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September 30, 2009

Twitter Readying Public Lists for Recommendations, Grouping

With plenty of cash in the bank and a growing talent horde, Twitter looks to be taking the next step forward - which is finally getting around to introducing features that have long been core differentiators brought to the table by third party clients. Following the recent addition of trending topic definitions (following Brizzly's lead), Twitter now has announced it will soon debut lists, which is already being tested to a "small subset of users". For most of us, the term "lists" has heretofore been known as groups, made famous by TweetDeck.

Most interesting about Twitter's move is that these lists are going to be "public by default" even though you have the option to make them private. In fact, these lists are going to be linked from your profile, just like your messages and your favorites are today - letting other Twitter users subscribe to your lists, a big move forward for recommendation-based discovery, along the lines of "Follow Friday", but official.


Twitter's List Feature Displayed Via the Twitter Blog

As Twitter wrote in its official blog post today, they started to work on the feature thanks to "frequent requests" from people "who were looking for a better way to organize information on Twitter". And they promise that these lists will not be siloed on the Web site, but extended to other programs via a new API, enabling developers to add Lists support in their apps.

Interestingly, the Lists announcement comes on the same day that Lunch.com introduced their own ability to enable Twitter Lists. I hope to show you a few I was working on once I don't overwhelm the system. (I tried earlier today, unsuccessfully)

After some time where it has looked like Twitter was standing still, just trying to keep afloat, the features are making their way out the door, and they are welcomed for the many users who don't know where to go next once they have an account.

Google Translate Widget Takes Sites and Blogs Global

According to my Google Analytics statistics, about 25 percent or more of the visitors to my blog over the last 30 days prefer a language other than English. Given I tend to use more words than pictures, it would be assumed readers would either be multilingual, or that they would take the URL and throw it into a translation service - be it Google Translator or Babel Fish. But today, Google made it even easier for site owners to bring their data to readers in the language of their choice, with the introduction of a new translation widget that, on the fly, without requiring visitors to install anything, displays the content in their preferred tongue.


The New Google Translate Widget In Action

In February, I wrote a post that encouraged people to participate with those discussing your content around the Web in the language of their choice. (See: Don't Speak the Language? You Can Still Participate.) I firmly believe a core tenet of being active in distributed conversations is to have the conversation with the person where they want to. If you can take that up a notch and have that conversation in their native language, then you win. While some may hem and haw about the accuracy of Google Translate, I recognize it's not perfect, but it's very good and improving. Why not make the best effort and get close rather than shying away.


My Blog Following One Pass by Google Translate


The Same Post, This Time In French

To get started as a content owner, just go to Google's Translate gadget, grab the code, and put it anywhere on the page you believe makes sense. Now, if visitors want to see your content in Swahili or Catalan or any of the approximately 50 languages supported, all they need to do is choose the language from the pull-down menu, and it happens on the fly.

It's all part of bringing more of the world's information to more people, while removing barriers. You can see this gadget on the upper right of this blog on every page, and I hope to see it on many pages going forward.

September 28, 2009

On Raising Money: Goals, Valuations and Pressure

For the most part, starting a successful business in Silicon Valley and having to raise money from venture capitalists (VCs) practically go hand in hand. Like most things here in the Valley, there are no guarantees. Raising $100 million doesn't guarantee success. Raising funding from specific venture firms with solid track records doesn't guarantee success. And, depending on the stage of a company's lifespan, raising money can be viewed negatively as much as it can be a positive thing. Meanwhile, if you're curious as to how much attention should be paid to valuations of private companies, well, trust me, that too can vary widely, depending on market conditions, momentum, founders' goals, and individual firm's enthusiasm.

Since starting my career in the Valley back in 1998, I've seen much of this process up close. I've worked at a company that once raised a $1 million seed round of funding, but I've also worked at one that raised $72 million in a single round - part of more than $200 million raised, thus far. I once saw a company I worked at close down because investors stopped funding outright, worked at another that found itself acquired by a big name tech firm months after I left, and also worked at one that filed, and later withdrew, its IPO bid. And while I wasn't sitting across the table from the VCs asking for their funds, in most cases, I certainly helped position each company in advance, and saw the effects each round played in the company's lifecycle. I mention this to add some level of background for why I thought to add my two cents to some of the discussion has been teetering in the blogosphere of late, especially following the news of Twitter's latest round of funding, rumored to be as much as $100 million.

Why would investors put money into a company to begin with? There are a few most-common outcomes:
  1. The company could later merge with another firm, or be purchased outright (M&A)
  2. The company could eventually go public and have an IPO.
  3. The company could remain private and be self-sustaining.
  4. The company could eventually close down, through bankruptcy or other means.
Of these scenarios, investors are most interested in potential M&A opportunities or the potential for going public. Obviously, investing in a company that will shut down is not a good way to use one's funds, and a company that has no real "exit strategy" but plans to meander forward, private and independent, will not provide the big returns hoped for by venture capitalists. In the reverse scenario, why would a company raise money?
  1. To gain initial capital to start the business.
  2. To gain capital necessary to expand the business, be it through marketing, human capital, new product lines, through geographical expansion, or even through acquiring other companies.
  3. To avoid running out of money and needing to close its doors.
  4. To obtain a level of valuation that sets a mark for potential acquirers.
As tempting as it can be for a company to raise the largest amount of funds possible, to have this cash available in the bank, the greater the amount raised typically also means the greater the reduction in control - as the company's initial founders see third party VCs take a higher percentage stake in the company. They may gain multiple seats on the board of directors, and gain influence that can be used to push the company toward one direction or another. Should they gain enough of a stake, it can be possible they end up pushing out the company's CEO or management team altogether, especially if expectations are not being met.

Thus, many entrepreneurs suggest a company raise as little money as is necessary to run the core business - and no more. In many cases, as soon as venture capitalists are involved, the pressure to reach stages one or two (M&A or an IPO) increases, and as time goes forward, or more capital is invested, the heat can intensify.

In parallel, if a company has determined it should raise a specific amount of capital, and has been fortunate enough to gain access to it, the preference would be to give away as little of the company as possible, essentially valuing the company at a higher rate than if more were sold for less. This valuation can be set based on the company's current sales numbers, its projections for the future, market competition, market dynamics and often, a combination of all factors.

Given this, if you examine the news around Twitter from last week, it has been written that Twitter sold ten percent of the company for $100 million, which valued the company at $1 billion. It has been said that Twitter raised the $100 million despite having a significant amount of money in the bank (up to $30 million) from its previous funds. So why would they raise now, and why this amount? Without having asked Ev, Biz and the team myself, you can see above just why now would be the time. First, the company, despite having little to no revenue to speak of, is in an incredible position. The service's growth over the last two years has been nothing short of phenomenal. Second, the company's internal projections, as we understand them, are aggressive - and third, many different news stories have shown practically all the large players in the Valley, from Microsoft to Facebook to Google, as having been interested in acquiring the microblogging company.

Similarly, we saw Facebook raise a massive $200 million in May of 2009 at a $10 billion valuation, following a $240 million round raised from Microsoft in 2007 that valued the social networking giant at $15 billion. Huge numbers on all counts, from the amount raised to the total valuation - again meaning how much would be needed to buy the entire company at that price.

For Twitter, raising the $100 million sets the company up to expand their business in terms of human capital and its technology infrastructure in a big way. While $100 million is not a bottomless trough of cash, it certainly helps. It puts the idea of the company running out of cash far out of the picture, and absolutely succeeds in driving the price higher for potential acquirers, should the service not be aiming to go public in the near future.

For Twitter's leadership, raising money now is a fantastic move. It's improbable that the company could find remarkably better terms in the coming months, and it sets in stone now where potential suitors would need to begin to even entertain discussions. Meanwhile, those investors who just ponied up the $100 million would want to see a positive return on their investment, and thus, would expect Twitter to hold out for an even greater number.

But once the money is in the bank, so begins the pressure. It may not be visible in three months or six months, but outside observers, and no doubt, internal participants are going to want to see plans for that cash, not just in how it is being spent, but in terms of how it will be converted, either into a large acquisition, be it to Google or another player, or if the company finds its way into reaching the public markets.

So what could go wrong? If neither of the above were to happen, and in parallel, Twitter were incapable of growing revenues to approach its level of expenses, the company would remain private, and see its cash balance decrease. Over time, as pressure grew inside the firm, they would be forced to raise money again - likely at a lower valuation, given reduced prospects, meaning the company would have to give up more to get less. You can see this often as you watch companies in the Valley go from the euphoria of their seed and A rounds, followed by less-enthusiastic B, C, D rounds and beyond. And if you hear about a "mezzanine" round, that's the one that truly, finally, should bring the company to break even, or catapult it into position for a near-term public offering. And if it doesn't, let's just say that's not good - as the "burn rate", the monthly expenses that draw down the company's finances, force action, and it won't be at a level the company had hoped for, especially after such lofty beginnings.

In the wake of 37 Signals' tongue in cheek press release that they were valued at $100 billion (with a B) following a brazen 1 dollar investment, one can scoff at revenue-light companies like Twitter saying they should be measured on par with public companies that have real revenues and real growth. But part of being a venture capitalist is that first word, "venture". It's an adventure. It's a risk, and a gamble, and one that relies on promises and potential. Twitter is worth $1 billion dollars, according to these investors, not because of what it is today, as strong as it is, but because of what it is in the future. Had Twitter chosen to sit on its laurels and not raise the money it did, at the valuation it did, the company could not expand to the level it has planned, and it would be at a much higher risk for potential acquisition, something they look disinterested in doing.

Ev Williams and Biz Stone, as well as the other Twitter employees and investors, know they are on to something. Be it vapor or be it real, the company has seized the minds of the Valley in a way unseen probably since the debut of Google on the stock market earlier this decade. Not even Facebook, who is larger and better funded, seems to be as visible as the scrappy San Francisco startup best known for its limitations - 140 characters. With $100 million in tow, the company is set to continue its growth independently, set to work on reducing its burn rate, with a much longer runway.

Meanwhile, don't let the nine-figure number fool you into thinking this is now a slam dunk. The valley is littered with companies that have gone this route. Procket Networks, which raised $272 million from VCs, sold to Cisco for $89 million in 2004. Caspian Networks raised more than $300 million and closed its doors in 2006. And that doesn't even get into the $800 million raised for WebVan or the $250 million for Kozmo.com in the headier Web 1.0 days. (See also: The 20 Worst Venture Capital Investments of All Time)

While we have seen the internal strategy of Twitter "laid bare" earlier this year, we won't be the ones spending Twitter's money, or staving off their burn rate. That's up to them, and up to their board. Gaining the $100 million on top of their preexisting cash horde was the right thing to do to potentially reward some of their founders, who may have sold stock in this round, and also to prop the company up and make it stronger against formidable competition. This Valley is more than just a hub for innovative technology. It's also home for some of the greatest wealth creation the world has ever seen. Now, we get to see, in public, how this particular investment plays out.

For more reading on this, please see:

September 26, 2009

Should Real-Time Trends Get Real-Time Definitions?

On Tuesday, we talked about Brizzly releasing a new API called "Let's Be Trends", which enables third party developers and services to tap into the company's definitions database for currently trending topics on Twitter. While not every definition requires multiple paragraphs to explain, I have been thinking about the real value of these definitions, and how they could be utilized as an ongoing news feed, similar to a real-time Wikipedia. After all, as trends age, the reason for their trending changes ever so slightly.


Note the real-time definitions for the real-time events.

Typically, Twitter's trending topics fall into four major categories:
  • Memes: Often hashtags for time-wasting games. (#iamsinglebecause)
  • Celebrity names: Either due to a death or other event with a person in the news. (Jay-Z)
  • Live events: Could include conferences or sporting events. (#sxsw09 or LSU)
  • Technology Tools: You can often see the words "iPhone" or "TweetDeck" trending.
Memes are the least likely to need updating. #iamsinglebecause and #cantlivewithout are fairly self-apparent. Complete the sentence and see what your friends think. Celebrity names, depending on the situation, could need updating. If Patrick Swayze passes away and becomes a trending topic, that's fairly clear. But if you have Barack Obama trending, it could be for a meeting with a world leader, or simply because he called Kanye a jack-ass. You can also see the need to make an update, as in the case of Conan O'Brien, who trended last night not because of his show, but because he had fallen and hit his head during a taping of that show.

Technology Tools like TweetDeck may trend ever higher because of a point release, or AT&T will trend because of the release of MMS, but often they trend just because people are talking about them often. (Like with the iPhone)

Live events to me seem like the biggest opportunity to have continuous definition updates. If you wanted to know why Michigan or LSU were trending this morning, the answer was yes, because there was a college football game. But what about the score? Why would LSU get more attention than Notre Dame? Maybe because of the team's ranking, or the excitement of the game? At this point, defining a trending topic (in Brizzly for example) becomes a lot like reporting on the news - so it would make sense to update the definition based on the score or the position of the game - is it the second quarter? Are we in overtime?

This may seem trivial today. We're talking about features on an API for a single service. But if we are to believe that microblogging is growing and that user contributions to the global service are going to play an expanding role, maybe this would be the time to start thinking about how we can utilize the opportunity to drive information back to those looking for it and inch our way further toward the future of media. And maybe, just maybe, Brizzly or somebody else can hire somebody whose job it is to consistently update live events.

Feedly Explore Highlights Recommended Blogs, Reader Activity

For the past year, Feedly has been working to improve its overlay for Google Reader, presenting a more visual approach to feeds in a magazine-like format, essentially becoming a personalized start page, powered by RSS. As Google Reader has evolved, adding comments, likes and friend connections for more social elements, so too has Feedly evolved. This week, Feedly opted to take a step further, leveraging reader-created bundles and data from third party services, including Delicious and Google News, to help provide the best of the Web for many topics in a new feature they call Explore.


Feedly Explore Shows Staff Picks for Topics

Feedly's new Explore section shows three major columns, including "What do other people read?" highlighting bundles from well-known Web personalities, "Staff picks" on a handful of topics hand-selected by the Feedly team, and a "live search" for more than 25 popular items, intending to give a hint at the new Explore's power.


A Bundle from Google Reader's Jenna Bilotta


LouisGray.com Under the Microscope

From Feedly Explore, not only can you see what blogs Danny Sullivan and Jason Kottke recommend, but you can see the data behind those bundles, including their frequency of publishing, the number of subscribers they may have, keyword tags showing what they talk about, and some of their most recent featured articles. Of course, you have the option to subscribe to any blogs in the bundle, or the entire bundle, at any time.


Exploring Data for Rob Diana, Regular Geek


Feedly Explore Highlights Top Google Blogs, News


Feedly Explore Picks The Best Sources on Blogging

In addition to these three sections, Feedly Explore has a search function that taps into its data and the integrated third party services to find the best of the Web for that topic, be it for the typical Silicon Valley centric keywords like social media and blogging, or more mainstream topics, like farming or babies. The goal? Helping you find new sources and the "best" sources for a specific topic.


Feedly Explore Finds The Best News With Babies Tags


Feedly Explore Even Takes a Run at Farming

As Edwin Khodabakchian writes in his introductory blog this week, Feedly's metadata, data about the data, differentiates itself from the alternative.
"Google helps you find individual web pages but gives you little information about the sources. This is where we think we can help," Edwin said.
Also included in Explore is a bundle of blogs from all the writers who have contributed to louisgray.com this year, so once you jump into your Feedly Explore, make sure to check that out.

To update to the latest Feedly, make sure you are running Firefox, and head to: http://update.feedly.com/release/feedly.xpi. If you're especially brave, after you do this, read the instructions on how to use Feedly in Safari. I've been doing this for a while, and it works great.

September 25, 2009

Apple's Dashboard Widgets Comatose As iTunes App Store Skyrockets

Prior to the debut of Apple's iPhone, software developers wanting to make miniature applications to reach Macintosh users had a direct route to customer's desktops through the development of Mac OS X Dashboard widgets. Billed as major functionality debuting in Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) in early 2005, Dashboard, much like Konfabulator before it, featured widgets including weather forecasts, stock updates, calculators or simple utilities, like a dictionary or thesaurus. Over time, developers managed to make a number of creative uses for these apps, from delivery updates to flights' status, or even lightweight arcade games.

But four years later, Dashboard is dormant, while not yet completely dead. A quick calculation of the total number of widgets listed on Apple's Web site is just over 4,500, of which 820 are international. In remarkable contrast, Apple's iTunes Store loudly proclaims its haul to be more than 75,000, of which a massive 1,394 were posted just last Friday.

Want to know how many new Dashboard Widgets were posted last Friday?

Zero.

Interestingly, Apple's Dashboard Widgets site highlights the last 50 "Just Added" to the Web site, and for whatever reason, between September 9th and September 21st, no Dashboard Widgets were posted. Maybe the one guy whose job it is to get them approved was on a two-week vacation?

And in the week, starting with Monday, only 39 total Widgets made it into into the directory, including fascinating titles such as the "Iowa Hawkeyes Football Schedule" widget or the "Countdown to Thanksgiving" widget.

With iPhone app developers having a fast-growing audience of millions ready to spend real money on applications for their mobile phone, the idea of creating a miniature application for the desktop, for free, probably doesn't have much pull. It's no secret that the iTunes App Store's runaway success has played a big role in making any discussion about Dashboard completely unnecessary.


The louisgray.com Widget as posted in 2007

Just a few years ago, many thought widgets were going to be the next hot thing in desktop apps. Konfabulator was purchased by Yahoo! and turned into Yahoo! Widgets, which claims nearly 6,000 desktop widgets. And way back in 2006, I even made a dashboard widget for louisgray.com, which I later updated in 2007 and still works. But the talk of widgets faded, as people primarily chose to use the Web browser and their iPhones as the conduits for Web data, preferring not to have a gazillion little widgets floating about their screens.

Considering the dramatic drop-off in buzz around Dashboard widgets, and a corresponding meteoric rise in iPhone deployments and penetration, it's no surprise to me that you see this gulf, which now measures almost 20x in favor of iTunes applications. It's enough to wonder if Apple will ever bring up the Dashboard again, except maybe to provide a place where iTunes applications purchased for the iPhone today can sometime live. They won't kill it outright, but it sure looks like a dinosaur, after only four years.

Framed: Should Microsoft, and Would Apple... Fight Back vs. Google?

Wednesday's announcement from Google that they were releasing a Web browser plugin called Chrome Frame for Internet Explorer gave IE users many of the same core elements they would receive by surfing with the native Chrome browser - namely support for HTML 5, and massively improved JavaScript performance. Google's goal has largely been seen as setting the stage for Google Wave, working to get Web surfers off older, outdated browsers, like Internet Explorer 6, and providing them a richer experience. But this process, as noble as it may be, has me wondering if its competition, Microsoft, won't be finding a way to shut it down. After all, I am pretty sure Apple would if given the same choice.

Many across the tech Web are lauding the move as easier for Web consumers to perform than a rip and replace strategy to ditch IE and turn to Chrome, despite its clear benefits. After all, it's said users are comfortable with plugins like Adobe Flash, and Chrome Frame would just be a simple plugin. But isn't this a lot more like what Palm did in faking us all out by pretending its Pre mobile phone was really an iPod, in order to gain access to iTunes?

While Google didn't make any noise about looking to similarly decapitate Safari, and put Chrome in Apple's browser, there are definitely times when I find my preferred browser lagging behind the most-popular surfing options. Even Google's Toolbar, which includes the new SideWiki we discussed on Wednesday, does not have a native version for Safari, but maybe, if Google found a way to push Chrome in Safari, it would.

Matt Mastracci, co-founder of DotSpots and a sharp Web developer, reminded me this evening that Safari "isn't built to be extensible", making Toolbar integration or Chrome Framing a real challenge, but even if they could somehow pull it off, I don't see Steve Jobs and Cupertino sitting idly by. No doubt the next system update, or Safari point release, would knock it out of the sky, the same way they have updated iTunes in the past to stop jailbreaking of iPhones, or the way Microsoft posts Windows Updates to stop malicious code from hitting their user base.

Microsoft is already whining and saying that running Chrome Frame as a plug-in increases the potential for bad code and malicious scripts to hit customers. (See: Microsoft: Google Chrome Frame Makes IE Less Secure) It is not my tendency to jump on Redmond's side, and I certainly don't believe their scare tactics, but they have to be hotly debating their next move. It would not surprise me if the opportunity to disable Chrome Frame was being thought about as part of the next "Critical" Windows Service Pack update, executing a high-stakes game of cat and mouse between Microsoft and Google, and potentially the Justice Department - who didn't ever get its wish of splitting Microsoft up after its monopoly games with Netscape.

Apple's recent ploys to knock Palm Pre out of iTunes, and its controversial blockage of Google Voice make it clear they have every intent to control their users operating system and iPhone experience. In fact, as they have not really been taken to task in the way Microsoft has for anti-competitiveness, I would see Cupertino more likely to be proactive in trying to fight Google here. The only question is, will they ever get the chance to do battle?

September 23, 2009

I Don't Want To Hear About Distributed Conversations Any More

This morning, Google introduced a feature called SideWiki for Google Toolbar users that lets people add comments and annotations to Web sites. This is not a new approach, and it has been tried with varying lacks of success in the past, as most people without an agenda don't want to spend time marking up third party Web pages. But as predictable as rain, we again see people railing that there is potential for this service to take even more control away from bloggers and site administrators in terms of how their content is positioned, or where the conversations should take place.

Led by Jeff Jarvis, who simply said "Danger" and echoed by others, including Steven Hodson of the Inquisitr, who called it "a bad idea - very bad", the same stories I thought we had beaten into the ground almost 18 months ago in the Shyftr debacle are coming back - even after more than a year of a greater level of distributed conversations, as comments are now strewn all over the Web - not centralized on the originating blog.

Jarvis says: "Google is trying to take interactivity away from the source and centralize it," and adds "It takes comments away from my blog and puts them on Google. That sets up Google in channel conflict vs me. It robs my site of much of its value."

In parallel, Hodson says: " Sidewiki is nothing short of an attempt by Google to take control of the conversations that happen on blogs... It takes away one of the most important parts of a blog – the conversation – and locks it on the Google."

Here we go again.

Let's stop kidding ourselves. The battle for control over conversations and the silo of discussions is done. Any blogger who believes that they can control the conversations and prevent discussions in far-flung social networks is deluding themselves. And yet, every few months, a new innovation, be it comments in Google Reader, or something like this, freaks the old guard out.

Jeff and Steven's comments are mirrored by Josh Schnell, who in a guest post for Tamar Weinberg on Techipedia cries out that Content Aggregators are Killing Content Creators.

Here's the reality: Conversations have moved to where the reader wants them to be - and the best content creators shouldn't care if they get to have conversations on their content in any of these networks. The best content creators and the best Web brands shouldn't care about what people may say on their SideWiki, any more than they should panic over reviews that happen on Amazon's Marketplace or in the iTunes store. People are entitled to their opinions and their commentary, and any further efforts to try and force people to have these conversations in a single place should be extinguished.

In April of 2008, I once asked, "Should Fractured Feed Reader Comments Raise Blog Owners' Ire?" and apparently, some people continue to be ticked. But we need to evolve. That's why there are new services like Echo, who famously declared the death of comments and the new version of Disqus, which also aims to pull in reactions in real-time.

Mark Hopkins of the SiliconAngle sees beyond the scare tactics and recognizes that SideWiki is much more and not just about "stealing conversations". He says:
"The fact is that in the golden age of the social web, conversations will spring up more and more places outside your silo, with or without you. You can work to leverage them or you can get upset."
Congratulations, Mark, I'm proud of you. Now, it would be fantastic if more people would evolve and move forward instead of crying foul about the way it used to be.

September 22, 2009

Find Similar People and Interests With Simler's Microblogging Platform

One of the most challenging issues with today's social networks is rapidly finding people who share the same interests. As you migrate from network to network, you can find commonalities between platforms, but the most likely route taken to gain a base of connections is an import of your friends from a different network, forcefully pulling them with you - even if they are not interested in the same things you are. A new invite-only network called Simler is trying to solve that issue by connecting people with the same interests - resulting in a fast-moving stream containing conversations on topics you like and enabling you to find people you may soon like, with many features you've grown accustomed to on other networks, from FriendFeed and Twitter to Google Groups and old-school discussion boards.


Simler Connects You Based On Your Tags to Conversations

At the core of Simler is the service's reliance on tags, which help to organize discussions. For example, you can start conversations on basics, such as Apple, "Spotify" and "Baseball", or branch out to other popular topics, including "Grammar Nazis" or discussions around TV shows like "Mad Men" or "Arrested Development".


As You Add Friends, Simler Recommends New Possible Connections

Posting new entries to Simler is a lot like starting a new tweet in Twitter or a native entry in FriendFeed. It doesn't contain photos, but also doesn't stop you at a mere 140 characters. The entry, like in FriendFeed, can be responded to in line, and active conversations pop to the top of your Simler. It's likely that those active in the conversation will be similar "or Simler" to you, and you can see, by clicking through their profile, if you share the same tags of interest. The more shared tags, the more likely you are to find value and get connected.


One Active Conversation on Simler With Multiple Comments

You can make comments on any Simler conversation, even if you haven't selected that topic as one of your tags. You can browse the tag directory alphabetically, or find the most popular discussions, and get started. And once you make a comment or make a new post, you will get notified on the site, or by e-mail, letting you know if anybody else added a comment and extended the thread.


Two Simler Posts In the "Apple" Forum


Some of the More Active Tags In Simler

Simler, featuring much talent from Portland, Oregon, was just recently discovered (and covered) by Silicon Florist's Rick Turoczy, also found Simler moved the needle forward, making the site more about the subjects of the conversations than on the people themselves. He says, jokingly, I hope, "I mean, if we didn’t want interactions, we’d all just start blogs."


Notices From Simler Come In Through the Site Or On E-mail

Talking about things with friends is fun. Talking about topics you are interested in is more fun. SImler hopes that its network can enable you to discover new friends via shared interests. It will take some time for the site to grow en mass for this to happen, but it is extremely easy to use, and just makes sense. It has some good polish, and despite some slowness, the site works as advertised.

As for getting in yourself, each new Simler account comes with 10 invitations. Half mine are gone already, so I have five left. It would be fantastic if you would openly share your own invites in the comments here and get people into the site. Once you do, you can find me here: http://simler.com/user/louisgray/

AddThis Debuts Service Directory, Statistics, Expands Sharing Network


AddThis, the sharing and bookmarking utility that lets users share interesting content from the Web to more than 150 different services, introduced a new Service Directory today, enabling any user or service provider to be submitted as a potential partner. In parallel, the company debuted a slew of statistical upgrades, highlighting the most popularly used networks, including how networks are faring across the world. For example, while Facebook is the dominant sharing service overall, including in the United States, countries including Brazil and China see more bookmarking, and South Koreans prefer to print.

According to AddThis, fully half of all shares on the service come from three options, namely: 1) Facebook (28%), 2) E-mail (14%) and 3) Adding to favorites (9%). Rounding out the top ten globally, from the last 30 days of data were 4) Print (9%), 5) MySpace (8%), 6) Twitter (8%), 7) Google (6%), 8) Digg (4%), 9) Microsoft Live (4%) and 10) Delicious (3%)


The total percentage of shares from the top ten services is a whopping 93%, leaving only 7% of all shares for the remaining 140+ services in the long, long tail. But this didn't stop a multitude of services from asking AddThis to well... add them. In a press release this morning, the company said the debut of the Service Directory was in response to a "flood of incoming requests" from "people around the world asking for their favorite sites to be added".

You can also use AddThis' Service Directory to see how specific services are more popular in one region of the world as another.


With the launch of the Service Directory, AddThis is expecting users and providers to send new bookmarking and social news platforms their way. You can check it out at http://www.addthis.com/services, which also provides a handy jumping-off point for seeing just which countries have social networking sites above utilities like printing, and just how worldwide the reach of Facebook really is.

Let's Be Trends: Brizzly Introduces Trends API for Twitter Devs

Even though Brizzly is in its infancy, the service is clearly thinking outside the box when it comes to providing a new user interface for Twitter, including the in-line display of images and video, Web-based groups, a new approach to direct messages, and most uniquely, the ability to see definitions of Twitter's trending topics, authored by other Brizzly users. Now, Thing Labs, the company behind Brizzly, is debuting a new API that releases all the trend data at a dedicated site called LetsBeTrends.com.

As Thing Labs CEO Jason Shellen said today, "The goal is that if you are a Twitter API developer, and you like the trends data, you can use our API. Our Brizzly users are coming up with awesome explanations."


Image: Courtesy LetsBeTrends.com

Although LetsBeTrends.com is fairly sparse right now, you can already see its utility by looking at the code behind current trends, or by peeking at the data behind a specific trend. Twitter application developers may like seeing just when a topic trended and stopped, including a text description. Brizzly's default example is the trend "goodnight", which has a note saying "It's always nighttime somewhere". For more fun queries, like "Kanye West", it says:
"Rapper Kanye West disrupted singer Taylor Swift's winning speech at the VMA's, and proclaimed that Beyonce should have been the real winner. He also appeared on the Jay Leno premier on NBC leading to some speculation about whether it was all a stunt. Later, an ABC reporter leaked an off-the-record comment made by US President Barack Obama calling West a 'jackass.'"
Brizzly looks like it intends to be more than YATC (Yet Another Twitter Client). This is the first volley which gives back to the developer community, and more likely are coming. It's not too much of a stretch to see Trends data making its way into TweetDeck, Seesmic or other clients, or even Web services that are tangentially tied to Twitter, such as a general news site.

September 21, 2009

MaxiScale Debuts Scalable Storage Platform for "Era of Billions"

There's no question that an ever-growing number of Internet users are spending more time creating and consuming data online. While a great deal of attention in recent years has been spent focused on the creation of and access to rich media files, including YouTube videos and photos, be they on Flickr, Smugmug or Facebook, the truth is that often much of the data consists of small files, which can number in the billions for the most popular of Web services. Add to the mix the potential for some files to go "hot" as they become popular, and a fickle audience that expects data to load instantly, and you can see why the issue of storage has been critical to every Web-based business.

Traditionally, getting companies' storage issues "solved" through a rapid growth phase has been accomplished in one of three ways. The first is through the purchase and management of expensive or complicated storage networking hardware. The second is through using a storage service provider, like Amazon S3, and paying for data that is used. But the Internet's giants are taking a third route, creating customized file systems, and dedicating an incredible amount of engineers' efforts to test, create and validate. Through this, you have seen names like Haystack from Facebook, MobStor from Yahoo!, and yes, Google's GFS (Google File System), each built independently for the company's unique needs.

Into this world enters a new approach from MaxiScale, who claims its new software system can change the economics of Web-scale software with a promised 10x gain in performance, 100x the scalability and reduced costs. This new venture, unveiled today, was designed specifically with the Web's large data sets in mind, and is not based on any existing vendor's offering. The solution does not offer any customized hardware, and supports both Linux and Windows environments. The system also does not rely on RAID (Redundant Arrays of Independent Disks) to make sure that files are protected, instead replicating the files across storage nodes for backup.


Graphics Courtesy: MaxiScale

Last week, prior to my trip to London, I met with Gary Orenstein, the company's vice president of marketing, and Gianluca Rattazzi, the company's CEO and co-founder. I previously worked with Gianluca when he and I were at BlueArc, and he was the CEO and chairman of the board from 2002 to 2004. In fact, a good number of the team's engineers and leadership hail from BlueArc, so scrolling through the company's phone directory from their lobby was fun to see. As we talked about MaxiScale's approach, it was clear the team had considered the pitfalls that typically trip up companies' growth on the Web - namely price, scalability, latency, and availability.

Why have companies like Yahoo!, Facebook, Google and Amazon each created new approaches to the traditional world of file systems? Because their exceptional needs pushed requirements that standard offerings could not meet, growing too costly, or introducing issues of downtime or latency. MaxiScale calls this new world the "Era of Billions", be it tens of billions of photos at Facebook, streaming of a billion songs at MySpace, hundreds of billions of YouTube video views a month, or exceeding 100 billion ads served by AdMob - the company's first named customer. It's a new world of big numbers.

Of course, not every Web company growing virally can ask a core team of engineers to build a new file system, and deploy massive data centers. That's why you see so many turning to S3, which is a great solution for small to medium size businesses, but can see costs grow as demands increase. MaxiScale's platform claims to grow with these companies, on standard hardware, optimizing file serving for all types of files, with a single namespace with highest reliability and predictable performance, even with growth to hundreds of petabytes. The idea? Give companies that are focused on the Web an alternative to expanding either their budgets or their staff, taking their eyes off the ball from what should be their core product development.

You can find MaxiScale at http://www.maxiscale.com or their blog, "Serving Size" at http://blog.maxiscale.com/. See also coverage from earlier today by SearchStorage and StorageMojo.

Disclosure: From January 2001 to April 2009, I worked for BlueArc, where Gianluca Rattazzi, Francesco Lacapra and many other MaxiScale employees were colleagues. I have no current financial relationship with the company or any of its employees.

September 20, 2009

My Top Ten Favorite Google Products

As Google has grown as a company, its reach has extended well beyond its initial foundation as a massive search index. The company now represents many things - including a mobile handset platform, a Web browser, Web-based e-mail, a social network, and a wide variety of software programs. Like Microsoft in the 1990s, it is often hard to see a viable business where the company does not play a role - and a significant one at that.

With Danny Sullivan revealing Google CEO Eric Shmidt's favorite product is the Chrome browser, I began thinking about my own preferences, and thought I would share - inviting you to do the same.

1. Google Reader

Google Reader is my starting point for finding the day's news quickly. The RSS reader is the very best way that I know of to get all the blogs and news sources I read in one place, and it provides me with simple keyboard shortcuts to read through them rapidly, choosing to share them on my link blog to downstream social networks, including FriendFeed, Twitter, Facebook and Socialmedian.

As Google Reader has expanded its social capabilities, I have also recently enjoyed a near-explosion in active conversations on my shared feeds, and find I am spending even more time inside this product than in months past.

Though it may sound crazy, I believe the quality lead Google Reader has over its competition exceeds even that of Google Search's quality lead over its relative competition. I would rather have Reader and be forced to use Yahoo!/Bing than use Google Search and use some other RSS reader.

2. Blogger

The Blogger platform, now 10, doesn't get enough respect. The simple blog publishing and hosting product makes it easy for me to add new posts, categorize them, and update my templates, multiple times a day. Having moved well beyond its initial reputation of being something like a spam blogs haven, Google has put real effort into clamping down on bad behavior. Meanwhile, outages that used to impact the service have practically been eliminated.

Blogger is the platform of choice not just for my blog, but for my wife as well, giving us one place to log in to update either site.

3. FeedBurner

While the product hasn't seen a ton of updates since its acquisition a few years back, FeedBurner hasn't received much challenge (with the exception of FeedBlitz) when it comes to distributing RSS feeds from millions of blogs, mine included. On top of making sure that my posts get distributed, FeedBurner also keeps tabs on statistics in terms of total subscribers, click throughs and site visits, and enables the ability to customize each blog post with feedflares, adding additional interactivity.

4. Google Search and Google Blog Search

Google Search just does its job, period. Even as the Web has grown dramatically, Google's ability to return the "one right answer" solution when guessing what I am looking for is unmatched. It may lack the real-time capability of other sites, but imagining an alternative Web without Google search is daunting.

Similarly, Google Blog Search has largely replaced Technorati for most and is the default engine for finding new content on blogs around the Web.

5. GMail

While I have been using .Mac e-mail since well before GMail ever launched, the product changed the game in terms of what online e-mail represented. GMail, at its debut, offered storage space 20 times higher than the competition, integrated search and other features, such as labels and automatic filtering that make it both light and flexible. While other free e-mail products have gained a poor reputation online, seeing a GMail address doesn't make me turn away in scorn. I recommend that any business starting an online media strategy obtain a GMail account to centralize related e-mail.

6. YouTube

Though, like FeedBurner, not born at Google, YouTube is one of the most recognizable brands on the Web. Like Google Search, it has become the default service on the Web for what it does - enabling people to share videos and view videos, from silly family pictures to professionally designed music videos or corporate interviews. It is through YouTube where my wife and I share home recordings of our twins, and embed them on our sites. The ease at which we can port YouTube content to Facebook, FriendFeed and blogs is a big reason we use them above any other competitor.

7. Google Maps

Ever since I acquired a GPS unit for my car, my reliance on Google Maps has plummeted. But if in a pinch, if in another car, or needing to look up a route quickly on my iPhone, there is no substitute. While I once used Mapquest to find my frequently-lost self around town, Google Maps is now the trusted standard. As TechCrunch recently noted, only Google was sharp enough to recognize the recent closure of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, alerting potential travelers accurately.

8. Google Chrome

A decade following the peak of the initial browser wars, between Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, we have an interesting tussle for browser market share once again, this time involving Microsoft, Google, Mozilla and Apple. (With Opera still not dead yet) The debut of Chrome, first for Windows and Linux PCs, with stable Chromium builds for Mac here as well, introduced more stable browsing, simplified favorite pages, and speedy load times. Let not the low ranking fool you - compared to Schmidt's #1 position. For me, it's a good product, but not the market leader in the way its brethren Google Reader, FeedBurner and Search are.

9. Google Desktop

Google Desktop brings the power of Google Search to your desktop files - helping to find everything from text files and e-mails to rich media content embedded in office documents. While in years past, much of its functionality could be found in Apple's Spotlight, or the Mac's integrated search in Finder, the latter is just too slow and unreliable, with Google Desktop gives you the familiar and trusted approach you know from the Web. Its ability to crawl through previous dates to see when documents were created is especially useful.

10. Google Analytics

Few self-respecting bloggers go too far away from their Web traffic statistics, and many have two, three or more packages going simultaneously, to ensure they have enough datapoints to consider themselves experts. For no cost, Google Analytics provides detailed stastics, not just for the last 4,000 visitors (as Sitemeter does), but for all visitors, letting you compare time periods, dive deep into demographics of visitors, and see trends in your publishing and content.

Close but not included: AppSpot, iGoogle, Google AdWords, Google Earth, Google Docs, Google Finance, Google Groups, Google News

What are your top ten Google Applications? Did I miss your favorite?

September 19, 2009

The World Wide Web Isn't World Wide Neutral

Leaving aside socioeconomic issues that prevent many parts of the world from having access to computers, mobile phones, or broadband, the panacea of an always-connected populace to access with all content, regardless of location, computer or Web browser, is still very far away. Thanks to overzealous individual governments or convoluted legalities that often involve copyright, the Web you see is likely far different from that enjoyed by the country bordering yours. Even in my short visit to the UK this week, I was annoyed to find that some of my data was blocked thanks to my newfound geography.

The phrase "geotardation" is one I often see from my cranky Canadian friend Steven Hodson, or his colleague, Duncan Riley, as the pair fight through blockades from the north or from Australia. But I haven't had to experience it, thanks to being in the domestic United Stats for the vast majority of my life - and started think about it more this week as I hit site after site that behaved differently if I was surfing via an IP address that resolved to ".co.uk" instead of a simple US IP address.


But YouTube Would Still Work, Right?

Blasting through items in my Google Reader queue on Wednesday, I ran into a shared item that contained an embedded Hulu video. As you know, Hulu is, so far, limited to viewing in the United States. If I were physically located at home, seeing the clip would have been no problem, but in London, it was as good as dead.


Does this mean I add U's, and change Z's to S's?

Then, I turned to Facebook. After finding Facebook kindly asked me to help translate their site into "English (UK)", I checked my available Scrabble games, only to find that Scrabble was for North America only and that using it from the UK was "invalid". All my games had to wait until I got back last night.


Really, Scrabble? No UK players?

During the Thursday presentation, while discussing Twitter and other social networks, I mentioned Foursquare, the hip location-based game that is gaining momentum. But I was quickly reminded that Foursquare was not available in the UK.

In the reverse, we have the issue of Spotify, and the intriguing music service's new iPhone application, which has been approved by Apple, but isn't available in the United States. Hopefully, I plugged in my iPhone, fired up the UK version of the iTunes store, and tried to download it while I was there. Total fail. Apple told me my account was only active for the US version of the store, so my quest had been stopped cold.

Also while in the UK, I logged into my Gmail and saw yes, "Google Mail" where GMail was expected to be. It still worked the same, but again... different.

Meanwhile, we know about Google and other portal's challenges with more-controlling countries (read: China), where data comes and goes based on the governments' requests, or individual's identities, once thought anonymous, are unveiled. The concept of a decentralized, open, anonymous, equal Web where anybody can get to any site and share the same experience is far from a reality today. While my trivial annoyances of not being able to play Scrabble or view a Hulu clip haven't scarred me for life, I wonder just how different it is to try and use the Web on places much more far-flung than our former colonial overlords. Should their be a UN for the Web that works to get all things equal, or should every service kowtow to the rules of those far and near?

International Man of Social Media? Would You See that Movie?

As previewed on Tuesday, I spent the last few days in London, England, meeting the Ecademy team and talking about what we called "social media for business" and "world-class blogging" for a changing Web. Although I was wary of the prospect of speaking to a roomful of people with differing knowledge bases and goals, for what was an intimidating five hours, it seems the day went well Thursday. Through a good mix of prepared slides and flow, social networking demos and fielding questions, the time was filled, without having people feel it fell short.

Though I made the long flight back from London this afternoon and have made it back home to the Bay Area (and my wife and twins), the trip is not fully left behind, as I felt very comfortable with Thomas Power, Penny Power, Glenn Watkins, William Buist and the many dozens of Ecademy members I met when on the other side of the Atlantic. As my visit coincided with the official launch of Penny's book, "Know Me. Like Me. Follow Me.", I had the pleasure of seeing her introduce it and talk about the importance of community and networking for business owners. And the more I spoke with the team, and traded business cards, I knew this would not be the last time I would be working with Ecademy, nor the last time I would be making long-distance flights to engage with their team.

In April of this year, I said to stretch me thinner, adding that I was saying "yes to everything". Included in this open-ended proposal was the opportunity to extend the discussions from this blog and the various social networks and take them to dedicated events, workshops or to companies that needed the help.

While I am very much reticent to throw my hat in the ring with the gajillion Twitter and Facebook users who call themselves various words like "social media expert" and "social media guru" (my thoughts here), I have found that the systems I use which I take for granted are still unfamiliar to many, and I remain open to offering my help. Ecademy took a chance on me - extending the offer for me to speak with their team in a way I had never tried before, and judging by the responses in person, on Twitter, and on the Ecademy site, many were reinvigorated in terms of their own approach to blogging and social media.

What did I say? Much of what I talk about here often. Know the tools and the networks. Learn to have a comfortable and consistent pace, and a well thought-out data flow. Make sure not to overshare, and participate where your customers are. The more often I say it, the more comfortably it flows. That's why there will be no sequel to the "International Man of Social Media" with the word "Mystery" anywhere near the title. It just makes sense.

If you want access to the presentation, send me an e-mail. Given that Ecademy members paid to attend, the deck won't be available for free, but I do want it in your hands for the right price. You can also find me on Ecademy here.

Photo Illustration: Courtesy of Johnny Worthington via FriendFeed.

September 15, 2009

Increased UK Demand for PowerPoint Slides Prompts Trip


In an hour's time, I'll be boarding a flight to London, England, in preparation for a Thursday presentation to Ecademy, highlighting social media for business, the rise of the real-time Web, and how the world of blogging has changed over the last five years. The schedule, as I am often reminded by e-mail and through promotions on the Ecademy site, is going to be a full one. Thursday shows 2 hours of presentation, followed by a break, and then 3 more hours in the afternoon.

In preparation, I've concocted a detailed presentation outline, with plenty of slides. Internally, I wonder if it is too many or too few, or if the focus is right. How does one plan ahead for a room full of 80 people with differing needs and knowledge bases when it comes to social networking and blogging? What if the WiFi cuts out and I lose the ability to demo any of the Web services which feature so prominently in the deck - and are planned to chew up a good amount of the presentation time?


The flight should literally take all day - starting at noon and arriving in London at 6 the following morning. The flight should be oversold, and I wonder as to the amount of power available to the laptop, should fancy strike me to update the slide deck. It's enough to make me pray that Google immediately admit me to their holodeck program, in beta, and skip ahead.

I am looking forward to meeting with the Ecademy team, and hope to deliver value to those who attend - be it with slides, Web or discussion. We'll know in two days if it was a success.

September 14, 2009

Little Things: Facebook Friend Notifications Transition to HTML

When Twitter and FriendFeed updated their following notifications from standard text to more colorful HTML templates earlier this year, the tech Web let out a collective gasp - heralding the small update as being a game-changer. Now, it appears that Facebook, hundreds of millions of users ahead of the aforementioned pair, has done the same. This afternoon, as the messages have appeared for years, friend requests came from Facebook in a simple text format, but by late evening, the same update came in a colorful HTML box, bearing the Facebook logo.

The new friending notification also includes the person's avatar. Considering the volume of friend requests many people receive, and the thinner one's relationship need be to get connected on Facebook now, the update is helpful - especially for high school friends or those who have changed their maiden names upon getting married.


The New Facebook E-mail Notifications Are In Full Color



Historically, Facebook Updates Have Been Less Impressive

Net net, the notifications get away from the boring single blue link of confirmation, and offer just a little bit more of a hint as to who the friend is. I would expect that as things develop, Facebook would mimic Twitter again, showing the number of total friend connections, and quite possibly, how many mutual friends you have. It's something that since-acquired FriendFeed has been doing, and the team there just might tell their new overlords how it's done.

Ecademy Revamp Brings Real-Time to Social Network, Blog Platform

On Friday, Ecademy, the business-oriented social network whose roots span back to 1998, revamped its Web site, highlighting members updates in real-time, much like its much younger cousins, Facebook and FriendFeed. The new revisions serve to better highlight updates from around the Web, activity on the site from logged in members, and the newest blogs - which can be hosted within the site instead of requiring a third party network. Ecademy, which preceded Web 2.0 when it debuted in the late 1990s (see Web Archive from early 2000) hasn't been on the tip of everyone's lips, like many of the newcomers have, but the site has a wide array of features - not to mention leadership that takes a different look at the value of connections than most based here in Silicon Valley do.


A Recent Blog Post I Added to Ecademy

Ecademy, like many other social networks, enables users to connect to one another to send direct messages, and highlights updates made natively or from Twitter. But the network, unlike FriendFeed, Twitter, Socialmedian and other sites, also enables users to post native blog entries directly to the site, including "likes" and comments. In fact, the site probably has more raw features than just about any other network - ranging from personal profiles that show the basic biographical data, contacts and external sites to search engine optimization, testimonials on users' behalf, a marketplace, groups, and a personality profile that suggests how you can best be approached, following your taking a short survey. (My profile can be found here and my blog posts are here)


Ecademy's NetNews Updating In Real-Time

In the wake of Facebook's acquiring FriendFeed, there are open questions as to the future of that network, which was among the first to bring real-time to its core. In the meantime, Ecademy's newest introduction provides a constant flow of updates through what it calls "NetNews" which shows all activity from all contacts, and a running count of how many members are actively using the site. (2,594 as I type this - and you can expect that to rise and fall with the sun over the British Isles) And everywhere I turn in the site, I find that it is as connected to other networks as any I have seen.


The Latest Blog Posts On Ecademy

For one thing, every blog post lets you share to other networks, but also, if you have connected your account, the sheer act of liking a post preps a box, complete with TinyURL, to post a link to your followers on Twitter. Each profile shows my most recent activity, both on Ecademy and other networks, not to mention displaying the most recent members to "like" me or my activity, or those who have viewed my profile.


If I Like a Blog On Ecademy, I Can Tweet It

The Ecademy community is also very different than other communities where I have spent a lot of time. FriendFeed for me has been about communicating with fellow geeks, but also finding personal relationships which can have a wide range of topics. Facebook has been as much about connecting to friends and family as it has been for connecting to online peers. LinkedIn has typically been about real-world business relationships, colleagues and partners. Ecademy, so far, is about driving business and experimenting with social media. The community is vibrant, and as I read in Penny Power's book "Know Me. Like Me. Follow Me.", the majority of Ecademy users own their own business. Premium accounts, which gain more access to members and meetings, called "BlackStar", even pay $140 a month for the privilege, making Ecademy a serious revenue generator.

I have gotten to know Ecademy mainly through the efforts of its co-founder Thomas Power, who is active on practically every network, and has become a good friend online. It is through knowing him that I will be meeting with a small group from Ecademy this week in London for a full day's presentation on the hot topic of social media for business. That Ecademy revamped the site the week before I ventured to London is sheer coincidence, but a great opportunity to see how the product is improving.