December 22, 2011

Social Networking With Strangers

There’s a well-known saying attributed to the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met.”

As social networking has evolved to encompass a significant amount of people’s time on the Internet, divergent approaches to friending and following, sharing publicly and sharing selectively have emerged. Some networks have a solely synchronous relationship, where the bond can be broken unilaterally by either individual, but must be initiated by one and accepted by another, while others are asynchronous, meaning one can follow the content you make available publicly, even if you don’t explicitly pass approval.

The two best-known social networks that primarily rely on a synchronous relationship are Facebook and LinkedIn, preceded by sites like Friendster and MySpace. In September, Facebook introduced a “Subscribe” feature, which is asynchronous, but to be counted as “friend”, the connection must be mutual. LinkedIn connections are also mutual.

Other services, including, most notably, Twitter, but also FriendFeed and Google+, have used asynchronous relationships. For Twitter and FriendFeed, anybody who ran into your content, whether following you directly, or discovering it through search or friend recommendations, could respond to it via a Like, a Retweet, a Comment or Share. The same is true for public posts on Google+, while sharing to limited circles on Google+ reduces the visibility to those you have explicitly selected.

(Disclosure of course: I am on the Product Marketing team at Google+, and joined in August. Comments I make about the service and other social products are done with the best of intentions to be fully accurate.)

That people you don’t explicitly know or have a mutual relationship with can engage on your content can be a surprise, or even unnerving, to some users. While Twitter has seen user following numbers vault into the tens of thousands or even millions for some celebrities, not all have embraced the interest of being followed by the masses, who are often simply people interested in you or your content, not necessarily bad actors. Not blurring the lines of a “friend”, Twitter calls them “followers”, while FriendFeed calls these people “subscribers”, relating a connection between the individual and your content, not necessarily you.

Those used to an asynchronous model are used to connections with strangers, while others used to a synchronous model are often quite verbal about what is perceived as an onrush of random connections. As Google+ has been in the market for about six months, many users have been quite surprised at the high number of people who have them in circles, and I’ve seen some say they block those they don’t know. But as someone who has engaged in both models, the value comes from learning who sees your content, and what that means - especially on a network like Google+, where you can fine tune what content reaches which people.

Who Are These People Following Me? (via SocialStatistics)

For me, the overwhelming majority of people I interact with on social networks are people I met first through the web. I have made tremendous real-life friendships that started out as an online only relationship to start, through reading one another’s blogs, leaving comments, following people on Twitter and Google Reader, or any other myriad of places. Many of the colleagues I have now at Google are people who I knew years prior through FriendFeed, Twitter and their blogs, helping me continue the conversation when we finally met, rather than starting cold.

Not all online relationships turn into real life relationships later, of course, and not everything you share should reach everyone, particularly people you don’t know well.

On Twitter, if someone follows you, and your feed is public, your content is shared with them. The exception is when you may be doing @replies to a person they don’t follow as well. It makes sense to share on Twitter what you assume all your followers would see.

On Facebook, your publicly shared content is available to your friends and those who are subscribers to your public content. To share more selectively, choose one of the lists you have created. Strangers who follow you should not have access to this content, so you are at lower risk of oversharing if you use lists.

On Google+, your publicly shared content is available to all people who have you in circles, anyone who browses your profile or anyone who has a direct link to your content. To share your content without reaching strangers, you have multiple options, including sharing to any individual, any circle, to all your circles, or even extended circles, which reaches all those people you follow and those they follow. You can share as widely or as thinly as you like, and keep your content safe.

The goal is to share the right content with the right people. As people who you may not know add you, they are opting in to your public content, and nothing more. They don’t get any additional access to your contact information, photos or shares, and like Facebook and FriendFeed, you can moderate any comments in your stream, to remove spam or other unwanted feedback.

There’s no downside to new people asking to have access to your public shares, even if you don’t know them yet - and you just might be surprised about the relationships you build in the future. The requirement on your end, on any service, and trust me, I’ve tried just about all of them, is knowing what you are sharing and with whom. It’s our job, and those of other products on the web, to make this simple and easy.

You can connect with me on Google+ by going to Howdy, stranger.

December 19, 2011

Time Shifting In a World of Realtime

Nearly three short years ago, the buzz word du jour in tech was “realtime”. Real time discovery. Real time search. Real time serendipity. The explosion of interest in social sharing tools like Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed (remember this was early 2009) had people (myself included) saying that “Delayed news will no longer be acceptable for early adopters, who will gravitate to the quickest sources of news, wherever they may be.” In practice, while this has occasionally been true, I’ve found a completely divergent innovation to play as big a role in the way I (and others) consume news content and entertainment - that of time shifting, which has remained valuable at a time when most real-time search engines have pivoted or vanished.

Best exemplified by TiVo and other DVRs, preceded by the creaky VCR, the act of consuming media at a time much after its initial airing is so commonplace that live viewings are so uncommon that friends often tiptoe around current storylines for top shows. In some social circles, only the most breaking drama series get the “day it actually aired” treatment - like Breaking Bad, Dexter or Homeland, while everything else goes to TiVo, to be consumed later. (Obviously, I saw the season finales for Dexter and Homeland last night)

News, with some exceptions, can be similarly stored away for later viewing, be it through RSS readers or on your social network of choice. One must not be glued to the real time stream to make sure you don’t miss anything. Instead, the RSS reader traps your own hand-picked links, ready for viewing when you get the opportunity, not necessarily tied to their time of posting.

On the big screen, movies may bank on a massive opening weekend, but with consumers having so many options for entertainment sources, it’s common to see people mention they’ll “wait for Netflix”, which could be months or years away, content to save a few dollars while also getting the comfort of watching in their own home. And if you do find yourself suddenly interested in a show your friends have been seeing which has been out a few seasons, don’t fret, as you can, in almost all cases, catch up - tapping into many options, be they Netflix, Hulu, Xfinity, iTunes or Android Market.

This fall, I made it a personal mission to watch all of Mad Men, after hearing people go on and on about its quality. I powered through it with many late-night Netflix marathons. After finally ordering Showtime, I caught up on this season’s Dexter on Xfinity, and then did the same for Homeland. If my wife misses her favorite shows, she can do the same, tapping into the various video repositories on the web, including the big three networks, typically slower to adapt to the innovation of the web.

I watch my evening talk shows 3 to 5 in a row, from Jon Stewart to Conan, fast forwarding through commercials and skipping uninteresting guests - efficiently getting the best and skipping the rest. It’s almost the same approach I take to my RSS reader or activity on the social networks, skimming, reading, clicking and leaving no prisoners. Even if I’m not constantly connected, and I do a good job of getting close, I don’t feel this sense of missing something.

Realtime reactions to breaking news events, kicked off by an initial discovery, and then rattling around search engines and social media, can’t be duplicated by time shifted content, but for most buckets of content, be they text, audio or video, the drive to be first and in the mix of the story as it is interpreted and curated, is not essential. Advents in information and content sharing over the last few years have instead made “on demand” a reality, getting me what I want when I want it, not when someone else decides for me.

December 12, 2011

Winning Unconventionally

No two fingerprints, people, or businesses are exactly alike. While learning from the experiences of others can be illuminating and inspiring, your own challenges are unique, and following a path previously trod may not deliver you the same outcome. Often, taking an unconventional approach can deliver results far beyond those anyone anticipated, and your differentiation can start to be part of your story.

While Microsoft was building a dominating market share position for operating systems through licensing its software to OEMs, one of Steve Jobs' first moves upon returning to Apple was to discontinue licensing of the Mac OS to 'clones' including Motorola and Power Computing. The clones were not, in fact, helping the Mac increase market share, but were cannibalizing Apple, and going a different way was needed. Jobs similarly canceled the Newton handheld, and pushed the company to focus on a select few products, and do them extremely well.

More recently, on a backdrop of failed P2P networks from Kazaa to LimeWire and others, when music peddlers argued customers want to own their songs instead of stream them, Daniel Ek and the Spotify team created a subscription-based streaming service on the back of P2P technology, and are now valued at a billion dollars, while the company is still in its youth.

Square unconventionally found a solution for a universal adapter for wireless payments by determining the one similarity between all smartphones was an audio port. Instagram differentiated through elegant display and an array of filters that made casual photographers feel like artists. Path discarded the trend of wide sharing and focused on a more intimate network - discarding the status quo of the time.

On this backdrop, turning away from tech and toward sports, if you'll allow it, we come across one of the more intriguing storylines in recent football memory, as Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, believed to be a below-average professional passer with almost no experience, but a robust college resume, as well known for his spirituality as anything else, has rattled off six consecutive wins in remarkable fashion, sparking his team to the division lead after a moribund start.

In an era when leading signal-callers are posting 300 and even 400 yards passing per game, Tebow has famously won games where he has thrown for less than 100. He won one game without a single completion in the first half, and has become as feared an offensive weapon for his running game - posting 118 yards in a game on November 6th, and amassing more than 500 yards rushing over nine games. What Tebow has managed to do, despite all the critics and low expectations, is largely avoid mistakes (see only 2 interceptions against 198 completion attempts) and keep his team in the game, acting as a riddle for opposing defenses.

Those who've been talking about the Tebow phenomenon across the country in recent months (and I've had this post in my to-do pile for several weeks) note that the Broncos' turn-around has not been solely due to one man's effort. The team's defense has been outstanding, letting four of the last five team wins come despite 17 or fewer points, including a 13-10 victory yesterday over the Bears. In fact, yesterday's game saw the team kicker smash two field goals of fifty yards or more, including a 59 yarder at the end of regulation, and the 51 yarder that won the game in overtime. Regardless, the team is winning unconventially, changing the rules to match the talent set provided. To ask Tebow to throw for 300 plus yards, and look downfield on the majority of plays doesn't seem to be where he's best suited and the team's record of win after win shows the differentiated approach is working. Even the most casual football and sports fans has to be intrigued by the seeming magic that is happening in Denver.

Back the world of Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs, there are few sure things, except for the knowledge that your challenges and opportunities are in a combination previously unseen. For every superstar like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, there are players like Tim Tebow, who can leverage their talents and drive the most possible out of their own abilities, if empowered and given the opportunity. There's plenty to read on best practices of doing a startup or architecting a successful social network or going viral, but sometimes it takes a different path - an unconventional approach - to the problem, to achieve something incredible.

December 04, 2011

Remember, Remember, the Month of November

Hey! Did you guys miss me?

As I wrote up about six weeks ago in my post Hey! Didn't You Use to be a Tech Blogger?, I've relaxed my typical always-on routine for the blog, spending much more time with Google+ (obviously), and keeping the occasional downtime I do have focused on something other than blogging. I still hear plenty of interesting tech news from startups and more established players, which in previous years I'd have stopped everything to write up, but given my more visible role at Google, and other priorities, for the most part I'm letting the rest of the tech world pick those up. But that doesn't mean I've got nothing to share.

In November, probably the most incredible story to tell is the one about how my car, which you may remember I bought from Robert Scoble back in 2009, and had just added personalized plates to last month, got completely wrecked, in my own driveway. While I told the full story on Google+ on November 7th, when it happened, the reality of it is still pretty nuts, and I've retold it several times.

I was watching the kids around 7:30 Monday night, getting ready to put them to bed, when I heard a shockingly loud boom from what I thought was the intersection near my house. I ran out the front door and found the accident was actually in my driveway. A massive boulder that had lined our walkway had been struck by a Toyota Tacoma, which popped it out of its cement foundation and launched it 15 or so feet into the air, where it came into full contact with my car, smashing the back left door, permanently bending the frame, and breaking in half. The Tacoma left skidmarks in my driveway, gashed the trunk and came to a rest against a tree bordering our property with the neighbors'. Amazingly, nobody was hurt, even though the driver's air bags had deployed.

Long story short, the police came by and handled him, while I dealt with insurance the next few days and weeks. Insurance did well, and actually paid me more to replace the car than I had paid to buy it. So I had the tow truck get my car, and I got a newer model of the same car with a new car, and won't end up paying much for the swap. Nobody was hurt, and I got a new car out of it, so I won't complain too much. That said, you have to see the pictures. It's crazy.

My Car, Mashed Up By a Big Rock, via a Vehicle Interloper

While I've spent a lot of time during the day in Mountain View, I get the great pleasure of coming home to increasingly amusing and amazing kids. Braden, the youngest of our three, has far surpassed the grub stage and is now walking up a storm, so we have no crawlers. While I could be wistful about passing one milestone, he is a delightful kid and I was more than happy to share a video I took of him walking last month. If kids are your thing, it's worth the minute to see.

In my time of keeping silent on the blog, I've opened up a Google Doc that has a list of ideas for posts that I'll get to quickly. There's been no push from corporate for me to be quieter here, and I've made that choice myself, but you'll see some interesting things pop up soon. Just wanted to share with you some of the lowlights and highlights from the last month. Braden waves at you.

November 01, 2011

Google Reader Evolves, Gets Tighter With Google+

This afternoon saw the delivery of updates to Google Reader that brought the product's design in line with Google's simplified look across many properties, and added support for sharing to Google+. With the launch, which I've been participating in since shortly after arriving at Google in late August, the dedicated friending/following network within Reader, and dedicated shared link blogs from Reader, were shut down.

This last bit has gained the majority of feedback as users anticipated the changes in the last week-plus since the preannouncement, and impacts some of the most active users, myself included. But if one unwinds the immediate reaction of being reluctant to change, the product's direction was telegraphed as Google has promised an evolved product experience,  regularly adds features to Google+ and recently announced the planned wind-down of Google Buzz, which was closely tied with Reader's existing commenting model.

In discussing the changes, I walk a fine line of respecting the tremendous hard work that went into Google Reader from the products' founding team and core engineers in the last five years, while also recognizing its role in feeding the product where I am currently focused as an employee. As a user, I have spent more time with and more loyalty to Google Reader than any other product on the web in the last decade, with the only possible notable exception being a web browser, either Safari or Chrome.

In the last month, I've continued to crank through Reader, in the new interface.

At various times, I've said I'd give up my Gmail before Reader. I even wrote a blog post two years ago saying I wouldn't accept $25,000 in cash to give up Reader. This is because Reader has played a central role for me to find all the updates from around the web in a centralized way, and let me share out the best to my downstream network. In years past, as you've seen here, I've rallied for feature adds to Reader, and highlighted the ecosystem of products, from ReadBurner to RSSmeme, Feedly, Toluu, and my6sense.

A Day In the Life of My Reader Feeds, Graphed

You can't be a bigger fan of information discovery and consumption than me, unless your name is Marshall Kirkpatrick. But one thing to note is that the web has changed quite a bit since I first started drooling over aggregators like FriendFeed and Google Buzz, and the shared items trackers that sparked to life in 2008 are universally dead. Users have voted on the web to share with social networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+, and the new additions to Reader make that easier.

Sharing from Google Reader to Google+ Includes Circles and Commentary

I've personally been using the new Reader, or something close to it, for more than a month, and every time I'd log into the existing version, the difference was notable. Change is hard, but like a new haircut or or new home furniture, it grows on you. Now, instead of sharing 10 or so items a day to the anonymous group of people following me in Reader, I selectively share less often, and to more targeted circles in Google+ which I built by hand. And if the item is interesting to an even wider group, I share it to Public. (More tips here on Google+)

Since the launch this afternoon, I am already seeing a lot more items shared to Google+ from others in my circles, and it's interesting to see how they have adapted to the new functionality, even though others are more wary about the changes. As Alan Green outlined in his blog posts this week and last, Google recognizes the changes may not mean the new product is perfect for all users, and the tools are there to let you take your data with you. But I hope people do see the value of leveraging Reader as a smart RSS feed engine and share selectively to Google+ circles. After a few shares, it becomes second nature, and the world could surely benefit from a streamlined social experience. Trust the team is listening to all feedback from all corners. It's a privilege to have an impact on a product that has played so large a role for me for so long.

October 31, 2011

How To Get Your Own G+ License Plate

You might have seen the news last week that I picked up a rather unique license plate, which reads as GOOG +1, a shortcut highlighting not just Google+, but the +1 button you find throughout the web, including here. While we at the office often talk about Google+ being a good representation for how we share in the real world online, in my own silly way, I like how the GOOG +1 license plate reflects in real life how I share on the web. See what I did there?

When I debuted the new plate, grinning, the reaction was split two-fold, between those who thought I was a goofy fanboy and those who appeared jealous they hadn't thought of it themselves. After all, I only joined Google in August, and there's no doubt people on campus are more deserving and could likely have gotten it before me. But GOOG +1 isn't the only way you can highlight Google+ on your license plate, assuming you live in California and have a little imagination.

Personalize Your License Plate with a +Sign on the DMV Site

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offers personalized license plates, if you're willing to pay for them. I'd never been interested before, accepting what I was given, but the state now has a series of "Kids' Plates" that feature symbols including a heart, a hand, a star, and the + sign. Before I joined Google in late August, I knew I had to find a way to get a + on my license plate - and unfortunately, I couldn't get GOOGLE+, as the state interprets the + as a blank space, and GOOGLE is already owned by someone. (Not sure who...)

This Might Be Your Plate

So I ordered GOOG +1. A short 9 or 10 weeks later, the plate arrived, and I enjoyed taking the specialty plate around the offices in Mountain View, to get photographed with many of those who are working on the product. In the photo album I posted to Google+ (of course), you can see Senior VP Vic Gundotra, VP of Software Bradley Horowitz, CEO Larry Page and many others smiling with the plate. It's a little token, but fun.

To get your own G+ plate, saying whatever you like, including +YourName or G+ Rocks or whatever you can think up, head to the California DMV, choose a personalized plate, select the Kids plate, and test the name until you find one available. For fifty bucks and a forty buck a year cost, the plate is yours.

If you're a longtime reader, you know I have fun with tech and this particular experiment was fun. Do I expect to see scads of G+ license plates up and down the freeway? No. But you can if you like. I'd love to hear your idea and see what you come up with.

October 17, 2011

Hey! Didn't You Use to be a Tech Blogger?

If you really care about a craft, you'll want to be consistent about it and maintain high quality. That goes for athletic pursuits, hobbies, careers, family, or whatever provides you with reward for effort well done. For me, after several thousand blog posts poured into this site for more than five years, gaps are noticed. I'd like to make up some story about how I took ten days off from blogging out of respect for Steve Jobs' passing, but that'd be nonsense. So would any belief that I'm overworked and overtired. After all, I'm keeping practically the same hours I always have, and I managed to cram an entire four seasons of Mad Men into two-plus weeks of aggressive Netflix watching this month. But the ten day gap is the longest here since starting in January of 2006, and I'm hyper aware of it. What's changed, at least in the short term, is what I consider valuable.

MG Siegler, now at CrunchFund and a part-time TechCrunch contributor, wrote a pair of posts in the last week or so on what has driven him as a tech blogger. The first, in homage to the Raiders' late owner Al Davis, was titled Just Win, Baby, and the second follow-on was simply Drive. In these posts, MG talks about how he set goals for himself that he could be satisfied with, whether it be creative headlines, analytical longer posts, scoops or whatever... all elements of a game that contribute to "winning", he writes. Having had a front row seat to MG's ascension, at least the last four years, I understand his view, and recognize his need to find value in his effort. Make no mistake - in blogging, one has to find value in what one is doing, especially as for most there is little to no money it, and those who are the exceptions, TechCrunch included, need a strong combination of skill and luck.

With that backdrop, having shifted gears in August and counting Google as my employer, I bump into the occasional person on campus who graces me with a question much like "Hey! Didn't you use to be a tech blogger?" or "I heard you were a pro blogger before joining us." It's almost with some regret that I have to admit I didn't cram my page full of Adsense to make a few bucks, and that I always participated here for the sheer fun of it as a hobby - that I wasn't really a tech blogger, but just one who played one on TV. While it's great the blog created a name, explaining the true backstory, be it through mentioning my6sense or Paladin or BlueArc or something else... you know, real work... takes a bit of time. But as 9 of 10 startups fail, so do 9 of 10 blogs, I'd bet. Many get started and abandoned. Many don't get readership that satiates someone's needs, and obviously, now, participating on social networks is simpler, faster. It's like popping chocolate espresso beans for a quick perk instead of preparing a full multi-course meal.

As someone on the outside looking in to some of the tech giants who make news and have the attention of consumers and tech reporters alike for years, be they Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple, Google or others, I could sometimes get weary of seeing new hires or established employees at these firms talk about how wonderful their jobs were. Just like nobody wants to read the social status update that "I have the best friends in the world" or "my boss is so nice", few want to hear silly updates about the nuances of your 9 to 5. So I have made sure not do bore you with that here. You don't need it, and I know it won't add value.

Similarly, I've always believed in having a good sense for when to speak and when to hold back. I recognize that in my new position, rightly or wrongly, how I comment on perceived competition or rumors carries extra weight. So posts that used to make sense on this blog, such as updated hires at Twitter, comments on the news feed from Facebook, positions on Android or Google TV or other products I like, are viewed in a different light. Also, working within Google and having access to future plans for our product line and sister projects throughout the company makes commenting on trends or specifics a fine line best avoided.

Make no mistake - that's certainly not due to any push from the company to have the blog quieted down. As one can see from many other active Googlers online, an open discussion is celebrated and debate is encouraged. In fact, without jumping into specifics, the greatest conflicts with employees at the company is when access to information or locations is in any way unequal. The corporate ethos is to make that information discoverable and for movement on campus fluid. So while there may be some curiosities as to how the blog will morph, nobody would ever expect it to disappear, and the gap is from me - as I'm finding less of a need to talk about what everyone else is doing, and almost no need to overpromote what we are doing. So I watch, I read, and I keep working.

As MG writes, one of the driving elements of a tech blogger is the ability to get scoops - breaking a story before the competition or before the company is ready. For a while, I was doing that, being first to introduce many properties to the tech blogosphere. I felt I had proven I could do that, and didn't push as aggressively later, even as some small startups would provide tips. Some more effort was pushed toward gadgets instead of social services, or more arching analysis. Unlike other authors, I always had the day job providing a foundation, so I didn't need to chase sensational stories and headlines, or post with great frequency to meet a quota.

In time, I knew that I didn't have to post every day, but when I did, I had to make sure it was good. Some of the best posts are more thoughtful, and don't necessarily break the news - but set the stage for more thought and creativity. Now, at the office anyway, I get to work with a service that has a lot of attention, and help prepare our own equivalent of regular scoops, doing much of what you saw me do here on the outside, on the inside. That helps satiate the need to break the story. It helps keep me connected simultaneously to our users, the news media at large, and third party developers. Hence the decreased need to scratch that itch.

Also, as more people are being introduced to me for the first time, through Google+, as a Googler, and not as a tech blogger, I know that I am representing the company when I post, even if not directly, so they may get confused if I profile one startup or another that is unrelated. No amount of disclosures can clear things up for those lacking patience. So that's weighed in as well. Sometimes it's easier just to sit down and watch an episode or four of Mad Men and put it off - that I'll blog tomorrow. It's not that the Drive is gone. It's just on a different course.

October 05, 2011

Steve Jobs: An Irreplaceable Icon

The world's outpouring of affection for Apple cofounder Steve Jobs is remarkable. In a time when scandal and tawdriness make headlines, and the foolish are revered, Steve represented something else - an intelligent, perfectionist approach to creativity, aimed at the greater good to constantly refine and bring value, through technology - and somehow won the hearts of the people. Amidst a world of awkward poor dressing techies, Steve exuded class and presented himself as being above the fray. His presentations were a masterpiece. His products were art. He took a world consumed with cutting margins and making it up in volume and made it emotional - a status symbol. He helped define a generation of computing and electronics in hardware and software, and became the man on a pedestal by whom all other CEOs and innovative tech leaders are measured - a tall task for the current crop and those to follow.

The last 4 or 5 years of uncertainty around Steve's health (and I feel like I know him so well that he should simply be referred to as Steve) were the unspeakable story - the deep hope that he could surprise us all - again - with "One more thing" and show that he had somehow beaten cancer and proven his immortality. All while fighting unspeakable challenges at home and in hospitals, he and his extended team churned out more and more products, hit after hit that built Apple into the highest-valued company in the world. Each keynote worried us that it would be his last. His very figure was dissected by cheap online tabloids trying to score a few million page views, and we rejected the opportunity to have this new shrunken image burned into our pupils, because we knew that despite his newfound frailties, Steve inside remained the lion we all knew.

For 15 or so years, Apple and Steve Jobs have once again been whole - practically synonymous. College students everywhere can't remember a time when Steve was not leading the company. But for those of us who suffered during the dark days of Apple, when the word "beleaguered" followed the company everywhere, and showing up with a Mac in a world that was going Windows was a conversation starter, knowing you were different.

It's not just that Steve did his job better than anybody else when he was on top. It was that he took a company in the middle of a very public suicide and turned it around, using the perfect mixture of humility when it was needed, and arrogance when it too was needed.

During the summer before my junior year in college, I remember my roommate, almost with a cat call, announcing that Gil Amelio, then CEO of Apple for a mere 500 days, had resigned. Yet another obvious example that Apple was doomed, and we would have to settle for something less than great for the rest of our computing days. Even I had almost given up. But this presumed bad news was the turning point that brought the original visionary who made the Mac what it was to the company that could make history again. Almost nobody saw it coming. Not even the geeky among us who said we would give up our Mac when you pried it from our cold dead fingers knew what was coming. Not even those of us who held our AAPL shares in the single digits and cheered when the company market cap passed $4 billion had any idea of what the next decade would bring. If we had, we would have put our life savings on it.

Why is the world reacting to the passing of Steve in the way that it has? Why has the President of the United States taken the time to remark on his passing just hours after Steve left us for what's next? Why did the leaders of practically every tech company on the planet express their heartfelt loss and appreciation for the man's accomplishments? Because Steve stood for something. He personalized the fight for the user so absent in a world of drab number-pushers unwilling to take chances. He personally stood for making change for humans that made products desirable. He was, to many, a hero - even to those who found themselves going against Apple in the market.

In the last few years, as we've all started to think about the inevitability of Steve's passing, as cancer doesn't give anybody any slack, writers have all had the chance to write their premature obituaries, to share their favorite stories of Steve - to tell their first experiences of the Mac or the iPhone or the iPad or anything else that made Apple have an impact on them. I now have three children who will grow up in a world without Steve Jobs, who will be forced to hear from me stories that make him sound like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford wrapped up into one. I have but the one blip of a memory of when I saw him at an early Apple Store in Palo Alto, when being his perfectionist self, he answered a support question I had. I am glad I saw a keynote of his at MacWorld in person a full decade ago. Even as some of my preferences changed in terms of my own computing and mobile choices, I never lost faith in Steve and his fight.

The world lost a vibrant 56 year old man. In a world where people regularly crest over 100 years old, and CEOs melt into their chairs into their 80s, Steve could not beat cancer. There were no karma points for being the best in the world for what he did and being an inspiration to all who saw him, knew of him, came into contact with him, and understood him. And this is just wrong. It is a major reason why underneath all the praise and wistfullness and sorrow, there is also anger, and frustration that a man who had already given so much, who had so much more to give, was taken from us too soon. This is unacceptable.

Tim Cook and the rest of the Apple team have an impossible task, to satisfy the millions of Apple fans and the tech world who has grown used to expecting the impossible from the company and seeing it exceeded. I have no doubts that Steve has trained his successor and management team well, that they know the right way to build products and make things beautiful and magical. But in a world of copycats, Steve remained without equal for decades, a cut above the rest. There will be no replacing Steve. Just an end to an era, and the start of a new landscape, where he moves into the history books instead of current events.

I do have a heavy heart tonight. I say it without melodrama, without a need for others to feel shared sorrow, but for reality. The whole world lost somebody special today, and we will never get him back.

October 03, 2011

Web Video's Challenge of Inventory, Portability


Last month, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings set off a tech media firestorm with the announcement of a split between the company's streaming business, which would bear the original Netflix name, and its DVD by mail business, now known as Qwikster. Much of the discussion centered around two parts - the first being Netflix's price increases announced this summer, and the second, focus on the name of the new business, which sounded way too much like Amway's sub-brand, Quixtar. But both flareups circumvented the real trajectory of Netflix making a choice to decrease its attention on the physical media world, one I publicly said I walked away from this Spring. With a smart combination of online video properties, including Netflix, YouTube, iTunes and Hulu, you can have your entertainment needs satiated practically any time. However, there remain gaps of content and availability from site to site, thanks to exclusivity deals with entertainment owners, copyright and who knows what else.

Apple's initial foray into renting movies (and later television shows) online, combined with the release of Apple TV units, made it easy for me and my family to select movies on demand, and watch them almost instantly. After some buffering, the selected title would be in our living room and could play that evening. Back in 2007, when Netflix was not streaming, the opportunity was available, in my opinion, for Apple to seize the market, through introducing a subscription service. (See: How Apple Could Crush Netflix Now) But it didn't happen. Apple didn't go the subscription route, Netflix evolved, and no doubt Hollywood studios were afraid of Steve Jobs having as much power over their titles' success as he did in the music business. In time, Netflix figured out streaming, kept the subscription model intact, and presented another choice for online video. Even better, Netflix did something that Apple chose not to do - embracing the Web by allowing for in-browser movie plays, and releasing mobile apps for practically every phone and tablet. (See: Netflix Edges Closer to Making the Perfect Web Video Site)

While Apple did a great job of bringing films and TV into my living room or laptop, Netflix did a better job of making them portable. In addition to box office wins, I've seen full seasons of shows like Dexter and Mad Men through Netflix, available on any laptop and through most connected TV devices, such as Google TV, TiVo and the Nintendo Wii. Netflix gets the Web, and is so simple to use that my 3 year old twins spend a lot of time running the Netflix app on our iPads. I'm often amused to see the recommendations that come my way from Netflix after Matthew or Sarah have spent an hour with Nickelodeon and Sprout shows for toddlers.

Similarly, YouTube's tie-in with the Android Market has also embraced the cloud for streaming video. As I wrote in June, you can rent films on the Android Market, and watch them on YouTube from any computer. That too is very convenient, and there's no entrance fee requiring subscription. Meanwhile, Hulu has access to some shows (like my personal favorite, Peep Show) that you can't get anywhere else - and there's the catch. Much like in the old days of instant messaging, where services were splintered without standards for interoperability, consumers are left to have multiple accounts from multiple places and remember which shows and titles are where. An evening's entertainment can come down to which device you have in which room, which services are supported and which titles are available for which place. It's easier to deal with for the cloud-backed properties, like Netflix and YouTube, but less great for the others. Nobody's yet got it 100% nailed.

Additionally, what all of these services miss is the opportunity to satisfy the home viewer who wants to see movies currently playing in theaters. I've been begging for this for more than three years now. (See: Think Apple Would Dare To Take On the Movie Theaters?) As a parent of three kids three and under, planning for a babysitter to cover the hours when my wife and I would attend a movie is a challenge, one that will no doubt cost much more than the face value of the tickets. So most of the time, the theater experience is unavailable. Meanwhile, most families' home theater systems are getting even better. I would have to bet the availability of in-theater titles to play at home would have real value and I know I would pay a premium for it. I would have seen Moneyball this weekend, if it was available, but being homebound means either we have to wait, or we have to seek out illegal downloading alternatives - which aren't ever a good option.

Spotify delivered the reality of a near-infinite music library on demand. Practically any title in the world (or so it seems) in high quality with no downloads or delays. The movie equivalent is still missing. No doubt this is a harder quest, but it's one worth conquering. Any time you see knowledgeable people debating Netflix's streaming movie inventory online, you hear concerns about its library. The company is closing deals to make that better, but they're quite expensive. Apple hasn't budged on a subscription model. YouTube remains best known for amateur videos, while that's expected to improve. And who knows what's happening with Hulu? Not me.

As broadband becomes more ubiquitous, and traditional entertainment leaders get innovative on their own about reaching customers, partnering with all services, I expect the portable cloud model to win, as it always does. Things are much better now than they were two or three years ago, but there's much more room to go. I hope in two or three more years in the future, we'll be laughing about how hard it was to get the titles we wanted anywhere.

Disclosures: I work at Google, of course, and you can decide if that impacts how I discuss Google TV, Android, YouTube or any of Google's perceived partners or competitors. :)

September 30, 2011

A First Grade Math Nerd

When I was in 1st grade (back in 1983-84), we had breaks in the middle of class, that rotated so a small group of kids had a few minutes of recreation. I distinctly remember at one point heading to a hanging easel which was nothing more than a chalkboard with some chalk. Being a math nerd even then, I wrote up a 1 followed by 100 zeros.

At the age of six, I was writing a googol. (It would be decades before Google came about, of course). I remember writing the 1 with 100 zeros, pausing to make sure I had gotten it right... and then writing 100 more. The numbers filled the chalkboard. By the time I'd written the 1 with 200 zeros, and commas appropriately placed, "playtime" was over and it was back to my desk. But I remember the words googol, googolplex and googolplexplex being thrown around with my friends to represent the biggest possible things imaginable. Fun to know that word (slightly changed) would mean so much more now.

/via My Google+ Profile

Network Effects and the Power of Recommendations

In the world of social networking, there is little more valuable than a trusted referral from a friend. Whether it be Twitter's "Follow Friday" phenomenon, where users point out accounts that have value once a week, or bloggers creating lists in their blogroll (at least back in the old days), it is a good rule of thumb that someone you trust probably has good insight into more new people who you would like to know, but haven't found yet.

As people have expanded their online interactions beyond those who they already know offline, the barrier to adding new people to lists, groups and circles is reduced. And if a respected cog in the network sees their recommendations pushed further downstream, the network effect is something to behold indeed. Popular social networkers can drive dozens, hundreds or even thousands of new connections in a single day. Whether its driving pageviews, like the Slashdot Effect, or mentions, like the Scoble Effect, a big push from a major participant can have ripples downstream that last for days.

Yesterday, I took some time and shared a list of women who interact with tech and media who I follow on Google+. Working on the Google+ team, I think a lot about how I consume content and want to make sure other people have the same opportunity to see the updates I enjoy. So I made a quick post highlighting about 200 or so women from the service, and said the circle would make your stream more "diverse, engaging and smart". That's my belief, and I'm sticking to it.

Felicia Day's share of Veronica Belmont's list, building from a circle I shared.

As the shared circle made its way through the stream, from person to person, share to share and comment by comment, it reached the view of Tekzilla's Veronica Belmont, who thoughtfully added on a few dozen more to the circle and shared it herself. With 100,000 or so people following her, this expanded the number of people who could see it dramatically. But it got even better when The Guild's Felicia Day shared the list. Felicia has almost twice as many connections as Veronica and so, again, the velocity of discovery and following was accelerated.

For years on this blog, I recommended new blogs to follow each month, and during FriendFeed's heyday, I shared new accounts to follow. I think doing this made sense as it helped solidify the community and help bring visibility to many people who were doing great work, but possibly not getting the awareness they deserved. There's little more exciting to me as a participant in these networks to help give a boost to high quality people. That doesn't mean that everyone following will agree with my recommendation, but putting somebody on the list puts a stake in the ground and ties my personal reputation to theirs. By endorsing someone, I am saying that I personally vouch for their content, and hope you will see value.

The Web gives us amazing potential, good and bad, for content to zip around the globe quickly. Seeing how the network shares information and builds on it in real time, is incredible. So when you are participating online, don't just think about yourself and your numbers and how you are being seen, but instead of how you can pay it forward and bring value to everyone else. This knowledge is power.

Disclosures: I am on the Product Marketing team at Google working on Google+, of course.

September 23, 2011

Subscribing to the Stream of Consciousness

There's no question more people are on the Web, consuming greater amounts of content, sharing more and expanding their networks online. Social networking has eclipsed previous web pasttimes, including email and porn, in sheer use. As many different activities become social, different services have emerged to center around specific niche activity - for example, Foursquare for location sharing and discovery, for music listening and artist discovery, and at least for a while, Blippy, which tracked my spending habits.

As an early adopter and one who likes sharing, I've embraced practically all these sites. I enjoy sharing and learning from the community, finding friends and shared interests. I like that I can explicitly use my NOOKColor to tell you I finished a book. I like that I can explicitly use Spotify to share playlists and my favorite tunes of the day, and I like that I can explicitly share from Google Reader to bring you the best from the Web I am reading. The human element, I believe, is an important one, where I signal to you what I find most valuable of all these things - what I have hand-selected for you and you specifically, to know.

There are two defining attributes of the services I've mentioned that I think are critical to enabling a positive user experience. The first is that the users who I am sharing with know just what they are getting into. They joined Foursquare to follow location updates. They joined Blippy to see purchases. They joined to see music plays. The second, if the site is more of an aggregator, like FriendFeed in its heyday for example, is that filters exist, so I can avoid seeing your tweets, or your Foursquare updates, or your Flickr photos. Both of these ensure that the user, as the consumer, maintains control over what content they see and the publisher has a choice as to what they publish.

There is value in explicit sharing with selective audiences. There is value in the audience anticipating what they will see when they choose to connect with you, and in you having the opportunity to share what you want, when you want - an inherent, unwritten, contract, that if you violate by sharing too much, too often, or too off-topic, means your connection can be broken.

Spending a lot of time listening to mainstream social networkers, such as my wife, who is not quite as embedded as I am, I hear a lot about the minutiae of people's lives that go into these networks, and the resulting annoyances about such updates. Initial responses to sites like Twitter or Foursquare was typically skeptical, in terms of why people would want the small updates, seemingly unfiltered. Obviously, as both services have reached a good level of traction, thanks in part to power users and casual alike, there is some value to microsharing, and some are on the services constantly. But quality and filtering adds value - something I've obviously been focused on with my work at my6sense and constant testing of new products to make our social networking even smarter.

Sharing is going up. This is fantastic. Enabling more apps to share and people to connect is great too. But I hope quality and curation don't fall by the wayside.

September 21, 2011

10 Google+ Searches You Can Save or Modify

1. TechCrunch OR ReadWriteWeb OR TheNextWeb

For top tech news. If you have other favorites, change the words.

2. Google+ Search for Google+

Never miss an update about Google+

3. Beautiful OR Majestic

What the world finds visually appealing.

4. lolcat

Hat tip to +Ben Huh

5. San Jose (or any location of your choice)

Searches for your city or community.

6. Millions OR Billions

The world of big numbers.

7. Rumors

Don't miss a single potential leak.

8. Obama (or your favorite politician here)

Stay on top of politics or other celebs

9. Oakland A's (or your favorite sports team)

Go teams go!'s

10. Breaking News

Make Google+ your news feed.

Let us all know some great saved searches you like. +Danny Sullivan is partial to "lol" and "Earthquake".

/via My Google+ Profile

September 19, 2011

Chasing the Rainbow: Startups and Incentives

Depending on one's role, the allure of working for a startup is the product you are building, the people you're impacting, or selfishly, what you can bring home at the end. While many talk of improving the world or impacting many users, or innovation, many others are driven by the potential that through IPO or acquisition or any other method, there is an opportunity to make money fast. It's the same reason "Get Rich Quick" ads on the backs of magazines were always popular. People love making money, and most don't always want to wait around for it. So you can buy lottery tickets, you can write an app, or you can be in business development.

The dot com boom that followed Netscape's IPO in 1995 seared Silicon Valley with the belief that anybody could turn an idea into riches. While obviously many companies before Netscape, like Apple, Oracle, Sun and Cisco, to name a few, had gone from idea to leader in a few years, the prolonged boom cycle that followed instilled what I see as a permanent chemical change into the collective psyche of the region. While many startups failed, enough did well so they were themselves participating in the next wave of new companies, playing roles as VCs or angel investors, if lucky, or setting off for a second, third, or even fourth time to hit it big, having caught the startup fever.

Since starting my own career in Silicon Valley in 1998 under the umbrella of everyone chasing after these riches, while in parallel starting companies, everywhere I have worked has had a future horizon that could potentially have a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, even if it seemed hopelessly naive at times.

Even Internet Valley, which had only three of us slaving away, talked about going public, revenue or not, and I joked that I hoped we would have a stock ticker of INTV, so that when Intel buyers accidentally hit INTV instead of INTC, we could get an artificial bump. At 3Cube, we raised $1M at a $10M valuation, then went back for another round that would see the valuation creep higher toward $50M or $100M. In 2000, that wasn't totally impossible, but we didn't exactly get there fast enough as the bubble was crashing, and the company was eventually sold to Oracle. At BlueArc, on the second day I joined, in January of 2001, I had a colleague say I was lucky to get in "before the IPO". We eventually filed six years later, and withdrew in 2008. Only this month did the company finally get acquired by HDS, giving the company's current employees and past shareholders some closure. No doubt my involvement with other companies as an advisor has had the potential for acquisition as well, although only BuzzGain has been acquired so far.

Even in hard times, the potential for financial magic remained on people's minds. I remember in one all hands meeting during the recession, after our CEO informed all of us that we had once again missed our internal sales targets, and that future news wasn't good, that one lonely engineer in the back raised his hand and asked about stock options and the potential to go public. I remember sitting, baffled, as to whether the engineer had heard the same news I did. Apparently he didn't, or he didn't connect one as impacting the other. While I had been happy to keep a consistent job during times of challenge, for others, the missed promise of riches versus reality made them frustrated with management, colleagues, or anyone who would listen. For them, creating something cool and bringing value to end users wasn't enough.

Being a key player in a startup where things seem to be just out of reach, but around the corner, can also be an incredible challenge. Too many times, I would have to tell my wife or friends or extended family to wait a few weeks until something would change. For an entire season, it could seem like things were "two weeks away", but the impetus to make change lay in someone else's hands.

Living a startup lifestyle for more than a decade has made me expect and accept many things that seem odd to those who haven't made it part of their fabric. The avoidance of vacation and sleep. The odd hours and inconsistent meals, the regular peaks and valleys of launches, releases, and announcements, and having to say no to things a lot more than one would otherwise want, seems odd to people who I know who are in the public sector, in education, or unchanging businesses. As we know, unfortunately, teachers can't have a liquidity event, even if they are just as deserving as some of the people you know who chose their career paths well.

Entrepreneurial behavior should be rewarded, and risk, coupled with innovation, sets one up on a track for seeing value in one's work. I have to wonder how many startups you run into that would behave differently if there were no potential to catch the rainbow. How much differently would they approach their product, growing their user base, and hustling from deal to deal, quarter to quarter?

September 16, 2011

Is There a Digital Divide In Your Family?

Do the Men In Your Family Do Tech Different Than the Ladies?

In my family, I have two brothers and two sisters, so our nuclear unit is made up of seven people, four men and three women. It has been interesting to watch how my parents and my brothers and sisters have approached and adopted technology - to see if they are early adopters, fast followers, laggards or simply opt out. No matter the tech, be it new gadgets or new Web services, the pattern is pretty standard in our home.

After me, I can expect my mother (+Terrie Gray) and youngest sister (+Malinda Gray) will try a product. They may not get deep into every single one and want to tell the world, like I do, but they form an opinion and generally know their stuff. In fact, at one point or another, both my mom and sister have worked for Apple. My mom worked for PowerSchool, which was part of Apple at one point, and my sister works in Apple Retail as an Apple Genius.

Beyond those two, however, there is a gap. My second sister and my oldest brother may get accounts, but participation is pretty slim. And if you go further down the line, my dad and youngest brother are the least like to have any accounts or gadgets. Neither one of them has a Google+ account, and neither one has a Facebook account either. I remember years ago my dad wouldn't even sign up to the company newsletter I wrote until he had read through the company's privacy policy to ensure I wasn't going to give his email address away.

If you read much of the press, you'll come away thinking that men are the overwhelming early adopters. We're certainly the loudest. But on Google+, my wife (+Kristine Gray), mother and sister are here, and the rest of the family will need a small push. In extended family, I have aunts and female cousins who are here, but again, the men need a push. It's quite interesting to me to see that.

What is your experience? Does your family have the same digital divide, and how are you seeing geekiness spread by gender in your home?

/via My Google+ Profile

September 12, 2011

In-App Purchases: By Account or Device?

In a world where the Web is increasingly consumed on mobile devices, and applications on iOS, Android or other platforms continue to proliferate, developers are turning to in-app purchases to drive revenue, not just for premium applications, but for free applications that often get you in the door, but entice you to pay up for additional features. But what many developers aren't preparing for is a world where consumers have multiple devices, but carry the same apps - putting the customer's data at risk, tied to a single device, even when a centralized cloud solution seems like a reasonable and much more modern, alternative.

Traditionally, premium software vendors have asked customers to pay on a per-install basis. Want to run Adobe Photoshop on multiple computers? You have to pay a multi-user license. Want to run Microsoft Office for the whole family? Get a family pack. But on the mobile side, thanks in large part to Apple's leadership on the iTunes store, and other app stores, including the Android Market (tied to one's Google account), premium and free applications are synched on a per-user basis. Want to upgrade your iPod or iPhone? A sync with iTunes should get your apps back. Purchase the latest Android tablet or phone? Log into Google with your account, and the Android Market will start feeding you your apps.

That said, synchronization of content between devices is comparatively poor. For every cloud-based app like Gmail or Spotify that recognizes your ID and displays your information on every device, one finds applications that live on your phone or tablet, and don't communicate to any parallel installs you have. (See iTunes' guidance on this issue) This leads to the very common issue known by any Angry Birds addict, who finds themselves conquering the same levels from phone to phone to computer or even on Chrome, instead of starting where they left off. If you love killing pigs and burning time, that's wonderful, but I'd bet many people would find it valuable to log in with their account on any device, and continue where they left off. Some apps, like Barnes and Noble's NOOK app, do this very well, but many miss the target.

The situation becomes even more complicated with the advent of in-app purchases. Forget about the Mighty Eagle (just one dollar per level!) in Angry Birds. You can purchase weapons and tools galore for sports games and strategy games on your smartphone, but many application developers are making the purchase much like they did in the traditional sense - assigned by device, not tied to your Apple account or your Google account. That means that not only do your premium purchases not follow you from device to device, but even worse, if you have to reinstall your mobile OS for whatever reason, you've lost the in-app purchase data, and probably a bunch of the app's history as well.

Living on the bleeding edge of early adopterdom as I do, I've learned to be flexible with the occasional bumps. I got hit with this in-app issue this summer when I had the chance to reinstall Honeycomb on my Android tablet from Samsung, only to lose the in-app purchases I'd made on the 9 Innings baseball game, along with dozens and dozens of games played and players acquired. While I didn't have to rebuy the app itself, which is great, I was starting on Opening Day all over again. That's nuts.

I can understand application developers wanting to ensure they receive appropriate payment for their apps being downloaded and enjoyed. I think the functionality of in-app purchases is a great expansion of mobile commerce. But in a Web-centric mobile world with centralized accounts, storing one's application data on the device, without backup in the cloud, seems short sighted. Many of us carry multiple devices, and may some day upgrade our phones and tablets. It'd make more sense for me that we can do so without fear of losing our progress and our premium buys.