28 May 2009

Fighting old wars vs Claiming the Future

If anyone wants to understand why so many of us think Microsoft is completely screwed when it comes to the internet, the future, etc. - and why (conversely) we all think Google is going to simply own the future... today gave a brilliant and nearly perfect illustration of the situation.

Today Microsoft started the launch of "Bing" - their new search engine. This is the (latest) attempt by Microsoft at being relevant in the web search space. Microsoft is planning to spend an estimated $80MM to $100MM advertising this new site.

Meanwhile, today Google announced a new product called "Wave" - which is described as a system to reinvent online communication.

Search is, as we all know, the current dominant paradigm for finding content / products / sites / services on the internet. It is also (by far) the largest segment of the online advertising market. And Google dominates the internet search space.

So... it makes sense for Microsoft to aggressively go after this market, right?

Well.... not so much maybe. There are two things to consider.
First - as Fred Wilson put it (brilliantly as always):
If Google's power over the web wanes, and I think it will in time, it will not likely be the result of Microsoft or someone else replacing it as the default search service. It will be because new default functions emerge that lessen the number of times we want to use the search function.
Second (and directly related to the above) - Search is eroding as the dominant paradigm. With the rise of real-time internet communication systems (Twitter et al) and the increasingly critical nature of social sites and services (Facebook et al) Search is largely surviving on inertia.

In his announcement Steve Balmer said something that perfectly illustrate Microsoft's thinking (and why it's likely to be fatal for Microsoft):
There is no way to change the whole game in one step.... But search deserves a good feature war.
Microsoft seems incapable of adapting to either the pace of change in internet technology (and especially real-time internet) or the implications of these changes. The problems with search are not feature related. The last thing we need on the internet is MS Office style feature bloat. Looking at the screenshots provided of Bing - it's clear that Microsoft has also failed to understand why Google displaced Yahoo and Altavista (back in the day).

So... to sum up, Microsoft is fighting a war it's already lost. And it's fighting it using strategies and tactics that don't fit the situation. But most of all, it's fighting a war that doesn't even matter. If Microsoft wins this war it will find that its spent hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve something that is longer of value. As Mark Kortekaas from the BBC put it - "it's like that lone Japanese WWII soldier still hiding out on an island in the Pacific somewhere, ready to hold off the Marines."

Meanwhile... over at Google they have grasped what the combination of real-time internet and social media are going to mean. They see where the future is going. And they are launching something that is designed to dominate that future. They've clearly looked at Tweetdeck, Seesmic, FriendFeed etc -- and they've realized that they can do what all these companies are trying to do - and can do it bigger an better than any of them.

When you look at what Wave is going to be, four things become clear.

First - this might be the single most ambitious product Google has ever launched.

Second - they have clearly grasped (for the first time) that the web needs a good system to provide for the sort of multi-variant communication that has emerged from the users. It needs to provide for one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one and many-to-many -- in realtime, asychronous and on-demand manners.

Third - they also understand the forms of media (image, video, audio) are a fundamental part of conversations on the internet.

Fourth - they clearly get that the future is going to be driven by what some call "channels" and others call "stacks". They get that systems like Wave are not "portals" but are rather integrated systems that can function as a "site" or a piece of "software" but are also infrastructure that can be built upon. By thinking of Wave as a Cloud system, and starting from day one with the goal of creating the system in a manner that can be extended, built upon, and integrated - and by creating APIs to do this from the start - they have built something that can be used as one would an SaaS product (or, for that matter, Platform-as-a-Service or even Data-as-a-Service).

So Microsoft is fighting the old war for a non-prize.
And meanwhile, Google is laying claim to the territory where future dominance will be decided.

And now you should understand why so many of us look at Microsoft and just shake our heads in dismay while watching Google's every move. And you should also understand why so few of us have any respect for so-called "technology media" -- because we know most of you are going to spend the next 24 hours talking endlessly about Bing while ignorning Wave.

You've been warned.

21 May 2009

Does so-called "Crowd Sourcing" result in Mediocrity?

I've always been uneasy with the idea that large masses of people possess greater insight and wisdom than individuals. I understand that this concept plays to something deeply embedded in the American value system - a rejection of the concept of an "elite" and the celebration of the "common man."

I've worried that this deep tie to something so non-rational -- something so central to our national psyche - is blinding us to fundamental flaws in the concept.

Ironically, it was the reaction to the results of American Idol (a show, to be honest, which I don't watch) that suddenly illuminated the issues for me.
In my view, this American Idol result completely refutes James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, about how crowdsourced results always get it right. - Dean Takahashi
It's not just that people feel like the result was wrong - it's where they put the blame that is so interesting to me. Takahashi (being a tech writer) points at the voting system itself. Others blame themselves ("I should have voted", "Why did I only vote once?" "We have only ourselves to blame"). And finally, when watching Twitter trends today, you see tons of people blaming everyone else ("American TV watchers are idiots", "You people have no taste, how could you vote for Kris?" "Were any of you actually watching the damn show?!?").

All of this reminded me of my younger days. I spent a lot of time studying the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This resulted in a lot of supplementary study in the areas of Crowd Psychology and Collective Consciousness.

I think it's in these areas of study that I find the cause of my doubts in "crowd sourcing."

Crowd Psychology - and in particular theories like Emergent-Norm behaviors and Convergency Theory - exposes deep flaws in the idea that large masses of people are going to provide insights or wisdom that is different from or better than what you would get from individuals. In fact, many theorists would argue that crowds merely follow the lead of select individuals. Others, more concerns, argue that crowds inherently start to produce non-rational, "lowest common denominator" actions.

If you want to become really doubtful, you could even apply the thinkings of Herd Mentality theorists - where large group behaviors become heavily driven by a fear of "being cast out of the group." This is considered to lead to the sort of "Mob Behaviors" that were used as fear-mongering tactics by many politicians world wide for the last hundred plus years.

Fundamentally, I now think that large masses of people do not produce wisdom or insight. Large masses of people produce momentum and can be leveraged to create change. But the "spark" (a push to move the group in a direction - that moment of insight - or true wisdom) is almost always created by individuals.

Yeah... I know that TONS of people are going to disagree. Before you start shouting - I'd suggest you go and read a little about the topics. I could well be wrong here - but let's make sure we all know what we're talking about. I'd suggest reading Freud, Gustave Le Bon, Theodor Adorno, Ralph Turner and Elias Canetti on the subject.

Finally... a weird random thought...
Is the whole idea of the "wisdom of crowds" somehow also tied into the culture of computer science and technology? Are we somehow thinking of humans as meat processors - where more equals better faster deeper?

Update: Well.... another small issue with "crowdsourcing" - illustrated once again through American Idol. If someone involved in the set-up of the effort wishes to - it's far far too easy to "game" the system. Is this "crowd-washing" in that case?

15 May 2009

Social Distribution and Traffic Generation

I wondered the other day - is Social Distribution becoming a source of traffic to rival SEM? Is the power of the Stream something that will change the paradigm when it comes to getting people to your site?

Some entirely non-scientific data to support this theory...

I checked my blogs. Here is what I found...

Traffic to the sites in the last week was:
23% direct sourced
35% referred traffic
42% search sourced traffic

Traffic to the sites in that same week in 2008 was:
35% direct sourced
16% referred traffic
49% search sourced traffic

In 2009 the top referring sites were (in order):

In 2008 the top referring sites were (in order):

Two things to note....

1 - It looks like the majority of traffic is being taken away from Direct traffic. I'm guessing a lot of this is email clients to be honest. In other words, instead of emailing links to each other - we're sharing them using Twitter, Facebook, etc.

2 - This does at least indicate that it is a valid theory that Social Distribution is a legitimate focus area for Traffic Generation for websites.

14 May 2009

The Web is a Strange Loop

In the beginning, the process of finding information on the web was largely driven by a sense of exploration and discovery. As the amount of information grew and this quest became more directed, we saw the rise of sites that provided information about this information. Sites like the NSCA and Cern meta indices became the most valuable resources on the web.

The number of sites continued to increase (explosively) and this lead to sites the provided more than simple lists of sites (organized or not). Sites like Akebono.stanford.edu (which became Yahoo) and the Netscape site (not only the index but more importantly "What's New/What's Cool") became the default starting points for any ventures into the frontier of the web.

Information on the web continued to grow (more explosively) but more importantly, so did the number of users on the web. As we passed the tipping point from the early adopter geeks (who were willing to put up with cryptic and user-unfriendly methods of finding information) and progressed into the mass market (where people needed simplicity and most importantly were not simply on a voyage of discovery) we saw the rise of searchable indices.

Eventually, Google became the default starting point for the web - as the simplest and most directed searchable index. The trouble is that information has continued to explode across the web. And more importantly, the types of information on the web have expanded immensely (along with the formats of that information). Real-time communication (twitter, IM), Video (YouTube, Vimeo), TV (Hulu, boxee) and personal data (Facebook, LinkedIn) present enormous challenges for a searchable index as a default starting point. In addition, the inevitable growth of the user base has continued - and more importantly, as usage of the web as a social medium has exploded, this user base has started to fragment and self-organize.

And now we are seeing a return to the beginning - what Hofstadter defined as a "Strange Loop" (thanks Gong) - where segmentation and curation is once again emerging as a default starting point.

If someone can figure out how to integrate Social Distribution and the power of the Stream with Curation - they're going to have a winner. At least until we cycle through the hierarchy yet again.

12 May 2009

designing products

Fundamentally, designing a product is an attempt to create something that people will not only desire but also cherish.

So why is so much product design run as if it were a functional (rather than emotional) process with success the result of logic? Why is so much product design a profoundly non-human experience? Even anti-human!

This makes no sense.

Where this seems worst is in digital products.
IMHO, the abilities required to create a digital product that people desire and cherish are the same as needed to create a physical one.
But in digital products - the role of "rational thought" has been elevated so far above the "non-rational" emotional responses as to make the process of designing such a product incredibly sterile -- and the products that emerge reflect this.
If we were all Vulcans - then we would make a decision on which competitive digital product to use primarily based on things like Usability.
But we're not Vulcans. So why do we design these products as if Usability is more important than Emotional Response?

This is why so few digital products tell a story.
And this is why people actually care about so few digital products.

It's time to inject some feeling back into the world of digital product design.