Dear HN: I am not interested in your f*cking opinion

I’m increasingly annoyed by our commenting behavior on the web. There are those that take the time and effort to share thoughts, opinions, services and content with the world, and there are those, sitting on the sideline behind a screen doing nothing more than tearing the poster down with their attitudes.

I hate that. I really do. I used to love blogging, and the main reason for it was that anytime I wrote down some of my thoughts on where the web was going, people would respond with thoughtful responses, their own ideas, and bring this blog to a semi-live conversation on what we see and think about new technology.

I never really had a lot of commenting trolls and always loved the interaction that happened here. Lately I see a trend on the web, especially in tech blogs, but certainly not limited to them, where commenters are increasingly using their commenting capabilities to tear down a story, an author, or simply press their own points at the cost of the person that did his or her best to share.

As examples, TechCrunch and Hackernews are full of it. Every story published seems to contain a large amount of negative comments that really do not address the story at all (Unless the writer happens to be Paul Graham of course ;-) ).

Take a look at this story at HN  that is at the top of the list now. Gruber is definitely an Apple fan, but his story is simple, contains a widespread observation and talks about following passion to become successful. Now look at the comments at Hacker News. It is a long list of people ranting about Gruber, his bias, the story, their own “better observations”, Android versus iOS, and you name it. I had to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the comment list to find rglover say something that was  a positive contribution to the actual topic. That’s 1 in 74 comments.

Another example is Google releasing the full source code for Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich). A project that has probably cost them millions, uncountable hours, effort and expertise spend on crafting something for the community (and yes, they do want to make tons of money out of it, which is fine).  You may not like Google, or every motive that they might have, but they have added more free value to the tech community and the world than ANY other company in the world. Now take another look at the comment over at HN. It isn’t about the possibly great things developers can do with that code base (I only wish iOS would be released this way). No, people are tearing down the effort and only talk about things that aren’t right.

Well, I have news for you. A perfect world doesn’t exist and until you yourself can release a mobile platform, open source, and on millions of devices, I suggest you show a little respect for the effort Google is putting into the mobile space. We are all educated people here, and a lot of the HN community is super smart and has outstanding coding abilities. But that doesn’t provide an excuse for some of the abuse I see.

It is so easy to write a disrespectful comment. Its done in a split second, and you can even do it anonymously. Compare that to the person writing out the blog post, taking the time, sometimes hours to carefully write down his story to share with the community. Think about the hours, or years he put into his project, learning, making mistake, prevailing and then sharing that awesome experience with all of us. And we tear down his story, mock his efforts, show we are better, in a split second, simply because we can?

Dear HN community. I love the stories published, I love to read about the unbelievable cool stuff so many smart people are working on, and I love the fact that you put in the extra mile to teach all of us something by sharing all of our experiences, despite all of the abuse that same community can provide. I have a lot of respect and understand the effort it takes. I am a developer/founder myself and I know that I can share a lot of valuable experiences and simply haven’t found enough time to do this all the time.

Let’s all pay back with a little respect to the author and focus on the story itself. Lets try to make sure that comments are actually contributing to a discussion. I honestly don’t care about your f*cking opinion. I am not asking you to agree or disagree with anything published. I just ask all of us to show a little respect to those that are taking the time to educate us through their learnings. Let’s contribute something meaningful instead.

Feel free to discuss this opinion here and at the HN comments :-)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Announcing the Appsterdam Zwapp Channel

Appsterdam

Appsterdam

Yesterday I was invited on stage with Mike Lee where he officially kickstarted the Appsterdam movement. Instead of a product pitch I decided to talk about the things I can do to help the Appsterdam community grow and become successful. To explain, a tiny product explanation first.

Zwapp is a new social app discovery platform, now available on iOS, and with help from the Appsterdam community soon on Android as well. The idea behind Zwapp is that you can find better apps via friends. The App Store is filled with 500K apps and growing. It becomes increasingly hard to find the best apps for you.  When you install Zwapp (try it here) it will attempt to detect the apps you already have on your device (don’t worry, you remain in control of privacy) and it provides you with super-easy functionality to connect to your friends. You can then share the best apps together, follow live app action in our live feed and search for more cool people with great apps. Zwapp in its bare essence is an alternative for categories on iTunes.

Zwapp

Zwapp is all about finding great apps through great people. And to that extend I’m announcing the Appsterdam Zwapp channel. What is that you ask? It’s actually 3 things:

  1. I’m calling all Appsterdam developers to register on Zwapp (cc me or put Appsterdam in your profile) and we will group you all together in a new channel on Zwapp. Every user on Zwapp will be able to follow the Appsterdam channel and instantly see all the cool stuff you are using yourself. You will not only be able to share apps, but also content related to these apps. It is a unique way for app developers to be in contact with each other and with people who actually user your apps! Do you want to know who uses Zwapp right now? Here are (just) a few of them. Wanna know who are playing AngryBirds HD? That is what Zwapp is about, its people who love apps.
  2. If you are looking for Beta testers of a new app, then look no further. Zwapp has thousands of passionate app lovers and we can organise Beta testers for you.
  3. If you want to promote your app and increase downloads, then Zwapp will help you do that. We are working on a promotion and distribution layer on top of this passionate community and to kickstart that new platform we will help promote and distribute your app. We will offer a simple SDK to integrate cool Zwapp stuff into your app and will help push your app through the community. The first 100 Appsterdam developers that get into contact with me will get a free campaign! And if you are not yet part of the Appsterdam movement, you can still become part of it, so what are you waiting for :-)

The Appsterdam Zwapp Channel is the thing I can contribute to Appsterdam. It will be a live channel of great app developers meeting passionate app users. It can be a Beta channel for your new apps, or a place where you can kickstart your viral promotion of the cool stuff you are working on now. Help us build out this community and it will serve us all as a great place to promote your apps!

ps. While you are at it, consider visiting www.onemillionappschemes.com,  an initiative to build the largest free and open source of Custom URL Schemes for iOS developers.

follow me on twitter, or email.

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How can you help the Appsterdam movement that @bmf just kickstarted

Mike Lee kicks off Appsterdam

Mike Lee kicks off Appsterdam

Yesterday Mike Lee (@bmf) kicked off the Appsterdam movement in a big room full of passionate developers in Amsterdam. He spoke of his dream, to make Amsterdam the central innovation hub for App Developers. Unlike in Silicon Valley, Amsterdam and its surrounding countries in Europe has a unique pool of design and developer talent that is still waiting to be explored.

Silicon Valley has the name, a great infrastructure, enough cash to fund anything that needs funding, talented people. In many ways however, it is becoming a closed system. It’s hard for outsiders to move over there and work, get healthcare, be part of the startup scene, get funded.

With Appsterdam Mike is starting a movement that will attract many talented developers to the city to work on cool stuff. Not only does Appsterdam offer you help with getting to Amsterdam, but it will suggestions to stay, lists of companies looking for devs, places to hang out and work together and get inspired. It will also, as Mike announced yesterday with Floris van Alkemade from Solid Ventures,  have its own investment fund called the Appsterfund. The Appsterfund isn’t just a fund with money to invest. It is a group of investors that help developers with business plans, coaching, and with a huge network to investment companies in the Netherlands, Europe, and Silicon Valley of course.

Appsterdam isn’t a company, it isn’t a group of people getting paid to do their jobs. It’s a movement. We all are Appsterdam, and that begs the question, what can you do to help Appsterdam?

Well, for one, you can get over here for summer and become part of the Appsterdam summer program (see the site or twitter for more details). Hang out with devs, work on cool ideas, get to know Amsterdam, and decide if you want to work here for a while. Given that each of us has it’s own talents, there are certainly other things you can do. Become a member today, contact the Appsterdam movement and start helping out. That’s all there is to it.

What am I going to do you ask? A good question! Yesterday I got to be on stage as well and I announced the launch of the Appsterdam Zwapp channel. I call upon all developers to get into contact with me to become part of that channel. I have written a separate blog post about the Appsterdam Zwapp channel here, which explains in more detail how this can help developers to promote their apps and get into contact with the Zwapp passionate app lover community.

Lets make Amsterdam the best App Developing capital in the world together. Go Appsterdam!!

follow me on twitter, or email.

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Help the iOS developer community to innovate on inter-app communication

ZwappThe Apple iOS platform allows inter-app communication using a technology called Custom URL Schemes. A Custom URL scheme can be used to open a specific app from another app. Try typing the URL “twitter:” followed by your user name in your Safari browser on the iPhone. Instead of opening a web page, Safari will open the Twitter app on your iPhone (if you have the Twitter app installed).

Zwapp uses Custom URL schemes (amongst other things) to help a user detect apps on his device and fill his app profile as soon as he joins Zwapp. The more Custom URL Schemes we have, the better our app detection works. And here lies a weakness of such a process.

There are an unknown number of apps that use Custom URL Schemes for inter-app communication purposes. As a user we benefit from that ability. At the same time there isn’t a single online source available that lists every custom URL scheme that exists.

We know that a lot of iOS developers utilize Custom URL schemes to innovate on inter-app communication, to detect apps, or whatever purpose. We want to help the hacker community, and our users, by creating the largest public inline resource for Custom URL schemes.

As of today we are launching a new website called OneMillionAppSchemes. We are calling all developers and in general Mac users to visit that site and run a scanner that will scan your iTunes library for Custom URL Schemes. The scan result is uploaded to the site and then freely accesible for the developer community.

To ensure that it is clear that we do not touch nor use private data we are also open-sourcing the code for the scanner. You can check out and download the source code, and use it for your own development purposes.

We hope you will help us build this incredible useful online resource and visit www.onemillionappschemes.com . The developer community and the Zwapp team thank you for your contribution and we will repay you with better apps! :-)

Please note that the great folks at GigaOM have written an excellent post about Zwapp here!

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The competitive advantage Apple holds over Google isn’t iOS5 or iCloud

iOS5

I followed the Apple WWDC 2011 conference yesterday via the live blogging service of Engadget and Twitter (wasn’t in SF at the time). You can find an overview of all things announced here. The expectations were high upfront. Everyone seems to expect no less than a new miracle from Steve Jobs and his company. I thought it was pretty amazing that he took the stand, that’s a miracle in itself and it never ceases to amaze me that he is still going strong despite the disease he is fighting.

Wrt the message, I don’t think anyone heard real miracles. The tech blogs predicted most of the stuff announced and Apple didn’t announce any new hardware. Because of this it seems the Tech press is less impressed. I guess it takes an announcement of the size of the iPhone or iPad to get the crowd excited. I am betting that Apple will not be able to reach that excitement in the coming years as the iPhone was such a radical shift in  mobile thinking. You don’t shake up markets like that every year. Everything done after that is logical evolution, and certainly not the revolution the iPhone and iOS brought.

Still, Apple is a company that continuously impresses everyone and I believe it has to do with a uniqueness that separates Apple from everyone else. It isn’t just their exceptional design, creativity or feel for simplicity. It seems to me that Apple is one of a very few companies that successfully integrated development of beautiful and unique hardware with powerful and well designed software. The WWDC  2011 keynote seems like a software catch up to me. After delivering the iPhone and the iPad to the world it was now time to upgrade iOS and Lion and show the world how to integrate all that slick hardware with a unique software platform and the iCloud.

While the tech press may not be super-duper impressed, pampered with cool technology as they are, I feel Apple delivered a platform that integrates hardware, software and services (apps) exceptionally well. It is an amazing accomplishment that will trigger developers to go the extra mile and come up with new innovations no one had thought of before.

There was also some sentiment about Apple taking developers out of business by integrating core functionality from their apps directly into iOS. I doubt any of them were really surprised by the move. Apple has made iOS more complete by this integration and it makes sense to do so. It sucks if it means your app may go out of business, but from Apple’s point of view it is a logical step.

There was the inevitable comparison with Google’s Android (Apple’s new notification center is just like Android’s), although Gruber notes that the biggest difference between Apple and Google is that Apple has chosen the path fo native apps while Google has chosen the browser to be the center of the earth. It sounds like Gruber feels Apple has made the right choice (he definitely likes Apple over Google). I feel that the choice between native and browser will diminish over time. iOS 5 is not the competitive advantage that Apple hold over Google.

The real competitive advantage  is that Apple has a complete, deeply integrated ecology that encompasses both hardware, software, services (apps)  and a huge, profitable market that currently puts them on top of everyone else.

I would still not rule out Google, nor Android, simply because at some point Android will overtake iOS in numbers, not by a small bit, but by a huge factor. Scale always has a way to attract innovation, despite the fact that Android is not half as complete as iOS. It lacks great hardware, super software and a (for developers) profitable market. But scale makes up for a lot of these things, and Android is bound to win the scale game. And that is great news. Apple might not have gone this far, if it didn’t feel the heat of Android.

Funny enough, Microsoft may have understood this even a little better than Google and devised a strategy that involves both hardware (Nokia) and software (WP7). I somehow don’t believe they will pull it off though. It’s too late. Nokia doesn’t have the sexiest hardware anymore, and I doubt that they will catch up anymore. They will build a cool platform together but they might just lose the scale game.

Jobs, indirectly, tells the world that his platform is so much better than Google’s, and because he does that, consumers will profit. Let Apple and Google fight each other in Mobile, and we will all benefit.

For me and my company Zwapp the keynote yesterday was good news. A new platform with new opportunities arises. I’ve already claimed a few domain names because yesterday’s keynote immediately triggered a creative process with me, showing us new opportunities to make a difference. We’ll be building cool stuff on iOS 5 but I can already say that Android will not be forgotten.

Way to go Apple!

Posted in Android Mobile OS, Apple, Google, iOS5, iPad, iPhone | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The TechCrunch and HackerNews effect on Zwapp

I’ve been extremely quiet here the past few months. really missed the blogging, but when you are running a small startup and doing about thirty different jobs in it, it seems blogging is just not possible anymore in the 24 hours there are in a day :-(

Yesterday we finally saw the efforts of my team come alive when first TechCrunch, and then Hacker News picked up the story about Zwapp. We went from zero traffic on our site to a huge spike with thousands of people reading the post and looking at/trying Zwapp. The nr of retweets about Zwapp is nearly impossible to follow for us  :-) . It still amazes me that TC and Hacker News have such a deep impact on visibility!

Zwapp is born out of a (personal) frustration that the current app stores (both Apple’s and Google’s) are becoming so big that it is nearly impossible to find apps that are relevant to me. It seems to be a common issue, as every time when I meet friends we put our phones on the table and we start comparing apps together. Zwapp is just that. Instead of providing you access to a list of hundreds of thousands of apps via a market, Zwapp lets you create your own little App Market and share that with your friends.

Zwapp tries to detect your apps on your device, and builds up a profile for you. With Instagrammish simplicity (we love that app) you can connect with friends on Facebook and Twitter and share your apps with them.  You can discover new apps via your friends and via our live (Facebook-like) feed that shows you all the apps your friends are working with now.

I met Robert Scoble yesterday at TNW 2011 conference and he immediately gave our servers a hard time when he started connecting with his thousands of followers. As we are still small, he didn’t find a lot of friends to connect with yet, but that will improve over time. BTW, Zwapp extends to the web, so you can see and share apps there too. Check out @scobleizer’s profile here, and here is mine too.

We’re really happy with the coverage and the fun people seem to have looking around each others apps and sharing cool ones. If you want to give it a try then visit our web site here, or pick up the app from iTunes.

Let me know what you think!

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About the open versus closed debate: Advice to Jobs and Rubin

Steve Jobs seems to be on a crusade to defend his iOS platform against Google’s Android. The Google camp is using the open versus closed argument. Steve decides to reclaim that discussion by introducing the fragmented versus integrated argument.

They are both right and wrong of course. Google is open, but not half as open as it should be. Its fragmented, but not as fragmented as it could have been. Apple is integrated, but not nearly as integrated as you would expect.

But all of this is just tech talk. I could spend hours analyzing these statements and proving them right or wrong with technical details. My company builds a mobile platform for app developers and we develop for both Android and iOS. Both platforms have their charms as well as things that drive you nuts.

Some people actually take the time to do the analysis anyways (See this post on Joe Hewitt’s analysis of ‘open’). The debate is interesting, I’ve written a lot about the open versus closed platforms myself in the past, but I think it is really a theoretical exercise for the tech community at this time.

To me only 2 things matter at this point:

1. Are developers willing to develop on the platform?

2. Do users buy the platform?

The answer to these questions will define the outcome of the battle between these two formidable companies.

My take on this is that Apple will continue to do what it does best, build beautiful top quality products. They will continue to dominate a certain market share, but they will move towards the high-end of the market soon. This is their natural position imo. Apple was never a low-cost, low-end consumer company. Apple products breathe quality and finish, and you need to pay top dollar for it.

Google on the other hand will continue to work on a low-cost, free, reasonably open OS that will lack a bit of the polish of iOS. The lack of polish however will matter less and less as their OS is rolled out on a huge nr of handsets and Google services are deeply integrated into it. Android will continue its strong growth and will dominate the mobile OS market. There isn’t anything Apple can do about that.

To be honest, I doubt in the end Jobs is after the entire market. People want diversity. If everyone owns an iPhone 4 or iPad then the experience becomes mediocre. Apple should and will not let that happen . There are huge revenues profits to be made in the top end of the market.

My advice to Jobs (if he needs any) would be to continue to set the tone in the innovation of handsets and beautiful products. Forget trying to be the biggest. It doesn’t suit you and in the end will be the downfall of the top quality you produce now. Quality will give you the market share that belongs to you.

My advice to Google would be to stop comparing yourself to iOS and Apple all the time. Forget about it, your market is and should be a different one. Instead, solve the operator issues and get everyone to adopt to the latest versions of Android. Focus on the user experience and the app market. Make things easy for developers and users. That strategy will bring you mass market domination which is what Google should be all about.

Posted in Android Mobile OS, Apple, Google, iPad, iPhone, Mobile | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The iPad is a great social computing device

I was reading a post on my iPad about the usefulness of the iPad and I thought I’d chip in some of my own experiences.

For me the iPad has a couple of huge advantages and several important drawbacks.

The good
1. It’s easy to carry around due to its light weight and incredible long battery use
2. The screen is great, no retina, but still great
3. Any task that requires little input is perfect for the iPad. Playing a game, reading browsing, searching, watching a video, browsing through photos, it works great on the iPad
4. It is a social computer, unlike any other. By social I don’t mean the ‘hey I can connect to my friends online’ kind of social. I mean it is nearly impossible to use your iPad without anyone sitting next to you to see and interact with what you are doing. It replaces the TV for my kids most of the time now.

The bad
1. Entering stuff is a pain in the ass for me. Sure I can type in landscape mode. But it isn’t as good as having a physical keyboard with tactile feedback. The keyboard is a bit too small, but the lack of tactile kills it for me.
2. Selections, replacements, copying, pasting, etc. are usable, but thats about it. Not having a cursor or an alternative can make life hard. I am writing this post using the iPad and I’ve added only one link. It is just too much of a pain to accomplish the task.
3. Touch simply isn’t very accurate. There are times when I need to be accurate (click in something small) and it irritates having to zoom and then select all the time

The ugly
1. Only one word: KeyNote. My initial enthusiasm “wow, this looks cool” was instantly blown to pieces when I actually tried to create a presentation with it. It blows, completely! And I mean everything. Selection is undoable, selecting multiple items impossible. Manipulation looks cool using your fingers, but it just isn’t accurate enough. Apple went a long way to hide menu options available on MacOS on the iPad, and they have done such a poor job at it with KeyNote that I find it hard to believe it got approved in the app store. So much for the “Apple approval process leading to high quality apps”. I could go on for ever here, just take my word for it. Don’t waste your money on the iPad version of KeyNote.

The iPad isn’t revolutionary in every way. It is by all means one of the best social computing devices I’ve owned in a while, apart from the Wii ;-)
But for the rest, it’s just not ready to be used professionally yet. Removing complexity, the touch interface, the lack of accuracy and the infancy the UI is in.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Apple went further than we could have imagined or asked for. But it isn’t there yet. And until we find a way to deal with the issues, the iPad will be nothing more (or less) than the perfect social computing device it is now.

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The Wired website will soon be “no longer needed”

If you are Wired and you write an article “The Web is dead. Long live the Internet”, then you are bound to get people in the technology sector to read and respond to it.

It’s a crap title for a pretty lame article. Lamenting something is dead is very typical for tech media blogs and companies. A post either starts to claim something is dead or hot, in or out, right or wrong, black or white. It has the scent of  trying to maximize traffic to the article on the Wired website, which is pretty ironic given the bold statement in it claiming that the web is dead.

I’m not going to bother analyzing and responding to everything in the post. Dave Winer has a nice list describing why the web is still very important (I love his point about Steve Jobs not having to approve anything we say on the web ;-) ). Gruber has an even shorter post about the quality of the Wired article and immediately nominates it for one of the worst Wired stories. And at Boing Boing it is noted that the presented data set doesn’t take into account that overall traffic has exploded.

One thing I did notice. The article on the Wired website is extremely hard to read for me. Try reading the article and not get lost somewhere. It’s probably “optimized” for apps. The web isn’t dead, but the Wired website will soon be “no longer needed”.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

On investors, competition and decency

Part of the process I’m in now with my new company (more on what we do in another post later) is that I’m always in contact with potential customers, companies, competitors and  investors about our plans. I feel it’s important to share our strategy and possibly receive valuable feedback on it from different angles.  VC’s are an interesting breed in this.

I’ve noticed that VC’s all seem to take a different stance on the process. There are those that make it difficult for you to get into a real meeting with them. Asking tough questions up front, not providing much information themselves. Those are the easy ones. If investing a tiny bit of time to talk is too much, then you’re not the investor I’m looking for. This is completely opposite from practice a few years ago. There is definitely more awareness with founders and investors that the power in their relationship needs balance for it to work.

There are those that gladly invite you to a first meeting simply because you ask them. In most cases I suspect it’s because they know me and have seen the things I’ve done in the past. A natural curiosity ‘what’s he up too this time’.  Such meetings are always great. You are bound to receive honest feedback and possibly more if needed.

And today I received a message from a high-profile investor I contacted earlier this week and highly respect (Not gonna tell you who, figure that one out for yourself). He turned down my request to meet up because he’s invested in a possible competitor that is trying to accomplish something similar to our strategy. His words, ‘Probably too close for your comfort or mine’. I thought about that for a while and felt that was a pretty amazing response.

He could have done at least one of 3 things.

a. Ignore my request

b. Set up a meeting without explaining that he’d already invested in a possible competitor and then learn more about our strategy

c. Do the decent thing and decline with an explanation why

By choosing option c) he accomplished several things with me. First of all, he gained a huge amount of respect (which he already had) for being direct and open about his choice not to meet up. He chose not to discuss our strategy with me, I assume because he doesn’t want to get into a position where he could learn things from us that could benefit his investment (or vice versa). That’s an interesting choice for someone making his living with investments in companies like ours. I find that very honest and to me that proves that this investor is a decent person.

As a result of this I already know that I could easily trust such an investor. I will continue and try to build a great company, and I’m sure we will encounter this investor and the possible competitor again. I’m sure that as of today they will be watching us too, which is a good thing imo. Who knows, at some point there could be valid reasons to see if we could strengthen each other.

Today I’ve seen something that is important to me in the startup world.  Not all investors are in it for the short-term win. If you ever get into a position that you can pick an investor to work with, then look for those qualities. There are lots of things you might be looking for in an investor, besides money. And being honest, straightforward and decent are definitely trustworthy characteristics.

Posted in VC | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Life can be unfair sometimes

Approximately 4 weeks ago my mom went to visit a doctor because she had an ache somewhere. Nothing too serious, annoying and it just wouldn’t go away. It took another 2 weeks before a decision was taken to get X-rays. The complaints didn’t seem to fit the normal stuff like elderly age, muscle issues etc.

After 2 weeks of uncertainty, lots of different scans and analysis, the verdict was that the cancer has settled in many different places, from skeleton, spinal cord to liver, lungs and a few more places. In a split second she turned from a perfectly healthy woman into a dying cancer patient.

My mom has lived her entire live caring for others. Husband, children, grandchildren, family, friends. She has always been there to help and care. She’s Greek, and by default that makes you a family oriented person. I cannot remember anything else than her worrying and taking care of worries of other people. I would not be the person I am today, living the live I am living, without her care and faith that I would make the best out of my live.

And now disaster or faith strikes and it has given her a final warning. She knows she will not live to see her grandchildren grow up and make something out of their lives. She will be a cancer patient for the rest of the time that will be given to her. At this point, we don’t really know if that will be 6 months or 6 years. It will involve lots of treatment and probably foul medicine.

She is determined to make the best out of it. And with emotions flying around, trying to come to terms with the cards that have been dealt, she is mostly worried about all of us instead of herself!

Life can be so unfair sometimes (it’s probably not unfair, just indifferent). I cannot help but think that she deserves so much more than such an end. She’s always wanted us to make the best of our lives. The time has come that we will have to take good care of her instead of her taking care of us. We don’t know how long this will last, but I’m determined to make every minute count, whether it is family or business.

Posted in Family, personal | Tagged , | 18 Comments

About that one fatal mistake

[disclaimer: this post is related to my job as CEO in a previous startup. It's aim is to learn from the mistakes I made there. I'm leaving out names as I do not wish or care to point the finger at anyone other than myself]

I once was responsible for a pretty cool startup that failed. The startup was founded in 2006 and had investors, that had already invested a lot of money into the business. When I joined in 2008 the company was still experimenting with technology, business model, service and didn’t make any money on its own. The original founders were not agreeing on the direction of the company, the investors felt there was potential that hadn’t been harvested yet, and I was asked to join and bring the company to the next level.
I accepted the challenge for several reasons:

  1. The company had a sympathetic goal and product aim
  2. I had met one of the founders, worked with him before and I had a lot of trust in him (still have btw)
  3. The product was ok, and had lots of potential for improvement
  4. The team seemed very competent and experienced
  5. I was tempted by the idea of becoming a CEO for a startup that could have the potential of becoming a huge success

About 2 years later the company has ceased activity, a huge nr of customers are left disappointed and I failed at my task.

During those 2 years I had reorganized the company completely.  The company had several problems. It had a huge burn rate, unacceptable for a company that made no money. It didn’t have a product direction or speed to the market because there were too many people (dis) agreeing about the product roadmap. The company had ideas for business models but failed to implement them until that point. There was a disagreement between the founders about the direction of the company. And while the company had access to a huge distribution channel it failed to grow its daily user base.

When I started I did 3 things. I defined a business model and a new product direction, I reduced the company’s operational costs to about 1/5th of its original burn rate (letting go of 2/3rds of the company’s employees, moving our infrastructure to less expensive services), and I started to work on a new team that would grow the company. For a while all went well, we increased quality, features, nr of users, we decreased costs and as a team we improved ourselves. I implemented a business model and we landed excellent contracts with 3 huge companies in the US (which was thought to be impossible for a Dutch based startup). We were starting to make money, and quickly went from a loss situation to a near-break even point. The shareholders were happy and we landed a new round of funding ($ 1M). At the same time we were drawn into a discussion with a large US-based corporation that was interested in helping us boost our service via their distribution channels. Either via a commercial contract of by taking over the business. We felt the company as on the right track.

With the new round and potential big partnership in place,  we worked on a new addition to the service (with a new business model), and focussed on more distribution. During this period the economy went down, making growth a difficult task. Despite our efforts we couldn’t grow the service beyond break even yet. Disaster struck as our main sponsor on the corporate side of the partnership left his company. The potential deal was immediately dead. The investors were losing patience, a (legal) fight broke loose in the background between one of the founders and the investors of the company, and I was constantly drawn away from the business to deal with investors, lawyers and broken relationships. We needed another round from investors that would help us to break even. We had a round within reach, but it was blocked by a majority of the investors because of a lack of trust in each other and the company.

Blocking that investment round left me with no other choice that to leave the company, disillusioned. I felt it was a lack of trust in me, although bottom line the investors didn’t seem to trust each other anymore. When I left, the company broke down further and the service was taken down after a couple of months. It could easily be booted up again, but that is another story.

Looking back I cannot point out a single fatal mistake. There hardly ever is. We made several, and the end result was failure. I’ve learned the hard way that being responsible doesn’t guarantee success. I’ve made mistakes that I don’t think I’ll make easily again. Here are some of the lessons I learned from this:

  • Choose your investors very carefully. Money should never, never, be the main reason for getting an investor on board. It is important to have respect for anyone who is willing to put money into your business. At the same time, ask yourself the following questions. Does the investor understand your vision and share it? Does he really trust your capabilities? Can he support and strengthen your goals with other means than money? Does he have a clear vision on his/the company’s endgame? Does he add something to the mix other than money (that is really the easy part).
  • Focus on growth and business model from day one. I’m not suggesting you should make money on day one. But you need to understand where the opportunities lie. By focussing on growth, you automatically need to focus on happy users. Are you building a product or service people really like? Are you iterating and improving constantly?Are your customers promoting you? Are your customers complaining (they care) or interacting with you? If people aren’t using your product/service, aren’t promoting it for you, then you aren’t getting it right.
  • Make sure you have distribution set up. People do not magically appear at your web site and sign up for a service. You need to focus relentlessly on distribution. Our startup had 1 huge distribution channel, and that was probably one of our biggest mistakes. We created a large dependence on that channel, and when it failed us, we failed.
  • Focus on a low burn rate for operations. If money is spent, spend it on customers, not on your organization. When I joined the company it had used up a large investment already and had a burn rate that was ridiculous based on the fact that it didn’t make any money yet. Looking back that probably caused most of the distrust that later killed the company.
  • Get yourself the best and smallest team you can afford to run the company with. Do not hire unless there is no other way. By keeping a small team you have huge benefits. You can improve and iterate much faster. You’ll make mistakes but you will spot and correct them faster. You are forced to focus on core features only leaving the nice to haves because you simply don’t have the time to build them. You will not only improve your product or service iteratively but you will also improve your way of working faster. There is less complexity in decision-making.  And maybe most important, you can keep your burn rate sufficiently low to make sure you can actually make it to break even.
  • Give yourself time to get it right. Forget about the rat race going on. It can take years to build a sustainable revenue generating company. You will need a clear vision, great execution, hard work, many mistakes, luck, and a lot of patience. The best indication is traction and growth. If you can grow, then you can make money too. If you can’t grow, ask yourself honestly if you are really building something that matters.
  • Don’t bet on just one horse. One distribution channel, that one deal that will boost your company. Deals fail, always. So don’t get hung up in one big one, but instead work on several.
  • Choose your founding partners very carefully. As founders you need to be in it for the long run. That also means you need to be able to trust each other in good and bad times. Think twice about stepping into a running train, especially if that train got stuck somewhere. Solving someone else’s problem is much more complex than creating and solving your own issues.

Now a new opportunity has come along and  I’ve decided to start a new mobile company. This time things will be different. I have partners that I trust. I have a small team with great people. I’ve gone back and started developing again as well as running the company. We have great ideas and a clear vision. We will choose new investors very carefully. Our burn rate is low and we are from day one focussing on customers, growth and distribution. I can’t say or promise yet that the company will be a huge success. We’ve only just begun. But I can say one thing. Success or failure, I will not make the same mistakes easily again. I will probably many different new ones. But we’re going to make it happen this time!

BTW: we are hiring ;-)

Posted in failure, lessons learned, startup | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

My new mobile venture

[disclosure: this post is about my new mobile venture, so it may be a bit subjective here and there ;-) ]

Its been really quiet over here lately. Entirely my fault, I have been extremely busy starting up a new venture. I had almost forgotten what it is like to start something new. It starts with a vague idea which quickly, driven by enthusiasm and energy turns into something you lose sleep over.

The past few months I went through that exciting process again. Building a great team, getting people to listen to your thoughts and providing useful feedback. Coming up with a solution, throwing it away again, coming up with something new. The cycle repeats itself until you reach a point in which you feel that the problem is understood and the solution is a good first shot in the right direction. Getting the team, friends, peers, investors excited about it and just taking the first step of a new adventure.

So what is this new venture about? It’s born out of a bit of frustration that current mobile app stores do not seem to help me find great mobile apps. I’ve noticed that  many of my friends (and myself) often find ourselves asking each other if they have any new great apps for their mobile. And it occurred to us that finding great apps isn’t a simple task anymore with app stores that contain hundreds of thousands of apps.

Enter PinkelStar. PinkelStar is a new service that is aimed at mobile application developers (iPhone and Android). It offers developers the ability to integrate social networks like Facebook and Twitter natively into their app. It lets app users take their favorite apps into their social networks and tell their friends about it.

An experienced developer might say, “why would I need that? I can do that myself?”. Sure you can. It isn’t super complicated (although not everyone will find OAuth a simple protocol). We still think that there are many reasons why you might want give PinkelStar a try.

1. It’s fast. And I mean really fast. Can you integrate Facebook and Twitter in less than 5 minutes? With PinkelStar you need less than 2. Check out this video if you don’t believe me.

2. We take care of the boring stuff, that gives you the time to focus on features for your app. We’ll keep everything updated and working with the latest Social Networking API’s, so no need for you to watch out for changes.

3. PinkelStar gives you (real-time !) stats. Think Google Analytics for apps.  In your developers dashboard you can see what people say about your app, how many shares have been made, how many people have viewed/interacted, how many new downloads these shares have created, etc.etc. You can intersect this data with the different supported social networks and mobile platforms.

4. PinkelStar comes with an open API that can be used to extend your app. We’ll be adding more networks, more platforms and a fully customizable UI that works out of the box.

5. PinkelStar will help you understand what your users think about your app. It will help you improve the user experience further and drive distribution and brand recognition.

Integration of social networks is just the start of this adventure. There is much, much more to come, but we’ll get to that in due time.

If interested I suggest you just give it a spin. It’s literally a few minutes of work and then you can see for yourself what this can do for your apps. PinkelStar has been in private beta for a little while now, and we are now slowly opening up the service to more developers. let me know what you think of it, and if you want access to our Beta, either register at http://www.pinkelstar.com, or drop me a line.

Posted in Android Mobile OS, API, Facebook, iPhone, Mobile, PinkelStar, Twitter | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

With privacy there is no middle ground

Facebook revenues

Lots of posts the past few days about the current Facebook privacy issues. Mark Zuckerberg is under attack. Not just for the latest Facebook update, but also personally for an alleged chat session that suggests he isn’t very respectful towards his customers (A new Gordon Brown affair shall we say).

Two things strike me. One is that when Facebook gets heavy fire the captain leaves communication to a PR department. Facebook has become more corporate than they would like to think. It’s the stupidest thing you could do right now. The attacks are at the heart of the company and its CEO. Instead of hiding behind a shield of PR Mark Zuckerberg should become as transparent on his privacy views as he forces Facebook users to be with their personal data. Quid pro quo.

The other thing that draws attention is the difficult position Facebook placed itself into wrt privacy. When it comes to privacy you cannot tamper with it. The concept of privacy  doesn’t easily allow for a middle ground. Either you agree to the notion of privacy and deal with it, or you decide that it isn’t important and be open about it. Facebook has created their own privacy trap by publicly choosing the side of the user, while everyone could see that internally this would conflict with their revenue need.

I’ve written a lot of posts about this Facebook dilemma in the past. The core thought behind most of them is that Facebook has fallen into its own advertisement trap. You can’t protect privacy on behalf of your user base, if your core business model is advertisement. These goals are obviously (near-)mutually exclusive. This trap is deepened by strategic choices and the chosen PR around those choices. The first PR disaster was Beacon, but many followed after that.

What is really ironic about all of this, is that they could have easily avoided this trap. If only Mark Zuckerberg would have chosen the path, they are now so desperately trying to claim, from the start. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a free social network service that brings consumers and advertisers together! I’ve agitated against Facebook, not because they have chosen an advertisement based business model. My objection is aimed at their dishonesty (it is more than just a lack of transparency) when it comes to the consequences of their business model and privacy. You cannot say that you are protecting the privacy of your users if a) your business model says otherwise, and b) you do not provide your users with a privacy setting that protects them from Facebook itself. The rest (e.g. beacon, confusing privacy settings, opt out instead of opt in) is just collateral damage.

It is this dishonesty that is now giving them a hard time. And there is only one way to get out of this trap. Mark Zuckerberg needs to make a strategic choice. Is Facebook for its users, or is it for its advertisers. Either one is fine. Once that choice has been made, Mark needs to be transparent about that choice towards his users. In the first scenario, he would let the user be in full control of his privacy, including a big and easy to find switch that tells Facebook that they cannot touch this user and his interactions. He would accept that not all users would be willing to share with Facebook or its advertisers.

In the second scenario, he continues on the path Facebook is on now, but his attitude towards communication needs to change radically. Instead of the ‘we protect our users privacy’, communication needs to address privacy transparently and honestly. He needs to explain his business model and the goal of that model (bring user and advertiser together). He will likely use some users over it, but he will keep enough users on board to be freed from the trap he is in. And he will never see that trap again, as it will be fully transparent that signing up for Facebook means you share with Facebook and advertisers (the amount of sharing is still controlled by the user, it just won’t be nil).

Robert Scoble actually has a very cute suggestion that handles scenario 1 and 2 together. Personally I think that it wouldn’t be the strategic way to go. Do one thing, and do it right. Having both scenario’s may provide more flexibility, but it will be error prone and the privacy discussion/trap will not disappear.

With privacy there simply is no middle ground, and Mark Zuckerberg needs to make a strategic choice and decide whose side he will be on. Otherwise this will haunt him forever.

Posted in advertisement trap, business model, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, privacy nightmare, social networks | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The web needs to be bigger than Facebook

A pretty walled garden

I’ve thought a bit about the announcements that Facebook has just made to make the entire web ‘social’. GigaOm has a good writeup about that here.

On the surface their attempt at socializing the web fits a transformation of a  current document centric web  to a User-Centric web. Placing the user and his interactions at the center of the web is recommendable. I do have a major issue with the way this is now happening. Facebook positions itself at the heart of this transformation and wants to be your identity owner/provider. Their message ‘we want to make the web social’, is covering the part where they wish to own it all.

It’s wrong. It’s a threat to your privacy. And most of all it’s a threat to a truly open social web. Privacy can never be the sole responsibility of a company. Privacy is the responsibility of the user. A company can maintain privacy on behalf of a user, but this model becomes flakey as soon as the company has a purpose and business model other than the sole purpose of maintaining your privacy. In other words, as long as Facebook has a revenue model that exploits your profile and interactions, they disqualify for keeping your privacy. No matter what privacy settings they offer, there will NEVER be a privacy setting that protects the user from Facebook itself.

Privacy needs to be in the hands of the user. We do not need Facebook to become our moral defender of privacy. We need to turn that model upside down. The user should be in control, and Facebook should be allowed to obtain the user’s privacy settings from the user, and act accordingly.

Only one type of company should be trusted to act on behalf of the user when it comes to privacy. It needs to be a company that has only one purpose, and one business model, that is, serving the user and his privacy. Think of it as a bank that servers your identity and privacy, based upon rules set by you. If Facebook wants to personalize your experience, it will have to ask permission to the user, or his representative.

Current practice is exactly opposite. Because Facebook has a huge need (revenue) to ensure you share everything with everyone, they create privacy settings that are hard to comprehend, and more evil, they are now opt out by default, leaving the user confronted with a situation in which he needs to act to prevent things from being shared elsewhere. Just look at how they implement instant personalization:

Facebook Instant personalization: It's already activated

Facebook Instant personalization: It's already activated

And when you click through you will find the switch at the bottom. It’s turned on ‘for your convenience’:

Facebook instant personalization: You're already part of it

Facebook instant personalization: You're already part of it

And finally, when you decide that you’d rather not share everything with the rest of the world and hit the switch, it gives you a warning pop up. Instead of directly confirming that your privacy is tightened again, it warns you. Psychologically pop ups suggest that you might be doing something stupid here.

Facebook instant privacy: Warning you not to turn off sharing with everyone

Facebook instant privacy: Warning you not to turn off sharing with everyone

I haven’t touched the ‘open’ part of their solution yet. Chris Messina has a good writeup about that here. Basically, open isn’t open. Open means everything will be directed to Facebook. As I said before, Facebook wants to encapsulate the entire web, making it one big pretty walled garden. But a walled garden isn’t an open web. And Facebook shouldn’t be the keeper of that garden. Open means that if I use a ‘like’ feature, I can send my ‘like’ to any destination I want. Not just to Facebook.

I think it is great that we are moving more and more towards a User-Centric web. I think it is great that companies like Facebook are developing and providing the technology to make this happen. But unless we switch the balance of power from companies like Facebook to the user,  we will never reach that stage. Instead we will all be trapped in a pretty walled garden called Facebook.

Posted in Facebook, privacy, user centric web | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Apple fanboy (or not)

Apple fanboy (image taken from isqareport.wordpress.com/tag/apple/)

Apple fanboy (image taken from isqareport.wordpress.com/tag/apple/)

[disclosure: the post below contains my personal thoughts about Apple. Don't take anything I say for granted, form your own opinion ;-) ]

The past days (maybe weeks) Apple is dominating tech news with their iPad launch, their iPhone 4.0 SDK, creating their own mobile ad platform, buying chip manufacturing companies. Steve Jobs drinking coffee with Eric Schmidt, and other monumental events.

You have to admire their ability to dominate the news. Everything Apple does turns into gold and for everything else they are the new suspect main competitor. They have now reached a stage where Google was at a year ago or so. Everything good in this world is attributed to Apple, and if there isn’t any news, it is created by bloggers/journalists that already know the fundamental truth “Apple news sells”. Apple has turned everyone else into sore losers or mere morons. Google are lost and will be wiped of the planet soon. Microsoft are complete fools that cannot compete at any level anymore, etc.

Let me start out by stating that Apple creates beautiful products. They are one of a very few companies that do not compromise on aesthetics, or ease of use. They are probably as tough on their own organization as they are on their partners. Instead of seeking commodity they define, build and conquer new markets. Their iPhone shook up the entire inert mobile industry and it triggered new innovation in a world dominated and by incumbent operators and handset manufacturers.

Their iPhone SDK is incredibly well thought through. It’s a huge pleasure to develop in and if you compare that to ‘older’ operating systems (e.g. Symbian), they have revolutionized mobile app development. You can see their refusal to compromise on the user experience clearly in their iPhone development and road map. Multitasking only now appears, not because they couldn’t do it before, but because they felt it simply wasn’t good enough.

And then there was the iPad. A new revolution in the computer industry if you are to believe everything that was written about it. I haven’t seen a lot of balanced reviews of it (a few like Gruber and Ars Technica are the positive exception to that ;-) ). Most were using too many superlatives and if there was any criticism it was on non-issues like ‘it has no camera’. I’ve thought about writing down my own thoughts about it, but I can hardly ‘review’ the thing as I don’t own one. I’ve seen it, I’ve touched it, but that isn’t the same as using it for a while.

I do know that I am not going to buy one for a while. It’s a beautiful gadget, its extremely cool, and yet it doesn’t fulfill any need I have at this moment. To me its a reasonably expensive Dinky Toy that in itself doesn’t represent a revolution in computing. I doubt the iPad on its own will save ‘old-media’. If the iPad is nothing more that a beautiful package for ‘old-media’ it won’t stop it’s deterioration into nothingness. Personally I find holding a photo frame the size of an iPad in my hands to do things like read, type or be entertained awkward. that doesn’t imply I’ll never use it, it just means that right now I find it awkward. I’d be scared to drop it, and I’ll probably get neck problems trying to hold and use it.  I love books, I love the smell of books, and I have no urgent need to start reading them on an iPad. Again, that doesn’t mean the iPad fails, it just implies I have more urgent matters I would like to solve first.

The iPad will however spark innovation and in a few years from now we will probably point at the iPhone and the iPad as the trigger that revolutionized human (mobile) computer interaction to a new level. The next generation will look back wearily at the concept of a mouse as the main interaction device (a what??). If only someone could get rid of the software keyboard too (which sucks on a big device like an iPad imo).

Apple is a good company, possibly making the transition to great. But that doesn’t mean that everything they do is perfect. And I feel that a company like Apple can only become great if it gets the right feedback and acts upon that. Not just from the fan boys, but also from people who will look beyond the glamor and glitter. Their unwillingness to compromise on user experience/quality brings great products but comes at a downside too. Just look at the way Apple controls the app store and developments for their products. A fan boy will now stand up and tell me I’m an idiot and that Apple has ensured a quality level in their app store because they control quality at the gate. My opinion on this is that it’s an illusion to think that they actually control quality of the app store that way. The app store contains more than 100.000 apps. Some of which are great, some suck. But that really doesn’t matter. What matters most is that I want to decide for myself if I like an app or not. Their review process is biased and therefore unfair by nature. Their dismissal of intermediate platforms, the exclusion of the word ‘Pad’ in your app name, and the inability to install any software the owner of the device wants are similar examples of control. I will not discuss their terms of service here, I signed them, I don’t think I am allowed to ventilate an opinion on it.

All I can say is, when you control things, you will always have a responsibility to ensure that control isn’t a self-perpetuate engine. It isn’t something you can enforce because you are the biggest, smartest, fastest or best in class. Control is given to you by those that put faith into you doing the right things. And if you stop doing the right thing, then control will simply be put into the next company. Understanding and dealing with that is what make a good company a great company. Apple has built some of the most beautiful products in the computer industry. I wonder if they can deal with the responsibility that comes along with that. I hope so! It will keep them in a top position and it will allow them to bring us great products. Who knows, I might even become a true fan one day.

[update: added a few links]

Posted in Apple, iPad, iPhone | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Why trying to make add block users feel guilty will never work

Ars Technica has a post up in which they argue that ad blocking software seriously hurts their main revenue stream (advertisement). A quote from that post:

My argument is simple: blocking ads can be devastating to the sites you love. I am not making an argument that blocking ads is a form of stealing, or is immoral, or unethical, or makes someone the son of the devil. It can result in people losing their jobs, it can result in less content on any given site, and it definitely can affect the quality of content. It can also put sites into a real advertising death spin. As ad revenues go down, many sites are lured into running advertising of a truly questionable nature. We’ve all seen it happen. I am very proud of the fact that we routinely talk to you guys in our feedback forum about the quality of our ads. I have proven over 12 years that we will fight on the behalf of readers whenever we can. Does that mean that there are the occasional intrusive ads, expanding this way and that? Yes, sometimes we have to accept those ads. But any of you reading this site for any significant period of time know that these are few and far between. We turn down offers every month for advertising like that out of respect for you guys. We simply ask that you return the favor and not block ads.

Basically, what they are saying is, “in order to receive value from Ars Technica, a customer needs to accept some abuse in the form of advertisement”. How’s that for a business model. I can understand and appreciate that a site like Ars Technica makes considerable costs (employees, bandwidth) allowing them to create and distribute solid technological content. I can also appreciate that in order to survive or even create a profitable business Ars Technica needs a revenue model.

But the problem I have with this quote is that they are clearly walking away from a responsibility that belongs to them, not to the end-user. They are addressing the wrong issue. The issue isn’t users blocking advertisement. The issue is that Ars Technica has chosen a revenue model that provides little value to its users. Those user that block advertisement clearly do not care about them. Another quote:

Imagine running a restaurant where 40% of the people who came and ate didn’t pay. In a way, that’s what ad blocking is doing to us. Just like a restaurant, we have to pay to staff, we have to pay for resources, and we have to pay when people consume those resources.

This analogy is wrong of course. The correct analogy would be “Imagine a restaurant where people who come in to eat have to see large billboards a t their table in order to consume food.” The end result would be that more than 40% will likely never visit that restaurant again, no matter how great the food is.

Generating revenue online is not easy. Generating revenue online with great content is not easy either. Advertisement, and the advertisement based business models are the easy way out. Instead of making tough decisions, think creatively about how your users WOULD pay for the service you offer, you choose advertisement, and then complain that no one cares about it.

It’s time we accept that the advertisement based business model simply will not do. Advertisement only works as a business model if the advertisement itself provides the user with direct value. In all other cases it is just a simple form of customer abuse. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can start dealing with it. Each and every quality site will cease to exist, simply because their underlying advertisement based business model is faulty.  I realize that users are not (easily) willing to pay for a great service. But that still doesn’t provide justification for a business model that is doomed to fail.

There are tons of other ways that publishers could attract revenues. The best business models leverage user value. Maybe that is the real issue that needs to be addressed by Ars Technica.

Posted in advertisement trap, business model, on-line advertisement, user centric web | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Google Buzz: 2 years ago

2 Years ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Dear Yahoo, Microsoft and Google mail, forget Facebook, start innovating”. Facebook was coming up strong (still is), giving headaches to everyone. And it occurred to me (and other, smarter people, like Om Malik) that these companies had an extremely strong asset that could be socialized, e-mail!

There are, even today, more people on the web using e-mail than there are people on Facebook. E-mail, as old-fashioned and clumsy as it sounds, is still at the heart of our social interactions. It has been declared dead uncountable times, mostly by people without imagination. But the basis service e-mail provides us, the ability to reach out and interact with the people we know, was there long before any social network was ever imagined.

Google made the first real attempt to innovate on e-mail, and gave us Gmail. Gmail brought a nr of important features to mail that didn’t exist before. It is web-based (and easily reachable from anywhere), has excellent SPAM filters and it gives us free storage. They added chat to it and the ability to change its appearance and functioning via scripts.

Google Buzz

Google Buz

I’ve mentioned 9 improvements to mail 2 years ago. These improvements would make email more social for me. And now that I’ve watched the video on Google Buzz, it has become clear to me that Google implemented these requests (and more) into Google Buzz (I wonder, did they ever read my post ;-) )

Google never ceases to amaze me. Everyone laughed when they “missed” social networks. Everyone declared Facebook the winner. I’m sure Google would have liked to own a company like Facebook. But I’m glad Google didn’t and had to invent social networking the hard way. Building a closed walled garden was the easy way out then. Google was forced to solve the issue differently. And it turns out they had all the assets already available to them. Just think about it. They have (real-time) search, maps, localization, mobile, chat, e-mail, photos, video’s, and they most likely have you and all of your friends using Google accounts. It’s all there.

And with Google Buzz they now offer an open solution that connects and integrates with anything else Google and others have to offer. And by opening up this social space, Google has made the web just a little more User-Centric.

Well done! Let the buzz begin

ps. hat tip to @stevie_glass who pointed me to my post on Twitter this morning :-)

Posted in Facebook, Google, social networks, user centric web | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s time we take responsibility when it comes to a fundamental human right like privacy

[disclosure: a bit of shameless self promotion below]

Last month the BBC contacted me about a feature they were preparing for their Fast Track show. They invited me over to give my opinion on a trend where people are using social media in travel. The reason they invited me was a blog post I had written called ’5 dangers of social media’.

I ended up in a nice interview with Fleur Britten, author of several books, including her latest one about couch surfing. She has taken an amazing journey, starting in Moscow all the way to Kazakhstan and China using social media to find her next couch to sleep on.

You can see the interview here.

Although the interview turned out pretty good I found it pretty difficult to get right. Writing provides me comfortable time to think and shape my words in a non-native language. With a TV camera, and realizing some 80 million people might see the item,  this is much harder. I have to be concise and to the point.  I wanted to say a lot more than ended up in the interview, but that is ok.

Social Media has become a nearly useless term. A container for too many different meanings. In this particular case, the question at hand is, should we share everything we do online, and are we aware of  possible consequences. Note that every ‘social’ web service (and which one isn’t) encourages public sharing. And now that everyone is doing it, it seems harmless to join.

I do not object at all to public sharing. I’m part of this myself with accounts on several ‘social’ services like Twitter. At the same time I feel a user should fully understand the possible consequences of this. You may get hooked initially on a cool social, or (now hip) localization based service. Be aware that public means public. It is there to stay forever and more importantly it is always traceable to your identity. Read this post by Andrew Hyde called ‘Committing location based service suicide’ about his reasons to stop using Foursquare, Brightkite and Gowalla.

Web 2.0 and ‘social media’ developments have taken a deep stab at our ability to be in control of our own privacy. This never-ending call to share publicly is slowly taken over a fundamental human right of being in control yourself. I’ve read and written a lot about this in the past few years. I am by no means an expert on the matter (read Bruce Schneier if you are looking for a real expert), but have always felt that the advertisement business model on the web is one of the root causes for this trend. It’s a catch 22, a trap you can’t get out of. Powerful CEO’s like Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt are pushing user to share even more and accept that privacy is a thing of the past.

The justification that this tracking is already taking place in the physical world is hardly comparable. Yes, credit card companies, your local supermarket, and the government track you in the physical world. Yet none of these organizations are even remotely capable of combining  information from different sources on a scale that is possible on the web. Everything you do online is stored, indexed and retrievable. And the risks related to that are very realistic.

Does that mean you shouldn’t take part? Of course not. But I would urge you to think about it, and to fully understand the consequences.

Do not get lured naïvely into the trap of Mark Zuckerberg or Eric Schmidt. Privacy is not dead, it is a human right. Services may not offer you full control over your privacy. People may share more and more. All of this doesn’t mean you should hand over your right to decide so easily. You should be in control, and the first thing you need to do is take that control and decide for yourself where you draw the line. We all need to protect our right of self-control, and each of us individually needs to live up to that responsibility and think before we act. Draw your own line, as no one else will do it for you.

And yes it is true, TV makes you look fat ;-)

Posted in advertisement trap, Mark Zuckerberg, privacy, social media | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

You are the CEO of one of the most fastest growing and remarkable companies in the world. You’ve created a place where 350 million people get together online and have a great time. A place where 350 million people can share their status, their ups and downs, their thoughts and feelings with their friends. You’ve managed to conquer the US and then translate your service into more that 50 other languages with help of your community. You’ve become the biggest online photo storage platform with a staggering 2.5 billion photos uploaded each month. You are the first company that successfully transformed a service into a platform with now hundreds of thousands of 3rd party development companies building applications and creating revenues. You’ve enabled a large part of the world to have access and  connect online, an achievement I admire and you should be proud of.

Your company went through a bumpy road to success. Your success has also created the biggest challenge of all. Keeping 350M people and their date connected online costs money, a lot of money. Yet you have chosen to give everyone free access to the service. It’s a brave, yet very challenging strategy. I can appreciate this. I am the CEO of an infinitesimal company compared to yours and we struggle with this challenge too, every day. The costs are for real, and you cannot continue to live on investments. Your company somehow needs to generate revenues. lots of it. And your brave decision comes at a cost for us, the users. You have chosen the advertisement business model to cover your costs and generate revenues.

There is nothing wrong with an advertisement based business model, just look at Google. They make huge profits with serving advertisement. They have found a way in which the advertisement itself provides value to both the user and the advertiser. It’s a winning strategy for everyone.

With your service this is much more difficult. You started out as a closed network for college students, with a Terms of Service that probably didn’t address the need to break down privacy at the cost of revenues. But as you grew bigger, your cost/revenue problem became bigger. And with power comes a fertile ground for evil. You’ve chosen a flawed advertisement based business model. Flawed because you are running into the problem that the advertisement itself provides no value to your users while they are interacting with friends. Instead of providing your users value, you sell their data and serve them billboards that they do not care about. Instead of protecting your user’s right to privacy, you are constantly removing their ability to control it. You have your share of privacy related issues with project Beacon, spamming 3rd party developers, malicious gaming companies, and cyber attacks, You’ve updated your TOS several times now, always with the need of the user in mind you say. Yet, every time you’ve altered your TOS, you’ve had to draw back crucial privacy-related terms because your users and the media created an uproar over it. And in your latest bold move, you’ve decided to add the ability to share everything in public to your service, and introduce that feature with confusing settings (defaulting to public sharing) for 350M users. And you have even said that if you would have created Facebook today, you would have used the public settings all along. But you haven’t, have you? You’ve created Facebook with a different purpose, and are now trying to justify your need to generate revenues with false reasoning.

It seems that the relation between you and your user base is not in balance anymore. Facebook has gained too much power, at the expense of its users. Power corrupts, and you now have too much of it. You may say that you act upon behalf of your users, but your actions are saying something different. I’ve written Eric Schmidt a very similar letter recently, in which I asked him to restore the balance of power between his company and his users. He too, was crossing a line when it comes to privacy, and just like yourself, he has the power and means to do something about it.

You see Mr Zuckerberg. Privacy isn’t just about hiding personal information. Privacy isn’t dead. Privacy is about choice. It’s about freedom. It is about the user that can draw his personal line somewhere. It’s about restoring the balance between the user and the service provider. This freedom can never be dead, it is a vital human right that characterizes our society. You have a huge infrastructure in place that could restore this balance. But it would need yet another bold decision from you.

Instead of forcing people into your business model, you would need to put the user in control. Instead of setting sharing options to public by default, you would need to set them to private. This would give the user more control over this relationship with your company. By default the user would be assured that the things he shares are only visible to those he wants to share it with. and if that user wants the benefits that come with public sharing, he can make a conscious decision to set the switch to public. Instead of exploitation and customer lock-in you would create a partnership based upon willingness, and customer freedom. A huge difference. You might even consider alternative business models that monetize user value instead of user harassment. You may (need to) lose users over this decision.You may not even be able to become profitable in the very near future. But you would do the right thing for the user, and the user will value that. You have a passionate community of 350M users, and I’ve always learned that when you have a passionate community you can create huge value together. And you can monetize that value and passion in a positive way.

How about it Mr Zuckerberg? Would you be willing to take that step? If you need help,  give me a call, because I would like to help too.

Sincerely yours,

Alexander van Elsas

Posted in Alexander van Elsas, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, privacy | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments