On the iPad

It's been a couple of days since Apple released their latest product, the iPad. Given the denouement, its not surprising that there is a fair amount of disappointment. I'm not talking about the name, but the feature set. I see it this way - when the fastest-growing areas of your company are your media outlets (iTunes and the App Store), you build on that success. While laptops have been doing quite well, overall the growth of the traditional computer business for Apple hasn't been as impressive. Apple Computer even became just Apple not so long ago.The iPad is a media consumption product first, powered of course, by a computer. There have been plenty of tablet computers that have failed, and I suspect that failure has much to do with the "open-ended"ness of the devices - they are basically laptops jammed into a different form factor. Apple aficionados seemed to be clamoring for a Mac Air without a keyboard - a computer in its unvarnished chameleon-like natural form. I'm actually with them, but I'm probably in a too-small (though vocal) market  for them to target. Its my kids and my leisure time Apple is after.

Apple has learned that an excellent user experience more often comes from tightly coupled software and hardware. It has also learned from iPhones and iPods that it can go a step further and subsume the computer beneath the consumer experience. Witness the amount of effort they have put into the UI. This tells me they aren't swinging for the fences on the first try, but attempting to build a platform they can splinter variants from in the future. The locked-down nature of many of Apple's products is disturbing, but new avenues will emerge if it is successful for a wider community of contributors to innovate. The App Store is controlled by Apple, but of course bounded problem spaces often yield better outcomes, and to date nothing else has come close. A true tablet computer may emerge over time (sooner, when its jail broken), but right now Apple is building on success, not giving the world another version of a failed experiment.

A Real Nudge

William Poundstone unravels a great example of how businesses use "nudges" to direct user (customer) behavior to make choices they otherwise might not.

"Puzzles, anchors, stars, and plowhorses; those are a few of the terms consultants now use when assembling a menu (which is as much an advertisement as anything else). “A star is a popular, high-profit item—in other words, an item for which customers are willing to pay a good deal more than it costs to make,” Poundstone explains. “A puzzle is high-profit but unpopular; a plowhorse is the opposite, popular yet unprofitable. Consultants try to turn puzzles into stars, nudge customers away from plowhorses, and convince everyone that the prices on the menu are more reasonable than they look.”

More at: http://nymag.com/restaurants/features/62498/#ixzz0ZgvsUHUB

Social Networking for Fundraising

Sylvia and I worked on a fundraising site for our daughter's school, PS29 in Brooklyn called 5days4arts.org. It was conceived of and launched in an incredibly short period of time, but it managed to meet the fundraising goal of $40,000 in just about two weeks. It was a great lesson in using social media for good, but also showed the power of open-source software (built on Wordpress), cheap technology (used handheld digital cameras) and software (well, ok, we did use Final Cut). We also made the local paper, the New York Daily News. (nydailynews_112409)

What to do with all that cognitive surplus

I was at the Wired Store a couple days ago. Its filled with all manner of (mostly) electronic gadgets, televisions, a Camaro, and a drop of camping gear. Leaving, I felt nothing. In years past - actually a good 20 or more years ago, I would have been excited at the sight of all that expensive equipment. What really struck me is how I use my time now. I'm sure it has a lot to do with my stage in life – with two kids and a mortgage, who's got time for all that anyway? And a don't think parallel parking a new Camaro in NYC would be much fun. But its more than that. I like to do active things - building things like websites, and engaging with people - much more than sitting passively at home listening to music or watching TV. If I do listen to music, its in the background while I'm doing another task.

Clay's talk on cognitive surplus (and a forthcoming book) really drives this home. While my attention is more fragmented these days, I'm also doing much more with my time. Online social tools allow me to use my time better and to discover new things, and entire new classes of engagement (compared to 20 years ago) are stimulating and fulfilling.

Behavioral Economics and User Experience

A short but interesting article in the WSJ goes into the use of "nudges" and social pressure to encourage people to modify their behavior. The basic idea is that people don't always behave rationally or in their best self-interest. While this wasn't big news to the rest of the world, apparently it is for many mainstream economists, who continue (or did, until recently) to believe that markets are always efficient because people will always carefully weigh choices and make the best one. One of the bits that stood out for me was the theme of social pressure being used to modify electrical use in Sacramento. By making neighbor's power use known, utility customers will actually lower theirs to meet or beat their neighbor's. When we think people are watching us, our behavior is quite different, it turns out. A lot of this is covered in "Nudge", a great read on the subject.

This kind of feedback, along with ordering choices and playing off people's tendencies to overvalue free things, can be useful tools in designing user experiences. We've been exploring this at Chartbeat (betaworks), and I've been wanting to leverage this more in fund-raising at my children's school (where we already have had some success using social media).

Black Swan Rules for Living

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of "Black Swan" offers tips for life and accept randomness: http://bit.ly/a2ni Taleb's top life tips

1 Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.

2 Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.

3 It’s not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie. If possible, tease people who take themselves and their knowledge too seriously.

4 Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act — if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.

5 Don’t disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time. We don’t understand their logic. Don’t pollute the planet. Leave it the way we found it, regardless of scientific ‘evidence’.

6 Learn to fail with pride — and do so fast and cleanly. Maximise trial and error — by mastering the error part.

7 Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network. Never take ‘no’ for an answer (conversely, take most ‘yeses’ as ‘most probably’).

8 Don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip and, of course, profiles of authors). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants... or (again) parties.

9 Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.

10 Answer e-mails from junior people before more senior ones. Junior people have further to go and tend to remember who slighted them.

(via Boingboing)

Educational Technology Finally Finding its Place

I've been out of the educational space for a while, but I'm still fascinated by the possibilities for using technology to help advance student achievement. Most of the effort that I've seen has been well-intentioned but ultimately doomed to fail due to a few simple issues. Early efforts focused on hardware - wiring schools and putting in computers with the hope that people would figure out what to do with them. Regrettably, most teachers (like anyone else) don't know how to code or design software. Once an effort to put appropriate software in place was started, it followed what the corporate world did - "digitizing"offline processes. This works for some linear transactions, but ultimately is a poor match for how children learn and the demands of a networked society. Finally, it seems people are opening up to the notion of group learning underpinned by social software, and software that includes the entire learning community. I tried to convince my former employer of the importance of this but it was both a hard sell internally (the company was probably innovative at the start, but over time adopted the top-down enterprise model of its customers, the school districts) and to school districts afraid of spam, porn, predators and any of that making headlines. From the NYTimes:

The project-based approach, some educators say, encourages active learning and produces better performance in class and on standardized tests.

The educational bottom line, it seems, is that while computer technology has matured and become more affordable, the most significant development has been a deeper understanding of how to use the technology.

“Unless you change how you teach and how kids work, new technology is not really going to make a difference,” said Bob Pearlman, a former teacher who is the director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

The foundation, based in Napa, Calif., has developed a model for project-based teaching and is at the forefront of the drive for technology-enabled reform of education. Forty-two schools in nine states are trying the foundation’s model, and their numbers are growing rapidly.

Also, a good article in the NYTimes (same day) about hands-on learning for software designers - totally applicable to the above scenario.

Summize acquired by Twitter


As announced this am, Twitter is acquiring 100% of Summize. Deals between two private companies are easy to consider and hard to close. In this case we had both companies on a tear and the teams on both sides who were interested in a partnership — the hope here is that what makes sense today only makes more sense down the road. Search on twitter will evolve into more than search — this is starting to happen today (more below), but bringing these teams together will only accelerate the pace of that evolution. The deal started with a conversation with Fred Wilson about how conversational search can evolve into navigation, about how important navigation becomes for UGC as you go mainstream — it concluded with the deal that was announced this morning. Betaworks is now a twitter shareholder, and excited to be one.

Finding a pain point The history of most startup’s is made up of iterations, learning and restarts — Summize was no exception. The Summize team worked hard for a little over a year developing sentiment based algorithms aimed at crawling the review and blogosphere. Late last year they formally launched a web product that let you search reviews for books, movies and music. It worked well — offering summaries of all the reviews for a particular book, structured programmatically so they could be organized and swiftly digested by users or publishers. Yet it was complicated — not in theory or in its presentation — but in practice it was a complicated problem that most end users didnt know they needed. As an old friend would put it Summize v1. didn’t address a discernible need or pain point.

I remember early this year we took the Summize team over to meet with an executive at News Corp. After the WSJ/Dow Jones acquisition, News Corp. was thinking about data centric media and how conversational media — the blogosphere — can be mapped and structured in a scalable manner. Jeremy was fascinated by the technology but pushed us hard as to whether we knew whether people were really looking for programmatic structured access to sentiment. By March it was clear we couldn’t get the sentiment focussed company funded by VC’s — many people were interested but no one was ready to take the risk. I think this is part of the chasm between east and west coast companies — out west, interesting technology can and is often funded purely on the merits of the technology — out east, not so. At betaworks we decided to work with the Summize team repoint the technology — and launch twitter search. Why Twitter? Three reasons: there was a gap in the market for a scaled search / navigation experience of twitter, summize technology was very capable of providing and scaling a great search experience across the twitter’s live river of conversations and finally Twitter, the base data set, was growing like a weed.

Growth It’s astounding how fast the Summize service took off. The growth is charted in this post. The premise was that there is a real time data distributed across services online that is hard to digest and that search is a well know metaphor to aggregate up these conversations into something meaningful for people. Twitter was the logical starting point — traffic was exploding and Twitter was quickly becoming a real time, one to many communications platform. Search is so often viewed as a destination experience — get this result and move on. Summize search is different — because its conversational and real time you keep searches running and open in tabs, you repeat them time and time again, to watch the conversation evolve and change — watch that refresh bar on any of the topics linked to above. The approach worked. Traffic exploded, not only on the UI but also on the API. Distributed, live search — very, very different to how search has been done to date on the web.

Now web There is something new going on here. Somewhere in the past few months the way that I experience the Internet and specifically live information changed — there is a “now web” emerging out of an ecosystem of loosely coupled products. There has always been an immediate, instant component to the web and web communications — it goes back to mailing lists, IM, email & blog commenting. But its taking on a whole new form — the density of the conversations and the speed at which they emerge and evolve is different. I first sensed the shift with the trending topic list on front page of Summize. This is a feature that the team created right out of the sentiment based technology of Summize v1. The first night we launched v2. I recall seeing the word IMAP was trending — my first thought this has to be a mistake, but when I ran the search it turned out that Gmail was having IMAP issues. Then a few weeks later during a telephone call one participant on the call heard an explosion outside his home. He jumped off the call to see what was happening, Jay came back 5 mins later, shook up but with no idea what the noise was. This post shows the Summize stream of responses to a simple question — there had been a minor earthquake in VA. A few weeks later the earthquake in China was also emerged out of the twitter stream before it hit MSM.

We experienced this again last week — in full force — when we launched the bit.ly product. A deceptively simple URL shortener that we developed with Dave Winer. Six days after its launch bit.ly is on a tear. The launch last week started with a fantastic write up by Marshall Kirkpatrick — it moved from there into twitter and summize and within mins we were getting live feedback on the product, how to tune and test it, complaints about the lack of privacy policy and ton of great ideas. I am learning as I go — but its a whole new world out there and thanks to Summize we can converse with in a far more direct and organized manner. This should be evident again today — run a search for this or this and watch it evolve.

In summary Summize is a great example of what we aspire to do at betaworks. Working with a great team of technologists who created a wonderful product, one that on the surface is deceptively simple — where the smarts are all under the hood. One that we helped launch and scale. Many thanks to the Summize team. Jay, Abdur, Greg, Eric and team worked very very hard to make this happen — they peered into startup abyss and decided they werent going there — you guys are smart and brave. Thank you to the advisors who worked w/ Summize the make this happen — Gerry Campbell and Josh Auerbach. And thanks to the Twitter team. I have great hopes for the joint team.

Also see Summize post by Jay

Social Medium

Virginia Heffernan in the Times Sunday Magazine writes about emerging talents on Flickr, and how the medium - specifically the social aspect - has shaped the work of artists.  Her description is provocative, especially the notion that Flickr as a whole may constitute a new medium. There are elements of performance (interacting with the audience via comments), the genre of heavily digitally-processed images, with the images as a commonplace. The images themselves confidently step away from traditional notions of photographs (and truth) and into a more participatory space. 

We're still in the early stages of weaving digital tools into our social lives, but we've come a long way from just eight years ago and the fears expressed in Bowling Alone, where everyone online would be isolated in "interest enclaves". Chalk me up as an optimist.