Tuesday, December 28, 2010

That Synching Feeling

I spent the holidays wrestling with mobile devices, and came to the conclusion that pretty much all the current offerings are unsatisfactory. Budget laptops weigh and cost about the same as a Winchester rifle, but are far less pleasing to own. iPads are fun, but you'll have to work if you want to import content except via the Company Store (a.k.a. iTunes).

The Android tablet I got from some points program is a nice toy and features (gasp) a USB port for easy content ingestion, but the software isn't going to meet anyone's business needs. I'm waiting for Playbook before I buy any more tablet style devices. The netbook is a nice idea, but I think getting the balance right between what's local and what's in the cloud is really hard.

I’m hoping that open platforms will give me greater access to content and functionality I’ve already paid for, but I’m not holding my breath. I remember once standing on a pontoon in Pearl Harbor and gazing down into the waters at the barely discernible shape of a dead battleship. So many hardware and software platforms end up looking like this.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Steve Jobs at All Things Digital

I liked the opening music: "Got to Get You into My Life" from the Beatles seemed appropriate as the iPad hit 2M sales worldwide.

Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher presiding; the session got off to a slow start. Initial question about Apple's market cap. Steve: "It's surreal", but it's not what gets him out of bed in the morning. Flash? Apple made a call; no-one currently provides flash on smartphones, and anyway HTML5 is the future. Walt tugged at my heartstrings momentarily by pointing out that Picnik (the wonderful photo editing tool) is a Flash app, but Steve maintained that many Flash apps are ads, and that "the hole is getting plugged real fast." (My favorite guitarist's web site is pretty much all Flash.) Moderators initiated more excursions into stories like the stolen iPhone and Foxconn suicides, but finally we get to the good stuff.

(1) Platform wars. Steve: we don't see it that way. Google "decided to compete with us" in the phone market. ("We didn't go into the search business!") iPhone was the first time carriers were told to just manage the network, while we handled the apps. He pointed out that AT&T (despite all the flak they are catching from users) "took a big leap" with Apple when they changed the rules of the game.

(2) The Tablet. Steve: we reimagined the tablet, without handwriting. "If you need a stylus, you've already failed." The multi-touch glass display actually began in-house as a tablet project, then migrated to the phone. Will the tablet save journalism? Steve: we need editorial more than ever right now. His advice to online newspapers: "Price aggressively [ie., cheaply], and go for volume."

(3) Future of the PC. Steve: PCs are a bit like trucks. Not everyone needs one nowadays, because we are no longer an agrarian society. The iPad is a magical device that has just the right blend of features for most people, and we have only just scratched the surface with apps. Software will get more powerful, and the bluetooth keyboard can be used when you want to create or edit content.

(4) Content curation. Walt: what about controversies re control of content on your devices. Steve: We have open and a curated platforms. We support the open standard of HTML5 better than anyone else. But we also provide the App store, where we disallow apps that crash, or don't function as advertized, or use unsupported APIs. We approve 95% of apps submitted within 7 days. We don't allow apps that defame people, but we took a couple of iterations to get that right, e.g., political cartoons.

(5) Kara: What do you do all day? Steve: "what I do all day is meet with teams of people." Kara: Do you win all the arguments? Steve: "No, the best ideas have to win!" Otherwise how could you attract and retain really good people? We have the same values now that we had back then, namely "build the best products for people." Why are you going into the ad business? So that developers can make money on their apps. We need to put this into the OS, not over and over into the apps themselves.

(6) Privacy. Steve: we worry about location in phones. We make apps ask the user if they want their location made available. We turn down apps that want to suck all your data into the cloud. We were "pissed off" at Flurry who used apps to track devices at Apple's Cupertino campus. We changed our TOS so that apps can't sell your data to analytics firms. At the very least, they should ask the user before sharing that information with third parties.

(7) Question time: record companies and television. Steve: record companies thought Tower Records and Best Buy were their customers! The front end of the business had to change, and marketing is now better and cheaper (direct to the customer). The problem with TV is the go-to-market strategy. People are used to getting set top boxes for free, which kills innovation. No-one wants to pay for another box, so the whole thing needs a redesign from scratch. Until then, AppleTV is just a hobby for us.

This was a wonderful opener, whose spirit I can't really capture here. You had the impression of a great mind being unflinchingly honest and not afraid to express deeply felt beliefs. (OK, so I'm a fan, sue me.) Yes, the Flash thing is a nuisance, and Apple's culture probably isn't the paradise that it's portrayed to be (what corp is?), but these guys are among the few who really know how to bring great products to market. Being at the session was worth the price of admission, as far as I was concerned.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Spring Conferences, Part 3

SIIA NetGain was a one-day meeting in San Francisco this year, followed by a one-day field trip to Adobe, Google and Apple campuses. I will only cover the highlights here.

Ann Michaels chaired a good panel on social networking with Johna Burke (BurrellesLuce), Tabrez Syed (Spiceworks) and Serena Wellen (Lexis-Nexis). Most interesting segment was on Lexis-Nexis Communities and Martindale-Hubble Connect. Communities is an open networks that combines free and fee-based content currently aimed at 28 communities, some of which are practice-based (such as bankruptcy and insurance) and some of which are role-based (associates and paralegals). The content mix contains news, blogs, podcasts, video and ads. MH Connect is a closed referral network with multiple subscription levels, including free, built on top of an existing attorney directory. L-N gets content from contributors, who are also their customers, and monitors the spending of members in other parts of the business. The idea is that subject matter experts who generate content drive the visiting and viewing behavior of the larger population, providing revenue opportunities.

Andy Weissberg of Bowker chaired a panel on "How E-Readers Are Changing the Publishing Game" with Colin Crawford of Media7 and and Miles McNamee of Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). There was some discussion of how music went from paid analog (legal) to free digital (illegal) and to subscription digital (legal). Obviously there are some parallels to the book business, in that getting quickly to a convenient and affordable service model is in everyone's long term interest. But publishers now need to worry about the pirating of customers, even if the content ownership issue is settled. Customers, and the data they provide, are an important (if neglected) asset of publishing companies, and right now neither Apple nor Amazon is sharing customer data with content owners. (Google has no plans to do so either, as we discovered later in the context of Google Editions.)

Ken Doctor chaired a panel on "News Start-Ups" with Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investogative Reporting and Jonathan Weber of the Bay Citizen. I found the idea of start-ups getting into the turbulent news business a little odd, until I realized that CIR is a non-profit, and the Citizen plans a public radio style business model of sponsorships and grants from foundations. Both plan to experiment with new business models, including ads and subscriptions, in order to sustain real journalism, as opposed to op-ed style blogging. CIR plans to move to video, in search of "more CPMs", though one wonders if they understand the cost structure of shooting and storing large amounts of rich media content, or the fact that even Google's highly efficient CPC model is unable to fully pay for their YouTube portal. (CPM on highly popular Facebook is a mere $1, compared to AdSense's $25.)

I may write about the Adobe and Google visits later; I jumped ship at Google and didn't proceed to the Apple campus.

Spring Conferences, Part 2

The New Directions in Text Analysis conference at Harvard was an eclectic gathering that mixed social scientists and computer scientists interested in tools for mining or otherwise taming large amounts of text. I will only describe a handful of the papers here.

The conference began with a technical paper about statistictical tools for data driven science policy decisions by Hanna Wallach of UMass that focused on Latent Dirichlet Allocation for topic models. A topic is operationalized as a specialized probability distribution over all the words in the vocabulary. Documents can be considered as the product of an underlying generative model that may have hidden structure, and whose parameters must be learned from observables by statistical inference.

Lars Backstrom of Facebook gave an interesting paper about memes: topical text fragments that persist through many articles. He described a graphical model that represents quotes and misquotes as nodes linked by weighted edges, the weights depending upon repetition and edit distance between the corresponding strings. The graph can be partitioned into memes by deleting low-weight edges (NP hard, but can be managed with heuristics). See the MemeTracker web site for more details.

Jure Leskovec of Stanford's paper looked at influence and dynamics in online media, especially the interplay between mainstream media (MSM) and the blogosphere. Different memes seem to have different temporal signatures, depending on where they originate and who adopts them. Most big stories break in MSM and are then taken up by blogs; a lesser number break in the blogosphere and are taken up by MSM. The time/volume graphs of these events look quite different when you control for scale and duration.

Does bad news travel fast, or at any rate faster than good news? Previous research by Berger and Milkman on NYT articles suggested not. The paper by Michael Macy of Cornell presented a data mining study of Twitter that showed that positive affect dominates all forms of tweet. Furthermore, a study of half a billion US tweets showed that certain words have a pronounced diurnal rhythm when you adjust for time zones, including some words you might expect ("coffee") and words you might not expect ("random").

All in all, a worthwhile meeting that also showcased some Harvard research into such topics as data visualization, Chinese history and Japanese politics. I gave a talk on 15 years of R&D at Thomson Reuters that shared some of the things we have learned along the way about text analytics, machine learning, and user data.

Spring Conferences, Part 1

I recently attended SIIA NetGain, including site visits to Adobe and Google, plus a couple of conferences at MIT and Harvard. This may take more than one post, but I wanted to share my impressions of these meetings, since I took quite a few notes. (I'm currently in LA for D8 - All Things Digital - but that will form the subject matter of a subsequent post.)

Let's start with the Center for Digital Business conference at MIT. The morning session was mostly about "web morphing", i.e., how do you adapt a Web page dynamically to a visitor's cognitive style. Cognitive style was defined along a number of dimensions, e.g., verbal/graphical, small/large infomation load, active/passive, etc. The dependant variable was consideration (i.e., is the user really thinking abut your product) rather than sales, and this was measured in terms of clicks. Glen Urban's work on ad morphing was particularly interesting. It varies ads along dimensions like more or less visual, more or less detail, and used a 2x2 cognitive matrix tat combined deliberative/impulsive with intuitive/rational. Morphing ads in the right direction got a lift in all quadrants, but the biggest lift came from the rational-deliberative users, who presumably got the technical detail they were looking for.

Another fascinating study used fMRI technology to examine the neuropsychology of financial risk. (fMRI scans use magnetic fields to map blood flow in the brain. When an area is active, blood flow increases.) The nucleus accumbens (NAcc) appears to implicated in the anticipation of a reward, while the amygdala seems to implicated in matters of trust. One finding was that faces of financial consultants that had been digitally morphed with the user's face were deemed as more trustworthy! In other words, we trust people who look like ourselves.

The afternoon sessions were focuseed on "digital advantage", i.e., how to get competitive advantage out of IT and innovation. Andrew McAfee argued that, while the price of digital assets is falling linearly on a log scale, this trend does not benefit all companies equally. High tech industries show a greater spread of gross profit margins since the mid 1990s, suggesting more competitiveness than other industries. Johnson Sikes of McKinsey reported on a survey done jointly with MIT which found a correlation between data-driven decision-making and productivity, showing the benefit of having highly-qualified staff who are given access to data for analytical purposes.

Michael Cusumano gave a sneak preview of his forthcoming book, Staying Power, in which he identifies six principles relevant to strategy and innovation in an uncertain world: platform (not just products); services on top of products and platforms; capabilities (not just strategy); pull (don't just push); scope (not just scale); and flexibility (not just efficiency). I look forward to reading the book when it comes out later this year.

In addition, there was a lunchtime session, in which Sherry Turkle gave a talk entitled "Alone Together" about the darker side of social networking. She posed the question, do the technology affordances serve our human purposes, or do they exploit our human vulnerabilities? Her extensive studies with both adults and teenagers suggest that people are lonely, but fear intimacy. Asynchronous social communications allow us to be very controlling with respect to the amount of time and emotional exposure we grant to people. Even a phone call is too much commitment for many of us; we would rather email, post or text. She made many memorable points, e.g., "intimacy and democracy require privacy" yet "we have become the instruments of our own surveillance." The tech mantra that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear from the Googles and Facebooks of this world completely misses this point.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Genesys Partners dinner and speakers

It's always a pleasure to join Genesys Partners at the Union League Club in New York for their annual Venture Dinner. Speakers this year included Dick Harrington (ex-Thomson), Andy Lack (Bloomberg), David Eun (Google), Mark Anderson (SNS), Gordon Crovitz (ex-WSJ, now Journalism Online), John Patrick (ex-IBM, now Attitude LLC) and Mark Walsh (Genius Rocket). I'll give you my 'back of the napkin' notes in no particular order.

John Patrick spoke about the 7 desirable properties of the Internet he outlined in his book (Net Attitude) and how we are doing: fast, always on, everywhere, natural, intelligent, easy to use, and trusted. Speed and ubiquity continue to be a problem in the US, thanks to cable companies, but we are seeing gains in the other 5. Semantic Web isn't happening very fast, but the whole area of analytics is becoming huge. Thanks to advances in architectures and algorithms, large computations can now be done in hours that would have taken years. As I have written elsewhere, everything worthwhile is becoming data driven.

David Eun also talked about volumes of data and gave us some numbers. It is estimated that up to 2004 the human race produced a little over 4 exobytes of information; we are now generating this same amount every few days. On YouTube, a billion videos are viewed every day, while 20 hours of video are uploaded every minute, which is the equivalent of over 130,000 full length movies per week.

Mark Anderson marveled at old media's inability to grasp that control has shifted into the hands of users, that people won't be told what to watch when, what ads to endure, and how to consume media. Newspapers were singled out for some fairly harsh criticism, and he opined that the Wall Street Journal had "lost its way."

Gordon Crovitz talked about Journalism Online, which seeks to replace at least some of the ad revenue behind news with a freemium subscription model, whereby 10% or so of customers pay for access to premium information. He stated that: "News is going to have to be paid for by the people who consume it", which is a position I have taken elsewhere in this blog.

Mark Walsh satirized the recent SCOTUS decision in Citizens United (which I have pilloried elsewhere), Andy Lack bemoaned the lack of good digital business models, while Dick Harrington reminded everyone that the same rules of business concerning strategy, planning and execution apply in the digital world as elsewhere.

Altogether an entertaining and informative evening that augurs well for Jim Kollegger's CEO Panel on business models at the SIIA Information Industry Summit tomorrow, featuring Lack, Harrington, Eun and Anderson. (Disclosure: I represent Thomson Reuters on the board of the Content Division of the SIIA.)