Tech trends and business ideas

All things that motivate entrepreneurs

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The cynic is right

I had almost given up on the prospect of social networks ever making money. Targeted ads? Hardly work, so long as it doesn't exactly settle the question of whether targeting, even if it avoids the worst of users' privacy concerns, will ever be able to punch through the attention barrier. Now I get an endorsement from Technology Review.

“Advertising on Google works because visitors come to Google looking for specific information. If a user who types "scooter" in the site's search field is hoping to buy a scooter, the keyword ads that appear at the right of the search results can be more useful than the results themselves. In social networks, on the other hand, users show up to find friends; ads are, at best, irrele­vant to that goal. The click-through rates on social-­networking sites bear this out. While around 2 percent of Google users actually click on a given ad (and the number is much higher when users are conducting searches for purchasing reasons), [less] than .04 percent of Facebook users do….”
Call me a cynic. Still it doesn’t stop me from letting you in on some consensus. Before we see sophisticated databases that are applying social mapping to ad display and selection, we'll see something much more basic, like funneling people into channels that advertisers already understand how to buy. Not many advertisers want to be up on user-generated sites, because it's not where they want their brands to be. Sites like MySpace and Facebook have made progress with some advertisers by the sheer magnitude of their traffic and audience. But it's a work in progress, given advertisers' reluctance to associate their brands with sometimes-inappropriate user material.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Google smashing foundation

Looks like finally here’s something that could give Google a taste of what it has been giving to others by rote – competition. Nokia announced it was acquiring 52% outstanding shares in an all cash deal ($410 mn) in the Symbian software platform, bunching all versions into one, and turning that over to a foundation for free, open-source release.

The move certainly has ramifications across the smartphone landscape. Strategically, the formation of the Symbian Foundation and the opening of the Symbian platform is an aggressive pre-emptive strike against Google, its Open Handset Alliance and its open-source Android mobile platform. Perfectly timed too, since Android seems to be falling behind schedule.

Om Malik sees the move as part of the industry's adjusting to a new set of realities, chief among them the need for speed -- in churning out new handsets fast enough for fickle fashion and in allowing developers to keep pace without the burdens of multiple proprietary platforms. Now the question is just how much openness the carriers will agree to.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 23, 2008

Your Indian mobile bill is a rip off

So now you know why Vodafone bade $13 billion for HutchEssar and how Telcos make money – thro pure rip off. The Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) claims that STD calls can be offered at 15 paise/minute and local calls can be free on the same network, if the government permits unrestricted domestic internet telephony. ISD call rates can further come down to 50 paise per minute on same IP network, and in other IP network 75 paise. And if you want to call on a mobile or fixed line from an IP phone, STD call rates can be offered at 50 paise per minute, claims ISPAI.

Currently, STD call rates on mobile networks are about Re 1 per minute while local rates range from 80 paise to Rs 1. Operators such as Airtel and Vodafone charge Re 1.50 and Re 2.75 per minute for a STD call whereas a call from India to the US or UK costs cheaper at 95 paise per minute, or lower through the internet protocol (IP) telephony. The same call to the US or UK through a mobile cost Rs 6.40.

Interestingly, many telecom operators currently route their domestic calls through the IP network. Says ISPAI president Rajesh Charria, “As admitted by many operators, they are routing the call through the IP networks and still charging exorbitant call rates.” Global giants such as Google, AT&T, Cisco, Microsoft and Nortel are backing the ISPs in their demand for allowing unrestricted IP Telephony.

Even with all the experimentation is going on in mobile communications, we don’t see customer benefiting in the near term. The handset landscape is starting to look like "The Island of Doctor Moreau," murky territory where industries interbreed in ways not seen before. Search companies working on handsets, handset companies working on social networking. All this may give you feature richness and the handset makers some reason to charge a higher cost for the handset, the calling costs will remain so high for customers -- it's just not natural, I tell ya.
Check this out for yourself –

a) Google, trying to herd a crowd of developers, manufacturers and carriers toward deployment of handsets based on its open source Android platform, is getting a quick lesson on the benefits of absolute monarchy over messy democracy when it comes to efficiency.

b) Nokia is working on its own transformation, from a simple handset manufacturer to a device maker that also serves as a hub for all manner of mobile communications and entertainment. Through its Ovi gateway, Nokia is integrating photo and video sharing, music services, mapping, and now, with the buyout of Germany's Plazes, location-based social networking.

c) Google is being slowed by the need to juggle all the individual requirements and schedules of a horde of stakeholders, and as a result, the launch of the first Android phones will slide toward the end of the year. So is Sprint Nextel’s efforts to get an Android phone being set back and that of China mobile having to push back its launch plans.
You might as well see that IP telephony in most developed markets such as the US, Singapore is unregulated, resulting in drastic fall in call rates. For instance, a $2.5 (Rs 100) calling card offers a 30 minute call to India from US which comes to a per minute rate of Rs 3.33 for an ISD call from US to India. Whereas in India, the mobile operators offer the same call at double the price for a call to the US. Some others offer India calling at 4.2 cents per minute or Rs 1.60 per minute, almost one-sixth the ISD rate offered by operators in India.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Like rats from a sinking ship

Being burrow dwellers by nature, rats live in the deepest recesses of the ship, in the bilge. This area is so low as to be almost inaccessible to the sailors. Thus the rats become aware of water entering the ship some time before the crew is alerted. As their nesting places are flooded, the rodents are impelled to flee the ship. Their continuous shrill cries of alarm quickly summon the rest of the rats from the hold. They build up into a large, frightened mass of rodents making a panicky exodus. This is, of course, a final calamity for the rats, since they will try to swim to eternity and usually do.

It is quite natural that a sight such as this would incite the passengers and crew to an equally hasty, harried departure but one that ends less disastrously. So when a series of high profile desertions happen in a company as big as Yahoo, you know what to make of it.

Microsoft, thwarted in its efforts to acquire all or part of Yahoo, would likely be happy to talk with any such big-name defectors, but in seeking to catch the overflow from the Yahoo brain drain, it's putting out the welcome mat for any of the discouraged rank and file, particularly those involved in search. It runs ads that scream "There are now very few companies that remain truly committed to defining the future of search and online advertising," the ad reads. "Microsoft is one of them. Come join a company with the resources, engineering expertise, R&D, partnerships and competitive spirit to make it happen."

Mmm, nothing like a big meal of poached Yahoo :)

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"The goddamn thing should be zippy and relevant"

In a column about Nick Carr’s Atlantic article in the Sunday Times (London), Andrew Sullivan draws on his personal experience as a prolific blogger to describe what the Web has given and what it has taken away. He avers the online culture and web utilities like email, IM, Google search, linking etc., is making him highly intolerant and seeking instant nirvana.

“When it comes to sitting down and actually reading a multiple-page print-out, or even, God help us, a book, however, my mind seizes for a moment. After a paragraph, I’m ready for a new link. But the prose in front of my nose stretches on....

....Is this a new way of thinking? And will it affect the way we read and write? If blogging is corrosive, the same could be said for Grand Theft Auto, texting and Facebook messaging, on which a younger generation is currently being reared. But the answer is surely yes – and in ways we do not yet fully understand. What we may be losing is quietness and depth in our literary and intellectual and spiritual lives.”

I don’t think so. I think it saves me a lot of junk read. It cuts down a lot of clutter and takes us to the real `it’. I am quickly up to what I want and get back to work. In the process, I get entertained and don’t overshoot and waste time. A lot of stuff that we used to read was random, had not always been out of choice; we did that because we were seeking something specific that we didn’t know where to find. But today, I know and I stay informed in split second. My craving for quick answers could deprive me of the empty stage needed for honest discovery. They say the new knowledge can't be reached if our minds don't pass through the "not-knowing" stages. So, what’s wrong? Ok. You be the radical and use your inner search field, I’d be the incremental using Google search and bringing up pill-sized solutions because I may be wired that way.

If I feel I want to immerse myself in a literary soup, I can always reach for a book. But the goddamn thing will have to be zippy and relevant – just like the google search ;) It's got to be a call to writers than a cautioning of readers...

Labels: ,

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hey AP, come on, get me!

Associated Press (AP) hates linking. As a blogger, I love it. Why? It drives traffic, keeps my context live and my post relevant. And, I don’t even write for profit. I just want my opinion to be published and read and reacted upon. AP does it for a living. It needs numbers and if readers like what comes along from AP, they might be its future subscribers and patrons. So it has all the more reason why it should love or at least, not object to linking. But last week it did the unthinkable – it went ahead and complained against Drudge Retort with a take-down request under DMCA.

Nobody gets away messing with blogosphere. AP learnt it the hard way getting thumped down. There were rebuffs, retorts and more fulminations. After getting righteously ripped across the blogosphere for demanding that the satire site Drudge Retort remove seven brief excerpts of AP stories, the organization decided that its letter was ham-fisted and that it would rethink its policy on bloggers and links.

As I see it, the fair-use exceptions have been established by law and judicial interpretation; individual copyright holders don't get to create a custom version. AP is welcome to go through the exercise, but in the end, it would have to convince a judge that headline-and-blurb links back to its content and its clients causes it financial damage, an argument that is both dubious and counterintuitive. Let's say it again, though we shouldn't have to. Reposting full text of copyright material is a Bad Thing. Posting a link to copyright material and enough of an excerpt to encourage a click-through is a Good Thing. It drives traffic, raises visibility and weaves the source material into an ongoing conversation. Getting linked is what you want to happen to your content.

The best take for me was that of Michael Arrington - "Here's our new policy on A.P. stories: they don't exist. We don't see them, we don't quote them [and] we don't link to them. They're banned until they abandon this new strategy, and I encourage others to do the same until they back down from these ridiculous attempts to stop the spread of information around the Internet." This, of course, will have about the same impact as those periodic calls for a gas boycott, but still, it's a message AP really needs to get its head around as it works on the next write-through.

If AP finds runways slippery, it should abort landing or takeoff to avoid runway overshoots. Not all excursions could be easy. [Yikes! I linked to AP through Yahoo again!... now come on, get me:)]

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I would fire Ballmer for a different reason

So with Gates out of the gate, let’s fire Ballmer?

Bill Gates was a geek when he started out. He went on to build a monster. Now by the end of this month, he is about to call it quits handing over the reins to Steve Ballmer, a salesman at heart. Where is Microsoft headed?

Remember how he won the browser war upstaging Netscape and the way he got Windows Media Player chew up Real Media and other competitors? Courts may have caught up with him eventually, but by then others were smashed to pulp. May be Microsoft is not yet fully out of the woods on those counts; but what is an occasional billion dollar fine when you're making multiple billions in profit every quarter? It’s just another cost of doing business.

Can Ballmer execute it with that clinical precision? We know what happened to Vista under Ballmer. Ballmer is fat and Microsoft is already gasping for breath under his dead weight. He’s now working hard and that is all the more reason why they should worry more as shareholders and we as its customers (if at all).

“Ballmer can't do the job. If I were in charge of Microsoft, I'd fire Ballmer” – says Steven J. Vaughan. I would second that for a different reason though – for even thinking of buying Yahoo for $47 billion. A company that will come a lot cheap a few years down the line with a clueless Jerry Yang and a hawkish Carl Icahn - who can't spell WEB even if you spot a W and an E for him - at the top.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Simplicity sells; only when packaged right

Even in fields such as the computer industry that celebrates innovation, systemic change can be glacial. New chips are an easy sell. The idea of reinventing the computer case from the ground up is a harder one. Hyperlink was invented in 1960 and the mouse in 1964, but to get enterprises to mass produce, it took almost three decades more. The lesson - for early adoption, give customers change in the mode they understand.

I was reading this NYT piece about Jay Harman, an Australian naturalist who relies on fluid dynamics to improve the design of everything from simple fans and pumps to hydroelectric dams and aircraft.
Mr. Harman is a practitioner of *biomimicry*, a growing movement of the industrial-design field. Eleven years ago, he established Pax Scientific to commercialize his ideas, thinking that it would take only a couple of years to convince companies that they could increase efficiency, lower noise or create entirely new categories of products by following his approach. But customers aren’t cutting checks yet. In March, the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla made a significant investment in Pax Streamline, founded to pursue a new generation of wind turbines and air-conditioning systems. Enterprises that build out huge data centers, take note (they spend more on utility bills to keep their servers cool than for data storage/processing). It’s far better than setting up data centers in Siberia where you expect to keep it cool by throwing open a few windows.

Innovation has always faced adoption hurdles. Harman didn’t have to look farther than his own advisors to realize that. Paul Saffo, one of his advisers and a Silicon Valley technology analyst often strums up this simple dictum: “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

Need I say more about customers that pay?

Labels: ,