On Slow Lanes and Thai Food

Tomorrow is the deadline for initial public comment on proposed rules by the FCC that would allow Internet Service Providers to create slow lanes that most web traffic would get stuck in so that a few massive web sites could pay for access to “fast lanes.”  So I commented…

Dear Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Clyburn, Rosenworcel, Pai, and O’Rielly:

In the months since the FCC opened the initial public comment period on the proposed rules that would allow Internet Service Providers to create “fast lanes” for content providers, I have done at least all of the following on the internet: Viewed the menus of and ordered food from multiple small, independently owned restaurants; Looked up my church’s calendar; Contacted teachers from my local kindergarten and pre-school; Looked up the picnic and parade schedule for my local chamber of commerce; Found our pediatrician’s weekend hours of operation; Participated in numerous work-related chat and “web conferencing” sessions; Researched my kids’ summer camp programs; Investigated reports of incoming severe weather; Managed my own personal website, under my own domain, listing my résumé; Discussed a possible reunion of college classmates on a relatively unknown internet forum; Sought out information for swimming lessons for my children; Researched local tree-removal service companies. And all of these activities lead me to ask: where do all of these important, day-to-day activities conducted on the internet fit when it comes to questions of “fast lanes”  and what is “commercially reasonable?”  While so much of the national Network Neutrality debate has been had within the context of “innovation” and “start ups” looking for a “level playing field,” I dread how a “fast lane” would relegate vital, albeit far less flashy internet services to the “slow lane.”  As an American citizen who depends on the internet every day for an array of functions and services, Net Neutrality is vitally important to me. The FCC should use its Title II authority to protect it.

Much of the US citizenry that has remained informed on the matter of Net Neutrality tend to discuss it in terms of a fight between a few major “internet companies” and even fewer massive cable and internet service providers.  While that facet of the issue is an important one, it’s hardly the only one.  Take, for example, my favorite local Thai restaurant.  This 3 table, 12 chair establishment has done a rather remarkable job of managing to keep its own website at the top of web search results despite much larger internet companies competing for the rankings.  For now, with Net Neutrality largely in practice, I know that if I click on the link to their own web site, the data sent from their hosting provider to my browser will be treated equally on the “last mile” of my internet connection as data from Yelp.  That fact allows this small business a level of independence from the larger web properties that they simply could not have without Net Neutrality.  If ISPs were allowed to create “fast lanes” and charge content providers for access to consumers through those lanes, almost certainly this small restaurant could not afford to pay the fees. That, or the restaurant would have to cut into their already small margins to do so.  If the restaurant could not pay, any degradation in their own site’s performance due to congestion on the slow-lane could create undue dependence on major web companies for this restaurant.  As a result, the restaurant would lose some significant control in its ability to market itself, publish new menus, and inform its customers. The restaurant would largely be at the mercy of these larger web properties for marketing and messaging.

Over 500 websites are created every minute of every day on the internet. And while the vast majority of those sites never have been and never shall be as popular as Google or Facebook, they’re created by millions of people who created them for a reason.  Sometimes those reasons can be chalked up to pursuits of leisure.  Many other times, those reasons have to do with personal or business-related goals.  Any introduction of “fast lanes” that would ultimately benefit the very few properties on the web that could afford to join them will come at the expense of the millions of creators on the web who cannot.  This relegates folks creating personal professional portfolios or résumés under their own domains and hosting providers to the slow, narrow leftovers lane.  If I’m ever in the job market again, will I need to pay ISPs to get out of the slow lane and have a faster loading personal site than other job seekers in my industry?  ”Fast lanes” force any creators of news, literary, video or music content to depend on large web properties in order to get their works in front of the most possible readers, viewers, and listeners.  With the creation of “fast lanes” will consumers have to choose a credit union based on whether or not they can conduct personal banking at a reasonable speed or wait for their checks to appear over the congested lane?  I’m soon to be in the market for a new minivan.  With car dealerships in the state stuck serving up information over slower lanes because they can’t afford the fast ones, would I end up making my vehicle purchasing decisions based on slow loading times of images of car interiors?  There are currently dozens, if not hundreds, of online advertising networks in the US.  If they aren’t paying for fast-lane access, will their ads be delivered?  Will the brands and marketers that use those networks be forced to pay much higher advertising fees to the few networks that survive after being forced to pay for “fast lane” access?  For the millions of active, commercial and non-profit properties on the web, how often will questions of “commercial reasonableness” spring up?  One of my closest friends began a small, online flower business 2 years ago and has managed to find success because the shopping experience is “simple”, “pleasant,” and “fast.”  Many studies have shown that page loading times have serious effects on “shopping cart abandonment” for e-commerce companies  Under these proposed rules, would the inevitable slow lane have harmed this flower business to the point of failure?  Would any attempts to pay fees to join the fast lane cut the operating margins to the bone?  Remember, this isn’t a “content provider.”  It’s a small e-commerce company too small for the Amazons of the world to notice, but successful enough to employ about a dozen people in the US.  There are many, many more companies online just like it.  Would all of their web traffic be forced to crawl over the slow lane? 

Network Neutrality may well be an “American innovation issue” but it’s a “Main Street issue” first. So that the citizens and the small and medium-sized businesses of Main Street, USA may continue to find new and useful ways to help themselves via the internet, the FCC should use its Title II authority to protect Network Neutrality.  Not only does our future prosperity and innovation rely on Net Neutrality, but our present, every-day lives and businesses depend on it.

Thank you,
Matthew Quirion

The 2nd Tablet

Have you ever heard of the adoption curve?  I first really became aware of it in a 100-level marketing class in college.  It’s something most everyone inherently knows, but marketing researchers really put a name to it and then started diagramming it. It looks something like this:

The curve represents the typical adoption of a good or service by customers.  The “Innovators” and the “Early Adopters” are the first folks attracted to something new.  You probably know at least a few of these folks.  They’re always up on the latest music, fashion, TV shows, tech, whatever.  These are the ones who pre-ordered the first-generation iPad after telling you it was coming for a year.  They knew Ska was big before Swingers was released. They’d had a cronut before lines even started forming. And sometimes (often) they adopt things that never take off, like Laser Discs or the Apple Newton. Maybe they bought a Segway without owning a city touring service.

Then there are people like me.

I’m almost always part of the “early majority.” And I’m almost always in the very early front of that majority.  I didn’t get the 1st iPad.  I did get the 2nd generation iPad a week after it was released though.  I’m not among the first 1000 users of Twitter, but I was using if way before mainstream media was trying to do stories about how you could explain it to your mom.  I was a “foodie” maybe a year before everyone was a “foodie.”  You get the picture.  I’m rarely at the forefront of anything in pop-culture, but I can usually see it from where I’m standing, waiting to be convinced that the early-adopters aren’t just off on another wild goose-chase in their Segways.

There’s a perceived split between Innovators/Early-Adopters and the Early Majority that many folks call “The Chasm.”  It’s the great distance a product/service/pop-icon must cross over in order to go from a niche player that the few love to the mainstream, money-making success that everyone knows and wants.  I’ve noticed something about myself: If I’m doing it, using it, listening to it, or watching it, whatever “it” is has probably only just crossed that Chasm.  Had I the stomach to play individual stocks, I’d watch myself more closely and play the stocks of the things I just fell in love with. Of course, I’d probably ruin the effect then.

But here’s something I just did that I think might be worth noting, given I so often sit on the side of the Chasm with my feet dangling: I bought a 2nd tablet.  Not as a replacement for the trusty iPad. Not even as an “upgrade.” I got it because I could see more need for another tablet; Nothing fancy - just a tablet.

So I bought a Nexus 7. It’s gotten very good reviews and it’s inexpensive. Yeah, it’s Android rather than iOS, but it’s not full of bloatware like other non-iOS devices.  And besides, I’ve still got my iPad. When that finally dies, then we’ll probably get another iPad.  We’re too invested in the iTunes media empire not to do so.  But right now I don’t need or want another iPad.  I just wanted another tablet. So, Nexus 7 it is.

Given my tendencies to walk with the vanguard of the early-adopters army, I have to at least wonder if that might mean something about the tablet market in general.  My first purchase of a tablet wasn’t a purchase of a tablet. I was buying an iPad.  I practically got goose-bumps as I handed over my debit card at the Apple Store the day I bought it.  I couldn’t wait to see what possibilities lay before me.  I couldn’t wait to show it off to people I knew who still didn’t have one. I had something others might covet: an iPad! 2! It was embarrassingly thrilling.

But last night I just wanted another tablet.

The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience. Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease. If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realize they are masters at making things fast and not making people think.

Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company. Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time. Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.
Ev Williams (via Wired.com)
(Reblogged from courtenaybird)

Twitter, The Mobile Gap, and an External Locus of Control

The weather is getting colder, so my mind seems to be paying more attention to things outside of the outside.  Twitter’s IPO is a big topic lately. Much excitement and much anticipation. And many questions.  One question, in particular, keeps jumping out off the internet while I read: How will Twitter improve their mobile advertising performance?  It’s a question that keeps getting asked by reporters, analysts, and pundits.  And it’s the wrong question.  To address the real problem, everyone should be asking: How will Twitter get the rest of the world wide web to solve their mobile performance problem?

The last thing I bought on the internet, I bought because of Twitter ads.  It was a Lego set.  And it’s awesome.  I saw an advertisement for it in my timeline on my smartphone and before I even tapped the ad, I knew I’d buy it. In fact, I didn’t tap that ad at all.

Instead, I switched over to my todo app, and made a note: “Buy holiday lego set.”  And then later that same evening, I went onto Amazon.com (not Lego.com) and bought the set.  There’s virtually no way Twitter gets any real credit for that sale.  And that’s a shame, because Twitter should get a lot of credit.  From what I’ve seen in my timeline, Twitter, as much as any company on the web save for Amazon, has got me dead-to-rights figured out with their choice of ads in my timeline.  From software development tools and services to dad-tech, to, well, Legos, Twitter puts ads into my timeline that are far more interesting to me than practically anything I’ve ever seen on a Facebook page or even most Google search results.  But I’ve still not bought anything directly through a Twitter ad on my phone.

That’s not Twitter’s fault, really.  Twitter’s various moves over the last few years, from creating rules that would all but eliminate any Twitter clients outside of their control, to creating their “card” technology are all focused on controlling the Twitter timeline ad experience.  The problem for Twitter - and so many of the advertisers and marketers who pay to get on those timelines - is what happens after a user taps a twitter ad.  The problem is here. And here. And here. From poor visual design to poor network optimization choices, the world wide web outside of Twitter is just not built to support Twitter’s mobile ad success. Not yet.  The mobile web - where most of Twitter’s ads go - is just atrocious.  So users like myself choose to avoid it when we can, even if it means waiting until later in the night to do my buying on a laptop. On a completely different site from what was advertised.

Seemingly every month or so we see news from Twitter’s product group showing off new ways to use Twitter’s internal ecosystem to improve advertising performance from within.  That course, however, runs the risk of falling into the trap of trying to become a platform that users will never leave.  That course has already been tried multiple times, from AOL to Facebook, and it’s never really worked.  People are going to leave the platform.  Advertisers and marketers are going to want full control over the experience.  

So instead of continually looking inward to fix their mobile advertising problem, Twitter should look outward and ask if they can help.  One of the few applications that still works fairly well on my now ancient HTC Thunderbolt device is the Twitter app.  In fact, even the Twitter mobile website works pretty well on my phone.  Twitter clearly has technical know-how that they could share with the rest of the world wide web.  If Twitter wants to fix their mobile ad problem, they should get to sharing immediately.

LinkedIn E-Mails Addressed to Top 5% are Directed at the Other 95%

There’s been a ton of conversation in social media circles about LinkedIn’s new marketing campaign.  LinkedIn has been notifying users that they’re among the top 5% (and even 10%, now) of viewed profiles on the social network.  Some mentions of the campaign bemoan it. Other mentions seem to make attempts at a “humble brag” about it. And still others seem to genuinely think it’s pretty cool.  But what I love about the campaign is that these e-mail notifications aren’t aimed at the receivers of the e-mails at all.  These congratulatory messages are targeted at the LinkedIn users who aren’t getting them.

One of LinkedIn’s most valued assets is the data it possesses about each of its registered users.  As of January 2013, LinkedIn has 200 Million registered users.  Most of them have at least indicated their current career situations and probably their work history.  But there’s so much more a registered user can do with their profiles, accounts, and activities. And as LinkedIn constantly likes to imply while it encourages those activities, doing these things could help a user’s career.

So when 2(0) Million LinkedIn users start talking about the congratulatory e-mails they’ve received about the interest in their profiles (which, presumably, has some notion of career benefit attached), it leaves the other 95% who never received such an e-mail to wonder: What can I do to enhance my profile on LinkedIn and help my own career?  After all, even after people realize 5% of 200 million is 10 million, the other 95% must ponder what they’re failing to do to be among that massive pool of “better” profiles.

LinkedIn’s answer: Add more data about yourself and get more active on their social network. (Read: Give us more data.)

It’s a brilliant move.  It’s Judo Marketing.  And yet I can’t help but recall this Onion’s piece on “personal branding” even as I enjoy this gambit.

This movement has been gaining momentum for more than a decade. Human beings who make investment decisions based on their assessment of the economy and on the prospects for individual companies are retreating. Computers—acting on computer-generated market trend data and even newsfeeds, communicating only with one another—have taken up the slack.
(Reblogged from thisistheverge)
(Reblogged from shaneguiter)

When the country elected Barack Obama just four years ago, Twitter was a fledgling startup. During the campaign, Obama overtook Kevin Rose as the most followed person on Twitter, passing him at 56,482 followers.

Five years ago, according to Pew, less than half of Americans used email daily; less than a third used a search engine.

YouTube was founded in 2005 and Facebook in 2004 — and it would be a while after that until they became such integral parts of our day-to-day Internet experience.

Today nearly half of Americans own a smartphone. The iPhone is five years old.

(Reblogged from emergentfutures)

Why Google Wants You To Look Geeky

Last week during Google’s big I/O event, Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, “interrupted” the keynote of the event’s first day in order to show off his personal pet project: Google Glass.  Glass is a technology integrated into an eyeglass frame to allow “wearable computing.”  Brin’s means of showing off Glass last week was by way of an impressive, muti-person, multi-modal stunt involving sky-divers, stunt bikers, and people abseiling down the side of a building to show off the sharing capabilities of Google Glass.  The stunt impressed a great deal of folks, and it was followed up by an opportunity for members of the media to actually briefly experience wearing Google Glass for themselves.  Quite a few of those folks are leaving the experience impressed, going so far as to exclaim that they’ve seen the future of computing. And, conveniently for Google, they’re buying the humanistic marketing pitch for Glass; the project moves technology out of the way of communications and experiencing life.  But that’s not really why Google is racing towards a dominant position in wearable technology.  The real reason is that if Google can get “technology out of the way,” then Google can marginalize Apple’s primary competitive advantage.

Last month, Apple unveiled their newest version of the iOS operating system, and much was made of the fact that Apple has dropped Google Maps for their own proprietary mapping technology in partnership with a smaller online map purveyor.  That step, along with the previous introduction of Apple’s “Siri” technology - a voice activated digital assistant that essentially can search for answers to your questions on the iPhone and iPad, are moves by Apple designed to negate Google’s influence over their iOS technology.  And given Apple’s market dominance of mobile computing, those moves also provide them with opportunities for market dominance in the search and mapping service industries. You can imagine how Google must be feeling about being cut out of the dominant mobile computing platform.

Read any single review of any smart-phone or tablet computing device of the last 2 years, and the benchmark against which all other machines are judged is Apple technology - the iPad and the iPhone.  And very rarely do any non-iOS devices make par. Rarer still are the devices that might make a reviewer gush that they’re better than iOS options without any caveats.  And the reason for that is the massive competitive advantage Apple enjoys in the realms of design and human-computer-interaction.  With the slick, tightly controlled iOS environment, and the existence of only 2 form factors for iOS devices, no technology maker can build a device that will be as pain free and enjoyable (not to mention sexy) to use as the iPad or iPhone.  

In the smart-phone and tablet computing world, the winner of the game is the competitor who makes the most beautiful, elegant device.  That’s why Google wants to end the beauty pageant.  Sure, the current iterations of Google Glass are “geeky looking.” No beauty contests are going to be won by them. But for centuries, people have been wearing glasses. And over time Google will be able to minify the technology backing the Glass product until it looks like any other pair of fashionable frames.  Who knows, maybe a pair of Google Glass contact lenses isn’t out of the question.  At any rate, eventually, nobody will notice the glasses.  Which means nobody will be noticing the device.  Which means nobody will care about the form of the device any longer.  All anyone will care about is the service the device provides. Given its history, that’s a game Google’s got to look forward to playing.

Google Glass and its successors wont eliminate tablets and smart phones.  Brin has already conceded that point in his discussions over the project.  But there are still only 24 hours in any day, and any day only involves a finite number of times that a person actually needs or wants to seek information, exposition, or entertainment.  By providing Glass, Google will be offering people a way to get that without having to pick up a tablet or a phone.  From Google’s point of view, if Glass takes off, Apple can hang on to it’s market dominance when people care about how the tech they’re using looks and feels.   

Apple Killed the App Store Star (And the App Era Too)

Right, sorry for the link-baity title.  But the thesis holds true. Long term, anyway.

Today the key note of Apple’s WWDC was presented, and a slew of new Apple products from hardware to software were unveiled.  Despite the fact that the hotly anticipated Apple Television (not to be confused with the Apple TV box unit) never did make an appearance, anyone who followed the presentation or at least read up on the results would find it hard to argue that Apple didn’t come out with guns ablaze.  The pricy new hardware is as beautiful as it is expensive.  The slick new OS Mountain Lion features are as pretty as the retina displays on the new Mac Book Pro. And the new integrated apps in the soon-to-arrive iOS6 look brilliant… and really familiar.  In fact, those new integrated apps are so familiar because they mimic a great deal of functionality of some of the most popular third-party-created apps in the iOS ecosystem.  And by taking the ideas that were germinated and then perfected in those third-party apps and integrating them tightly with iOS 6, Apple killed those apps and the entire ecosystem too.

First, let’s just accept that there is no finish line in this game. There’s no eventual winner. Apple’s the king of the tech and business world in so many ways right now, it’s not worth trying to argue that what’s coming is Apple’s demise. But this matter is bigger than Apple anyway, and Apple will do just fine finding its way in the post-app era. It probably just wont be too eager to see that era arrive.

Today, by eating the best apps cultivated in its own ecosystem, Apple made a few declarations: 1) Even though Apple creates beautiful objects with beautiful interfaces, they’re pretty unclear about what people actually want to do with pretty little things. 2) Apple feels no qualms about snatching success from its ecosystem developers, even when those developers show extreme loyalty to iOS. And 3) Apple sees no reason not to annoint winners in Software as a Service categories, and then integrating them tightly with their own applications as partners, the rest of the ecosystem be damned. iOS is not an open playing field or a level one. It’s just a playing field where the rules are up to the hopefully benevolent dictator, and all the players are at the mercy of that dictator’s market analysis and app store rankings.

For a time now, a common meme among web development professionals is that the web is the most hostile development environment in the history of computing, all because of the various takes on “standards” by the array of browsers on the market, the seemingly endless niche scenarios exposed by the seemingly endless tool choices, and the exposure to the population at large with only rudimentary access controls made available by the web platform itself.  But for all its flaws, the web has never been hostile in the way that iOS is today.  With the declarations Apple just made, the iOS platform (and really any other proprietary OS) is hostile to innovation.  And that hostility will kill the ecosystem.

The iOS ecosystem wont turn into a pumpkin at midnight tonight. It will continue to thrive for some time, and the extrapolation of near-term data of iOS development and usage will make for easy arguments that the app era is only just beginning, but the signs of strain are easy to find.  There’s already a dedicated piece of lingo for the notion of having Apple take your software idea and ship it with their iOS out of the box: “Sherlocked.” It’s been around for a couple of years now.  And today there was a seemingly endless font of the “s-word” springing from the twitter accounts of various well known iOS developers who had, for a time, found a happy little niche market that made for a nice living until Apple came in and ate it.  The cracks are starting to develop. No doubt some of these highly capable iOS developers will just look to create another clever iOS app, but it’s just as possible that folks with such skills might choose to now apply themselves to an ecosystem not wholly owned and dictated by the monster that just ate them.

One admirable quality of many of the best iOS app developers is that they treat their work like a craft. They often seek to find elegant, beautiful, and innovative solutions to common problems.  Many of them are prolific writers on the problems they’re solving and the efforts to do so. And while the monetary payoff is a prime motivation for these people, it’s clear that the creativity and innovation involved in their work is what keeps them going.  That innovation has value to these developers too, and Apple’s been keen to let them go right on innovating until they see fit to take all that innovation and use it for themselves.  And all it cost Apple was 70% of the third-party apps’ purchase prices from the App store.  That’s a heck of a ROI on market research and development.

And when such people, with their clever ideas, come to an intersection with better tools for developing advanced applications on the web, that’s when those cracks in the app ecosystem are going to give way.  Ideas are malleable on the web in a way they can’t be on a proprietary OS. The ever popular “pivot” is something that can be executed at relatively small cost on the web versus the OS.  There’s no need to conform to an albeit beautiful but restrictive set of UI guidelines on the web. Nobody worries that one’s web app ever need meet some form of “approval” except whether or not users find value in it. And on the web, as long as you put in the work, your app will always be discovered by someone.

Oh. Yeah. Discoverablity - the gaping wide hole in the proprietary OS ecosystem’s polished armor.  Funny how everyone waited to hear if Apple was getting into televisions when they haven’t managed to solve their biggest problem yet - the ability for users to easily, intelligently, and at times serendipitously discover great apps on the ecosystem.  Apple has now reached 6 full iterations of their iOS platform and still have nothing better than a few small improvements over the years to its base App store.  And Google Play? By the company that provides the de facto standard in web-based search?  Yeah, forget it.

The gold-star standard for application discoverability was invented years ago by Tim Berners-Lee before apps were even really a consideration.  That standard is the web, and that standard will be the benefactor to generations of web-based applications that learn to harness that power. No proprietary OS ecosystem will ever match it because to do so would be to implement an internal, proprietary version of the web that would be too hard to get third party app creators to agree to implement.  And so discoverability will not only remain a weakness for app platforms, but a major competitive disadvantage.

Proprietary app ecosystems wont fade because developers explicitly leave them. The getting for so many app developers is so good - for now. But the ecosystem’s best developers are being chased away. The web app ecosystem will simply begin to thrive as the tools improve, the skills advance, and the opportunity to be discovered remains open. Eventually developers looking to build something will seek open spaces where their innovations may grow without need to agree to the indentured servitude of the digital age.