WebInno7 – Welcome back to 1999

On Monday night I attended WebInno7 at the Royal Sonesta here in Cambridge. It’s been a while since I was at a local networking event like this and was surprised by the crowd and the companies that presented.The event itself is put on by the Web Innovators Group, an informal collection of start-ups, designers, developers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The focus is on mobile and Web-based technology. Monday’s event featured three six-minute demos and four “side-dish” vendors with table-top displays.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the number of people. By 7:00 there were close to 200 people and when all was said and done there were probably 300 people there. A much larger crowd than I anticipated.

Most of the attendees were men. Out of the entire crowd, I think I say no more than 10 women. The attendees were mainly hipster-geeks, with a few investment types thrown in for good measure.

I had an opportunity to spend time talking to two of the side-dish companies: Glance and LoudCity. Glance does a very nice, light-weight version of Web conferencing. There’s no software to download – not even an applet. One user simply provides a URL and passcode and they are able to share their screen with another user via the Web. It worked well, very fast but they are up against some stiff competition – WebEx, NetMeeting, etc. They don’t have all the features these products offer but that’s by design. I could see them appealing to companies that don’t use Web conferencing as a primary communications tool but on a frequent ad hoc basis.

LoudCity helps Internet broadcasters deal with licensing and advertising issues. Few Internet stations have much traction at this point and most see advertising revenue through site banners rather than in their audio streams. Advertisers are unsure about the audience size for these outlets and have been wary of spending with them. LoudCity, helps by tracking usage and listenership for these stations so they can attract advertisers. This is still a nascent market – most of the stations have fewer than 100 listeners at any given time so building listeners needs to happen before advertisers (and revenue) are realized.

One interesting point that one of the founders made, was that some of these stations make more through donations than they do through advertising and that getting listed on iTunes is the Holy Grail. One station, which had 40-60 listeners jumped to 1,400 after they were listed on iTunes. Not a huge number but a massive jump from where they were.

The three main-course companies were SwapTree, MyBloglog and PawSpot.

SwapTree – allows people to trade items that they don’t want for ones that they do. The service is limited to books, CDs, DVDs and video games. SwapTree is able to conduct complicated multiparty trades using individuals “want lists” and “trade lists”. It sounded easy, somewhat appealing but totally 1999. When someone asked about business model, those dreaded words – and the death knell for so many companies from days gone by – rang out: targeted advertising.

Certainly this is an idea with some merit (enough that several people have tried it in the past) but advertising isn’t going to cut it. One could imagine a small monthly fee, a VIP membership that would provide first dibs on items or a “Can’t find it? Buy it!” relationship with an Amazon. Another possibility might be to have the item listed for trade on SwapTree and also for sale on an eBay or Craig’s List giving the trader more options and creating a means to get additional users into SwapTree.

Mybloglog – allows bloggers to see where people came from, what they looked at and where they clicked out to from a blog. The idea is that people spend very limited time on most blogs, visiting one page once per month. Their special sauce is the ability to deliver “intelligence” on reader behavior to bloggers can focus on developing more appropriate content and serve more focused advertising.

The most interesting thing about this presentation was the fact on blog visitation. Not very encouraging news for for bloggers. It would be interesting to know more details on blog traffic; has readership increased or decreased? Are there classes of blogs that get more readers than others? What sources drive most traffic to blogs? Some of this is what Mybloglog hopes to answer but there must be research out there that gives a broad view of the market.

One interesting thing I’ve heard as I’ve been talking to people is the fact that blogs seem to be of less interest to the media than they had been even six or 12 months ago. In one case, an editor who is meant to be blogging daily said he’d stopped because his publication’s blogs just didn’t see that much traffic. Another said that while people at his outlet still blog, stories are much more important. (At one point, this outlet had actually toyed with the idea or replacing traditional news writing with blogs all together.)

PawSpot – A social network for pet owners. No, really. Pet owners are busy, successful people. We know they’re busy because they have pets instead of kids (I’m not joking, they actually said this). When you need to travel, who will take care of your dog or cat? A kennel? Too traumatic, “you did it once but will never do it again”. A dog walker? Too expensive; and who wants a stranger in your house? So what could be the answer? Someone you meet at PawSpot! The business model – ecommerce and advertising.

But if I’m too busy with my own active lifestyle, how am I going to find the time to take care of someone else’s dog. Give me a listing of the trusted dog walkers and quality kennels (attested to by other pet owners) and that would be useful. Trading animal care doesn’t seem like a great business. The other idea of this site is to create local communities of pet owners. This seems like a solution to a problem that people have already figured out. Since dogs need to go out, people in cities tend to take them to parks, where – get this – there tend to be other dog owners! I’ve even heard rumors that at this “parks” people “talk” to each other and arrange to “meet” again. They’ve even been known to “ask” each other about other “parks”, “vets”, “brands of dog food”, etc. An online adjunct to this isn’t a bad idea, it just doesn’t seem terribly interesting.

All three of these companies felt very reminiscent of the start-up of the late 1990s; after they presented, and I confirmed that it was actually 2006, I began talking to people.

The first person I spoke with was Akshay from MIT. He wasn’t too enamored by the companies that presented either. While I was speaking with him, James joined us. James organizes parties. Big parties at hotels. I couldn’t help thinking that when he said “party” he meant “orgy”. I gave him my card and received 12 emails and invitations the next day.

Next I spent time with Brian Costello, the CEO of MaMoCo. These guys actually sound pretty interesting. They are working on an application platform for mobile devices that allows applications to be developed once and then deployed on any carrier’s (save Verizon’s) network. User profiles are the centerpiece of what they do and they are able to make them persistent across platforms, carriers and devices.

Greg Boesel and Mark Hexamer are both with SwapTree. We talked for a while about their business model and of other approaches they could take (subscriptions, premium memberships, buy now, etc.). They are convinced that while this model failed in the past it has a chance now. They think it is viable for two reasons – more people are online than there were in the late 90s and they are very focused in what they will allow people to trade. The selected books, CDs, DVDs and Games because these are the biggest sellers on Amazon and eBay.

While we were talking, Rod Begbie – a self-described “tech curmudgeon” – joined us. He’d been asking the presenting companies questions on their business models and was REALLY doubtful about SwapTree.

At this point it was nearing 9:00. I still hadn’t had dinner (or breakfast or lunch) and decided to head out.

All in all, it was a good event. Great turn out. Lots of enthusiasm. Some interesting technology and discussions. It did feel like I’d been sucked back into the time that business plans forgot though and that was weird.

If anyone wants more details or has questions, let me know.

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Emerging Tech Notes 7.24

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a number of people to discuss what they think is happening and interesting in emerging technology. They have included analysts, entrepreneurs, writers, editors, venture capitalists, academics and bloggers.

Looking back over my notes from these meetings, there were three or four trends that kept coming up – the fact that technology as an industry is maturing, the rise of open source and its role in the enterprise and Web 2.0 and the issue of privacy. These are pretty big issues and I’ll do what I can to summarize what I’ve learned and come think of them as best I can.

Technology is Mature
According to one editor, “most of the questions about technology have been answered.” The result is that technology needs to be really interesting in order to matter. There’s plenty of interested stuff happening, but it needs to break through to an increasingly jaded audience.

Apple’s MacBook has proven to be interesting – not only because they broke with the past in designing the guts, but because people have become excited by the possibilities offered by Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop. The first time people see multiple desktops rotating by (using Parallels), they are amazed.

Sometimes, on the other hand, when a company really wants their technology to be interesting, it backfires. I’ve yet to meet anyone that is head-over-heels for Vista; most of the people who are using it that I’ve spoken to are decidedly under whelmed. They describe it as being more of the same; and more of the same just isn’t that interesting.

All of this has lead to the idea of technology acceptance. At this point, most people accept the basic technical claims made about a technology, product or service, as well as the presumed benefits; now people need to accept the fact that these things actually matter in some fundamental way.

People accept that their car’s oil filter works, people accept that they deliver an important benefit but for a whole lot of people their oil filter just doesn’t matter that much. As long as it’s there and doing whatever it is that it does, they are OK. That’s the direction that a lot of technology seems to be heading. But there’s plenty out there that is cool and new and interesting.

Web 2.0 is here, now what?
Web 2.0 is a great example. Almost everyone I spoke with brought this up – a few were sick of the hype and while most were excited by the possibilities. (I love it. The only thing I could do with out is the term “mashup”. It only conjures up memories of working at Steve’s Ice Cream in Coolidge Corner back in the eighties. People would come in and ask for mix-ins and I’d have to grind candy into their ice cream on this counter. Some of the combos sounded great but others were foul. And whether they were good or bad, I had to clean up the mess. Mashupsfeel the same; and as was the case back then, just because things can be mixeddoesn’t mean that they should. At least this time I don’t need to clean it up.)

Messy or not, it’s clear that this stuff works, is interesting and – more importantly – matters to people.

I don’t really know how to describe this idea but I know that it’s important. No one mentioned this explicitly, but almost everyone talked around it. On the enterprise side, technologies like SOA, software as a service and federated data are all examples of aggregating application components, information and – importantly – expertise, to succeed. The whole Web 2.0 thing is about aggregating communities, content and capabilities to create more relevant user experiences.

Whether aggregation is the right or lasting term for this,the idea of existing content, applications and communities being fragmented and reassembled in new ways is happening everywhere.

The biggest challenge in this process – now that much of the technology works and is in place – is helping people to understand the concept,its value and becoming comfortable with it. On the consumer side, this may be a generational thing – there are plenty of Web 2.0 applications that are never going to catch on with the over 30 crowd. On the enterprise side, it is going to be a business process and turf thing. There is more at stake in making the kinds of changes that aggregation requires for the enterprise.

Convenience and privacy are on a see-saw
Several people raised the fact that the price we pay for the convenience of online life is compromised privacy. The fact that google searches are liked with gmail accounts means that every search can be connected with a user. The ways that this data could be used are worrying. It doesn’t sound like there is going to be an overarching technical solution to this issue so user control of their own data may be the best alternative. Giving people the ability – either themselves or through a proxy – to expose information may be the most sensible approach to take with this.

Why no Wi-Fi?

The other day I was talking to a reporter about municipal Wi-Fi. He didn’t think it would ever work – as some claim it would – for several good reasons. First, living here in Boston (a city filled with old brick buildings), signal penetration would probably not be good enough for many people. Secondly, he pointed out that it might not be a government’s place to provide a no-cost alternative to a readily available commercial product or service. I guess I buy that, but here’s my beef.On Friday, I walked all over the city for various meetings. I started at the Deshpande Center over at MIT. A connection is available there, so far, so good. Next, I walked across the river for a lunch near the Public Garden. Now I know that the Park Plaza has free Wi-Fi so I was able to stop there to connect. Lunch though was another story. There were no open or fee-based networks for me to access. Finally I walked over to Kinsale, near Government Center. Again, I could see plenty of networks but none were accessible.

I’m not suggesting that people leave their networks open for just anyone to hop on and surf (though please feel free). But at this point, access is something that I take for granted. I’m willing to pay for it if need be but I expect to at least have that option. If the idea of municipal Wi-Fi is concerning for carriers, perhaps they could make an alternative available. Yes, EVDO is out there, but for incidental use, the cost just doesn’t make sense.

It surprises me that no carrier has looked at a city, identified the fewest number of points needed to provided the greatest reach of service and approached businesses (which may even be existing customers) about hosting a hot spot (for a cut). It needn’t be fast, just available at a reasonable cost when and where you need it.

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“Featured” out of the market

I had an interesting discussion with an editor yesterday. It had to do with the fact that mid-sized companies were suffered when vendors added every feature under the sun into a product – especially when it comes to enterprise application. In the past, there were plenty of point products out there that did just one thing and did it well. Over the past few years, these types of products have increasingly been acquired by large vendors and disappeared – only to reappear as features in other larger products.

Now that might be all well and good; but if you’re a small or mid-sized company that needed that functionality, you may find yourself SOL. Maybe you don’t have plans to purchase or upgrade the product that function is now a part of, maybe you can’t justify the expense or maybe you don’t have the resources needed to manage the behemoth-ware in question. How many companies have found themselves essentially “featured” out as a result?

James Fallow captured the problem perfectly in his June story, “Homo Conexus

“For years, software makers, notably Microsoft, have struggled with the bloatware dilemma. A small fraction of their users want specialized, elaborate new functions; moreover, the software makers themselves need to keep adding features to justify upgrades. But the more niche features they add, the more complex, buggy, and expensive their programs become, and the more off-putting they can seem to most users.”

The bright side to all of this is that many of those point solutions are reemerging – often as open source products. These, aside from meeting an immediate need, are going a long way to proving the viability, value and vision of the open source community.

Free .Mac = More Apple Sales?

Free .Mac for everyone. It’s the loss leader that will have people buying Macs like never before.

More Ideas Than Time

MoreIdeasThanTIme writes of the possible impact of Apple’s making.Mac a free service. I’m a happy Apple user but have never seen theneed to purchase a .Mac subscription. The fact is, there are more than enough free (and in many cases more robust) alternatives out there to satisfy the needs .Mac meets. email, photo sharing, web hosting, communities?

What’s going to get people to buy Macs like never before is already happening – they can now be totally adopted as the complete computing platform. Want to run OS X apps? – of course. Need to get onto a corporate VPN, run a Windows-only enterprise application or need Linux? – use virtualization. Want to run a graphics-intensive Windows-only application or game? – use Boot Camp.

What other platform makes this kind of flexibility so accessible to the average user? As more people appreciate all that Apple lets them do with a single box, more people will make the Mac theirs. .Mac for free may be nice icing on the cake but it’s hard to imagine its impact will be great.

Virtually Amazing

A few months ago, my used iBook started giving me some trouble. My wife and I had already discussed getting a new MacBook Pro for my 40th birthday and now I had a reason to get it early.

Let me say first of all that I absolutely love my MacBook. I’ve probably had 10 or 15 laptops over as many years and this is head and shoulders above any of them. It is a total pleasure and lots of fun to boot. When Apple announced Boot Camp, I installed it as soon as I could – it worked great. Then I came across Parallels and like it even more. Windows XP runs on it as fast as I need (too bad I won’t run 3D games . . .).

This weekend I decided I wanted to try ubuntu. I created another VM with Parallels and now have one laptop that for all practical purposes is three systems. It’s pretty cool.


I’ve tried blogging before – as myself and as any number of fictitious characters – and I’ve REALLY wanted to like it. Really I have. But it was a pain in the ass. I had to do this, that and the other thing and then one thing would lead to another and I’d lose steam or interest or both. Now I know that this isn’t hard. God knows you can tell just by looking at some of the stuff that is out there, so the answer is that I am just lazy and have a short attention span.

Yesterday though, I had the good fortune of reading Wade Roush’s Tech Coast blog and hearing about Flock. In his very first paragraph, he described exactly what bugged me about the whole social computing thing – “there are a lot of tools out there for creating, uploading, and sharing content — and many of them work quite well. But they’re a jumble, and you always lose time searching for the right one.”

Now, right from my browser, from where ever I am, I can start writing and post it straight away. And (being a terrible speller) I can spell-check with a right mouse click. Flock does plenty more (read Wade’s post for all the details) but for me, this is a huge boon. It’s good to see that someone is thinking about making social computing accessible.