After lunch on friday, there was a surprise session. John Battelle announced that he was going to have a conversation with Sergey Brin. Throughtout the interview Sergey came off as very affable and it's easy to see how he can tell his employees that their corporate motto is "Do No Evil" without them questioning its naiveté.  

John Battelle started off by asking "It's been a long strange trip to where you are today, how's your head?". Sergey responded that they were very fortunate to have started at Stanford. Being in Silicon valley turned out to be very helpful and influential to the course his life has taken today. When he and Larry first started Google they had planned to open source the Google code. The main reason they decided to start a company was because they needed money to purchase the significant computing resources that the Google search engine needed.

John Battelle then asked Sergey to respond to Terry Semel's comments from the previous day that Google is an extraordinary search engine but as a portal they probably rank as number 4. Sergey responded by jokingly stating that although their cafeteria is nice and they keep trying to improve the quality of the food, they aren't in the top 10 or top 100 restuarants in the world. This elicited loud laughter from the audience.

John followed up by asking Sergey what he thought of the comments by Yusuf Mehdi of Microsoft that they are now the underdog.  Sergey replied that he is very excited that Google is considered a leader in terms of technology. He knows they may not be number 1 when it comes to big business deals or creating huge platforms like Microsoft but they are definitely a technology leader.

John then asked Sergey whether he felt any pressure due to their high share of the Web search market and high stock market valuation. Sergey said he wasn't a valuation expert so he couldn't comment on that. As for high market share in the search market, he is glad that so many people use their search engine based on word of mouth. It shows they have built a quality product. They have some promotional partnerships but for the most part their market share has grown due to the great search experience they provide.

The next question from John was whether Google would keep the clean look on their search page. The response from Sergey was that they will continue with that look on their front page but there will arise the need for other kinds of products from Google. For example, GMail arose out of the need for a better user experience around Web mail. Not only have they improved the web mail experience for GMail users but they have also bettered the lot of users of competing services since competitive responses have increased the mail quota size on various services by 100 times or more.

John began his next question by bringing up a topic that had been an undercurrent in various conversations at the conference. Google has become the new Microsoft, in that they are the 800 lb. gorilla that enters markets and takes them over from existing players. John gave the specific example that the newly launched Google Reader has now scared vendors of web-based RSS readers. Sergey responded by pointing out that when Google enters markets it usually leads to good things for existing parties in the market because small companies get bought and new companies get funded. He used GMail as an example of the entrance of Google into a market leading to a flurry of positive M&A activity. Secondly, Sergey stated that some of their offerings are intended to benefit the Web at large. He said they created AdSense as a way for Web publishers to make money and stay in business. Google had become concerned that a lot of web publishers were going out of business which meant less content on the Web which was bad for their search engine.

The questions from John Battelle ended and a Q&A session with the audience began.

The first question asked was about the rumored office suite being developed by Google. Just like Ray Ozzie and Jonathan Schwartz had done when asked the question, Sergey said he didn't think that it made sense to simply port outdated ideas like the mini-computer to the Web. The audience laughed at the comparison of Microsoft Office to the mini-computer. Sergey did say that Google would likely be creating new kinds of applications that solved similar problems to what people currently use traditional Office suites to solve.

The next question from a member of the audience was whether Sergey thought that click fraud was a big problem for Google. Sergey felt that click feaud wasn't a big problem for Google. He said that like credit card companies they have lots of anti-fraud protections. Additionally their customers calculate their ROI on using Google's services and know they get value. Finally, he added that the algorithms that power their advertising engine are fairly complex and not easy to game.

Continuing with the "Google as the new Microsoft" meme, the next question from a member of the audience was what markets did Google not plan to enter in the near future so VCs could tell where was safe to invest. Sergey joked that he thought the various markets entered were good investments. His serious response was that Google is a very bottom up company, and their engineers usually end up deciding what becomes products instead of directives from the executives. John Battelle then jumped in and asked if the company wasn't being directed in its recent offerings then how come most of the offerings seem to be echoing the offerings found in traditional portal sites. Sergey's response was that it was probably because Google's engineers wanted to build better products than the existing offerings in the market place.

I asked Sergey that given Terry Semel's comments that search only accounts for about 5% of page views on the Web while content consumption/creation and communications applications made up 40% of user page views each, what was Google's vision for communications and content related applications. Sergey said that Google definitely plans to improve the parts of the Web where people spend a lot of their time which is part of the motivation for them shipping GMail.


Categories: Trip Report

The second From the Labs was presented by Usama Fayyad and Prabhakar Raghavan.

The presentation started by listing a number of Yahoo!'s recent innovative product releases such as Yahoo! 360o, Yahoo! MyWeb 2.0, Yahoo! Mail beta, Yahoo! Music
and Yahoo! Messenger with voice. Yahoo! launches 100s of products a year and recently started spending more resources on research. They want to create a science to explain the various characterisitic of the Web which they can use to build innovative products.

So far they have launched the Yahoo! Tech Buzz Game which was launched at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference earlier this year. It is a fantasy prediction market for high-tech products, concepts, and trends. They also demoed Yahoo! Mindset which enables you to sort search results by your intent. The example scenario on the website is being able to sort search results for terms like "HDTV" based on whether you are doing research or trying to buy something. This is something Robert Scoble was recently asking for in his blog as the next generation in search. This is very impressive if they can actually scale it out to be more than demoware

Finally they showed off an application called Tagline which was a visual representation of popular photos and tagging trends in Flickr over time. It was a very flashy looking application but I couldn't see what the practical uses could be.


Categories: Trip Report

The final From the Labs was presented by Alan Eustace and Jason Shellen.

Alan began by stating that google is focused on innovation which is why the have small teams [to promote spontaneity] and give their 20% time to allow engineers free to pursue projects they are passionate about. They demoed two recent efforts

The first was an image recognition engine that could identify the sex of people by their faces using machine learning. They had trained it with over 2 billion images and it's accuracy had gotten up to 90%. The long term goal is to enable scenarios such as 'identify the people in this picture' and then other pictures with this person in them'. That would be very cool if they can actually get that to work correctly.

The second project that was demoed was the Google Reader. Actually, it wasn't really demoed. It was announced. Like everyone else I tried to use it by navigating to the site but it was so abominably slow, I gave up.


Categories: Trip Report

The first From the Labs was presented by Gene Becker.

Gene started off by asking how many people in the audience were growing board with the traditional computing interface of keyboard, mouse and monitor. He called the current computing interface a kazoo when we really need a virtuoso violin. HP Labs is fovused on utility and ubiqitous computing. The Web has become increasingly social, diverse, mobile, creative, experiential, contextual, and physical. HP Labs is designing software and hardware for this new world.

He showed a number of interesting developments from HP Labs such as physical hyperlinks, media scapes - digital landscapes overlayed over physical locations by combining gps + wireless + audio + ipaqs, the misto table - an interactive digital coffee table, and virgil - a context aware extensible media driven browser. Gene also mentioned that HP has been making strides in utility computing by renting out their grid networks to animators such as DreamWorks SKG. Their grid has also enabled independent animators to have access to large-scale render farms that would traditionally be out of their price range.


Categories: Trip Report

I attended the discussion on open versus closed models which was hosted by Danny Rimer  Jeff Barr, Toni Schneider and Sam Schwartz.  

Tim O'Reilly began the session by talking about openness and how this is a central theme of Web 2.0. However he pointed out that at the end of the day to have value a company must own something. He then asked the various members of the panel what their company owned.

Jeff Barr said that although Amazon has open APIs they do own their customer database, the buying experience, as well as the procurement and shipping process. Toni Schneider responded that Yahoo! wants to own the user's trust so that users have no qualms about placing their data in Yahoo!'s services. Tim then asked if Yahoo!'s users could export the data they have in Yahoo!'s services. Toni responded that there were ways to get data out of Yahoo!'s services and this was mostly provided based on customer demand. For example, one can export photos uploaded to Flickr but this reduces their worth since the user loses the network effects from being part of the Flickr ecosystem.

Tim's next target was Danny Rimer who he asked whether Skype wasn't as proprietary as AOL Instant Messenger since it's IM protocol wasn't based on open standards like Jabber. Danny responded that although the IM protocol is closed they did have a client-side API. He also stated that the main reason the VOIP protocol isn't more open is that they are still working out the kinks. However he did note that the Skype API hasn't gotten a lot of traction.  

Tim O'Reilly then asked the participant where they resided on the continuum of control versus openness. Sam Schwartz mentioned that there was a delicate balance between the old school and new school of thought at Comcast. Toni said Yahoo! believes in opening up their platform which is why they created YSDN, however this doesn't mean throwing things over the wall without support. Tim O'Reilly stated that it seemed Yahoo! seemed more intent on controlling things since the primary list of Yahoo! Maps mashups is hosted on a Yahoo! site while the primary list of Google Maps mashups is not hosted on a Google owned website. So it seems Google's API efforts are more community driven than Yahoo!'s. Toni responded by saying that YSDN is a good first step for Yahoo!. They aren't just about enabling people to put data in their system but also enable them to get it out as well.

As someone who has had to drive developer efforts at Microsoft, first for the XML team and now at MSN, it is a very delicate balance between enabling the community and dominating it. Unlike Tim, I interpret Yahoo!'s efforts as highlighting the efforts of their developer community and also I'd point out that Google does the same as well. It seems weird to criticize companies for highlighting the efforts of people using their platform.

Tim the asked what VC's like him were looking for in today's startups. Danny replied that he is now primarily interested in companies for geographies outside the United States such as China and Isreal. Sam responded that Comcast is looking for people and services who used a lot of broadband resources.

Tim followed up by asking about business models, it seemed to him that the goal of a lot of startups such as Toni's Oddpost was to be bought by a big company. Toni agreed that a lot of people were building applications without a business model. it was also argued by the group that we need better business models for Web 2.0 besides affiliate programs like those used by Amazon and eBay. Danny argued that it isn't a bad thing if what ends up happening is that new startups end up being fuel for innovation at big companies by being purchased. My assumption is that since he's a VC he gets paid either way. ;)


Categories: Trip Report

The session on Open Source and Web 2.0 was an interview of Mitchell Baker and Jonathan Schwartz by Tim O'Reilly.

By the end of this talk I was pretty stunned by some of the things Jonathan Schwartz said. He sounded like a dot bomb CEO from 1999. If I had any SUNW stock, I definitely would have ditched it after the talk.

Tim O'Reilly began the session by stating that the title of the talk was misleading. He asked for a show of hands how many people used Linux and then for how many people used Google. A lot more hands showed up for Google users than Linux users. Tim said that while people tend to limit their idea of Linux applications to desktop software like the Gimp, Google is probably the most popular Linux app. So the discussion is really about relationship between Open Source and Web 2.0.

Tim began the interview by asking Jonathan Schwartz what he felt was fresh about Sun's Open Source strategy. Jonathan said that the key thing behind Open Source's rise isn't the availability of source code but because it is available for free (as in beer). This is what is so cool about Google, they provide their services online for free which increases their reach. Sun is embracing this notion to increase the usage of its software.

The then asked Jonathan to talk about Sun's grid computing efforts. Jonathan said they recently moved to a self service model for their computing grid. Customers no longer need to sign contracts up front, instead customers just need to go to a webpage on Sun's website and have their credit card ready. Tim O'Reilly commented that customer self service is one of the pillars of Web 2.0. Since Sun moved to this model they have sold out their grid services, primarily to Texas oil & gas companies wanting to run simulations on about Hurricane Rita. Sun's goal is for their grid to target the long tail in which case Stanford college students working on their Ph.D's and the like may become their primary customers.  

The previous night Tim O'Reilly had asked Ray Ozzie if he felt new revenue models such as ad-supported Web-based software would make as much money as old revenue models such as selling shrinkwrapped software. Tim continued with this theme by asking Jonathan if he thought that Sun's new revenue model of renting out their grid would bring in as much money as their old model of selling hardware. Jonathan said their internal models show that the grid business will be very profitable for them. At this point Mitchell Baker jumped into the conversation to add that the old models currently suffer from needing a control structure which eats into revenue. Controls such as DRM, anti-piracy measures, EULAs, etc add cost to existing business models and once we move to more open models based on customer self service the savings will be huge.

Tim then asked Mitchell whether she thought that Firefox's trump card was the fact that anyone can modify the application to meet their needs since it is open source and customizable. Mitchell replied that it was less about source code availability and more about the culture of participation within the Firefox community.  

Tim then asked Mitchell if she felt that Greasemonkey would be widely adopted. Mitchell said she thought that would be extremely unlikely. She pointed out that the average user already is confused by the difference between their web browser and a web page let alone adding something as complex as Greasemonkey into the mix. I have to agree with Mitchell here, I recently found out that a surprising number of end users navigate the Web by entering URLs into search boxes on various web search engines instead of using the address bar of their browser. The web is already too confusing to these users let alone 'remixing' the Web using applications like Greasemonkey.

A number of times while he was speaking, Tim O'Reilly gave the impression that extensions like Greasemonkey are examples of Firefox's superiority as a browser platform. I completely disagree with this notion, and not only because Internet Explorer has Greasemonkey clones like Trixie and Turnabout. The proof is in the fact that the average piece of Windows spyware actually consists of most of the core functionality of Greasemonkey. The big difference is that Firefox has a community of web developers and hobbyists who build cool applications for it while most of the folks extending Internet Explorer in the Windows world are writing spyware and other kinds of malware.

It isn't the availability of the source that's important. It's the community around the application.

The next question was for Jonathan and it was about the recent announcement between Sun and Google. Jonathan's started by stating that although many people wanted the announcement to be about an AJAX Office suite that wasn't on the horizon. He said the deal was about distribution and communities which are very important. He pointed out that there are a number of widely distributed and near ubiqitous platforms such as Flash and Java which aren't Open Source. Having a wide distribution network with Java deployed on many desktops meant that one could automatically download new applications such as a VOIP client or Toolbar application on any desktop with Java or StarOffice installed. Mitchell jumped in to point out that well-distributed but lousy products don't work. She went on to add that the new distribution model is no longer about being distributed with the OS but instead is powered by word of mouth on the Web. Firefox has gotten 90 million downloads with no traditional distribution mechanisms.

Tim asked Mitchell whether there would be a return to the browser wars of the nineties where Netscape and Microsoft one-upped each other with incompatible, proprietary new features on a regular basis. Mitchell said there were two things wrong with the browser wars in the nineties; the war itself which led to incompatibilities for web developers and Netscape's defeat which led to stagnation of the Web browser. Mitchell said that Firefox will innovate with new features but they plan to ensure that these features will not be incompatible with other browsers or at least will degrade well in them.

Tim asked Jonathan what was behind the thinking that led him to becoming one of the most senior regular bloggers in the technology industry? Jonathan replied that he believes very strongly in community. He felt that developers don't buy things, they join movements. In this case, Sun's transparency is a competitive weapon. This is especially true when they can't compete with $500 million to $1 billion marketing budgets of companies like Microsoft and IBM.

Tim asked whether Jonathan's the blog is always transparent and he never attempts to mislead or provoke. Jonathan said that he definitely provokes but never misdirects. Even then the legal department at Sun doesn't read his entries before he posts them although a bunch of lawyers now have him on their speed dial and often ask him to include disclaimers in his posts.

Tim then asked Mitchell whether the large number of Google employees working on Firefox caused problems since the company is notoriously secretive. Mitchell responded by pointing out that there are people from lots of different companies working on Firefox, it's just that the Google folks get the most press. All the Google folks are still active on the core of the browser and they know that anything that goes into the core must be open for discussion. She stated that if they began to be secretive about code that would be shipping in the core of the browser then they'd be asked to put those changes in extensions instead.

The questions ended and the Q & A session began. I asked a question each of Mitchell and Jonathan.

My question for Mitchell was that given that the rise of AJAX is primarily because Firefox copied the XMLHttpRequest from Internet Explorer, was there a policy of keeping abreast of innovations in IE. "Not always", was Mitchell's answer. On the one hand they did copy XMLHttpRequest but on the other hand they didn't clone ActiveX even though they took a lot of heat for not doing so. given all the security woes with ActiveX she felt that in retrospect they had made the right decision.

My question for Jonathan was why he dismissed the idea of an AJAX Office suite earlier during the talk. Jonathan said he thought that in some cases not every application transferred well to the Web as an AJAX application. He gave examples of Firefox and Photoshop as applications that wouldn't make sense to build as AJAX applications.

Another member of the audience asked what Sun had learned from Netscape's open sourcing of Mozilla in their efforts. Jonathan replied that everything Sun produces from now on will be Open Source. He encouraged companies to join the Open Source community since he saw no down side. His goal was to get as wide a distribution as possible and then figure out how to give value to their shareholders after that.


Categories: Trip Report

I attended the session where Tim O'Reilly interviewed Terry Semel, who is the chairman and CEO of Yahoo! Inc. I was very impressed with Terry Semel's talk and it very much cemented for me that Yahoo! will be a company to watch over the next few years. I hope my notes do his words justice.

Terry joined Yahoo! after spending years in Hollywood because he wanted a change and saw the immense opportunity for advertising on the Web. Tim O'Reilly pointed out that some members of the mainstream media have been worried about some of Yahoo!'s media moves such as the recent hiring of Lloyd Braun, former Chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group, to run Yahoo!'s Media Group. Tim asked if Terry was trying to turn Yahoo! into the interactive studio of the future.

Terry said he isn't sure what exactly Tim meant by an "interactive studio". Terry pointed out that when he was in Hollywood, they cared about two things; content and distribution. Technology wasn't a big deal, it was something that changed every decade or so that the studios could take advantage of. In the 21st century, Terry believes there are now three pillars of media; content, distribution and technology. Yahoo! is in distribution since it reaches over 400 million people. Yahoo! delivers content. Yahoo! is a technology company. Yahoo! is a 21st century technology company that drives great media.

Tim then asked whether the fact that Yahoo! hires reporters to doesn't put them in conflict with traditional news organizations like CNN or the LA Times. Terry responded that Yahoo! is all about content. Sometimes it is user generated content. Sometimes it is licensed content from a media company. And finally sometimes it is content created by Yahoo! as they experiment with discovering the future of content generation. Yahoo! wants to take a leadership role in redefining the nature of content generation. Terry gave the example of travel reviews and how often it is more authentic to obtain user generated content and photos about a trip than a professional travel reporters opinion. Yahoo! is trying to enable all those scenarios with their various offerings.

Tim then asked how Yahoo! can reconcile the difference between their role as a service provider with being a news organization. Tim brought up the recent incident where Yahoo! turned over information about a Chinese dissident which led to him being jailed. Tim argued that traditional news organizations would not have given up the information. Terry began by clarifying that 99% or more of Yahoo!'s news content is syndicated from other sources and they aren't a news organization. Secondly, any organization that operates in China has to observe the riles and regulations of the land. This doesn't just apply to China but for any country a company does business in from the EU to the United States. Although some of these laws may be unsettling to him, the fact is that there are the laws in those lands and everyone who lives in and/or operates a business in these countries knows the law. Terry also does not agree with the opinion that Western companies shouldn't do business with China. Exposing Chinese audiences to Western cultures is much better than a policy of isolation. After all, who would have thought that the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain would fall?  

Tim asked what Terry thought about Google. Terry gave Google credit for doing great work in search. Yahoo! just got into it 18 months ago, and other companies such as Microsoft are coming along as well. If he were Google he would worry about the fact that only 5% of page views on the Web are from search yet the account for about 40% of the revenue generated on the Web. Google realizes that they have to diversify and become a portal which is why they now have offerings like maps, shopping, email, customizable homepages, etc. However since they are becoming a portal one should rate them as a portal and not just as a search engine. And as a portal, they would probably rank fourth behind portals such as Yahoo! and MSN. Yahoo! has a number of superior offerings from shopping to mail. Yahoo!'s revamped email offering was rated as superior to GMail by the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! Mail has 10 times the user base of GMail.  

The fact is that people spend 40% of their time online consuming content and another 40% in communications programs. There seems to be a great opportunity to monetize this time Web user's spend online that hasn't been seized yet. Yahoo! plans to seize this opportunity

Tim asked what Terry thought about the fact that the stock market is rating Google higher than Yahoo! when it comes to market capitalization. Terry stated that the market is currently focused on search and the revenue from search but there are avenues for deeper engagement with end users with richer opportunities when it comes to communications and content.

Tim then asked if Terry would consider giving Google access to the information in HotJobs if they launched Terry responded that Yahoo! is more of an open platform company than Google and has deeply embraced syndication technologies like RSS.

There was a brief Q & A after the interview.

I asked Terry what he felt was Yahoo's biggest strength and Google's biggest weakness. I also pointed out that I agreed with his statement that as portals go Google is #4 which prompted him to ask if I worked at Yahoo!, when I responded that I worked at MSN, this seemed to make the audience laugh. Terry responded that he doesn't talk about the weaknesses of his competitors in public BUT he would say that Yahoo's strength is that they have assets that encourage deep consumer engagement but with regards to communication and content.

Another audience member asked whether Yahoo! considered user generated content to be important. Terry stated that they did which is why they have offerings that enable people to share their experiences with others such as Flickr and Yahoo! 360o.  Terry stated that people tend to polarise discussions such as when they ask whether to bet on branded advertising or sponsored ads in search? It isn't an either-or situation. It's like asking a parent to pick which of their genius kids is the favorite. Can't they love both? If sponsored search ads are huge then Yahoo! benefits. If branded advertising becomes huge then Yahoo! benefits as well.


Categories: Trip Report

I attended the Web 2.0 dinner hosted by Ray Ozzie , Gary Flake, and Yusuf Mehdi.

During the dinner there was a Q & A session with the Microsoft folks with John Battelle and Tim O'Reilly asking the questions. My notes below are heavily paraphrased since I took the notes on my phone.

Q: Over the past year the sentiment is slowly becoming stronger that Microsoft isn't the dominant player it once was. How does it feel not to be the big dog?

A: Yusuf -  It's great to be the underdog.

Q: How do you feel about some the new contenders in today's market?

A: Ray - The software industry is changing and Microsoft will have to adapt. Old business models are giving way to new ones and we will have to pay attention to them.

Q: MSN used to be a discarded group within Microsoft but now it is getting a lot of focus. How will MSN make a difference?

A: Gary - Web 2.0 is about software ecosystems and developer platforms. Microsoft and hence MSN, has a lot of experience when it comes to fostering developer platforms and software ecosystems.

Q: What do you think of the fact that big money makers like Office & Windows are imperilled by Web-based offerings and the new markets may not be as profitable as existing ones?

A: At Microsoft we are big believers in the value of Web-based services and the new business models they present. However we are also investing in our existing products like Office and Windows.

Q: When will we see office on the web? 

A: Ray - It is a process. It makes sense to move some stuff to the Web such as email but other applications such as graphics editing will likely be on the desktop for a while. We are still figuring things out how to strike the right balance.

Q: Will we see rapid development from microsoft?

A: Ray/Yusuf/Gary - It depends on the product. MSN ships software in timeframes measured in months. Other parts of Microsoft are in years. However how long something takes to ship really is a function of the complexity and maturity of the application. The more complex it is, the longer it takes to ship. After all, Netscape used to ship a new browser every couple of months back in the early days of the Web. Now things are a bit different. 

Q: Is groove technology going to show up in Microsoft products?

A: Ray - It's part of office and will go through all the things needed to make it part of the suite including consistent UI with other office apps and localization in dozens of languages. However the model of a smart client that harnesses the power of the network will permeate across the company.

Q: What about new revenue models such as ad-supported offerings?

A: Ray - The new paid search model was pioneered by overture and perfected by google. However ee as an industry still haven't fully figured exactly how much software can be ad-supported vs. paid.

Q: Are you guys buying AOL?

A: No comment.

Q: You recently launched MSN AdCenter, how do you plan to get new advertisers? Will it be due to access to high traffic MSN sites or by undercuting prices?

A: Yusuf - It'll be a little of both. There definitely will be something of a bonanza when it comes to purchasing keywords when we launch the system but in the long term the value of our ad network will be the high traffic from our sites.

Q: What assets does microsoft have that give it an edge?

A: Ray - We work better together across devices from mobile, PC, etc. we also have the experience of having both consumer offerings and business offerings.    

Q: Will there be a free ad-supported version of Office? Perhaps this is the answer to piracy in emerging markets?

A: Gary -  Show off hands, how many people want an ad-based office suite? How many people don't? [ed note -- a seemingly even number of people raised their hands both times]. See our problem? Ray - Ads aren't always the answer. It is one thing to show a user ads when they are looking for a product in a search engine and quite another to shove ads in their face when they are creating a document.

Q: In the past, Microsoft has locked user's in with proprietary Office formats such as .doc and .xls. Will the next versions of Office support open formats?

A: Ray - There have been two big changes in the next version of Office. The first is that the user interface has been totally revamped while the other is that the file formats are now open XML formats with a liberal license.

Q: Ray, are you having fun at Microsoft?

A: Ray - Yes!!! I thrive in startups and building ideas from scratch but sometimes my ideas are bigger than I can implement and now with Microsoft I have access to lots of resources. I am particularly impressed with the mobile platform, if you haven't checked out Windows Mobile 5.0, you should give it a look.


Categories: Trip Report

I attended the panel on business models for mash-ups hosted by Dave McClure,
Jeffrey McManusPaul Rademacher, and Adam Trachtenberg.

A mash up used to mean remixing two songs into something new and cool but now the term has been hijacked by geeks to means mixing two or more web-based data sources and/or services.

Paul Rademacher is the author of the Housing Maps mash-up which he used as a way to find a house using Craig'sList + Google Maps. The data obtained from Craig's List is fetched via screen scraping. Although Craig's List has RSS feeds, they didn't meet his needs. Paul also talked about some of the issues he had with building the site such as the fact that since most browsers block cross-site scripting using XMLHttpRequest then a server needs to be set up to aggregate the data instead of all the code running in the browser. The site has been very popular and has garnered over 900,000 unique visitors based solely on word-of-mouth.

The question was asked as to why he didn't make this a business but instead took a job at Google. He listed a number of very good reasons

  1. He did not own the data that was powering the application.
  2. The barrier to entry for such an application was low since there was no unique intellectual property or user interface design to his application

I asked whether he'd gotten any angry letters from the legal department at Craig's List and he said they seem to be tolerating him because he drives traffic to their site and caches a bunch of data on his servers so as not to hit their servers with a lot of traffic. 

A related mash-up site which scrapes real estate websites called Trulia was then demoed. A member of the audience asked whether Paul thought the complexity of mash-ups using more than two data sources and/or services increased in a linear or exponential fashion. Paul said he felt it increased in a linear fashion. This segued into a demo of SimplyHired with integrates with a number of sites including PayScale, LinkedIn, Job databases, etc.

At this point I asked whether they would have service providers giving their perspective on making money from mash-ups since they are the gating factor because they own the data and/or services mash-ups are built on. The reply was that the eBay & Yahoo folks would give their perspective later.

Then we get a demo of a Google Maps & eBay Motors mash-up. Unlike the Housing Maps mash-up, all the data is queried live instead of cached on the server. eBay has dozens of APis that encourage people to build against their platform and they have an affiliates program so people can make money from building on their API. We also got showed Unwired Buyer which is a site that enables you to bid on eBay using your cell phone and even calls you just before an auction is about to close. Adam Trachtenberg pointed out that since there is a Skype API perhaps some enterprising soul could mash-up eBay & Skype.

Jeffrey McManus of Yahoo! pointed out that you don't even need coding skills to build a Yahoo! Maps mash-up since all it takes is specifying your RSS feed with longitude and latitude elements on each item to have it embedded in the map. I asked why unlike Google Maps and MSN Virtual Earth, Yahoo! Maps doesn't allow users to host the maps on their page nor does there seem to be an avenue for revenue sharing with mash-up authors via syndicated advertising. The response I got was that they polled various developers and there wasn't significant interest in embedding the maps on developer's sites especially when this would require paying for hosting.

We then got showed a number mapping mashups including a mashup of the London bombings which used Google Maps, Flickr & RSS feeds of news (the presenter had the poor taste to point out opportunities to place ads on the site), a mashup from alkemis which mashes Google Maps, street level photos and traffic cams, and a mash-up from Analygis which integrates census data with Google Maps data.

The following items were then listed as the critical components of mash-ups
 - AJAX (Jeffrey McManus said it isn't key but a few of the guys on the panel felt that at least dynamic UIs are better)
 - APIs
 - Advertising
 - Payment
 - Identity/Acct mgmt
 - Mapping Services
 - Content Hosting
 - Other?

On the topic of identity and account management, the problem of how mash-ups handle user passwords came up as a problem. If a website is password protected then user's often have to enter their usernames and passwords into third party sites. An example of this was the fact that PayPal used to store lots of username/password information of eBay users which caused the company some consternation since eBay went through a lot of trouble to protect their sensitive data only to have a lot of it being stored on Paypal servers.

eBay's current solution is similar to that used by Microsoft Passport in that applications are expected to have user's login via the eBay website then the user is redirected to the originating website with a ticket indicating they have been authenticated. I pointed out that although this works fine for websites, it offers no solution for people trying to build desktop applications that are not browser based. The response I got indicated that eBay hasn't solved this problem.

My main comment about this panel is that it didn't meet expectations. I'd expected to hear a discussion about turning mashups [and maybe the web platforms they are built on] into money making businesses. What I got was a show-and-tell of various mapping mashups. Disappointing.


Categories: Trip Report

I attended the first board meeting of the AttentionTrust which was open to all and hosted by Steve GillmorHank Barry and Seth Goldstein.

Steve Gillmor began by talking about the history of the organization and why it got started. As has been stated previously the core goal of the organization is that attention data - that is, data that describes what you're paying attention to - has value, and because it has value, when you give someone your attention you should expect to be given something in return. And just because you give someone your attention, it doesn't mean that they own it. You should expect to get it back.

Seth Goldstein mentioned that they are now officially a non-profit. Seth also mentioned that there is now a post on their group blog that goes into some detail to clarify their intentions. They have worked with the developer of the Outfoxed Firefox extension (Stan James) to build an Attention Recorder plugin for Firefox. This plugin records a user's attention data to their hard drive with the assumption being that eventually there will be AttentionTrust certified companies that users can trade this information with.

Stan James gave a demo of the Attention Recorder plugin and stated that it has two main features

  1. The toolbar button which lights up if you are on an AttentionTrust certified site.
  2. The Attention Recorder logs all a user's web traffic to a particular website. Sites can be excluded from being logged so one doesn't accidentally log access to sensitive websites. One can also configure the sites to which the clickstream logs should be sent.

After Stan's demo, the rest of the session turned into a Q & A session. Below are paraphrased questions and answers.

Q: Why would users share their attention data without getting paid? Is the promise of killer apps that can harness the user's attention data enough for users?

A: The value/price of a user's attention data is up to agreements between the users and companies.

Q: What about legacy attention data?

A: The AttentionTrust has partnered with companies that have some attention data today such as Rojo to see if they can expose it in AttentionTrust compliant ways.

There was a brief interlude at this point where Stan James went over some of the implemention details of the Attention Recorder as well as showed examples of the XML format it uses for logging a user's clickstream. On seeing the XML format, Dave Sifry who was in the audience brought up also brought up the point of ensuring that sensitive data such as usernames and passwords aren't being sent to services. 

Greg Yardley is a part of a lead-generation company building a service to match up users to businesses using attention clickstream data. He's been making sure to follow the principles of AttentionTrust while building their application. For example, users can delete their attention data if needed. Steve Gillmor asked Greg what kinds of apps people could build if they had more access to user's attention data. Greg responded with a lot of examples such as more accurate personalized search engines, searching only over websites the user has seen recently, more accurate data for dating sites to use in matching people up, RSS readers that know to mark items as read if you read them from your browser and a number of other interesting ideas.

A member of the audience asked how AttentionTrust compliant lead-generation companies  could be marketed as being better than their traditional alternatives that used slimy methods. The response from Seth Goldstein was that leads generated from attention data would be of higher quality (e.g. leads for mortgage customers generated from people searching for "refinance" are better than leads from people signing up to receive free iPods). Another member of the audience disagreed with Seth and pointed out that it isn't so cut and dried. She pointed out that an unemployed college student could spend their days surfing shopping sites for luxury goods but that doesn't make them a good lead for companies trying to sell luxury goods.

Another user asked what ways exist to convince users to choose AttentionTrust companies. Seth said people will build cool apps about themselves based on local data is probably the key. I jumped into the discussion and used Amazon as an example of end users giving a company their attention data on music and books they like either implicitly (by buying them) or explicitly (by rating them). My question was how could AttentionTrust convince Amazon to open up all their attention data. Steve Gillmor replied that it isn't likely that they'd be able to convince the incumbents to follow the principles of AttentionTrust but if enough small players got together and started building some of these cool apps then great things could happen.

I believe there was also a positive comparison to Richard Stallman and the Free Software Movement but I've forgotten the exact details.


Categories: Trip Report