Category Archives: Published Work

WhatsApp shows that Facebook & Google are serious about competing with telcos

$19 billion for WhatsApp only makes sense if you view it in the context of the pending battle that Facebook — and Google — are preparing to wage against the telcos that control their access to customers.

If you want to know what Facebook’s strategy might look like for the next five years, read this post: First, hurt the telcos. Second, find a way around them. Third, rally public opinion.

If you had any doubt about Facebook’s and Google’s intentions for the next five years, Facebook’s WhatsApp acquisition makes it clear: These Silicon Valley giants have no intention of remaining dependent on the caprices of the telcos.

In fact, we’re seeing the battle lines being drawn on what will be an epic business battle between telecommunications companies, which have controlled the Internet’s infrastructure for decades; and so-called “content” companies like Facebook and Google, which have been using that infrastructure to deliver their services to consumers.

Facebook was not willing to pay a record $19 billion for WhatsApp just because it’s a Twitter competitor, an SMS alternative, or a way to attract customers among youth in non-U.S. countries — though those are all significant.

The real reason Facebook was willing to pay so much is that WhatsApp represents a real threat to the carriers. That became clear earlier this week when WhatsApp unveiled its plans to offer voice calling within its app.

Read the rest on VentureBeat:  WhatsApp shows that Facebook & Google are serious about competing with telcos | VentureBeat | Business | by Dylan Tweney.

You can only put so many dents in the universe

This story, from last week, appeared earlier on VentureBeat and on LinkedIn Today, where it’s generated a ton of commentary. I also did a video on the topic with KRON-4 TV, embedded here.

You can only put so many dents in the universe.

This week, Apple unveiled a respectable upgrade of its iPhone line.

So why do I feel so disappointed?

Maybe it’s because we expect so much from Apple. This is the company that brought us the first MP3 player that really mattered, the first smartphone to truly take the world by storm, the first successful touchscreen tablet, and the first ultralight notebook that people were really happy to use. And that’s all just in the past few years — reaching back further than that, Apple is responsible for the first all-in-one PC, the first commercially successful graphical user interface, and many more product design, manufacturing, and retail innovations.

This is what was so amazing about the late Steve Jobs: He drove the company to revolutionize industry after industry. Most successful entrepreneurs only get to change one industry, if they’re lucky; Jobs reinvented half a dozen.

It’s unfair to keep holding Apple to the same high expectations. After awhile, you run out of industries to reinvent. What’s next: Cars? The construction industry? Plumbing?

Not only that, even the best sluggers don’t hit home runs every single time they step up to bat.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This week’s upgrades look like excellent phones. The iPhone 5C has the same elongated, high-resolution screen of the iPhone 5, but it comes in a variety of primary colors and costs somewhat less than the original, at just $100 on contract or $549 off-contract. That should help Apple reach a bit further into the market for lower-cost smartphones.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 5S adds a much more powerful processor (the first in a smartphone to use a 64-bit processing bus), a substantially upgraded camera, and a spiffy new fingerprint sensor.

The company also said it was about to start rolling out iOS 7, the details of which it had fully explained a few months back, and which has been in developers’ hands since June. I’m underwhelmed by iOS 7, but it does offer a host of new features for developers and consumers — as well as some special “floating” effects that will help soak up some of that extra processing power. And iOS remains the most polished, coherent, and well-designed operating system available for a smartphone.

In all, it’s a solid upgrade to the iPhone line that should keep many current customers happy when it’s time to renew their contracts, and this might even attract a few new ones to Apple’s fold.

But the bigger issue is that Apple is facing an existential threat, and this week’s news suggests it has no clue about how to respond appropriately. Android now accounts for more than 80 percent of smartphone sales, while iOS is down in the mid-teens. This is a company that is slowly but surely losing the final stages of its war for the phone industry. Merely keeping the faithful happy is not working. Incremental upgrades are not going to stem the tide.

Consider the pricing of the iPhone 5C. It’s cheaper, yes. But as my colleague John Koetsier has pointed out, its unsubsidized price is still hundreds of dollars more expensive than competing Android phones. That makes a huge difference in countries where a few hundred dollars amount to a month’s worth of wages.

The detail Apple left out.

The detail Apple left out.

And consider the addition of the fingerprint sensor. I joked that Apple left out a key part of its technology diagram by not including the secret NSA backdoor. That’s a timely jab, given the recent news that the NSA has targeted iPhones for hacking and has successfully captured images from intelligence targets via the device. It’s also a bit unfair, since Apple assures us that the fingerprint data is encrypted and will make it out of the phone, let alone into the cloud — so until the iPhone 5S suffers a particularly hostile hack, that data is probably safe. But the real question is: Why? What is so great about a fingerprint sensor? It’s a nice, convenient way to unlock your phone — assuming it works more reliably than prior sensors — but it’s hardly redefining the rules of the smartphone game.

Finally, there’s the question of the iWatch. Many of us expected Apple to launch a wrist-mounted wearable device this week, but there wasn’t a peep about this in Cupertino on Tuesday.

Smartwatches are, for now, kind of a silly category. Fewer than a million of the things are sold each year, mostly to geeky tech enthusiasts. The biggest consumer entry into the smartwatch space was Samsung’s launch, last week, of its Galaxy Gear watch — a news event that got an extra bit of news hype when VentureBeat got an early look at the thing (you’re welcome, Samsung). But the Galaxy Gear is bulky, awkward, only works with Samsung phones (for now), and will probably cost about $300.

One of the reasons we were all hoping for an iWatch is that this is exactly the kind of product category Apple excels at doing. As it did with tablets, we all wanted Apple to come in and show us how to build a product that people will really want. No doubt Apple would come up with something more elegant, more svelte, and more desirable than anything that’s come before, and suddenly no one would mind spending $200 or $300 on a smart watch any more.

But Apple didn’t do that. There was no sign of a watch. So those of us in Silicon Valley are left watching, wondering, and feeling a little empty inside. Maybe it will show us something amazing later this fall, as CEO Tim Cook has promised. Maybe not. In the meantime, we’re left with these multicolored iPhones, and a growing sense that Apple is turning into a more ordinary tech company every day.

Jobs is gone. It looks like Apple’s magic is slowly seeping away now too.

How apps are chipping away at the open web

My latest “Dylan’s Desk” column for VentureBeat looks at a disturbing trend: The way app developers are giving up on three decades of openness and interconnection.

I am not yet sure that this is a truly widespread or irreversible trend. But I do feel skeptical about the rush to replace mobile websites with native mobile apps. This piece explains why.

For three decades, HTTP (which Paul Ford called “the Web’s operating system”) and HTML have proven to be resilient, flexible tools for interconnecting people and machines, facilitating communication in the most decentralized way imaginable. Anyone can publish a web page to a server on the Internet, and within seconds it is readable by anyone in the world who has the address and a browser capable of rendering HTML.

What’s more, anyone can link to any page on the Web without having to ask permission and without having to worry about what hardware or software delivers that page. All you need is a URL — another widely accepted, well-defined standard for interconnecting information.

Now, however, there’s a threat to this openness. It’s called the app store.

Technically, it’s not just the store: It’s the entire ecosystem of apps, content, hardware, and software. Apple perfected the model, and it has transformed the company into one of the most profitable corporations in the world. Even though its share price has plummeted in recent months, Apple is still in a very strong position thanks to the leverage that this ecosystem gives it. Indeed, that position is so strong that Apple continues to generate profits even though its market share among mobile devices is shrinking.

But here’s the problem: Apps are difficult to connect to one another. There’s no universally accepted way to link to a specific page or location within an app. (Many apps don’t even have pages.) To connect with an app, you need to use its application programming interface (API), assuming it has one, or the API of the device it’s running on. Naturally, that API differs from device to device. Making app-to-app connections is far more difficult than linking to a URL because you need to be a programmer to do it.

Read more: How apps are chipping away at the open web

I’d like to hear what you think.

Dylan’s Desk: Somehow, we’re all stumbling along without Google Reader

Photo credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/aloha75/8304864237/

Photo credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/aloha75/8304864237/

My latest column for VentureBeat started off as an attempt to describe how I’ve replaced Google Reader, with a custom-rigged PHP-based RSS news river of my own, supplemented by some IFTTT recipes and a minimalist RSS reader called Skimr.

But it turned into a meditation on impermanence and change. Here’s an excerpt:

With the passing of Reader, I’ve had to build my own alternatives from what’s available. I use IFTTT.com to email VentureBeat’s stories, as they’re published, to my mailbox. For now, Gmail works fine for reading these stories, and it has the offline capabilities I need for my commute. I’ve had some problems with IFTTT’s reliability (and it’s too slow to be a real-time notification tool), but for catching up on essential reading, this works well.

I’m experimenting with a minimalist RSS reader, Skimr, to scan news stories. It’s fast and easy. I’ve also rebuilt my own RSS news dashboard on my personal website (using a PHP-based RSS parser called SimplePie, along with some custom PHP I wrote and a stylesheet I borrowed from Readability a long time ago, back when it was just an Arc90 project) so I can scan my personal “river of news” as it breaks.

And I’ve honed some Twitter lists that I use to give me a real-time heads-up display of the news in Tweetdeck.

I’m cautiously pessimistic about all of these solutions. RSS is an open standard and it’s widely used, but I’m nervous that with Reader’s passing, websites will have less and less incentive to maintain their RSS feeds. Twitter lists are functional, but they’re entirely dependent on Twitter continuing to support and maintain them, and they’re certainly not based on any open standards. Skimr is still in alpha testing. PHP is tricky and error-prone.

So none of these solutions is perfect, and they probably won’t last more than a year or two before I have to replace them or substantially rebuild them.

That’s the price of living on the Internet: Everything changes, nothing remains still. As the philosopher Heraclitus supposedly said, some 2,500 years before the Web, you cannot step into the same river twice.

Read the full story at http://venturebeat.com/2013/03/21/somehow-were-all-stumbling-along-without-google-reader/

Changing the world

apps over austin at sxsw

I went to Austin, and I came back with an excellent orange beanie. I also spent a lot of time talking to interesting people and — when I wasn’t busy producing content for VentureBeat — drinking a bit too much. (And I made a brief appearance on NPR, which made my mom really proud.)

I’m tired and happy to be home now. But I’m also feeling kind of inspired by the whole event. From the guy in the bar who is making an app to help people commit “random acts of kindness,” to Amanda Palmer’s challenge (at a session about startup communities) for more awareness of the way crowdfunding builds a sense of shared responsibility, to the huge, world-changing ambitions of the Founders Fund partners, there was one common thread for me at SXSW this year (my first): Changing the world.

Here’s an excerpt from my latest column.

AUSTIN, Texas — At South by Southwest, every party had long lines of people waiting to get in, sometimes stretching the length of a block.

Every party except one, that is. I walked down the street last night past a Microsoft Windows event, which not only had no line, it was so empty that a staffer was standing on the sidewalk urging us to come inside.

Maybe Microsoft needed to hire a more exciting band. Half a block further down, and the sidewalk was crowded with young folks hoping to get into a party sponsored by some technology company. I’m pretty sure the headliner wasn’t Robert Scoble.

SXSW is an interesting mashup of a music festival, a film festival, and a geek fest. This was my first year attending, and I was a bit nervous, given that everything I’d heard about it made it sound crowded, noisy, and uncomfortable. But I’m leaving impressed.

Short version: Yes, SXSW is crowded and in many ways a dysfunctional event. No, there’s no real news. But it’s a great experience.

Read more about SXSW, startup communities, Tony Hsieh, and Amanda Palmer in my latest Dylan’s Desk column: How I learned to stop worrying and love SXSW.

Dylan’s Desk: What you need to do to get more women at your conference — or company

panel of investor "sages" at DEMO Fall 2012

Last year, Courtney Stanton organized a conference for game developers whose 12-person speaker roster was half women, and half men.

And she did it without considering the gender of applicants.

In the world of tech conferences, that gender ratio is almost unheard of — let alone getting there without actively saying yes to certain applicants just because you know they’re female.

Stanton is a product manager for a video game publisher. She wanted to put together a conference for game developers, make it accessible — and get onstage speakers more diverse than, as she put it, “the same four straight white men agree(ing) with each other on some panel.”

How did she do it? By actively recruiting women through every possible channel. She attended events and spoke to women. She encouraged women she knew to submit speaking proposals. She recruited online. She met people for coffee and promised to mentor them, review their slide decks, help them brainstorm — whatever it took to get women to apply.

Read the original story at http://venturebeat.com/2013/01/30/what-you-need-to-do-to-get-more-women-at-your-conference-or-company/

Photo credit: Stephen Brashear/Flickr

 

Swipp hopes to make your status updates into collective, global knowledge

Swipp, a new “social intelligence platform,” is trying to bridge the gap between evanescent, useless social data (I ate a B.L.T. for lunch today! Look at this cool mural!) and more lasting, but less personal, knowledge, like the Wikipedia entry on San Francisco.

“We want to create a smarter, wiser planet,” co-founder Don Thorson told me in an interview recently. “It’s like the Borg Collective, with a more compassionate bent.”

The combination depends on an ambitious play: Getting people to share updates with their friends that include a unique 11-point rating, from -5 to +5, through Swipp’s iOS app and website, both of which launch today.

So, for example, you might use Swipp to post an update about the 49ers winning the game last weekend. Like Twitter, there’s a place to put a short note (up to about 250 words long), and you can attach a photo.

But unlike Twitter, the last thing you do before “Swipping” something is give it an emotional rating with a slider at the bottom of the screen. There’s a cute cartoon face that animates from sad/angry to happy as you slide the scale left and right.

Originally published on VentureBeat: Swipp hopes to make your status updates into collective, global knowledge | VentureBeat.

Once king of enterprise software, Lotus Notes is dragging IBM down

lotus notes is coming poster

Published on VentureBeat

When IBM bought Lotus for $3.5 billion in 1995, it looked as though the venerable computing giant was just about to lock up the software industry and coast to unstoppable profits.

Eighteen years later, Lotus looks more like a millstone around IBM’s neck than a flywheel giving it extra speed.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, in advance of IBM’s Q4 earnings release today, Lotus was the weakest performer in IBM’s software portfolio, shedding 6.4 percent of its sales volume in the first nine months of 2012.

It probably accounts for about $1 billion in annual revenue, according to estimates sourced by the WSJ, or one-sixth to one-fifth of IBM’s overall software business.

Ironically, Lotus once led the way toward today’s hottest enterprise technologies, the collaborative software that helps teams communicate and work together on projects. One of the success stories of that niche is Yammer, which Microsoft acquired last year for $1.2 billion. So, why is IBM sitting at the back of the pack instead of leading from the front?

Read the full story at: http://venturebeat.com/2013/01/22/lotus-notes-history/

Photo credit: Andrew Mason via photopin cc

We need more people like Aaron Swartz

Here is my latest column on VentureBeat: We need more people like Aaron Swartz.

I spent much of the past few days thinking about Aaron Swartz and what a loss we suffered when he took his own life last week.

His passing breaks my heart. I didn’t know him, though he was in my circle: I know many people who knew him well. But he made my life better, and every day I use technologies that he contributed to. Whether that was working on an early version of the RSS spec, laying out the Python framework for web applications known as web.py (used by many sites now, including Reddit), or working with Larry Lessig on the launch of Creative Commons, he had a knack for finding useful projects where his considerable talents could make a real difference to millions of people. I use the fruits of those projects constantly.

That, in a nutshell, is the focus of what I look for and try to write about: technologies that have the potential to make a difference to millions.

Unfortunately, most of what tech journalists wind up writing about instead are technologies that have the potential to make millions (but only for a few people).

Read the rest of the story: We need more people like Aaron Swartz.

 

Dylan’s Desk: CES still matters, even if you hate it

Some guy at the Canon booth at CES 2011

Some guy squinting into the future at the Canon booth at CES 2011. Photo by Dylan Tweney

After a two-week holiday break, my VentureBeat column is back. This week: why CES still matters.

Coincidentally, this morning NPR ran a similar story on Morning Edition. The reporter points out that, while big companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon don’t have booths at CES, they still send many executives and other people to scout out technology and make deals. And, for many companies, CES can actually lead to unparalleled press coverage — especially if you have something that photographs well.

Here’s my piece on VentureBeat.

Tech journalism’s annual festival of self-loathing is in full swing. I refer, of course, to CES, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that will draw, this year, over 150,000 visitors and nearly as many blog posts complaining about how irrelevant and miserable it is.

I won’t argue about the miserable part. When you take people from all over the world, many of whom were just visiting with family members a week ago, and cram them into a single, shared space with industrial ventilation systems, you’ve got one of the most efficient systems for transferring pathogens ever invented. It’s crowded, the lines for cabs and coffee are long, and it takes forever to get anywhere, whether that’s from Caesar’s Palace to Mandalay Bay or merely from one side of the Las Vegas Convention Center to the other.

And yet, CES is still, for all its failings, one of the most important single events in the technology industry.

It’s not important as a press event, but it’s critical as a meeting place for manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of consumer electronics. I think of it as a temporary bazaar or souk on a grand scale: a huge marketplace where vendors compete to draw the attention of buyers, who flock up and down the aisles looking for a good deal, an angle, or merely an interesting distraction.

CES is also a barometer for where the hardware industry is going. Yes, hardware as we know it is dying. Software is more important than ever, and there hasn’t been a world-changing product unveiling at CES for years. The action has shifted to apps and cloud services, and it’s arguable that those are all more important than the hardware used to deliver them to consumers. But the pendulum may be starting to swing back, and CES 2013 shows the first signs of it.

Read the full story: Why CES still matters, even if you hate it