Archive for the ‘Business’ Category:


Rethinking Social Networks : How To Replace Facebook

Facebook engancha

It seems like Facebook has got sufficiently sticky that we will never be able to usurp it from its position.  Altavista felt that way once, but all it took was for a new startup to come along and do things better.  Lets say we want to usurp Facebook – how would we do it?

The first thing we have to do is make money.  Even if we want to get VCs involved, I think they would still want to see some sort of monetization plan.  I also think that, right now, app.net are right – you don’t want the money to come from adverts.  However, app.net seem to suggest the solution is charging the user a subscription.  I’m not sure about that.  If you want to create the ideal Facebook killer you want to get lots of people there – and a subscription is a gatekeeper.

I have a different idea to monetize the social network (a plan, which incidentally, encourages it to be a better platform too):  the network is funded by an app store.  This might seem odd, until you realise that almost all publishing on the network could be an app – and that only apps sold via the app store could interact with the various apis.  Apps could either be ad-supported (in which case, we would take a cut of the advertising), in-app purchase supported (in which case we would take a cut of the purchasing), or price supported (we get a cut, you get the picture).

To explain further – we would create a social network where you would get access to read anything posted to you – and perhaps to post twitter size posts to up to 100 followers.  This would suit most people.  If you want to add pictures to your post, you’ll need to buy the ‘add pictures’ app.  If you want to have more followers, or to be able to push your posts to particular people, we’ll provide apps.  Want to write longer articles?  We can provide the means.  Want to do something we can’t even think of?  We’ll make an api so that other people can do it – so long as they follow the rules of our framework (and our app store guidelines).  Want to use your phone to read – you can do it for free from our mobile site, or, if you need an app – there will be one (but it will be ad supported, to pay for the cost of development).  Want to post from your phone – that’ll be an in app purchase.

Most of these apps would be a one off purchase.  We might also charge for storage above a limit (I’ve long believed storage should usually be a one off purchase price – if you’re making people rent storage, you should probably be thinking about making people pay for something like data transmission instead).  We might charge a recurring fee for some ‘enterprise level’ features – but only to skim lots of income from big companies.  People will keep coming back.  People will want multiple accounts.  Each account will need apps.  We will keep making money – but we will be making it from our biggest fans – from the people who want to pay us.

So we have a monetization plan.  How do we get people to the new service?

The answer is:  we make it easy.

Facebook seems to provide a few services

  • Find and keep up with old friends (or at least don’t lose track of them totally)
  • Keep up with current friends, and arrange activities
  • Stay in touch with celebrities
  • Do some amount of microblogging
  • Play multiplayer games
  • Store & publish photos

My guess is we don’t want to replicate all of these – at least not to attract people.  I suggest right off that we don’t worry about the finding and keeping up with old friends aspect.  That’ll come to the new platform when enough people are there.  Celebrities will do the same.  We want to be a good platform for them to blog on, but not spend our time trying to encourage them.

The app store monetization strategy suggests games are a good thing to support.  It isn’t my interest, but it will attract people.

The other area to support strongly is microblogging and publishing of photos.  Now this is harder – why blog on a platform which no-one uses?  My answer is we make it better, and we make it easier to share.  Anyone can read things you publish to the world (and there is no reason why you can’t syndicate such content to other social network feeds, along with a linkback).  What if you just want to publish to a small group?  You could always use email to share your content.  Not just to link to our site, but to share what you are writing.  We have no need for people to come to our site – unless they want to use it to publish – so why not work on making the mailbox the hub of the social experience?  Of course, people are not going to want your tweets in tiny one line emails, so how about trying to create some sort of ‘what I’m up to’ life journal digest you can send out.  Tweets for followers, longer blogs & photo albums to email readers.

Of course, any email address we send your digest to, we remember.  If you come to our site later, and log on with that email address, it will be pre-populated with all the people who have sent you their digests.  Because each email would have to offer you the opportunity of turning the digests off, the link to do this would encourage you to log in with your email address – and show you what is available.  You might also consider allowing the links to take you directly to your own page (in the zero-login, cookie only, format I described a few days ago… this might have problems though, as I would suspect these links and emails might be very forwardable.  That said, commenting by replying to emails, facebook style, would have to be supported.

This wouldn’t be an overnight success – but it would provide a pathway to something which could grab people virally, and wouldn’t require people to use the site themselves unless they wanted to.  And to get people to want to use the site?  Well, it would simply have to be better for them to use than Facebook - and given how hard Facebook seems to be trying to drive people like me away, that can’t be too difficult.

 

Rethinking Social Networks : The App.Net move

Social Network

Social Networks are high in people’s minds right now.  Twitter is annoying its developers, trying to become an island rather than the convenient platform it used to be.  Facebook is a mess, a jumble of confusing options, an unfriendly interface, and adverts jumping out at every corner – it reminds me more of the pre-Google Altavista than anything else.  And there is reaction to this.  The Diaspora project seems to have gone nowhere, but newcomer App.Net has hit a kickstarter target – and, by getting enough people to make a cash commitment has become interesting.

App.Net makes two points:

  • At the moment, the customers of social networking sites are not the users, but the advertisers.  So long as the users are tied in, they will remain, and their eyeballs will be able to be exchanged for the contents of advertisers wallets.  A social network designed for users needs to be funded by the users – they need to be the customers
  • What makes a social network work is when it ceases to be a website and becomes a platform

Its worth describing two geek fallacies before we continue:

Fallacy 1:  Any good internet project is distributed in nature.

This is the flaw of Diaspora.  Geeks love us some hard distributed systems problems, but the take away from the user the simplicity of going to a single place – the same place as everyone else – to get what they want.  Distributed technologies such as social media require people to provide servers – but these servers have to be paid for, so people will charge.  Charging isn’t too bad, except any such server must, by its nature be a commodity, there is little room for differentiation.  It is hard to see why anyone would want to get into this game – see the decline of usenet servers as an example.

Fallacy 2: It is all about the platform

UIs are for wusses.  What matters is the clever technology underneath.  This is both true, and false.  What matters to must users is that users get the features they are looking for – it doesn’t matter if the backend has some hyper-clever architecture or runs in Spectrum BASIC if it does the job and keeps out of the way.  Geeks think differently – they want to know that their lives are going to remain easy as they interact with the system over time, so they design platforms which you can build good products on top of, but don’t care that much about the product.  I fear this might be what app.net are doing.  I hope I’m proven wrong.

Where app.net have been clever is in using Kickstarter for some cash.  Not because they needed the cash (if you can convince that number of individuals to pony up $50, you can probably convince some investors to do likewise).  Getting the cash gave app.net some publicity, because Kickstarter is hot right now, and social networks are causing consternation – and for a social network to get going, it needs publicity.  But it also got a number of people to tie themselves into the service – and the sort of people who would fund a new social network are early adopters, the thought leaders in the social sphere, and this could be very important to app.net’s growth.

But it could be more important to the people who paid for the developers licence.

Right now, if I wanted to try something new and interesting in the social world, I would seriously consider tying it in with app.net – because its a small market of exactly the sort of people you want playing with your fresh idea.

I don’t think there is anything special about app.net in itself, but I expect it to be a breeding ground for interesting social graph based applications.  So in app.net’s case, perhaps by building the platform, they are doing the right thing, even if it isn’t the right thing for them.

Incidentally, I have a number of thoughts about the next moves that could be made in social networking – I’ll be writing about them over the next few days.

The Home Based Co-worker

This isn’t an idea I like.  It is not something I would ever want in my life.  But it is something which would improve the quality of my wife’s life dramatically – which has to be a good thing.

You see, Adelina, my wife, is a people person.  And right now, she is setting up her own business – which means an awful lot of working from home.  It has become clear that a lack of people in her work day means lower productivity – or higher irritability.  She has a number of ways to cope with this – her social life has rocketed into space.  But it seems to me there ought to be a solution:

“Have you considered a Co-working space?” I asked.

She had. But they cost money, you can’t choose who Co-works with you, and you have to spend some of your day commuting to them, which takes away one of the key benefits of working from home.

Then, the other night, Adelina was getting on with some work while chatting with a friend on Skype.  She got more work done than normal.  And my idea began to grow:

So – here it is:

First thing in the morning you log into coworkingfromhome.com

Coworkingfromhome lets you sign up to be ‘seated’ close to people who have described their work with similar words.  Picked similar areas of interest.  It lets you upload a photo of yourself.  And it lets you talk – by VOIP, or by IM to the people you are seated near – either as group, or directly.  If you don’t like someone you are seated near, you can block them – they’ll just see you as leaving the office, and you’ll never need to hear from them again.  Or you can mute them (and they’ll know – it’ll be like you have your headphones on)

The concept of seating is probably the thing that makes this unique – imagine an office as an infinitely long table.  When you sit down, you chose the point on the table where other people who are like you also sit.  Moreover, you choose to sit near people you’ve sat with before, if at all possible to build up a sense of community.  Throughout the day, you can simply chat as you work, without having to put much effort in to the two or three people nearest you – and they can chat to people near them.  Everyone will have a slightly different group of people their talking is carried over to, and you can always move down the table to join in what sounds like an interesting conversation (the further people are away from you, they quieter their voices are played over voip)

What you’ll wind up with is something that provides the social value of an office workplace, and perhaps even offers valuable contacts, without the need to travel.  It won’t be a replacement for real face to face socialising, but it will provide you with a stream of constant sociability, which can keep your work rate up.

And the best thing about this idea?  If I ever work from home, I won’t have to use it.  Peace and quiet – thats the dream!

Why you should develop your web app in public

For mortals – those of us not gifted with insane levels of insight about how other people work – the process of design goes something like this:

Find out about a problem

Figure out a way to solve that problem

Come up with a suggested way of solving the problem

Show the suggested solution to someone who has the problem

Listen to what they have to say about it

Change your understanding of the problem

Iterate.

 

This is true when it comes to designing the next ubercool widget, and its true when designing the stodgiest piece of business management software.  It is true when designing web apps.  Unless you have a huge usability lab and can fund focus groups, your best way of testing web app ideas is to get them out there, in front of people, and see what they think, so that you can iterate and improve the design.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and came to the conclusion that it might be a good idea to do all of your web app development in public – not just making the app available online, but also the source code.  It was an idea which gnawed away at the back of my skull, not fully formed, until I read the following article http://techblog.netflix.com/2012/07/open-source-at-netflix-by-ruslan.html and specifically the following quote:

We’ve observed that the peer pressure from “Social Coding” has driven engineers to make sure code is clean and well structured, documentation is useful and up to date.  What we’ve learned is that a component may be “Good enough for running in production, but not good enough for Github”.

I want to explore wether the benefits of opening your web app code to the world outweigh the disadvantages.

Lets start by remembering that we have had this argument before.  Back in the late nineties we were discussing wether Open Source code was the way forward.  Gradually that argument has matured, and a world without open source software would be unrecognisable – a probably significantly behind our current world.  So there is social benefit to some forms of open code – by releasing your code, and playing your part in the open source community, you are doing a good thing, and moving technology forwards.

Lets also consider that, in the case of web apps, sharing your code is not a common or usual behaviour.  There must be a reason for this (even if the reason is wrong, or out of date)  Perhaps, in looking for these reasons, we can understand why, in the net app space, people are less inclined to share.

The arguments I can think of stand as follows:

I want to get the full benefit of the code I have written.  If I were to share my code, others would be able to compete with me based on what I have written.  I might lose out to someone who hasn’t written the code.

Sharing the code, packaging and documenting the code, is too difficult or labour intensive.  It isn’t what I want to spend my time doing.

I don’t want to expose my code to the world, only the functionality, because I am scared of being judged on the basis of my code.

Opening the code might allow people to spot security holes

When writing an article such as this, it is always a worry that I am creating straw men to knock down – so I would be pleased to learn about other arguments against opening up code to the world – please mail me

The NetFlix quote adresses the argument about judgement.  By exposing your code to the world, you are forced to make the sorts of decisions about your code you would generally only make in the face of peer review.  It will lead to better, more readable, more maintainable code.  This is a good thing.  If the problem is not the quality of your code, but rather the fear of public ridicule, then I suggest that posting and being damned is absolutely the best way of getting over this.

The question of security holes is similar. We know that security by obscurity is ineffective against a dedicated attacker – all you are doing by not publishing your code is giving yourself a false sense of confidence.  By opening the code, you not only open it to potential attackers, you also open it to other people who may wish to use your code, and who may spot the flaws and help you correct them.  Open Source software has a deserved reputation for addressing security issues well – there is no reason why open web apps should not do the same.

Sharing and packaging the code is too difficult.  A while ago, I would have agreed.  But now we have github.  While github is far from perfect, all you have to do is keep a copy of your code there.  I don’t make any suggestion that you need to make your code easy for other people to use – just that you make it available.  If other people care about packaging your code, documenting it, making it nice – let them.  Thats their work, not yours.  You don’t have to become a community leader, you just have to keep on doing what you enjoy doing.

The final one of my arguments against opening your code is that you don’t want anyone else to benefit from your work.  To this I might make a few comments:

1.  You must be kidding.  Odds are your site is running on an open source language on an open source operating system.  You’re using web browsers (the majority of which are open source these days) to let people get to your site – over the internet (a technology which has had a huge amount of development form other people).  Your’re probably using open source libraries and open source databases and web servers. You are absolutely standing on the shoulders of giants.  Is you’re shitty first draft web app really that difficult to come up with, in the big scheme of things.

2. You’re not kidding?  Right, well in that case, consider that the value of a web site is more than just the value of the code.  It is also the value of the design, the graphics, the quality of the  site’s dev ops and the community which use it.  You have the opportunity to succeed in all these areas.  If you don’t win in these areas, you probably don’t deserve to win

3. Still not convinced?  Copying the first draft of a web app is cheap.  Especially since web apps don’t generally do things which are particularly complicated – the thing that gives them value is the idea, and the way it is made available to the user (the design).  Copying design and idea – then writing code to fit is a lot easier than writing the code from scratch.  Just by putting your web app out there you are making it easy to copy – especially from the big boys you are, presumably trying to disrupt.  When you introduce a new idea, the hope is you get big before Google or Facebook notice you have disrupted anything.

4. First mover advantage works.  In the open source world we don’t often see major forks of code – and when we do, it is normally because people want to do something significantly different with the code.  This is less clear in the web app space, but let me point out an example:  Wikipedia.  Right now, I can download all the data.  I can download mediawiki. I can set up my own wikipedia.  But I won’t beat wikipedia.  Because they have the community.  Because they were there first.

5. You might benefit from other people’s code.  If they are using your code, and making changes to it, then you get the benefit of those changes.  If you want to be sure of this, release your code under an affero license.  You might also benefit from someone using your code.  Lets consider Google – lets say they decide to compete with you.  Unless you’ve got the community sewn up, you’re screwed, wether they copy your code or write their own version.  However, if your code is available, why the hell wouldn’t they try to use your code, and bring you onboard – sure it might not be the megabucks you make from creating the next big web app, but its an income based on your work, your love and your passion.

I really don’t see anything except for upsides when it comes to releasing the code which runs your web app.  All you are doing is adding to the ecosystem you draw from.  And in that sense, not only is sharing your code a logical imperative, it is a moral imperative too.

(Random question:  Why can I not fork GitHub?  It really seems like the sort of thing I ought to be able to do)

Building An Idea Assembly Line

When we look at the history of technology successes, we are reminded time and time again they come from incubator areas.  Not from the artificial technology incubators that VCs might set up to house new start up companies, but from regions which are good at incubating companies.

What these regions have are some combination of:

Universities

Big Technology Companies

Research Labs

Now – the advantage of having these sorts of institutions are they put lots of bright people together, playing with technology.  And specifically, the people they put together playing, don’t have to be entrepreneurs – they are getting paid some sort of wage (good or bad) to come up with new things.

The typical VC approach is to wait until there are companies formed by the few of these people brave enough to sacrifice their working wage and go it alone.  The hope is that the best ideas have risen to the top, and have been picked up by people capable of running companies.

But, if you talk to a VC, a common issue which causes them not to back a start up, is the poor quality of the team, not the quality of the idea.  And many many companies wind up pivoting to follow a different idea from the reason they got together.  You need a combination of good ideas and good people throughout the start up’s life.  You need the idea generators to stay in the company.  And you need a strong business team to take on the best ideas.

I wonder if the solution is to come up with an artificial equivalent of the research lab in order to breed ideas, and form teams.  I call this the Idea Factory.

Imagine an office (perhaps a big, brightly coloured open plan office – or perhaps something different) where some number of bright people are employed.  Their job is to have ideas, to prototype them, and to demonstrate them to one another. They also spend some time on building reusable frameworks to make prototyping new ideas easier and easier.

The time spent on prototyping ideas should be short (perhaps measured in days), and we should be quick to drop ideas.  People should feel free to provide support to each other, in taking the ideas they like and adding to them, or improving on them.  Forking ideas, and using their own skills, or even just making suggestions for other people to fork.

Over time, teams would grow, and some ideas would rise above others.  These ideas can then be shown to the world.  At conferences.  In papers. On YouTube. Or by going live on the web.  The question becomes ‘what is the minimum needed to get this idea out there?”

And this is where the VCs come in.  VCs already know people who are good at forming businesses, people who know what to do next.  They can take a team with a good idea and match them up with the business skills they need to move one step on.

Now – the important point here is that, all the time people are working in the idea factory, they are being paid.  You want people in the factory with a range of experiences – from fresh hungry graduates, through to the world weary sorts who have seen everything and know how things really work.  So there are going to be a range of salaries. Perhaps, because the work environment is unusual, you might be able to get away with offering a lower salary then the market would usually require. The question of salaries is where the VCs take a risk – how much time and money will these people need per idea?  By the time the idea is being fitted out into a standalone start up, the risk should be much reduced, and the VCs should be happy about getting a higher rate of return.  [Also, one presumes that an idea factory would be a good source of patents, if one of the members were to be a patant lawyer]

Idea Factories might be the way to inspire entrepreneurial growth in towns currently lacking it, or for a small group of VCs to monopolise start ups (and get a better share of the equity then they might otherwise manage)

But wait – Idea Factories might not just be good for VCs.  Consider your big company – not quite a company the size of Google, but the sort of tech company which regularly takes over large convention centres to support their customer base.  These companies often need new ideas.  They could set up internal idea factories along the same lines, getting people to play with the sort of technologies they are interested in.  It would lower the risk of disruption, and – even if all the ideas came to nought – give them a way of showing they support innovation.

This is an idea which I think – based on rough estimates -  has legs and is worthy of further investigation.  Please contact me if you think you might want to play a part in bringing an Idea Factory to life – either as a venture investor, or within your company, because I would very much like to help.

Car makers heed my advice

In I Want A Different Car I said:

“If you can provide me with a way for the car to make me a coffee, so much the better. ”

Well, it looks like, yet again, captains of industry are racing to meet my every demand:

http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/07/16/the-ultimate-to-go-cup-new-car-has-espresso-maker-built-in/

(well, one demand, and not even a demand so much as a throwaway comment.  And probably not so much racing as ‘had it in the pipeline since before I wrote anything’)

Now, figure out how to fit in a desk (that doesn’t come out while I’m driving), and add a few bonus features such as ‘reliability’ and I’m yours, Fiat.

Kickstarting Commissions

Kickstarting, indie-go-going, crowd funding.  It’s the new hotness.  The next hotness will be when these sites allow people to make a commission by spreading their idea and bringing in new funders.  Suddenly there will be people falling over themselves to find the best ideas and put them i the right market place.

Thats all.  Simple idea, big promise.

Microsoft Surface For Windows 8 – is it a good idea?

Some quick and initial thoughts on MS releasing their own Surface tablets:

Q. Did I expect this?

A. A week ago, no.  A day ago, I thought it was a possibility, based on the ideas below.  I still thought that an ARM tablet for developers to have early access to was more likely.

Q. Will their OEM partners mind?

A. Yes.  Yes they will.  And they may well bitch and moan a bit.  But let me ask you a few more questions:

Assuming Microsoft really are betting the consumer shop on windows 8 (and it seems they are), do they actually have to compete with anyone other than Apple?

If Microsoft are competing with Apple, will they (based on previous experience of the OEMs) have a better chance if they make design decisions about hardware?

Would their OEM partners mind if today MS announced that they could license XBox?

Q. Will OEM partners keep on manufacturing tablets?

A. Yes.  Probably.  If I told you you could go out and sell your own ipad compatible device, do you think you might consider it.  If MS is clever they will design one device (well, two – one for ARM, one for Intel) and put it at the sweet spot, price wise, for the home user.  Other OEMs can fill the niches on price, power or features.  My bet is that they will.  A bigger question is:  if MS are successful, how long will they feel the need to support their OEMs as much as they do today in the consumer segment?

Q. Can MS function as a hardware company?

A. They don’t have to.  They are no more a hardware company than Apple.  Or indeed than Dell.  All their hardware is going to be built by the Foxcons and DNIs of the world.  What MS are is a brand label, a design house, a venture capitalist, an advertising agency and end user support.

Q. Can MS keep prices low?

A. They would be stupid not to. Each tablet sold is the loss of one windows licence fee.  So thats how much profit they need to make on the tablets.  Meanwhile, by keeping quality high, and prices low, they will be telling their OEM partners the prices they need to aim for.  There was no other way MS would be able to ensure that the pricing of windows tablets would be competitive with the iPad.

Q. Overall?

A. MS are adapting to a new marketplace. And are doing it rather slowly, but more skillfully than I would have expected a year ago.  They really do seem to be betting their consumer shop – but they are trying their best to stack the deck in their favour.  Will it work?  I think there is a good chance they will carve out a strong postion, albeit not the market leading position they used to have.  With this new hardware strategy, they are playing an interesting game : will licensing their OS to other manufacturers be a bigger win, than the amount it costs to support said manufacturers.  Interestingly Apple played this game once and that gamble didn’t pay off.

Oh, and I don’t think this affects the corporate / enterprise space at all (at this point).

Q. Will MS’s history mean they only repeat the bits of Apple’s history that they want?

A. Watch this space.

 

Kickstarting Events

Lets consider some people:

A is a professional trainer.  She organises training courses which have a general interest.  Lots of people are looking for similar courses in their own part of the country.  Right now, if A wants to organise such a course, she needs to take the risk of booking a venue, then finding enough people to pay for both the venue and her time.

B is a stand up comic.  He is not well known, but has a fan base across the country.  They would certainly pay to see him go on tour.  But right now, not that many venues are booking him.  If he could book venues – or show venues there is demand (especially pre-paid demand) he would be happy.

C and D want to organise a conference.  To do this they need to not only sign up attendees, but also speakers and a venue.  They won’t get attendees without good speakers, but they can’t afford to pay the speakers unless they can get the attendees.  Right now either they – or the speakers – have to shoulder the risk.

 

Elsewhere, Kickstarter is solving this problem.  The creators put in a lot of work, preparing a product, but they pre-sell to keen fans before the part which involves putting down hard cash.  And they offer extra benefits to people who pay more (and help subsidise the costs).  Kickstarter is not a one-time offer.  The products that get produced can be sold to the non-kickstarter audience once they are ready – the kickstarter crowd just remove the risk from making that first big investment (and also turn out to be a form of handy market research too)

Kickstarter has been used to organise events – the sort of events I’m describing above.  But if you organise an event through kickstarter, someone is taking a risk

Either the venue is taking a risk (offering a sale or return price, but not letting anyone else book the space while they are waiting to find out)

Or the organiser is taking a risk (booking the venue, to give a date and location up front)

Or the participants are taking a risk (paying for a ticket to an event they may not be able to go to, because the date hasn’t been set)

My solution – a kickstarter for events.  It works much like kickstarter, except the organisers specify the location (as generally as they want with the participants knowing they may have to get to anywhere within this area – too big a location means less participants) and a range of potential dates.

Participants then get to back the event – and may be able to pay a range of different prices (not only for best seats – but also as a way the organiser can pre-sell various items of merchandise).  The participants also get to specify a range of dates that they can make.  Until the project is funded participants can alter the dates they can make.  After the project is funded, participants can still cancel, so long as the project would still be funded after their cancellation.

Organisers can also drop particular dates if they are subsequently unable to make them (ultimately dropping all dates bar one once a venue is found)

If organising a conference, each speaker could offer a range of dates they are available, and each participant might be able to say ‘I want to see A B & C’ at this event, not caring if D drops out.  They would only have to back the event if it occurred on a day A B & C could attend (though they could choose to change their level of support if some of their preferred speakers were unavailable, and their backing was cancelled)

So A could put forward prospective training events in major cities around the country.  If she got enough interest for any given date, she could find a venue in a particular area knowing enough attendees would be coming to pay for it.

B could either hire venues to play at – or he could get venues to book him, knowing they had already sold enough tickets to make it worth their while.  He could also make extra cash selling his back-catalogue of DVDs

C & D could pick a venue for their conference, and a range of dates.  They could also pick a range of speakers.  They could use the system to find out which speakers are most popular, then – money in hand – book the venue for a date all those speakers – and the people who wish to hear from them – can attend.  They might also be able to organise smaller mini-conferences for people who wished to hear from other speakers.

Thinking About Filters

I recently wrote about the idea that one might prefer to use a filter, rather than an inbox.  For clarity, I thought I woud add a few additional thoughts.

There is already one filter which is fairly widely used – Google News.  Its my opinion that an inbox / filter of the sort I am describing would end up looking quite a lot like Google News.  As the filter scoured the web (or took in the results of other web scourers) for content, it would collect similar content together, much as Google News collects news stories together.  As I user I would choose one of these areas to ‘zoom in’ on, which would give me access to a priority ordered list of potential content to read.  My choice would then both help identify the sort of thing I wanted to read more of, but also eliminate identical and nearly identical articles.

With this in mind, I might think a page would have different sections such as ‘incoming mail’, todos, groups of things to read.  Exactly what appeared in those groups would depend on a large number of factors including time of day, day of week, what I’ve been doing recently, where I am physically located, which computer I’m using.

Search would stop being ‘find data in an index’ and would become ‘open certain parts of the filter, and bias towards certain term’.  Search terms would stil be biased towards things that the filter has learned about you (so a UK-centric user searching for Football would find information about soccer rather than american rules – or certainly higher ranked).

I’ve talked about using external services to get more data – in effect it would work like this:  in the general use of the filter, I would be building up a personal index of pages I visit (or read RSS feeds of, say) and ‘close’ pages – pages closely linked to those.  When I search, I would open the filter to find examples of those pages which contain those search terms.  However the filter would also contact some known external sites – lets say Google and Wikipedia – to see what pages they have to offer.  The filter would then read those pages and add them to the general quorum of pages it knows about.  They would then have the chance of showing up in the filter’s search (but would not necessarily show up if you already have content which looks better for your needs)

I said that the filter could run on your home PC, or in the cloud.  In retrospect this was wrong.  It would have to run in the cloud.  I have a large number of devices, and more and more I want all my devices to sync together – the cloud is the place where this can be done.  Similarly, some of my devices are too dumb to run a sufficiently complicated filter, so again, we are looking at something running in the cloud.

When we start talking about things running in the cloud, a threat looms – what makes this different from, say Google or Facebook?  I think my answer is that with Google or Facebook, they hook the user by providing useful services, and in return get lots of data about the user.  This data is then used by google to sell targeted advertising.  In the filter model, things are slightly more complicated.  The filter begins to act a bit like a huge distributed market – people will push an advert (or what I’m going to consider ‘sponsored content’) to the user, offering to pay a certain amount if the user clicks on it.  The user (or more reasonably the user’s filter) returns how much it is willing to charge if the user clicks on the content.  For other content the user may offer to pay for it, and the content provider may set a charge.  In short, we are instituting a micropayment system, one which doesn’t require the user to actually put any money forward, if they are getting enough sponsored content that they are prepared to read…  the filter can increasingly make it clear that watching adverts is necessary if the user wants to continue reading things – or that the user can inject some cash of their own.  In any event, the advertisers will be paying the user rather than the equivalent of Google (the filter service provider).  The user will then pay the filter service provider from their amassed micropayments.  What this ultimately means is that the user of the filter becomes the customer – so the filter service is set up with the customer (and not the advertiser) in mind – indeed it becomes the filter services mission to ensure the customer sees as few adverts as possible, while enabling them to continue viewing the type of content they want (if the customer wants to see newly released movies, they are going to be watching lots of adverts, or injecting quite a lot of their own cash).  A final side effect of this is that whichever company builds a filter like this will become a major micropayment player and clearing house.

It occurs to me that this – rather than me-too plays such as Google Play or Google + is what Google should be working on now.  Whoever does manage to introduce the right type of filter engine could easily out google google, just as Google out altavista’ed altavista.

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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