Skrenta Interview

Search Engine Marketing has an interview with Rich Skrenta of Topix.net. Some excerpts:

We’re experiencing an explosion in the number of news outlets. Beyond the newspaper web sites, TV stations, news radio stations, and online magazines, there are increasing amounts of information being provided by corporate and government entities, as well as weblog authors and other non-journalist writers. To scan this massive amount of incremental information available each day for items which can be personally relevant is a big job, but one amenable to computer automation. At a high level Topix.net’s mission is to read everything new on the Internet every 30 minutes and let you know about new, relevant information that’s of interest to you — whether that interest is based on a local city, a hobby interest, a business sector, or some other content channel.

Search is definitely a platform. Microsoft Word has a spell checker built in, but it seems to not know about many common terms I use. Beyond that even, can it correct misspellings of ‘Skrenta’? Google can do both, using the world’s largest document collection and some fancy algorithms.

The platform that search can provide also has monetization built in. Imagine shareware that doesn’t ask you to send $5 to a PO Box, but can channel relevant advertising into a web-enabled application. Search is a first step to full utilization of a world-sized corpus of encyclopedic information, combined with the full value that community participation in the content & commerce process can provide.

RSS Future

Venture Blog has a post by Kevin Laws:

One direction relates to automating tasks for you. This is basically the return of agent technology. Now that a wider variety of web sites are available in machine readable format, it should be possible to tell your computer things like “tell me when an article about gnosticism appears”. While this is similar to the stored searches on Google, the fact that RSS aggregators are closer to real-time makes this more valuable. The best analogy is “Tivo for the Web” – specify web sites to definitely “record” and the agent can also record a selection of potentially interesting web posts.

Another direction is enterprise use for RSS. Imagine replacing Microsoft Exchange with an interlocking array of RSS feeds. Each user with Outlook receives their shared calendar, contacts, and other information from subscriptions to RSS feeds. Or they become contributors, sharing one of their calendars with others. I’m sure reading that sentence inspires a host of potential objections for why RSS can not do that. Yet.

As both examples imply, however, RSS is more evolution than revolution. It is not a brand new Internet; rather, it is an improvement on the existing one that has finally pushed machine-to-machine content communication over the tipping point. That certainly allows some interesting and very large opportunities, particularly in search and collaborative filtering (see the Attention.XML project). However, after several companies become successful laying down the plumbing and infrastructure to support it, for the most part it will become a tool integrated into existing platforms (much like XML).

Greg Linden adds: “What makes RSS interesting is that machines can easily read and process news feeds. This is where the future of RSS lies. Current feed readers merely reformat RSS feeds for display. Future feed readers will rip apart the content, analyze the data, and help you find the information you need.”

Personalised Information Streams

Greg Linden posts an excerpt from a talk by John Doerr: “Maybe we’ll get to 3 billion people on the web and say that what matters to all of us is information, and products, and more. Which is we live in time and we’re assaulted by events. And, so, let’s just say there’s 3 billion events going on at any given time. And if you wanted to compute the cross product of the 3 billion people and the 3 billion events — ’cause you need to filter very carefully the information that’s going to get to this device — I don’t want to be assaulted by anything but the most relevant information …”

Greg adds: John Doerr is talking about personalized information streams, personalized filtering of information about events. John’s saying, show me the relevant news, interesting new products, and useful new documents I need to see. Surface the events that matter to me.

Mobile TV Standards

BBC News writes:

All is not simple and straightforward in the mobile TV arena.

There is a battle for supremacy between two competing standards: DVB-H for Digital Video Broadcasting for Handsets and DMB for Digital Multimedia Broadcasting.

Dr Chan Yeob Yeun, vice president and research fellow in charge of mobile TV at LG Electronics, said: “DMB offers twice the number of frames a minute as DVB-H and does not drain mobile batteries as quickly.”

The Japanese, Koreans and Ericsson of Sweden are backing DMB.

Nokia, by contrast, is backing DVB-H, and is involved in mobile TV trials that use its art-deco style media phone, which has a larger than usual screen for TV or visual radio (a way of accompanying a radio programme with related text and pictures).

Even if the standards battle is resolved, there is the thorny issue of broadcasting rights.

The Patient’s Doctor

Dr Aniruddha Malpani (a good friend and a great doctor) has started a blog on “helping patients and doctors to talk to each other.”

From one of the posts: A lot of doctors try to put patients “in their place” by showing them how little they know. Also, many family members discourage patients from getting information about their problem, by suggesting that: medicine is too complex; it will all go “over their heads”; and that “the doctors knows best”. While it is true that a little knowledge can be dangerous, ignorance ius far more harmful ! A good doctor will help you build on your knowledge-base, rather than try to insult your intelligence or pooh-pooh your efforts to become better informed.”

TECH TALK: The Future of Search: Simple Silly Search

The hottest topic in computing and Internet circles today is a six-letter word to describe an activity we have been doing all our lives and which until now had not been elevated to the level that it has been in recent times. S-e-a-r-c-h. We search all the time. It is as basic as breathing. Sometimes, we search our pockets and purses. At other times, we search our memories. A decade ago, we started searching the global web of documents and then gave up because of the irrelevance of the results. Google changed all that. And in the past year, Search has become the most important word in the online lexicon as Google, having surpassed Amazon and Yahoo, is only slightly behind eBay in the race to become the most valuable company in the Internet space.

Even as Search has become one of the more important activities that we do, let us step back for a few moments and consider the online model of what is happening. We enter a word or two in a keyword box either on a web page or on our desktop (part of a toolbar or the browser bar). In zero-point-something seconds, the search engine returns to us a set on our computer screen a dozen or so links of matching content with maybe half-a-dozen advertiser links. Think about this: a world wide web of billions of documents distilled down to less than twenty identical links for each of us irrespective of location and time. This is the world, simplistically speaking, on which multi-billion-dollar valuations have been built.

We all seem to be gleefully clicking away at this narrow set of results because the advertisers are bidding up what they are willing to pay for our attention. Even as the world becomes richer with personal publishing tools providing a much wider set of amateur publishers, the interface to the web when it comes to search has barely changed. If anything, Search has become the hottest space on the Internet everyone from Microsoft to Yahoo to Amazon along with tens (or perhaps) of entrepreneurial start-ups are all working to stake out the future. Search has become synonymous with the Internets future and perhaps, computing s future.

There is plenty of ideation going around. Will Google do a browser? Will our word processing application be delivered by Google with the right panel free to cost, and ads filling up the right panel contextually related to what we are writing? Will all the worlds information books, TV programmes, our own disks be searchable at the click of a button? Can all this world really be compressed down to a couple dozen links? Is our world really that simple? Are each of us so identical that we can all be delighted with the same set of results? Is Search a momentary interface in time or is it that all-encompassing window to the world?

I think of todays Search-mania as good because it has focused attention on the problem (and we dont seem to be thinking enough about it). The problem search is trying to address is that of too much data and that is growing faster than the search engines can index or derive insights into. This mania is also bad because it takes away attention from many other things that are happening in the related, sometimes overlapping worlds of content, mobility and computing. In this series, we will take a look beyond the search core.

Tomorrow: Perspectives

Higher Education

The Economist writes:

Higher education is now international in a way it has not been since the heyday of Europe’s great medieval universitiesand on a vastly greater scale. Numbers studying abroad were statistically negligible only two decades ago, says Andreas Schleicher, of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based think-tank. Now growth is soaring: 2m university studentsapproaching 2% of the world’s total of 100m, according to the International Finance Corporationwere studying outside their home country in 2003. Since the late 1990s the higher-education market has been growing by 7% a year. Annual fee income alone is now an estimated $30 billion. Private, profit-seeking institutions are still a minority, but almost all universities are beginning to compete for talent and money. That is breeding independence of government, both financially and psychologically; inexorably, the state’s role is shrinking.

The two big trends, of internationalisation and competition, feed each other. The more that universities tailor their offers to foreign students, the more attractive they become. And the more that students hop between countries, the more their choices count rather than the wishes of a particular government.

Information Discovery

Greg Linden writes: “Even if you monitor just a few tens of sources, you are facing a daily stream of hundreds or thousands of articles. It’s a painful, overwhelming task to manually skim it hunting for relevant content. There is precious little discovery in the current model.”

What we need is STD — a mix of Subscriptions, Tags and Discovery.

Indian Broadband

Om Malik makes a point I whole-heartedly agree with: “I find that most Indian companies are offering metered broadband access, treating bandwidth like a scarce commodity. That is a bone headed move only thought up by bureaucrats who are used to playing the scarcity game. Growing up there, getting a phone connection was so hard and often involved baksheesh. That mentality prevails. These boneheads should realize that in order to stay competitive Indians need to have as much speed as they can get for the lowest possible price. Look at Koreans, and Chinese.”

I have not seen our bandwidth costs in our business change at all in the past 3 years. I find that hard to accept because supposedly the international and national bandwidth prices are falling all the time. As a business, I need a flat rate for unlimited data transfer — the cheap plans all come with caps on data transfer. India needs cheap all-you-can-eat broadband if we are going to even have a chance in the digital age. We still don’t seem to be learning from our past mistakes — the digital infrastructure India needs is a not a luxury but a pre-requisite.

History Talking

A good friend, Vijay Rana (formerly with the BBC Hindi Service, and based in London) of History Talking sent me this about what he has been working on:

UKs leading NRI website launches Radio for All – Free Internet broadcasting opportunity

After a successful launch in June 2003, as one of the premier community websites for Britains South Asian communities, History Talking.com is now taking a big leap forward in the arena of mainstream webcasting.

History Talking.com is now launching a new section called Radio for All. It will be a unique platform for all creative people to showcase and broadcast their creative work on the Internet. The aim is to explore the constructive power of the Internet to promote creativity in a culturally diverse environment.

Radio for All programme will have two sections.

Radio for All: Schools Programme: The programme invites schools, students and teachers to participate and broadcast on the Radio for All. The programme will provide broadcasting opportunities to students and teachers through their schools on educational topics and course works. It could really be a very stimulating experience for young students to listen back to their own broadcasts. The programme sets no editorial constraints. It will be for schools and project leaders to determine the broadcasting content. The programme is absolutely free and without obligation. History Talking.com team could also provide training in programme recordings and basic broadcast techniques.

Radio for All: Public and Community Programme: We also invite charities, community groups and individuals to spread their message to the global audience. The Public and Community Programme is an innovative experiment in broadcasting where people decide the content. They can broadcast their own film and music review, cricket or football match report, their own short story, poetry or even a drama or simply a political commentary criticising Bush, Blair, Musharraf or Sonia, as long as they remain within the limits of public decency.

Internet is a wonderful medium of public _expression. We have just begun to realise its true potential. In most broadcasting organistions its mostly commissioning editors who have a very tight grip over the content, but History Talking.coms Radio for All programme is designed to reverse this process. This is real public broadcasting. From now on its the listeners who will decide the content, says Vijay Rana, the editor of History Talking.com

Participants can send their recordings in MP3 format as an email attachment to: editor@historytalking.com. Recordings should not be more than five minutes long. For longer recordings participants will have to write to the editor. In some cases History Talking will be able to ring and record your interviews as well.

Vijay also sent me an email yesterday: “In my time I could not imagine any 13 yrs-old speaking English in Bulandshahr. The students from BSR have lapped up at this opportunity, shairing ideas on a subject like Tsunami. [Check this.] If you could forward this opportunity to some schools it will be a great help. I will also need your ideas on how to take it furhter in India.”

This is a terrific initiative. Any suggestions for Vijay? Can we get more Indian schools involved?

Lucky or Smart?

That is the title of a Bo Peabody (of Tripod) book. Brad Feld outlines the table of contents of the 58-page book:

1. Lucky or Smart?
2. Entrepreneurs Are Born, Not Made
3. Entrepreneurs are B-Students. Managers are A-Students.
4. Great Is the Enemy of Good
5. Start-Ups Attract Sociopaths
6. Practice Blind Faith
7. Learn to Love the Word No
8. Prepare to Be Powerless
9. The Best Defense Is a Gracious Offense
10. Dont Believe Your Own Press. In Fact, Dont Read.
11. Always Be Selling Your Stock
12. Know What You Dont Know

I haven’t yet read the book. My quick take: you have to be smart first, so that you can get lucky.

Why Local Search is Hard

Greg Linden writes:

There’s millions of itty bitty little merchants, all appearing and disappearing rapidly. It’s hard to get accurate information on them. It’s expensive to manage the advertising accounts for them. Local search is hard to do right.

John [Battelle] is optimistic that local merchants would come to Yahoo or Google’s website to self-manage their information and advertising, but I doubt you could get anything like the coverage you need with a self-service model. Many of these merchants don’t even have a web site. They aren’t tech savvy.

The Yellow Pages has uses hundreds of sales people because it has to. They need to physically send salespeople out to talk to each merchant. Getting complete coverage requires a massive, expensive sales force. That’s why local search is hard.

HCL launches India’s Cheapest PC

Suhit Anantula points an article on MoneyControl:

In little over a year of introducing personal computers, PC, at Rs 14,990 plus taxes, HCL Infosystems has launched another one at Rs 12,990 plus taxes. What is more, you could even buy it in installments of Rs 360 a month. Its a computer that comes with a 1GHz processor, a 30 MB hard disk, 128 MB RAM, a 15-inch colour monitor and even a 52 x CD ROM drive.

Describing the product – which is clearly the cheapest branded PC in the country – as the Maruti 800 of computers, Chairman and CEO, HCL Infosystems Ajai Chowdhry said it would give assemblers a run for their money.

He told CNBC-TV18, It is aimed at first time users in small towns and villages.

Chowdhry added, We have a very sincere belief, that in this country the bottom of the pyramid is where the market lies. 70% of India lives in small towns and villages. So, if we dont create products for them, how will we ever grow the market in a big way?

We Media and Newspapers

[via Greg Linden] Excerpts from a speech by Mary Lou Fulton from the Bakersfield Californian on Morph:

One of the most compelling things about the Internet is that it has given people all kinds of new ways to do things for themselves. That include do-it-yourself content (citizen journalism, blogs, user reviews, forums) advertising (Google keywords), transacting (eBay, craigslist, travel booking) and so forth. Meanwhile, newspapers persist with “we’ll do it for you.” We’ll tell you what news is important. We’ll not only sell you the advertising but we’ll design the ad for you, too. We may let you place a classified ad on our web site, but it won’t appear online until the next day when the paper comes out. How can we bring more of a “do it yourself” ethos to newspapers so that we can be part of this revolution and not just watch it pass us by?

What if we thought about it a different way, and thought of our pool of content (local, wires, syndicated content, etc) separately from a single newspaper. We could slice and dice that content differently and come up with many versions of the publication for many audiences.

ZiXXo: Classifieds and Coupons

SiliconBeat writes:

Most new classified ads sites face a daunting chicken-and-egg challenge. Sellers are reluctant to post ads on a new site that hasn’t built a base of users yet, and users won’t go to a Web site where no one is selling anything.

Even after building a strong base of users, the owners of free classified ads sites have to figure out to make money. (Craigslist makes virtually all its money off jobs listings.)

For ZiXXo’s Chief Executive Mike Hogan, the answer is coupons.

For less than $300 a year, local merchants can create online coupons that will appear in a special section above or below the free ads on ZiXXo. Users print out the coupons and redeem them. Hogan and his staff have devised a coupon-wizard system that he says makes it easy for merchants to create online coupons in minutes. Merchants can change the coupons whenever they want.

“Seventy-nine percent of the U.S. population uses coupons,” says Hogan. “”But on the Internet, it’s much better than clipping and saving. If we can use classified ads to build local communities, then we can capitalize on the coupons.”

That leads us to Hogan’s next challenge: luring local merchants to buy into the online coupon program.

Experts view local businesses as a huge, untapped market for online advertising, potentially worth billions of dollars.

But many local businesses do not have Web sites, and still pour their advertising dollars into printed phone books and newspapers. Online companies from Google and Yahoo on down have been grappling with how to educate merchants about online advertising opportunities.

Hogan is banking on building a cadre of commission sales people to beat the streets and sell the ZiXXo program to merchants door-to-door.

Electricity and Computing as Commodities

Jonathan Schwartz writes:

You may recall one of my first blog entries assessed the fitness of the word “commodity” for the computing marketplace. Distilled to a single sentence, my conclusion was that despite the self-interested rhetoric of some vendors (and gullibility of a few pundits), computers weren’t the commodity – computing (and bandwidth) was. Just as power generators built by my friends at GE aren’t the commodity, electricity is. It’s not even close to a subtle distinction.

In looking at the evolution of the commodity called computing, history provides an extraordinary parallel to the evolution of electricity. In fact, if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend “Empires of Light,” by Jill Jonnes. It’s a very entertaining historical examination of how electricity was first discovered (rubbing amber produced mysterious sparks), reliably generated, and ultimately distributed across the world.

It took about a decade for those deploying electricity to settle on a few standards that ultimately accelerated consolidation. From voltage to cycle to plug configuration. (The processes used to get there, although they involved far more violence and loss of animal life, bear a remarkable resemblance to standard setting in the computing industry.) Spooling forward, once the standards existed, businesses could plug into a grid – labor markets went through a fairly sizable dislocation (all those engineers and “CEO’s” had to find other work), but electricity was firmly established as a ubiquitous service. Scale efficiencies and the resulting massive decrease in price allowed the government to bridge the power divide through rural electrification. Electricity that started out 20 times the price of gas lighting – obviously got a lot cheaper.

What’s most interesting to me is that once the standards were set, and the grid powered up, electricity finally established a transparent price – the hallmark of a true commodity. If pricing isn’t transparent, products can’t be deemed a commodity – by transparent, I mean equivalently defined for a standard unit of measurement. Here are a few examples, “5 cents per kilowatt hour,” “2 dollars per gallon.” It’s either a standardized physical delivery (gallon, barrel, ton), or unit of consumption (typically time based, 100 megabit hours, megawatt hours, etc.) – but it’s the same across the industry.

In my view, the great thing about commodities, whether financial services, telecommunications, oil and gas, and now computing – is that the companies whose business it is to monetize those commodities, along with the businesses that supply the technologies necessary to compete in a commodity market, are among the largest on earth.

TECH TALK: Best of Future Tech: Part 5

Search was the subject of two columns in October (6 and 20). Search has become a window to the world wide web of data. Todays search is simplistic: type a few words in a box, get back zillions of results, and click on one or more of the results to see if we get what we are looking for. Think of todays search as the DOS era: a good start, but not enough to unleash the real power of what can be. It took a decade to go from DOS to Windows. It has taken us almost as long to start imagining and working towards the next generation of search technologies. The key ideas which will help define tomorrows search are: integration between desktop and Internet search, better visualisation and navigation tools, real-time search, searchstreams analysis, multimedia Search, search on mobile devices, and local and vertical search. I concluded by asking: The state of Search is very much like the way the scientific world was in the seventeenth century until Issac Newton came along and helped lay the foundation for the world ahead with his theories and inventions. A similar revolution is needed in the world of Search. Can we in India play a role, just as we did in some of the mathematical discoveries many centuries ago?

The November 17 column discussed service-based computing and how it could pose a potential challenge to Microsoft. As we peer into the crystal ball of tomorrow, the future starts becoming apparent: a variety of devices accessing centralised service-driven platforms. Think of the backend as a grid providing computing as a utility. The devices are thin devices delivering virtual desktops and encompassing not just the web browser, but also a capability to deliver rich client applications and rich media. This is a world that will be created first among the next users of computing in emerging markets like India.

2004 saw the mobile phones in India exceed the landline user base, and march towards the 50 million mark. The December 1 column asked what the computing industry could learn from the success of the wireless providers. There are two key ideas from cellphones that computers need to adopt. The first is the creation of a zero-management user device, and the second is that of a subscription-based utility-like payment model. The underlying enabler for both will in fact be the broadband industry that is coming alive in India What India needs is a leapfrog to next-generation networks that can deliver broadband over the air to users creating a high-speed ubiquitous and pervasive data network. This can then enable deployment of network computers like cellphones connected to a centralised grid of servers which provide the compelling services that users need and are willing to pay for. In fact, given the digitisation that is happening in both voice and television, the network computer could in future be the converged device capable of providing a hybrid set of services to users.

The last three columns (December 15 and December 29 and January 12, 2005) in the Future Tech series discussed cold technologies, defined as those that have neutral revenue or even anti revenue attributes. Their importance stems from the fact that even as they shrink the investment that users have to make, they help them catch-up or even leapfrog to a world that is faster, better, cheaper in terms of the digital infrastructure that we need to build out in India. The cold technologies discussed: open-source software, software as a service, voice-over-IP, Wi-Fi, network computers, the China Supply Chain and India Services, file-sharing networks and online advertising.

So, hope youve enjoyed this journey so far. Buckle up theres lots more to come! The ride has just begun.

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Job of a Great Manager

800-CEO-READ Blog points to a quote from Marcus Buckinghams next book “The One Thing You Need to Know : … About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success.”

The chief responsibility of a great manager is not to enforce quality, nor to ensure customer service, nor to set standards, nor to build high performance teams. Each of these is a valuable outcome, and great managers may well use these outcomes to measure success. But the outcomes are the end result, not the startling point. The starting point is each employees talents. The challenge: to figure out the best way to transform these talents into performance.

That is the job of a great manager.

Five Across and Bubbler

SiliconBeat writes about a new web publishing tool:

At its simplest, Bubbler is a hosted a blog service, not unlike Blogger or TypePad. But instead of updating their blogs through a browser-based Web form, users post entries through a Bubbler desktop application (downloadable for free). This makes it simple to drag photos, audio and video files, office documents or just about any other type of file into a window and have them uploaded to your site.

Other features let users easily change the look of the their web sites, create individual Web pages and invite friends or colleagues onto their blogs as authors. One feature called Reporter allows users to post real-time entries to their blogs in much the same way they would send IM messages. Multiple users can even post concurrently, creating an IM-like conversation on a single blog.

Five Across offers Bubbler as a hosted blogging service. It’s also pitching it to Internet service providers that want to offer hosted blogging as a service. And there is a corporate package that includes instant messaging and the Bubbler Server for companies that want internal blogging.