Remember the old days when if you were on Prodigy or Compuserve, you couldn’t email someone on AOL without a complex extra header? We could be looking at the same thing, with the Internet. We will have to call it the InterIntranet.

The end of Facebook? not if it goes Prime

Is Facebook toast? I’m not asking because of it’s IPO, which despite whining from the tech pundits was perfectly calibrated. I’m asking because it’s basic business model is still such a clunker:

Facebook currently derives 82 percent of its revenue from advertising. Most of that is the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles. Some is the kind of sponsorship that promises users further social relationships with companies: a kind of marketing that General Motors just announced it would no longer buy.

Facebook’s answer to its critics is: pay no attention to the carping. Sure, grunt-like advertising produces the overwhelming portion of our $4 billion in revenues; and, yes, on a per-user basis, these revenues are in pretty constant decline, but this stuff is really not what we have in mind. Just wait.

It’s quite a juxtaposition of realities. On the one hand, Facebook is mired in the same relentless downward pressure of falling per-user revenues as the rest of Web-based media. The company makes a pitiful and shrinking $5 per customer per year, which puts it somewhat ahead of the Huffington Post and somewhat behind the New York Times’ digital business. (Here’s the heartbreaking truth about the difference between new media and old: even in the New York Times’ declining traditional business, a subscriber is still worth more than $1,000 a year.) Facebook’s business only grows on the unsustainable basis that it can add new customers at a faster rate than the value of individual customers declines. It is peddling as fast as it can. And the present scenario gets much worse as its users increasingly interact with the social service on mobile devices, because it is vastly harder, on a small screen, to sell ads and profitably monetize users.

The basic problem is that Facebook’s major innovation is to facilitate social interactions, but unless you charge people 1 penny per like you can’t actually monetize those interactions (and any attempts to do so would act like a brake).

But there is an obvious way to monetize Facebook that I am surprised few are talking about. Consider the numbers: Facebook is valued at $100 billion, has about a billion users, so each user is “worth” $100. But Facebook only makes $5/user annually in revenue from ads. So, why not offer users a paid option? If Facebook followed Amazon’s example and offered a “Prime” service, they could charge users $75/year (or $8/month ongoing). In return, that user could get a pile of perks:

  • no ads anywhere, of course
  • free digital gifts and an expanded menu of “pokes” (bring back the sheep!)
  • a “premium” version of the Facebook app with built-in Skype functionality
  • more search filters and automated searches for friends (akin to LinkedIn’s subscriptions)
    the ability to track who views your profile

this is just a basic and obvious list but I am sure there are other perks that could be offered. For example, given that Craig’s List hampers innovation in the classifieds space, Facebook can and should leverage the social graph and offer it’s own (as well as compete with Angie’s List, or buy them outright). Facebook Prime users could be rewarded with better access or free listings.

And then there’s the coupon space – Facebook has all the data it needs to outdo Groupon or LivingSocial. If Facebook acquired the latter in fact it would have a headstart, and again Facebook Prime users would benefit with specialer-than-special offers or early access to deals.

People have already compared Zuckerberg to the next Bezos, but unlike Amazon’s profligate revenue streams, Facebook remains stubbornly focused on one thing. It’s time to diversify and leverage that social data in ways that people actually use. And let the users pay for it!

Google+ is closed, Facebook and Twitter are open

There’s a simple reason that Google+ can not be a facebook killer – it adds to social noise and creates a walled garden where data can not be exported from nor imported to. There are no RSS feeds generated by Google+ that you can pipe into Twitter using Twitterfeed, nor can you import tweets to Google+ the way you can with Facebook. There is no Google+ API like the Facebook API that allows data import to the service from other services.

This is a huge, critical flaw in Google+ that guarantees it won’t be a Facebook killer.

A better use of Google+ would be to unify Gmail and Circles such that you can create whitelists for email with a single click. There’s no email service at present that permits a user to create a whitelist easily – you have to tediously set up manual filters instead, and even then there’s simply no way to say “send all emails (except some) to Trash”. A simple whitelist functionality is the real way to declare email independence. I fully support what MG Siegler is trying to achieve here but until we can say “receive mail ONLY from X, Y, Z” we will never be free of the tyranny of the inbox.

Maybe Google+ is the first step. But we need to stop treating it like Facebook and start thinking about how it can be used to improve the original social network – email. If Circles can be used to define whitelists, that’s real value.

Related: a little slideshare I put together a few years back about managing social noise. Still relevant, if a little outdated.

Does the Ring turn Sauron invisible?

One Ring to Rule Them All
The Ring
On Facebook, one of my friends posed an innocent question:

How come the ring doesn’t make Sauron invisible?

Indeed! Out of the mists of Facebook, a truly awesome discussion ensued. I found this reply the most intriguing and erudite:

The Ring doesn’t actually make someone invisible in the sense we understand the term. It shifts its bearer into the world of the Unseen (which is why it can’t hide Frodo from the Nazgul on Weathertop–they already dwell in the World of the Unseen). As a former Maia, Sauron simultaneously dwells in Middle-earth and the realm of the Unseen–so the Ring would not make him invisible.

Surely we haibane can contribute to this critical topic. What say you all? Agree or disagree with the theory above?

true blue: facebook friends friendfeed, whales on twitter

Facebook is now in a relationship with Friendfeed. It's complicated.
Facebook is now in a relationship with Friendfeed. It's complicated.
This is potentially huge – Facebook has acquired Friendfeed:

Obviously Facebook has already built out some of FriendFeed’s functionality so there is some overlap, but there are still numerous ways FriendFeed beats out Facebook’s News Feed setup. One of these is the way stories are ‘floated’ to the top as new users comment on them. And FriendFeed’s system is truly real-time, unlike Facebook’s feed which users have to manually refresh.

But the biggest win here for Facebook is the FriendFeed team, which includes an all-star cast of ex-Googlers.

Still very much a breaking news story but I am sure the Techcrunch folks will update with more info as they get it.

The obvious motivation here is to pound on Twitter’s “statusphere” market share. The big drawback of FF until now was that it was just a “better Twitter” – but without Twitter, 90% of the purpose of using Friendfeed was essentially rendered moot (as was the case with the DDOS attack over the weekend). But by folding in FF’s feedslurping uber-twitter capability, Facebook can create a one-stop shop, making all facebook users who are also on twitter stay within facebook for their twittering, which of course keeps them in control of the ad viewing. A souped-up Friendfeed application for Facebook seems likely; or even more likely, a new default Facebook tab (“Feeds” ?). This is technology that the Facebook people are going to want to put front and center.

The adoption of FF-ish features like commenting on everything and “Likes” are also unique to the FB/FF ecosystem and these should be integrated. Even google got into the “Likes” act so I think Twitter is going to have to respond to this by introducing that feature at least (which would incidentally be useful in meta-twitter metrics of who to follow and whatnot). I also don’t see how Twitter can resist the inevitable “groups” feature to compete with Friendfeed’s Rooms. I actually use Rooms to power virtual groups on Twitter like @otakusphere.

Twitter has serious catch-up to do, feature-wise, but until now they haven’t felt any real competitive pressure because no one else had the numbers to threaten them. With Facebook’s takeover of Friendfeed, however, the game has just changed dramatically.

UPDATE: It’s confirmed: Facebook and Friendfeed are now in a relationship. It’s complicated.

George W. Bush coming soon to Twitter and Facebook?

The Politico interviewed former chief of staff for President Bush (43), Andy Card, and he mentioned this surprising tidbit:

The nation has been so focused on the 44th president that we’ve nearly forgotten about the 43rd. What exactly has George W. Bush been up to since he left office on January 20? Is he just lounging around or has he been keeping busy?

Who better to ask than Andrew Card, a Bush confidante who served as W.’s chief of staff from 2001 to 2006. We caught up with Card at the National Press Club Thursday after a panel discussion sponsored by Politico and Georgetown University.

Card says that Bush has plenty on his plate and may even — gasp! — delve into the tech-savvy world of Twitter and Facebook.

watch the video yourself:

The problem with Web2.0

I intended to write a blog post on this topic, but ended up using Powerpoint oto t organize my thoughts, and then realized that the resulting slideshow mace the post somewhat superfluous. It is a rumination on the problem with web2.0 today (information overload), some solutions, and speculation about where we go from here:

BlogIt doesn’t cut it

BlogIt is a new application by SixApart for Facebook – the idea is to let you post to your blogs hosted at various services (WordPress.com, Blogger.com, Typepad, Twitter, etc) from within a single interface integrated into your FB account. The idea is a good one but there are serious flaws in the implementation.

For one thing, the tool does not support tags or categories. This means that you will have to log into your blog via the usual Dashboard/admin panel to add these anyway. The omission of tags and cats is practically a deal-breaker all by itself, though the lack of categories is more surprising given that these (unlike tags) are at least supported by the metaweblog API.

The blog post editor interface is also too spartan. No auto-save, quicktags, or draft support. This means if you make any errors, or your browser crashes, or any of a number of things, you lose all your work. It also means that you have to type in all your html links and formatting by hand. These kinds of goodies are what we take for granted nowadays with modern blog software. Admittedly, draft support might be complex, but auto-save and quicktags should be low-hanging fruit.

However, the biggest problem with BlogIt is that it’s a one-way function. The essential functionality for this to be a true blogger’s killer facebook app would be the ability to post all blog entries, not just those created with BlogIt, to the user’s mini-feed. BlogIt does add a Posted Item to your minifeed, for those posts authored in BlogIt only. For posts you write outside of BlogIt, you still need to manually post that entry to your minifeed.

This is a more serious limitation than it appears. The basic value of a blog app in facebook is to leverage the audience of your social contacts into readers of your blog. Posting your blog items to your minifeed is the main problem of convenience that a blogger needs to solve if they want to tap into that audience and make reader conversions. The now-defunct app BlogFriends was an excellent tools for this, slurping the RSS feed from any blog you specify. There are other apps that do similar things, though none as well as BlogFriends did. These apps were of course also one-way functions, but the direction (blog -> facebook) was more useful than the direction that BlogIt offers (facebook -> blog). And even in that regard, BlogIt is suboptimal (see above). Where then is the value proposition in using it?

BlogIt has great potential. In my ideal world, Six Apart would buy BlogFriends and revive that functionality as a part of BlogIt. Adding a simple quicktags toolbar (bold, italic, blockquote, link, etc) and an auto-save are the bare minimum for routine usability. And in addition to categories (which is a no-brainer), if Ecto can support tags, why not the software ninjas at SixApart? Were BlogIt to improve in these ways, it really would be indispensable.

still scrabbing

The deadline came and went and Scrabulous endures. Logging in this morning, scrabbers see the following message:

Hi folks 🙂

We are really grateful to the entire Scrabulous community for the exceptional support that has been provided. It is amazing to see that a small application has touched so many people across the world! There has been a lot of speculation about the future of Scrabulous and it is currently impossible for us to comment on this matter. However, like always, we shall update you as soon as we can.

In the meantime, please click here to enjoy a song created by an anonymous Scrabulous fan. 🙂

Best Regards,
Rajat & Jayant

Since they haven’t ceased and desisted as they were ordered to by Hasbro, one assumes that they probably have sold out, and that the game will either be rebranded as official Scrabble. The alternative, that they are planning a less-infringing skin for the app (along with some changes to game mechanics, the way the analogous boggle-clone bogglific has recently done), is also possible, but means that Rajat and Jayant have probably invested in a good (expensive) lawyer who is engaging in delaying tactics. The latter strategy is actually the better business one, since rebranding the site somewhat to evade the infringement attack preserves their hefty income stream. In that regard even an expensive lawyer is still an investment in securing the future of their business model.

game over

chickens play scrabble

Hasbro plays hardball:

The saga of Scrabulous is nearing an end. The Facebook version of Scrabble raised the ire of Hasbro and Mattel, which jointly own the rights to the game abroad and in the U.S., respectively. They have already asked Facebook to pull Scrabulous, one of the most popular apps on the social networking site.

So why is Scrabulous still up on Facebook? A flurry of behind the scenes deal-making has been going on between Hasbro, Scrabulous, and Electronic Arts, which has the license in the U.S. to the online version of the game. Hasbro is trying to get Scrabulous to sell itself for a song to Electronic Arts, or else shut down completely by the end of the day today. Scrabulous has been trying to shop itself to other buyers as well, but its legal liability is scaring away any potential white knights. Unless it gets some sort of reprieve or agrees to sell to Electronic Arts, Scrabulous will be no more, despite the more than 46,000 Facebook members who have joined the “Save Scrabulous” group. What choice does it have, really, but to sell?

I find myself somewhat sympathetic to Hasbro here, since the Scrabulous game is obviously and blatantly an infringement on their copyright, and all the tales of scrab players buying real copies of Scrabble after “rediscovering” the game are certainly heartwarming but also irrelevant. I agree its a fantastic game but it would have been nice if they’d made some token effort at obscuring the game’s lineage to Scrabble, the way that the generic version of Battleship is done at ItsYourTurn.com (“battle boats”). Don’t get me wrong, Scrabulous is probably the single reason I even visit Facebook on a semiregular basis – it’s brilliant. But given that the facebook app nets its creators $25000 a month in advertising revenue, it’s not like selling to Hasbro makes them victims. Even if they are forced to sell for a “song”.

I loved Scrabulous, but I just want to play the game. If it’s bought out by Hasbro, renamed Scrabble, and becomes legit, so much the better. Why exactly wouldn’t the Scrab folks sell out, except as some kind of middle finger to those of us who gave them their success – the players? Ante up.