Thursday, November 30, 2006

Google is not evil. But what are the rules?

Well, it seems that I've put my name right in the middle of the latest Silicon Valley tempest in a teapot. I'm right there, in the un-deleted comments on the original post, full name in view. Just to be clear, since three points [3] can be construed to make a curve, I don't think Google is evil. I actually think Google is full of smart, sincere people trying really hard to create the future, and breaking a few eggs while making their omelettes. What really worries me is that the future is full of unintended consequences, and none of us have fully thought those consequences through.

On the one hand, all of us users of hosted software are trusting -- implicitly and absolutely -- that we won't be wrecked by the removal of that software. How many people trust their personal lives and/or their businesses to Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, and Gmail? Hundreds of millions. How many people trust their businesses to Salesforce, SocialText, JotSpot, or JigSaw? Tens of thousands. In the very near future, how many independent producers and actors will trust YouTube to bring them their daily bread? This doesn't even begin to touch on blog platforms, eBay, and Second Life.

Leaving aside all the basic issues -- terrorists, power failures, hackers; your basic Bruce Schneier territory -- there is a huge, dark continent of social mores and best practices around this emerging reality that has yet to be explored or mapped. Much of common case law, as painfully built up over the past several centuries, deals with the delicate ways that property rights can be ascertained in various bizarre situations. Aside from the occasional Congressional meat cleaver, we have no such body of thought or practice built up in this new new world. What is the right answer to Kevin and JotSpot, to downtime by YouTube or PayPal, to the downtime that some Zvents customer may well suffer sometime in the future? How should we guard ourselves against this in advance, defend ourselves against it in the present, and adjudicate around it in the past? I don't know. It worries me that no one is talking about this issue. Where is the council of SaaS? The W3C for ASP? If we're going to build this future, in all its wild entrepreneurial frenzy, someone has to lay out a few ground rules, so that the market can do its magic.

Who will lead? And how can I help?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Was YouTube downtime scheduled?

YouTube has been down for about 24 hours now:

I don't exactly hang out there, but I wasn't aware this was scheduled. That's a very long downtime, and I haven't seen any commentary -- was it unexpected?

Expected or not, it raises an interesting point about the new distributed badge/widget ecosystem emerging on the web. It's not just enough to fail gracefully at your main URL -- you have to fail gracefully in the thousands, or millions of places where your functionality has been spread. How many websites would be affected if Adsense went down, and would they all fail gracefully? Would "Adsense is down, sorry" appear everywhere? Or just blank holes? I first became aware of YouTube's burp when a friend told me that there was no video at a link I'd forwarded -- the page was just blank.

What would I do with a newspaper? Fix it!

Kevin Maney at USA Today apparently was wandering around the Web 2.0 conference talking to Silicon Valley folks about how to fix newspapers. I wish we'd had a chance to talk, since Zvents is partnering with major newspapers to reinvent local media.

First let's examine the problem. Newspapers have no online pageviews. That means that they can't make any money online, and their offline revenue-generating ability is cratering. What's a useful measure of online vs. offline? How about physical print pages (one sheet of paper in one newspaper) vs. one online pageview? Here are 10 major papers compared:

Now keep in mind that an online pageview in no way compares to an offline page. An offline page has perhaps 3 articles and some big ads; an online pageview is perhaps 1/3 of an article and some small ads. Add in a "like to like" impact/influence factor of 10X, and you've got the leading online papers (NYTimes) in the 5% range of replacing their offline traffic, and others (Tribune) at less than 1% of where they need to be. Maybe that's why Tribune is for sale, while the NYTimes is making smart web acquisitions like

So how do you get traffic up? The best answer is, "build a compelling product that people want to use." Here I am flabbergasted that Maney's techie interviewees totally missed the boat. He writes, "No one, for instance, proposed that newspaper websites, which generally look more crowded than a Mumbai flea market, pare down to a single, clean Google-esque local search box."

OK, Kevin, I'll bite: The navigation and presentation metaphor of newspaper websites is totally broken, and it's a big reason why their products don't get enough usage. There are dozens of subtle clues in a physical paper that tell you that there's lots inside -- the size and heft, the number of pages, the fact that your periperhal vision is picking up page 3 while you're reading page 2, the fact that the sports section falls out when you pick up the front section. None of these clues exist in a website, and thousands of great pieces of editorial content posted on newspaper sites get a fraction of the traffic they'd see if *anyone could find them*. This doesn't just mean Google-like active search -- it means passive discovery mechanisms like Memeorandum or Google News (which already drives about 30% of total newspaper pageviews -- yes, you read that right!) and it also means "sidways navigation" mechanisms like Aggregate Knowledge. Solving this problem is crucial to the future of newspapers online.

And then there's the content. Newspapers have created their content to match the physical and economic constraints on their business. The length, detail, and volume of news stories they create -- and their focus on text first, pictures second, audio and video never -- are deeply driven by their dead tree tradition. Even more importantly, their emphasis on data and the long tail has been very curtailed by their inability to publish a phone book every day. Zvents focuses on events, where newspapers cover perhaps 2% of what's actually going on in a metro area -- but there are dozens, hundreds, of other areas where newspapers have been forced by past realities to curtail the breadth and depth of their coverage. All those constraints have been blown away, and suddenly the entire shape and structure of their news-gathering, sorting, polishing, and dissemination has to change.

I haven't even touched the advertising side. That's food for another post.

There's a lot more... but that's a primer on how I'd fix newspapers. To find out more about how my company, Zvents, can help newspapers in this transition process, visit our site.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Andy Sack: Reality a Luxury Good

Andy Sack is CEO of Judy's Book and a blogger whom I read regularly. He recently posted some thoughts about sending and receiving physical notes in this digital age that fit nicely with my previous post about reality being a luxury good -- though in this case, the reality is not presence at a physical event, but delivery of a physical good (the note).

I am reminded of Neal Stephenson's superb second novel The Diamond Age, where in the futuristic neo-Victorian Hong Kong community, the same news is delivered electronically to most people, and in hand-printed, hand-delivered newspaper form to the very wealthy few.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Reality is becoming a luxury good

My personal definition of luxury goods is that they are exclusionary -- if one person owns them, then another person can't. Original works of art. Wineries in Napa. Antique Ferraris. Houses in Atherton. All exclusionary goods.

I was chatting with Brian Smith this morning about Second Life -- and it hit me that a lot of what goes on in Second Life is people expressing very human creative urges in virtual reality, because doing so in reality is (often) too expensive. In Second life, you can build a house, an orchard, furniture, a boat... owning the land and the machinery and taking the time to do all that in reality is simply beyond the means of most people.

I don't spend any time in 2nd life, because in real life I'm building a company, and I have a 2-car garage full of woodworking machinery which I use to make furniture, in my very limited time. I've also been working to create a citrus orchard on our patio. If I lived in an apartment in San Francisco, I wouldn't be able to do that last 2; and anywhere but Silicon Valley, the first would be vastly more difficult. Luxuries all. Exclusion runs on a personal timelie as well -- I have spent several decades of my life learning how to work in wood, and time is the ultimate exclusionary good. My ability to build furniture is inversely correlated to my ability to play the piano, hit a fastball, or any of a number of other ways I might have invested large slices of my life.

Tonight at 11:30pm, I am flying to Columbus, Ohio to watch the latest iteration of the awesome Ohio State - Michigan football rivalry. Thanks to my ex-OSU faculty father, my brother Ben and I have tickets at face value(score!), but I'm still spending 48 hours and nearly a thousand dollars to be at the game. Meanwhile, 500,000 people voted in an ESPN poll on who will win the game, and millions will watch it on television.

Reality is luxury, indeed.

Oh, and Ohio State wins, 16-9.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Google launches event search

Tyler noticed a "search public events" button in his Google calendar this morning, and now the official Google blog has a post about the launch.

As noted on GigaOm in their discussion of Google's announcement, my company Zvents announced a $7m funding round last week for our local events search product.

Event search is a great market. Welcome, guys.

-- Ethan

Friday, November 10, 2006

Memo to Job Seekers Everywhere (PS to Entrepreneurs!)

Since our recent funding announcement at Zvents, we have been flooded with job applications. Thank you, and those of you who fit our current needs will be hearing back from us soon. This flood has inspired me to write down something I figured out during my own job-applying days:

When you send your resume to a company in MSWord format, the title of the document should NOT be "Resume.doc". I understand that in your own personal PC world, utterly centered around you, "Resume" is a self-obvious description. But in MY inbox, resumes folder, etc., it utterly fails to differentiate you. Call it MyNameResume.doc. Or better yet, MyNameResumeMonthYear.doc. Since this naming issue is a complete failure to think from the perspective of your "customer", I view marketing applicants that make this mistake with a particularly high level of dubiousness.

PS to Entrepreneurs: Exactly the same is true of your pitch deck. I *know* that VCPitch.ppt makes sense to you. Do you think it helps Mike Moritz tell your file from the 300 other ones on his laptop?