Posts tagged: tech

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Perverse incentives always seem to crop up when consumption is divorced from the cost of that consumption. In the US in happens in health care, but according to Michael Mace's incredibly insightful series on wireless data, it may also have happened during the first wave of smartphone adoption in the US. What is more, we seem to now be in the midst of a hard correction as carriers have all recently decided to stop running the all-you-can-bytes buffet.

Mace's pieces are worthwhile reading for all web entrepreneurs because of one simple fact: most startups these days have a heavy mobile component whose underlying usage pattern hinges pretty significantly on the question of what happens to both the billing for data consumption and (presuming we stay in this new metered mode for good), the cost per bit.

Let's consider one example: the persistent debate entrepreneurs are having these days about native apps versus mobile web apps (HTML5). Around the speed track of mobile bytes, writing an HTML5 app is like racing a Cadillac— you get a little bit of control around when to turn but there are so many layers between you and the stuff you are trying to get from a server that the best you can do is make very coarse grain adjustments with your super assist power steering. To make it very concrete, it is impossible to tell from an XmlHttpRequest object whether the phone is on its WIFI interface or the 3G one— nevermind actually controlling the flow of bytes in any network-aware way. Meanwhile the native application developer can choose the sports car option with control all the way down to the socket timeouts (see this fantastic piece on why mobile developers need to be more aware of bytes on the wire for an example).

Similarly, in part 3 of his series, Mace suggests that the notion of "toll free" web services might provide an interesting way for data carriage to be subsdized by those who extract the best economics from them. This seems logical but at first blush it would seem like a horrendous disdadvantage to the small guys without enough financial resources. Imagine in the pre-Zappazon days if going to Amazon on your phone was free, while barely breakeven Zappos couldn't afford to pay for their users to peruse the world's greatest shoe catalog.

There are a multitude of other scenarios in the tectonic shifts that are coming to wireless data which will affect startups in the relevant sectors and reading Mace's pieces (part I and III are particularly good) at least makes one feel that the answers are indeed knowable.

As a final thought experiment though, consider what might have happened to the development of "Web 2.0—" which started with YouTube and will end with the Facebook IPO— if the fixed broadband providers had decided after the crash of 2001 to start aggressively metering bits. It might still only take 20 minutes on the 101 to go from Palo Alto to San Francisco in that world.

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Yesterday I was discussing my recent malaise over everything new in the social/mobile web with Reed and he assured me that I was in fact crazy not to feel more excited now about the opportunities for doing amazing stuff between all of the platform expansion taking place in mobile, social, and cloud stuff than say five years ago.

Because we'd gotten together to chat about Twitter— a service which had excited me incredibly back in 2007 when I started using it in earnest— I decided to start a bit of housecleaning there. Having initially been thrilled in its potential as a universal bus for human sentiment, I've grown to dread loading up Twitter over the last year mostly due to my own mishandling of the friend/follower thing. In effect I've been spent the last year treating it as a glorified high school cafeteria; reciprocating on any follow requests that I've gotten and pimping out my Twitter handle at every speaking opportunity (I've been under the misguided impression that this is what you are supposed to do as a VC). It got bad enough in fact that I wrote myself a cron job that would rip through my inbox looking for new follow emails and follow people back based on some very crude heuristics (follower count >= 100 && no spammy stop words in their last 10 tweets).

The result? In the pubsub medium of Twitter where spam was supposed to be hard/nearly impossible, I'd managed to follow over 2,000 marketing droids, self-promotional big mouths, and navel-gazing positivity Moonbeams that had absolutely obliterated the signal-to-noise ratio in my Twitter stream.

So I went looking for online tools that would right this wrong and get me closer to a Dunbar number of followers that might reintroduce some meaningful signal. Of the 5 of so tools that floated to the top of my Google searches, I found ManageFlitter to be the best of the lot— helping you look for clear signs of spammy accounts in your follower list and providing crude bulk unfollow tools. That said, ManageFlitter only took me down about 400 noisy accounts, leaving me with a huge manual mess to sort through (due I think in part to their freemium business tactics). And sadly Twitter itself makes it obnoxiously difficult to drop people en masse, first through a very cumbersome interface for manually unfollowing and then through a really crummy set of API limits (350 calls/hour— what is this 1995?)

In the end, I ended up with a webapp that let me quickly pare down the 2,000 odd followers to 99— all people that I know well enough to have a beer with and who've now brought me back to the world of useful Twitter signal (amazin how well things like Flipboard work in this case). The API time limit kind of sucked and made the process take most of the day but at least it is possible (compare it for instance, to bulk deleting Pandora stations for a really sucky experience).

The exercise has made me wonder how many of these social experiences are being ruined for those of us who fall prey to the "shouting room" popularity contest dynamic. I wonder in fact if I might like Facebook better without the ~500 "friends" I've got yaking about daily deals, or find LinkedIn to be more than simply an extension of organic Google results. Conversely I worry about how long Instagram & Foursquare will keep their magic working for me as they begin to cross into the mainstream.

In the meanwhile, I've got Reed to thank for helping me recapture a little of that social discovery Internet magic in my life.

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Apple has its annual event today, the event which turns every fruit fan on the Internet into a tech prognosticator (we used to get two of them before the company pulled out of MacWorld, so the folks have a lot of built up predictions to blow).

It would seem we're not in for new hardware so the pundits are all atwitter about iOS 5, Lion (the desktop OS), and all of the cloud juice that will render them into thin caches of data stored under the Smoky mountains in Apple's new state-of-the-art datacenter.

I'm going to make a short argument for something more compelling: Apple using it formidable footprint at the center of the Internet's dark matter, a.k.a, all of the Macs and Time Machines that sit at the end of broadband connections with terabytes of storage and wasted processor cycles. If they could leverage these to create higher fidelity cloud services (where you don't have to make the design compromises that are required to scale to hundreds of millions of users), it'd be a pretty interesting and potentially disruptive product direction.

There have been rumors that the next generation of Time Machine will be leveraged to do this and in some ways this makes sense; a dedicated piece of hardware is more likely to be always on. Unfortunately though, Time Machine has proven unreliable in the past and would require significant hardware and software upgrades to pick up some server class reliability.

If not Apple, someone should remember the lesson of Napster and begin to find ways to leverage all of this dark matter.

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The pipe that matters

Sometimes when I find myself having trouble groking how fast consumer Internet businesses can scale revenues these days I think it is because of how much we all suffer from the boiled frog syndrome in tech these days.

Boil a pot of water until it is good and roaring and toss the frog in and, as the story goes, it jumps right out. But put him in cold water and heat it up slowly and it's boiled frog legs for dinner.

It's the same for consumers and broadband these days— when you think of all of the services that we rely on now that we've got multi-megabit pipes into the majority of US homes, it's pretty amazing.

I just found out due to a 20 hour outage inspired by byzantine online payments industry (how neanderthal can two computer systems talking to each other really be?)

Here is a list of the stuff that it was painful for my household to live without that didn't exist 10 years ago:

- Bank of America Online Bill Pay (ironically) - Netflix
- Pandora
- Audible
- Dropbox
- Evernote
- iTunes App/Content store
- Kindle store/app

And here is a list of the apps that existed a decade ago but which are now considered mission critical:

- Email
- Google
- Amazon

And note that this is from just a single 20 hour outage!

In a world where people are freaking out about Amazon's cloud and Sony's security, it is worth taking a moment to pause and marvel and how important that "dumb pipe" has become in our everyday lives. After the last day I'm pretty sure this particular house would give up electricity (assuming you could power the relevant devices) before we'd forfeit broadband access.

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A funny thing happened to me this morning: while perusing the latest list of Gizmodo smartphone apps (a much more efficient way of trolling the AppStore), I found myself thinking that the iPhone apps at the top hadn't changed all that much over the last few months. While that is true, what struck me more was that I had accidentally navigated to the Android page and was halfway down the list before I realized it.

For all the of crap about hundreds of thousands of apps what my mistake shows is that we've reached complete app parity for all of the stuff that really matters. Want note taking? Photo effects? Deferred reading? Even these fringy use cases are covered by both iOS and Android. And what is more, for the mass market third-party apps (Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, Kindle) there is parity from the icons on back. In other words, for normal users, I think apps have now become an undifferentiated feature when it comes to platform selection.

Jean-Louis Gassée, ex-Apple exec and perhaps the only French blogger who doesn't write like he is trying to start the next French Revolution, had an interesting piece over the weekend about how overly simplistic the argument that Apple is repeating the Mac's errors with the iPhone. It's a great read and along the way he hits the question of application breadth, arguing that while they were missing on the Mac relative to Windows, the iPhone has had the advantage here. From my perusal on Gizmodo this morning though, it is quite clear that this advantage is now gone. It is interesting to see how fleeting it was relative to what happened in the PC.

The main reason for this is that the apps are much more trivial to write and port than the spreadsheet was back at the beginning of the PC ramp (for well funded companies, scrappy startups are still disadvantaged).

One has to wonder then whether the platform vendors will realize this and start competing more aggressively on other dimensions (other than cell network which is clearly out of their control)— or more importantly, stop competing on this app one. Good things could come of that; for instance, the SDK engineers could stop trying to differentiate and move towards better incorporation of some of the most common patterns (how many apps on both iOS and Android now use web views for more and more interface screens?). But even if that doesn't happen (one can always dream), platform vendors might loosen their grip on app distribution once they realize it's just another commodity feature. Is that also dreaming?

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