Facebook goes LastFM, creates Über-Napster

At F8, Mark Zuckerberg showed off Timeline Facebook’s neatly displayed version of “I know what you did last Summer (and in case you forgot you can look your life up here)”.

Facebook's Timeline: diving deeply into your private data parts.

But the really big step happens in the background. The ubiquitous Like-button introduced an explicit way to write some information into Facebook’s Open Graph. You like a piece of content – press this button. That’s one way to fill your Timeline, and a fairly cumbersome one.

The new social apps expand this collection of user specific data. Instead of having to press a button, the social apps rely on implicit submissions. Last.fm pioneered this approach with their audioscrobbler technology. As soon as you started listening to music, last.fm collected all relevant meta data, building up a data warehouse which could deliver recommendations based upon real usage. A powerful tool.

Facebook puts this sniffing technology onto a new level. Instead of filling a single container (dubbed: music), Facebook collects data from all over the place. Listening to music on Spotify or Mixcloud adds data as well as watching a movie via Netflix or reading some news on the Guardian app.

This massive data hoarding is combined with the most powerful recommendation mechanism in the world: endorsements by people you know. As Spotify’s Daniel Ek points out: this is like Napster. Not the still existing empty brand name of today, but the original  p2p powerhouse started by Sean Parker, and who had played an important role in the early days of Facebook as well.

The old Napster opened up the hard disks of fellow music fans, who happened to share a digital copy of a song you were looking for on their PCs. The real fun started by browsing what else was in the directory. Was it just a fluke, that this guy shared Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”? Or, maybe, some other strange music I never heard of might be something I like to hear download as well. Which was of course completely, utterly illegal, and the music industry preferred to commit collective suicide instead of working with this altered reality.

Facebook’s open graph enabled (music) partners are of course going the legal way (that’s why you won’t get Spotify or Netflix or … in this or that region or country). But, compared to the old Napster, they can combine the power of content neighborhoods with real life relationships. What happens with a social app looks more or less like this:

  • A friend listens to some music.
  • The apps share the titles automatically, and write it into the listeners open graph. That’s the “scrobbling”-part
  • But now, the app posts this information immediately into the Facebook tickers of the listeners Facebook friends.
  • If you happen to like (or maybe, you like him or trust his tastes), you just click, and you can listen as well.
  • Or have a look what else this person likes to hear … or read … or watch … or where they run … or what they cook … or …

But be careful: as long as you app is Facebook-enabled (be it on the web, your iPhone, an Android handset, a smart TV …), everything can will be shared. So you better keep Facebook’s privacy settings manual at hand.

Paging Dr. House! Outbreak of Appendicitis Pandemia on TV sets!

I’m so glad the Internet wasn’t invented by some crazy Korean hardware manufacturers, collaborating with American cable guys. Just calling a device smart and adding some clickable icons doesn’t add any extra intelligence.

Compare the smart phone with the smart tv. The first makes your typical phone tasks a bit easier, simply by adding a smooth user interface. It puts some networking and computing power in your pocket, adds some extras like GPS, and offers even financial incentives for developers to do some great, new things. Thank you, smart phone.

How about the smart tv? The main task of the tv set is being a window to another world, constructed by mostly really large corporations. The last three inventions making your viewing task a bit easier were the remote control (you don’t have to stand up for your right to choose), the VCR/DVD (buy or rent whatever you want) and the PVR (you don’t have to be on time to meet you favourite tv star).

Compared to those three game changers, the smart tv is still a rather weak contender. Yes, they’re selling well. Because it’s hard to find a tv set with a decent screen and no built in internet access. But people aren’t really using the “smart” part. So why would that be?

Let’s have a look at the idea of the app. Most of the apps on my iphone are just easing up things I could do as well on a browser. But hey, the phone’s processor is rather slow and its screen a midget. Apps make life easier for me, because they shrinkwrap a task so I can hold it in the palm of my hand. Even more important: Where or when do I use it? Only, if there’s no larger networked screen with sizable processing power around. (The ipad app use case fits just in between. You’ve got the extra space to handle the slightly larger screen. But you’re not schlepping around a powerful laptop.)

Now, let’s compare those use cases to the current promise of the smart tv. Assume, you’re just two people watching CSI. Wouldn’t it be kind of rude to overlay parts of the screen with your personal Twitter stream? The tv app does not add anything to tv’s core use case: watching tv. It’s either watching tv or app watching. Even more important: you bear with the tiny screen of the smart phone, because you’re on the road. Sitting on your couch, you surrounded by a wifi cloud and you have the choice between laptop, ipad, smart phone – and the tv remote. For all task and things not connected to watching tv, the smart tv loses (no privacy, meager screen resolution, cumbersome data entry …). And smart manufacturers now even get rid of the dumb remote, and stuff it as an app in your phone or tablet.

One of the rare tasks where a smart tv makes sense is finding stuff to watch. But even here, we should look more into well constructed back end systems, than watching out for appy eye candy. To be sure, displaying static information on a tv set is quite a challenge. But the real value does not come out of a grid display of tv shows currently on. The value is in the meta data, the ability to get any video content you want (hello, generation YouTube), starting from a single point of entry. Which could be an app on your tv screen, your tablet, a web browser, whatever.

See, from it’s heritage, the tv is a window to an outside world. Or, technically speaking, a rather dumb displaying device. Will stupid evolve into something like a fully capable large screen ipad on the wall – or more likely resemble the screen attached to a desktop PC?
I guess the interesting part starts in the grey area in between: how much smart will do good?

Upcoming: there’s a rotten app in my smart fridge and where’s the app store in my Smart (as in car)?

O Sony, where art thou?

Remember Sony, inventor of mobile music (the Walkman, if you’re generation iPod), makers of shiny gizmos and all things transistorized? Yesterday, I spent one hour at Sony’s press conference T IFA Berlin, where all manufacturers and lovers of home electronics gather since the days when television was the next big thing and very much black and white.

What’s the big deal? Sir Howard Stringer smoothely presented the vision of the wholly integrated media and entertainment empire. Hardware, content, and distribution, all under one roof. Now, what’s missing here? Right: Software. Entertainment hardware is almost a commodity. The differentiator is software and the User Interface. Why? Look at your smartphone, your tablet, your smart tv: big shiny screens, with slightly different form factors.

The new Sony tablet has a nice new form factor. But turn it on, and it’s an Android device. The new smart TVs look definitely nice. Turn it on, and it’s an Android device. Boot a Sony PC: hello Microsoft Windows. Start the Playstation: it’s a Sony.

Sure, you still could find a way to combine all those different worlds. Integrating all battling units into one large consumer unit sounds like a smart and ambitous move.
But the press conference mostly proved, that running a vertically and horizontally and however else integrated empire is not a silver bullet. One hour with three talking heads, from smoothely presented CEO vision to well rehearsed droning on features of products with gripping names like XYZ-123 is definitely nothing I would expect from a media empire with a gazillion tv, movie, and music superstars in their employ. Text to speech in front of a smurfish-blue background does not substitute for an entertaining event. And I won’t start to compare this hour with the product presentations of a certain Man in Black.

Digital Citizenship and Social Network Feudalism

In the real world, we abhor censorship, take many civil rights for granted. But as digital citizens, we happily click ourselves back into the 17th century.

Facebookistan has the 3rd largest population on the globe, just behind China and India. Google+, the new kid on the block, already surpassed Switzerland (big deal), Senegal, and even Australia. Which puts its current rank somewhere between Canada (population of 34.5 million, rank 35) and China (Republic of Taiwan that is, 23.2 millions, rank 50).

Mark Zuckerberg in the 17th century.

Now, those numbers do not make Facebook into a sovereign state, at least not in the traditional sense. Sovereign states are defined by territory. But the Googleplex is not like the Vatican a sovereign enclave in a larger territory. It’s still just a piece of real estate located in the US. And “Business is War” doesn’t mean Google war droids attacking the design soldiers of Jobs.

No land, no armies. The differences between Facebook (more than 10 times the population) and France (real nukes, real food) or Google (credit rating of AA+, just like the US) and Greece (CC, just like me) are obvious.

But so are the similarities. Sovereign nations are defined by their people, otherwise the Antarctica would be a superpower. And it’s we, the digital people, forming those digital Leviathans of the 21st century, which provide us with our digital IDs and currencies. They handle our communications, they might even tax us or control, what’s to be published or not (on their our Kindles and iPads).

350 years ago, Thomas Hobbes’ concluded, that an absolute monarchy be the best way to govern any sovereign. This would be a fringe opinion nowadays, at least in the western part of the real world. Our ancestors fought pretty hard to get us, where we are now: nobody should stay above the law, censorship is bad, sovereignty belongs to the people.

But a look at the digital domain might make Hobbes a happy man. The digital sovereign is not the people, but a corporation.

  • Post your artwork on Facebook, which might offense some bible belters? You’ll get evicted (as it happened to my friend Thomas). Eventually you might be allowed to return (as it happened to my friend Thomas). But no legal recourse here. It’s a little bit like GDR light.
  • Use a pseudonym on Google+? Say good-bye to your Google account.

In a heavily distributed digital universe, this wouldn’t be a big deal at all. Don’t like this bar? There are plenty next door. But Facebook isn’t your neighborhood Hooters, and Larry Page definitely not the soup nazi. There are not even a handful of Digital Sovereigns aspiring to become the operating systems of our digital lives.

The preamble to the United States Constitution starts like this: “We the People of the United States, … secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Our digital selves do not enjoy a constitution or according rights. We the users, have to accept some Terms of Service. And as most of you never really read what you OKed with a single mouse click, we hand now over to Richard Dreyfuss declaiming some parts of the Apple iTunes EULA.

Software Patents

What are software patents good for? NPR’s “This American Life” explained nicely the
theory behind the software patent business

A more hands-on approach comes from Sanjay Jha, CEO of Motorola Mobility. After hinting that Motorola could use its bazillion mobile patents to tax some of its Android competitors, Google defended its Android franchise by buying
the whole of Motorola Mobility

Open Source and App Stores

In an interesting talk with pkabel, Peter tried to convince me, that the webwide perception of free will for the next foreseeable keep digital stuff, well: free. Partly, I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Free is powerful, and
  • any digital commodity will sooner or later end up there.

So one question can be: where and for whom could we prevent commoditization? A core feature of a digital file is infinite, lossless copies. So we’re talking not just commodity, but commodity with an endless supply. For a while, copy restrictions for digital files seemed to some parties a doable, systemic approach to kill this killer feature. Sure. Unfortunately, this was a bit like trying to protect the water business by demanding that all water has to be kept in its solid form. Yes, ice is great. But you have to deep freeze the world, otherwise your business is going to melt.

But, does everything digital necessarily become a commodity? I guess that’s where we started to disagree. Disclaimer: some people will know, that I’m working on a platform which bets on the value of a digital creation – emphasizing the creation, and not the digital part.

As we have no proof or traction or even a counter-example yet, I’m always glad to hear of people thinking into comparable directions. A couple of months ago, Robert Douglass, Open Source developer of Drupal-Core fame, proposed his idea of a Drupal App Store to the Drupal community. Which led to some rather heated exchanges. Now can listen to his reasonings in this podcast by Lullabot Consultants.

You cannot be the cake and eat it, too

Beloved Twitter finds itself currently in a very awkward position. Twitter always acted as some kind of a weird, but successful crossbreed of for profit company and something resembling an open Internet protocol. A massive, cloud based, proprietary communications channel with a set of open APIs any developer could connect to.

While Twitter was struggling with its success, throwing all resources after keeping the service up and running, a plentitude of developers started to create a multitude of clients. This was great. A/B-testing a user experience is helpful. But Twitter managed something like an A/n-testing: With A being Twitter’s own dusty old web interface, and n all those other ways to work and interact with the platform.

But now, after 5 years of growth (and countless A/n-tests), the corporate part of Twitter had to step on the brakes. The artful balance of internal and external developments had to be shaken up. Buy why kill a very successful continuous development process, which externalized most of the cost and risk? After raking in funds like Scrooge McDuck into his money bin, Twitter finally needs a business model, which delivers the Dollar per user Twitter-co-founder Biz Stone promoted once.

In the meantime, the original post declaring war on the mainstream interface developers has disappeared (and resurrected). But I don’t think the core problem can be solved that easily. The high wire act of being Mozilla and Microsoft at the same time is becoming tricky. Or, to twist the old adage on cake ownership and nutrition: You cannot be the cake and eat it, too

The price of cotton, the cost of jeans, the value of digital media

Please strike the one word which does not fit here:

  • cotton
  • jeans
  • digital media

Right. Jeans is the wrong one. Because cotton and digital media are commodities, but the jeans a value added product.

Exhibit 1

As Joe Weisenthal insightful question in Business Insider: Guess What Surging Cotton Prices Do To The Cost Of Blue Jeans. In the last year, cotton prices almost doubled. As jeans are (or: should be) mostly cotton, what would be the effect on the retail prices of let’s say a Levi’s Ex-Girlfriend Jean (no kiddin’).

The effect is actually: zilch.
Levi’s bill of material rose from $1.41 to $2.53 – the final product cost $65.

Exhibit 2

Remember this infographic?

It tell’s you one thing: musician’s are cultural cotton pickers. Under current conditions, the (monetary) value is created elsewhere. And there’s not even a commodity bubble for music in sight.

Bearing with Airlines

For ages and ages, humankind had the dream of flying. It took millenia to finally get us up in the air, safe landings included. And it took us just a couple of decades to mess everything up.

The endless wisdom of Google (Germany) has the right answer. The top result for a search on Flying leads you to the Flying Pizza franchise (and their Currywurst Pizza). Serves you right, Lufthansa et al. I’m not even talking about abominations like senseless strip searches or the mandatory disposing of dangerous materials like tooth paste and half empty bottles of soda water. Or RyanAir and their creative close-enough redrawing of maps (if you could book with RyanAir a flight to Mars, you might deboard on Venus).

The senseless part starts at the very moment you book any flight on any airline website. Can you imagine any retailer charging you a checkout fee? So could anybody please explain why me doing the job of a travel agents leads to me having to pay a “ticketing surcharge”.

Long Tail = Dead End?

I ran into Will Page a couple of weeks ago at FutureMusicCamp. Will’s not just the chief economist of PRS (and a really nice DJ). Actually, he more or less singlehandedly convinced me, that collecting societies don’t necessarily look and act like grumpy relics from the shellac age, but that their people can vividly think outside the box.

Especially one part of his keynote got me thinking. After some extensive numbers crunching, Will declared Chris Andersons Long Tail as wishful thinking. According to his numbers, the idea of the Internet opening the floodgates for a huge diversity of content to make it on the market is just wishful thinking, a mere virtual myth.

What Will did, was analyzing We7 and Spotify in the UK – and comparing this data with a Long Tail curve. Have a look at his April interview in TechDirt. There’s a nice graph right in the middle, and some good explanation on the how’s and why’s.

Now, the interesting part is this: why differ the curves of We7 and Spotify?

… We7 has a strong editorial with excellent artist promotional campaigns, whereas Spotify is editorial free and allows the consumer to graze the field at their leisure. Consequently, you can see that We7 (blue line) is more hit centric with a 90/5 rule and Spotify (green line) is more democratic with an 80/5 rule which, when you step back, is common sense made complicated but it’s nice to see the math adds up!

Right. And this most likely explains the not so long tail of the curves. It’s mostly a matter of user interfaces. Compared to any physical store, all net-based services share one thing: the depth of their catalog. Just imagine your local music dealer (if he still exists), blown up to the size of an IKEA warehouse. Anything, which can be licensed, can be bought.

The problem is: we’re not IKEA talking here, where you stroll through nicely decorated storage areas. A typical media store on the net is more the equivalent of a 20 square meter booth. Yes, there’s this giant warehouse attached. But the shelfspace is rather limited. Look at iTunes: either you know, what you are looking for, and you directly search for it. Or you rely on the best sellers and recommendations.

To unleash the long tail, you would either need a user interface, which IKEA-like unlocks the secrets of your warehouse. Or you find an affiliation model with the original rights holders, which offers curators and resellers some bit of a better cut than relying on a retailer sharing a bit of their slice with you.