Thursday, January 27, 2005

So what does A9 Yellow Pages Mean?

I try to avoid me-too "look what just happened" blog posts, and despite a ream of content on that last amazon post, a lot of said content fell into the "wow how cool" hand-waving bucket.

Before I natter on a bit more, John Battelle (as usual) has nailed it in pithy form in his Business 2.0 story:

It's pushing Amazon's virtual-commerce business model -- where you can buy
anything you want online -- into the bricks-and-mortar local retail space.
Amazon wants to be part of any kind of commerce.

Update: And finally, before I natter, check out this very funny note from John Aboud, via Seth Godin.

Commence my nattering. Here's what this announcement actually means:

1) Amazon used to sell stuff. Call that the "database model" where they shipped first information, and then goods, from a centralized location.

2) Amazon created the marketplace. Call that the "network model" where they acted as an info-mediary who brought together buyers and sellers, with goods shipped around the periphery of the infospace, peer-to-peer, without Amazon actually ever touching them.

Note that quarter to quarter, Amazon derives either a majority, or all, of its profits from the marketplace.

3) Now Amazon has created what I would call the "embedded network model" which extends the network model into the fabric of everday life. Contrast to the marketplace -- you don't care who the seller is, or where the seller is, you just want the goods you found on this mystical Amazon site to show up at your doorstep. In the "embedded network model" Amazon is enabling you -- with your real location, real needs, and real-world context-- to seek out merchants who are also local, physical, and with whom you may interact directly. Today, it's not really embedded -- it's just a first-step extension of the marketplace model. But look where it can go:

1) Amazon links to the catalogs and inventory of the merchants, and you can search that. Amazon provides "merchant tools" (which eBay and PayPal are also working on) to help merchants do this.

2) Amazon offers its Visa card/shopping cart as a pre-payment system for its users. Want a pizza? Find it online, order it online, pay online, and go pick it up.

3) Amazon, working with a delivery partner, enables local delivery from local merchants for same-day, or perishable, goods. Speciality grocery + Amazon = WebVan 2.0??

And these are just the commerce implications. The non-commercial (social) implications are even more interesting -- see my previous comment on the Viper Room. Very, very interesting.

Google Voice - The Extended Conversation

The problem with the extended conversation it that it happens in so many places that sometimes, it's hard to consolidate, even in your own mind.

January 17:
First, there were rumors of Google getting into the voice business.
Then, John Battelle posted a piece on the rumor.
Where I wrote a comment.

For a week, it was all quiet on the Western Front.

January 24:
And then the whole world went absolutely apeshit.

And, incidentally (or not?) some guy from Bulgaria named Dimitar Vesselinov posted a comment on Battelle, nailing the issue:
It makes sense. Why? Do you want to search for your voice data? What about
transcripts? People want this kind of information and I suppose they will get
it. It’s about the data, stupid!

Throughout this all, I somehow had an image in my mind that I'd written a pithy post about all this and put it up here, but somehow, I never did so. This is now that (non-pithy) post.

Ahem. Let me discuss the Extended Conversation.

Oh, hell, let me just demonstrate it by linking to a photo on Flickr of a slide that I've made which introduces the "why" for both the Extended Conversation, justifies Google's move, and agrees with Dimitar, all in one go.

See? Wasn't that cool? It comprised multiple forms of media, hyperlinking, tagging, user-created content, diary --> conversation --> publication fuzziness, and about twelve other principles of What's Going On here in this new new world.

We used to have "conversations" on the telephone. Some of us had "correspondence" via letters, but not since the days of Voltaire could letters be considered "conversations". (Incidentally, did you know that in London, the Post Office delivered mail four times a day before the advent of telephony?) Then we added email, and IM, and suddenly the web went broadband and storage got cheap, and somewhere in there search engines actually started to work, and then a bunch of crazies went and invented the whole blogging paradigm, and there were digital cameras everywhere, and social networks had their moment of glory but left a lasting impression, and then (finally, in the US!) cellphones started getting smart instead of dumb (if only mobile operators would follow, the dummies!) and we are starting to see the emergence of this big gnarly thing called the extended conversation that is going to encompass everything in exactly the same way that the phone system used to touch on everything, except this time we aren't just stuck in voice, and we can tie it all together in a pretty package with a bright red ribbon.

Some people call this Web 2.0. I call it the Extended Conversation.

So let's look at Google. I think they get all, or most of this, already. Firstly, they recognize that search changes how you use information, most especially when you've got a lot of info to manage. Do you even look at the call record on your phone bill? Probably too much information. Do you search back through your email inbox to find stuff you wrote a month ago? Of course you do, because you can, especially with Lookout or Google Desktop or one of the really useful personal search engines.

They get user-created content, too. They have blogger, they have Picasa, they have GMail. They just launched Desktop. They get that user-created content equals communication... I think. When you look at the SIMS study, it's clear that the vast majority of "the world's information" which Google is determined to search is user-created content (see the Hal Varian "How Much Information" SIMS Berkeley study) or read the fantastic article "What's Next for Google" that Charles Ferguson wrote for MIT's Technology Review a few months ago, you can't help but think (if you are a Googler) OK, what are we gonna search/own/monetize next? And the big flaming answer is voice, voice, voice.

So yeah, they're gonna do Google Voice. But maybe not yet.

Why are they gonna do it?

Because all the content in the world comes from people, and most of it is voice.

How are they gonna do it?

Well, if I were a Googler told to do this tommow, I'd turn some of those 250K Linux servers they have into POTS NAPs around the United States and Canada, and I'd run Asterix on them (or a highly robust Googlized version of Asterix) and I'd throw the UI to it in with GMail (or keep it separate, but hold hands with GMail behind the scenes) and make a great inbox and outbox and CDR function, and record every call (allowing the user to delete, etc., just like email) and allow calls to be annotated and hyperlinked and blogged and so forth... and maybe even think about real-time linking of points within the call and what I am doing in the browser, for instance while I am talking (via Google Voice) I do a Google search, and that search is tagged and linked to that moment of the conversation. Whammo, you have a really compelling application-level extension to voice, and another knee in the groin of the dumb transport companies.

Oh, my. This is gonna be a fun decade.

Amazon takes a whack at telcos -- application trumping transport

A9 just annouced a way-cool extension to the Yellow Pages concept. From the Washington Post:

For the past several months, a fleet of nondescript vans equipped with digital
cameras and proprietary computer software has been traversing the streets of
several major U.S. cities, continuously photographing businesses on every block.
Operating secretly under the code name "Project Mercury," the vans have
transmitted more than 20 million images to a database compiled by Inc., a
wholly owned subsidiary of Inc. A9 set up shop last fall in Silicon
Valley, far from the Internet retailer's Seattle headquarters, with the goal of
creating new search technology for computer users to hunt for information and
products on the Internet.

Today, millions of the photos, coupled with their corresponding electronic yellow page listings, are scheduled to become available on the Web site. Only businesses that have paid to be in the A9 yellow pages will be featured. A9 will invite those retailers to take digital photos of their own that can be added to the Web site, potentially taking computer users inside stores to view merchandise.

A9's offering includes a way for computer users to take notes in an online "diary," and save and search the comments. It also offers a feature that automatically connects users to businesses by phone. Users input a phone number on the Web page, and, with a click of the mouse, can effectively be connected to any of the businesses listed free of charge. Special software connects the call by ringing a user's phone and the line at the business.

Here is an example search result from Boston.

There are two important points here. The first point is that geography is really, really important. The fact that all these businesses have a location matters to their customers; the fact that Amazon has GPS-tagged all the information around the pictures and listings is what makes this service work.

The second, even more important point, is that communications is becoming an extended conversation, and applications are trumping transport. When the world was about plain vanilla POTS, being a transport company (hello, AT&T) was a very valuable thing to be. But on the day it is announced that SBC might buy an AT&T that is a shadow of its former self, Amazon announces a feature that -- almost incidentally -- offers a free phone call between the user of its website and the merchant they are trying to reach. Given that the original intent of the yellow pages was to stimulate phone calls to businesses (and charge for the phone calls) that's an incredible turnabout.

Coupled with the potential for Google to get into the VoIP market -- again, as an extension to its current application-centric business of enabling conversations, not communications -- this now qualifies as a trend.

Incidentally, this also demonstrates that Time Warner was exactly right to buy AOL. They just bought at the wrong time, and may have bought the wrong company.

Also incidentally, the ability of users to add their own photos is really important. If Amazon is smart, they will allow a lot of clustering and linking to happen that has *nothing* to do with the core commerce focus of their yellow pages -- for instance, people linking their party photos from the Viper Room in LA to the geo/location of the Viper Room. There are all sorts of eVite possibilities here, too... it just goes on and on. Welcome to the future.

Finally, last incidental point -- Flickr had better get all the way to platform status soon, or sell themselves to the highest bidder, or they are going to be overwhelmed by the rollout of smart photo-inclusive features like this one.

Voice will be taken over by application providers if the telcos don't do something smart, or something sneaky (AKA regulatory relief). Get hot, boys...

Monday, January 24, 2005

Bellster, Technorati, Slashdot?

When I do a search on Technorati (5:40pm PST, 1/24/2005) for "Bellster" Slashdot is not any of the 41 results, even though Slashdot has a 128-comment post/article on Bellster that was created at 1/24/2005 at 5:08pm EST (3.5 hours ago). Why is that? Too recent? Slashdot hasn't implemented Dave Sifry's server-side code? Will try again tomorrow.

Update: It showed up on 1/25 at about noon.

Jeff Pulver at play again: Bellster launches

As noted by Kevin Werbach and others, Jeff Pulver, the originator of FreeWorldDialup, the Pulver Innovations WiSIP phone, and a host of other telco-tweaking apps, is at it again. He's launched Bellster, which allows its participants more-or-less no-extra-charge phone calls worldwide. "No extra charge" is significant because it's not free -- in order for the service to work, each participant has to have some sort of reasonably bulk usage plan in their local calling area/country.

My take? RIght now, the short answer is, it's a stunt. A cool stunt that is interesting and will cause big telcos more worries than actual revenue problems. Like BitTorrent, its gnarly technical requirements will keep it from touching more than 1% of the userbase. Basically, you have to set up a dedicated Linux Asterix PBX server in your house to share your phone line with others. Not something that the average user is going to do.

Now... when someone rewrites Asterix into a PC application that runs on Windows, with a slick user interface a la Skype, and adds Bellster functionality, and says to every dummy (cough) user in the world, "Plug your phone line into your PC, download our app, and you get free phone calls worldwide" ... then, the telcos have a problem.