Posts tagged: tech

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Despite having launched is limited release a couple of weeks ago, people still can't stop talking about Google+. Is it a Facebook killer? The jaws of life that will finally pry the social graph free? Will brands flock to it from Twitter? Will your mother use it?

It's hard to make an early call when so little of my network is on but my overall impression is that this is a real solid move forward for social software. Back in 1999 my friend Jon Udell wrote the book that forever changed my mind about how productive social software could be, "Practical Internet Groupware," a half polemic, half recipe book on how to make groups more productive. The book is out of print and quite dated now— NNTP figures prominently— but it is still worth reading; along with "The Unix Philosophy," it defined how I would look at building for the Internet for the subsequent 10 years.

Despite Jon's best efforts, one thing which the world seemed to have completely veered away from during the intervening decade was the idea that normals would understand fine-grained access control in the same way that people in corporations at least seemed to. For a long time, ACLs meant "invite a bunch of email addresses to each and every object you want to share or collaborate on" (think of all of the first generation photo sites), and it wasn't until 2004 when Flickr pioneered the "public by default" that the Internet became social. Del.icio.us, YouTube— all of the of the Web 2.0 darlings followed this path until Facebook came along and gave us "quasi-public," or share with all of my social graph. Sure, everyone would bolt on an access control dashboard (Facebook's in fact looks quite a bit like the cockpit of an Airbus A320), but no one really expected you to use it.

So it is interesting to see Google's approach in putting the "circle" front and center and working hard to make creating access control fun with silly animations that appeal to the collector nerves in our basebrain. If it works, this— and not whether Plus kills Facebook or becomes the next high school popularity contest— will likely bring social software forward quite a bit when it comes to being useful.

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Bye Bye space program

The shuttle that took off yesterday morning is the last of 135 flights various shuttles have taken since the start of the program. There are all sorts of arguments that NASA and others have made for why it just doesn't make sense to keep the small fleet of shuttles in operation, and I am sure that there is some good logic but it's a huge bummer to all of the geeky kids who grew up awestruck by the whole shuttle program— from the dramatic launches with the detaching parts falling back to Earth to the reentries where this thing that had been to space would land like an oversized airliner.

The romance of the geek adventure aside, I worry that the fading of the space program is yet another sign that we're done having the government drive the kind of basic research that no company can take on. By comparison, the X-Prize feels much more like the "lean startup" version of the space race— incremental steps using known commercial technologies to put small payloads into space. Which is fine except that it is unlikely to yield the substrate that the combination of NASA and DARPA did for what led eventually to the microprocessor and the Internet.

I'm not sure what it will take to reverse this trend (fear of China as an alternative superpower doesn't strike me as realistic), but we sure will need something to kick that kind of basic research and absolutely awesome engineering back into gear.

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How do you gadget?

One of my favorite questions to ask geek buddies is: what are your favorite gadgets acquired this past year? Last week I asked Bijan this very question at lunch and this morning he blogged his list.

I also commented to him that it seems sort of sad that Apple has sucked the life out of the cool gadget collecting game, both because they dominate most of the interesting categories (smartphones which have collapsed about 4 gadgets into one and every other relevant post-PC category) and because they've raised our expectations for what we'll accept as the "entry model" from anyone else. There are exceptions but the days of trawling Expansys for the latest Nokia gem or getting super excited about Linux on PDAs definitely seem to be behind us.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a rather pedestrian list of "gadgets" (loosely speaking) that have made my list this year. I'll put them in two buckets: those that help the iOS ecosystem experience (because I am mostly a victim of that platform's device network effects these days) and those that are further out there. I'm not sure that most of these qualify as "gadgets" per se but they'll either make your life easier or you cooler for sure...

The iOS helpers- (the two big problems I've been trying to solve here are ditching all of my extra iPods (sync is a killer especially if you like podcasts) and making the iPad a little more of a laptop replacement)

1. "3GJUICE's THE CABLE" Iphone Extension Cable and Ipod Extension Cable this one is so simple that it is almost dumb but for anyone who has ever had to fiddle with an in-car dock connector that sits in your glovebox or under an armrest, this extension cable will let you get rid of that iPod you last synced in 2004.

2.Skiva Component+Composite Video / AV Cable for iPhone, iPad2, iPad & iPod Fantastic way to entertain your kids or just watch Netflix on the big screen. I'm not a huge fan of watching the iPad in bed but have found it pretty useful to take this with me to remote locations where TVs live and you want to output to them.

3. Tuneband for iPhone 4, Grantwood Technology's Armband, Silicone Skin, and Front and Back Screen Protector, Black No more running with an iPod when you can strap the iPhone to your arm. Having tried a bunch of these arm bands (most of which belong on Jack Tripper during the closing scene of Three's Company), I can vouch for this one doing the two key things: keeping your device from bouncing around while you run and still making it easy to put in/take out.

4. BoxWave Capacitive iPad Stylus (Jet Black) Writing on the iPad sucks but this pen makes it easy to mark up documents or doodles quickly. Use an app like Penultimate (detects the palm of your hand) and you can send quick scribbles across the ether as quickly as you can think them up.

5. Freedom Pro Bluetooth Keyboard It's a myth that you can type as quickly on the soft keyboard of the iPad as you can on hardware keyboards. The Apple one is very good but is an awful traveler. This one is no Stowaway (which is rumored to be coming back into production), but it's a fantastic option to have when you have to bust out that Melvillesque email while on the road.

Now for the far out there stuff (mostly fun & aspirational):

6. Canon PowerShot S95 10 MP Digital Camera with 3.8x Wide Angle Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 3.0-Inch inch LCD best P&S camera I've ever had, bar none. Too bad these things are about two smartphone generations away from being wholly irrelevant.

7. Wireless sensor Arduino kit A fantastic addition to any project if you've every done any Arduino work. Wirelessly turning on an LED based on the doorbell ringing is 2011's version of the Makerbot cupcake— it will keep the kids thinking you are cool for at least another year.

and my absolute favorite (retro) gadget of the year to date:

8. Polaroid SX-70 camera and film! I think Edwin Land is the underhyped Steve Jobs of Cambridge and this year I decided I was going to get his iPhone even there was no way I could get it to work. Imagine my surprise then upon finding some crazy ex-Polaroiders that are manufacturing film that is "almost" SX-70 compatible! Not the cheapest 8 pictures you'll ever take but well worth it for the historical value alone.

That's my version of a geek Pinboard for the first half of this year. What is yours?

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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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