Thursday, June 28, 2007

PowerSet: Let's Re-Invent Everything

I drove up to San Francisco for the inaugural PowerLabs open house. Nearly four hours later when it was all over, I gave three PowerSet people who had missed their train a ride down the Peninsula. "What's great about this company is the business people," said one, a PhD. "They really seem to know what they're doing."

Yeah. There are a lot of smart tech guys who've been in too many dumb companies. This certainly isn't one of those.

Cover Slide

The big knocks on PowerSet -- 'PowerHype,' etc. -- can be broken out into three categories:

1) Can they build it?
2) Will anyone care / do they have a business?
3) What will Google do in response?

I've not been worried about 1) for quite a while. While there are many real technical challenges to bringing up a web-scale search service, there are many real technical guys at PowerSet who've done it before and can do it again. Since modern search is far more heterogeneous than most people realize -- a spaghetti ball of models, features, and evidence driving every instance of ranking and retrieval -- PowerSet doesn't have to climb all the way to the top of some brand-new semantic mountain to launch *something* decent. What they're trying to do is technically hard and thus quite risky, but they've certainly got the right team to try.

Scott presents demo search results

To my surprise, they made a very impressive stab at persuading me about 2) 'Will anyone care' tonight. Though they compared it to World of Warcraft several times, the PowerLabs concept bears the most resemblance to an open source project in general, and the Slashdot community as a particular instantiation. Submissions, votes, feedback, and all the other communal goodies of the open source way, wrapped in a slick interface and presented to prosumers who will give feedback and product advice, tell their friends, blog incessantly, and create a large nucleus of interest and buzz about their new service when it emerges. It's smart. It's also, take 2, very risky. It can fail in a lot of peculiar ways, and it's a brand-new innovation to the company launch problem. We'll see if they celebrate or curse this decision years from now.

I am compelled to add that it's not just the concept that's impressive about the business side of this company. Their PR has been impeccable since launch, their fund-raising was also eyebrow-raising, and this whole evening was handled very well. Steve Newcomb, COO and founder, was calm and impressive in presenting the vision, answering nearly every question, and conveying an absolute sense that this company stands for something, and is striving to do something great. I dare say it's almost impossible to fake that sort of sincerity; I admire them greatly for making this huge bet, and am intrigued to watch whether they can pull it off.

Steve discussing a query

3) remains to be determined. WWGD is a (the?) key Valley question, ignored by any technology company at their peril. The big G is not infallible, but no one has even stressed them yet. Microsoft managed at least two really outstanding strategic pivots (Office in response to Borland, and Explorer in response to Netscape) and web search is Google's game. Tonight, Steve and I had a spirited exchange about whether Google can emulate the results of natural language using statistical methods. While I concede his point that there are edge and corner cases that can't be done by any other method, I maintain that enough core cases can be derived from query behavior analysis to really limit PowerSet's perceived advantage to end-users, and thus their motivation to switch. Steve's ultimate response was, "in any case, we'll have moved search technology forward"; a good answer for the world, regardless of what that might mean for PowerSet's option-holders.

I got laugh line of the night, so I've gotta blog that. Steve revealed some numbers about their indexing time per sentence; he played the crowd well, with repeated, "I don't know if I should tell you... Barney [CEO Barney Pell] might kill me..." before the big reveal. When a minute or two later he said again, "Barney might kill me," I called out, "Who killed Steve?" in best PowerSet query style. Laughs all around.

Summary: This is still incredibly early. The core of their technology just came out of a LAB, for God's sake; they won't have a real search engine for half a year at least, if not longer; and any speculation about whether they'll be better than some multi-billion dollar competitor is kind of like wondering whether Greg Oden will break any of Wilt Chamberlain's records.

They've put together an impressive bet; they're making all the right noises; they could become General Magic, or they could become great. In any case, it'll be fun to watch.

Startup life.

Update: Dan Farber at CNET and Kevin Burton also have commentary.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Close your eyes and make cyberwar go away

The New York Times today published an incredibly bad piece on cyberwar. Entitled 'When Computers Attack,' its entire purpose seems to be to allow reporter John Schwartz to wave his hands, make vague assertions, and explain how there's nothing to see here.

I am a big fan of the writing of military expert John Robb, so perhaps I am particularly sensitive to the fragility of complex technical systems and the real risk of their disruption. But even with that discount factored in, the Pollyanna attitude of the piece is incredible. Here's an early paragraph:
"But how bad would a cyberwar really be — especially when compared with the blood-and-guts genuine article? And is there really a chance it would happen at all?"
I'm just guessing here, but it appears that the two main claims of the piece will be, "It won't happen," and "If it does, it won't be bad." Hmmm. Kind of reminds me of our government response to a certain famous memo.

Yes, Virginia, terrorism happens, and yes, it can be bad.

The meat of the article supports the possibility of cyberwar being a big deal:
* "China, security experts believe, has long probed United States networks."
* "The United States is arming up, as well. Robert Elder, commander of the Air Force Cyberspace Command, told reporters"
* "An all-out cyberconflict could “could have huge impacts,” said Danny McPherson, an expert with Arbor Networks."
Sounds pretty serious, right? But that's before Schwartz dismisses the experts.
"Whatever form cyberwar might take, most experts have concluded that what happened in Estonia earlier this month was not an example."
Wait a minute! Estonia is a particularly wired place, and pissed-off persons unknown brought key infrastructure of the country to its knees by blocking access -- to banks, to government websites, to overseas consulting gigs. How is this not cyberwar? A blockade is an act of war. This was a blockade. Just because the harbors and ports are digital doesn't make it any less harmful, or any less aggressive.

Schwartz then makes assertions that net out to, "it wasn't cyberwar because the Russian government wasn't involved, just sympathetic Russian hackers." Come on. When the United States was funding the Contras in Nicaragua, using convenient irregulars to mask our role, was it any less warlike of us?

Then we get to the most breathtaking dismissal of all, especially for a writer in New York:
...the technologies and techniques used in the attacks were hardly new, nor were they the kind of thing that only a powerful government would have in its digital armamentarium.
Perhaps Schwartz's clever uses of obscure synonyms for 'arsenal' dazzled him so much that he forgot a certain incident carried out by a non-powerful-government with non-new-technology that had some slight consequences for world history:

I'm afraid it may be worse than bad memory -- other parts of Schwartz's brain also appear to be functioning poorly. Next, he argues that since war bears risks, no one will enter into it:
In fact, an attack would have borne real risks for Russia, or any aggressor nation, said Ross Stapleton-Gray, a security consultant in Berkeley, Calif. “The downside consequence of getting caught doing something more could well be a military escalation,” he said. That’s too great a risk for a government to want to engage in what amounts to high-tech harassment, Mr. Lewis said. “The Russians are not dumb,” he said.
Yeah, right. Those attacks that result in escalation never happen.

So Schwartz doesn't understand war. But he can still go out with a bang: he doesn't understand economics, either!
...Kevin Poulsen, a writer on security issues at Wired News, said that he had difficulty envisioning the threat that others see from an overseas attack by electrons and photons alone. “They unleash their deadly viruses and then they land on the beaches and sweep across our country without resistance because we’re rebooting our P.C.’s?” he asked...
...Down on earth, by comparison, this correspondent found himself near the Kennedy Space Center in a convenience store without cash and with the credit card network unavailable. “The satellite’s down,” the clerk said. “It’s the rain.” And so the purchase of jerky and soda had to wait. At the center’s visitor complex, a sales clerk dealt with the same problem by pulling out paper sales slips.

People, after all, are not computers. When something goes wrong, we do not crash. Instead, we find another way: we improvise; we fix. We pull out the slips.
This is breathtakingly bad fluff.

Does Schwartz not understand why we bombed the crap out of Germany and firebombed Japan during WWII? It wasn't because the Germans couldn't "pull out the slips" and build airplanes underground. It wasn't because the Japanese couldn't "pull out the slips" and rebuild their small workshop factories. It's because total war is economic war, and a good way to win an economic war is destroying the efficiency of your competitor.

No silly "Red Dawn" style invasion is necessary. Economic blackmail -- or economic destruction -- is plenty good enough.

Our entire society rests on fragile, difficult-to-defend infrastructure. At a basic level, our survival depends on systems of distribution for food, water, and energy which might easily be disrupted. At a more elevated level, our prosperity and happiness as a nation depends on those systems, and others -- such as international trade, the media, the financial markets -- not just working, but working flawlessly and efficiently. Any attack which reduces that efficiency has real economic consequences to us, whether we "pull out the slips" or not.

Cyberwar can impact those systems, and thus it is a real threat, a real risk, and something that deserves being taken seriously. Bin Laden understood this. It's a shame that John Schwartz doesn't.

Who are the heroes? And why do we ignore them?

There were endless news stories about the tragic death of nine South Carolina firefighters in the media last week. Driving to and from work the day of their funeral, I caught at least three distinct references on NPR, including a brief clip of the mayor speaking in somber tones about what heroes they were. The coverage was hagiographic, everywhere -- as in this piece, Firefighters pay tribute to those who answered 'death's call' -- in a small-town paper in Massachusetts. Or this piece, 'Brotherhood of Honor,' from Worcester, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts!! It's a long way from South Carolina.

Firefighting is a hard, dangerous job. I believe that those who choose to become firefighters do so partially out of a sense of duty and service, and I am sure that they are brave. Their death was tragic, and their remembrance worthwhile.

But their incredibly public death and remembrance starkly demonstrated what is utterly, totally missing from our public discourse today -- and the echo of its absence rang loud to me all that day, and still.

The day after the South Carolina fire, nine soldiers and Marines died in Iraq.

Where were their two thousand news stories?

Every day, our soldiers and Marines are dying in Iraq. Eighty-six have died thus far in June -- four every day, day after day. Their job is harder and more dangerous than any firefighter's. They too serve out of a sense of duty and service, and their bravery is beyond question.

But their death is doubly tragic, and their lack of remembrance doubly stark. They are dying not in an attempt to extinguish a blazing warehouse. They are giving their lives in a futile attempt to temporarily bank the raging fires of sectarian collapse in Iraq, so that the failed policies and cynical policy-makers of the Bush administration can escape part of the blame they so richly deserve.

Meanwhile, we, and our media, sit silent, our gaze awkwardly averted; or we throw ourselves into frenzied ceremonies around some other, smaller, but at least meaningful tragedy. How can we let one small sadness overwhelm our sense of the greatest tragedy of our times? Why does no one make this point? Silence, here, is complicity.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Event search drives traffic; Zvents expands partnerships

The incredibly exciting opportunity that drove me to start Zvents is that one third of local search -- "discover things to do" -- is an untapped market. I define local search as three major areas:

* What to buy: Yellow pages & merchant search
* What to do: Events, movies, restaurants, activities
* What happened: News

Zvents:  Events are the untapped 1/3 of local search

Of these three, "what to do" is completely untapped, whereas the other two have seen significant efforts, both by traditional media and by Internet companies.

There's a simple reason that "What to do" is untapped - it's hard to do well. Events expire rapidly, events are highly structured (think repeating series of plays, with different times on weekends) and events are very fragmented -- in a major metro area, there are tens of thousands of events in a given week, across a vast range of categories like sports, music, performing arts, classes, politics, community, clubs... the list is endless.

So it's very gratifying to see the positive response that our local search engine for things to do has garnered -- both among users, where we've seen huge growth in traffic; and partners, where we've been signing up media firms at a steady clip, with the New York Times Regional Media Group being our latest relationship.

Local analysts Pete Krasilovsky and Greg Sterling both wrote about our latest news this morning, and I encourage you to check out their pieces. "Discover things to do" is a great opportunity and a fun place to be, and across the market of Zvents and the others chasing it, I look forward to huge advances and lots of fun.

Startup life!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Props to Google: Users *Create* Content!

I was looking up the upstate New York church where my cousin Greg is getting married Saturday, and lo and behold, there's a new feature on Google Maps:
User-Created content -- not user-generated!

There in the lower left, it says, "New! User-Created Content"

I can hardly express how this warms my heart. The big G realizes that users are people, and that they are creative! Too bad that most of the Web 2.0 community is so far behind. If I could choose one phrase to have a stake driven through its soulless, MBA-mouthed, PowerPoint-printed heart, it would be "User Generated Content". I have blogged in the past about using human words for human deeds (see note at the end of the post). Machines generate. Humans create. Nice one, Google.

Google Street View: Brin's Transparent Society

I just read all the comments over at BoingBoing about Google's Street view.

All these people need to buy and read David Brin's excellent essay, "The Transparent Society".

Welcome back to the village, humanity.

Startup CEO: Three kinds of serious conversations

There are three kinds of serious conversations that the leader of a startup can have with his team. The first kind is, "We're in deep trouble here, and we have to fix it."

Six weeks ago, I had one of those conversations with our engineering team at Zvents. As our traffic and partner network really started to grow, we were having scaling issues, uptime issues, and process issues, and after a few wobbles, there was a real possibility that we were going to fall over hard. The team responded magnificently. We've completely reworked our release and QA processes, and we've fixed some glaring issues in the code base, and I no longer stay awake at night worrying about what will break next.

The second type of serious conversation is, "We've got an incredible opportunity here, and we have to focus the particle beam and make it happen."

I had that conversation with the engineering team yesterday, and we'll be talking about it with the whole company in the next few days. In a startup environment, it's just as important to succeed at upside tasks as it is to respond to downside risks -- and we've got some really great prizes in clear view that we need to achieve. The reason that we're all in a startup is the joy of running absolutely flat out to grab those prizes, and we're going to have a fun -- but deadly serious -- couple of months of sprinting to take Zvents to the next level.

The third type of serious conversation is, "We just accomplished something important and amazing. Now, what do we do next?"

We've had that talk a few times at Zvents already. As a startup, you don't last two years without a few amazing victories along the way. The first time was when we successfully launched at Web 2.0 on about $50K in total funding, and there have been several others since. I look forward to having that conversation again -- both soon, and many times more.

Startup life.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Kawasaki's Web 2.0: But Weren't Websites Always Cheap?!

Guy Kawasaki is very smug about how cheap it was to launch a moderately useless site like Truemors.

As I recall Bubble 1.0, one of the big problems was that people confused the following:
* ideas vs. businesses
* web sites vs. software

Nothing has really changed. In 1999, it was cheap and easy to turn an idea into a web site. In 2007, (shock!) it's still easy to turn an idea into a web site -- though now with open source and open APIs, you can get a more functional one for your trouble.

It's always been hard and expensive to write software, and it's always been hard and expensive to create a real business. Even in 2007, it's still hard and expensive to build a real software-driven business. There are always exceptions; but their rarity proves the rule.

If this is link-bait to make Guy $150 per month, and to garner a few hundred thousand page views from users who will never come back, then fine. It costs me nothing, and it benefits Guy hardly at all.

Meanwhile, the real business of building Internet-focused, software-based businesses goes on. And at Zvents, it's going really well.