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Argo, Tehran in 1980, and My Dad

I was a teenager, a junior in high school, when Iran revolution happened and the US Embassy was stormed and the hostages taken. Seeing “Argo” a month ago brought back some potent, powerful memories of that time. Foremost among them: that two months after the “Canadian Caper” depicted in Argo, my Dad, a DC-based journalist, flew off to Tehran to spend two weeks reporting on the Iranian revolution with an Iranian photojournalist, Amir Pishdad. Those two weeks felt like two months to me, my mother and my brother.

After seeing the movie we had a few conversations about his trip, and my dad sent his grandson (Z, the 16-year-old kid who lives in our house) about his experience and I asked him if I could “re-print” one of his emails here:

Thought you might like to hear my opinion on Argo. I thought it was excellent, especially in turning a heavy, scary tragedy into a comedy. That is difficult to do but when it’s successful, which this was, it’s beautiful to see. The two Hollywood wise guy producers, along with Affleck, ought to get Oscars, but Affleck somehow got overlooked, Iunderstand.

The only flaw is the same one I fell victim to in my contemporarneous columns. And that was the failure to keep the story focused on the 52 hostages, which is the real reason we were all there. They were right under everyone’s noses in the American embassy and the setting and timing for this movie was right in that neighborhood (although I hear it was mostly filmed in Ankara.) Yet you count the references to them in the film on one hand. Of course, the drama was about the five American escapees hiding out in the Candian embassy. But there was no public knowledge about them until recently. The hostages were a daily story for 444 days. Since you couldn’t see or talk to them, I glossed over them. Argo back and get the story, Hall.

The other mistake in Argo is more forgivable. The Canadians and Americans had made only weak attempts to try to find friends among the Iranian population. So the bogus film shooting took on an “us vs. them” project fraught with danger. When I was in Tehran at about the same time this intelligence effort was being mounted, Amir Pishdad and I, plus his corps of friendly relatives, had us all over Tehran in open pickup trucks and no efforts at disguise.

I stood out, obviously, but we were never stopped or questioned, except at the airport and passport office. The million-person “Death to Amerika” march — a show for the western cameras — was even more frightening than portrayed in the movie, but we were not ever personally threatened. I always felt in Tehran we were in a fashionable European city, with occasional reminders of its present Islamic domination.

In addition to the email exchanges, my Mom sent along some of the columns my Dad wrote from Tehran for Z to read. I re-read them this morning and they’re examples of journalism at its very best. I remember our televisions filled nightly with scary images of thousands of Iranians protesting, US flags being burned, and other horrors. My Dad’s columns provided much needed context, and a closer, more intimate and more humane portrait of a city and country in turmoil — and a great reminder of why journalistm matters.

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Online Education and Silicon Valley

I’ve been following the discussion around online education and the challenge presented by MOOCs to traditional universities; you can’t go a day without stumbling across a post like this one.

I’ve noticed this particular feature of the conversation: Among the people who most enthusiastically champion MOOCs are entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley investors who are excited about the prospects of disrupting education and who disparage universities and colleges as bloated and stultifying, mere “credential-awarding” institutions. Many of these very same people have not one but multiple “credentials” from brand name institutions(e.g., Peter Thiel).

And yet, imagine two 24 year-olds showing up on Sand Hill Road: a largely self-taught, incredibly smart kid from Wisconsin who attended his local community college and a “credentialed” but less talented graduate of Stanford with a degree in Symbolic Systems. Who would be more likely to get funding?

Fair or not, we still have incredibly powerful biases towards people with credentials, and especially those with luxury-brand credentials (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, MIT, CalTech & Cal). It’s not at all clear to me that MOOCs will change those biases, even among the people who champion them the most.

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First Law of Self-Expression

The difficulty of making something worthy of my attention is directly proportional to the amount of information you’re trying to convey.

That, right there, is why “video sharing” is so hard. When you make a video, and share it, you’re asking people to take in a lot of information; 24 frames per second plus sound. It commands the viewer’s full attention. Short form video works online because it is far, far easier to ask for and get 2 minutes of someone’s time than it is 20 minutes or 200 minutes.

This also explains why blogging is so hard, still, even though it’s easier than ever to “write” a blog and publish a blog post. When you write 250 to 500 to 1000 words, you’re asking someone to engage with your prose and your ideas for a sustained period of time. Writing is difficult not because it’s hard to put words in a sequence (think about how easy it is to talk) but because we’re always conscious of the reader when writing.  Tweets are easier to make not just because they require fewer words, but because the 140 character limit so substantially reduces the cost to the reader. Your tweet might suck, but if it did it only cost me a second or two of my time. Same with a photo from Instagram. Tumblr is easy because it makes re-blogging a central act, or publishing photos, and isn’t so focused on long-form writing.

Using this law, you can begin to plot which types of social media are essentially “harder” despite ready availability of good, simple, easy-to-use tools:

Social Media Continuum

Vine is trying to address this challenge posed by limiting the amount of time people can demand of your attention. They impose a six second cap on the videos you create. They are not the first to do this, many have come before them and tried a similar approach (including the “12 Seconds” folks, Tout, Viddy to name a few).

Will that work? Maybe; it’s too soon to tell. Without a doubt the app is hot right now. But we regularly see similar frenzies in social media that don’t ultimately pan out.

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Of Vertical Integration, Platforms, Apple & Google

Chris Dixon has an essential post today on Samsung and the tough choices they face going forward with regard to support for Android.

I’ve been thinking about this from a slightly different angle — the battle between Apple and Google, the competing visions they each bring to that battle, and the implications for mobile application developers.

Both Google and Apple have at heart a vertical integration strategy for their mobile efforts. For Apple, the focus is on tight integration between hardware which it controls and iOS, its mobile operating system, with the goal of making big profits from the sale of their hardware.

Google’s approach involves tight coupling of it’s OS (Android) and a services layer it controls (search, but also Maps, YouTube, email) with the goal of making big profits from those services.

For Apple, the operating system and the developer ecosystem it has built around it are simply a means of driving sales of more devices, and making more money. In that way, it could be said that the interests of Apple and most third-party developers are complementary.

For Google, the operating system and the developer ecosystem it is trying to build are a means to drive adoption of their core services on mobile devices. In many ways, their approach more closely resembles the path Microsoft took in the 1990s. And that path did not end well for most applications developers, as Microsoft expanded horizontally into a wide range of applications in order to make more money even though they made piles of money from Windows. Google, which makes no money from Android, is totally dependent on revenues streams from services; it stands to reason that they will have to be even more aggressive in their services efforts, expanding laterally into many different verticals.

Some alpha geeks complain or worry about Apple being too “closed.” That may be true in a limited and rather literal, way. But if you’re a third-party application developer, one could argue that in fact their ecosystem is more open to third-party developers than Google’s in that Apple is less interested in services for the reasons cited above. They’re dependent on third-party developers being successful, and supporting their platform, in order to make more profits from hardware. In other words: Be careful who you root for.

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A Twenty-Eight Amendment: Part II

A commenter on my post on Friday about the need for a twenty-eighth amendment criticized me for not proposing any language. Fair enough, here you go:

Congress shall have the power and responsibility to regulate and control the distribution, sale, and ownership of firearms and other weapons in all ways necessary to ensure the safety of the people; and, no individual right to own or possess a firearm is granted by the Constitution or its Amendments.

I’m sure someone could improve upon the wording.

Why an amendment? Why not just some laws? Because we need a radical rethinking of the societal contract around guns in our country. This chart from Mark Reid on Twitter tells you the essential facts:

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There are nearly 300 million guns in our country, nearly one for ever person (not household, person). The guns used in Newtown were legally purchased (as is so often the case with these mass murders), and in an incredibly cruel twist, by the murderer’s mother who was reported to have been a “gun nut.”

The problem is that we have too many guns, and it is far, far too easy to get a gun with incredibly lethal power. That has to end. As long as there are 300 million weapons floating around, these tragedies will continue to happen. Even if we do pass new laws severely restricting the sale of semi-automatic and automatic weapons. Because the genie is out of the bottle.

What need to happen is a substantial reduction in the number of guns in our country, and that will only happen if we change the norms of our society. We need to make clear that people who own, seek to own, make, manufacture or sell semi-automatic and automatic weapons are social pariahs. Those of you who own these guns or contribute to the NRA are also responsible for what happened Friday — you’re the ones who have agitated to make these weapons as easy to get as a bag of popcorn. Shame on you.

I think the push for an amendment to our Constitution — the first in 40 years — would allow us to start to have that conversation. If all we do is fight for new legislation, we’ll end at the same place — an argument about the Second Amendment.

Let’s reframe the debate and resolve this issue in the clearest way we can. Let’s make it crystal clear that gun ownership is a privilege, not a right. And let us declare, forcefully, that the ownership of semi-automatic and automatic weapons is sociopathic; an aberrant behavior that shouldn’t and won’t be tolerated any longer. Then we can take any number of steps to get these weapons off the streets and out of our homes.

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Simple Is Hard

It’s 9PM. You’ve worked all day, made it home for dinner. And now you just want to chill. Grab a beer, plop on to the couch, and unwind for a bit. What do you do?

Most of us grab the remote and turn on the TV.

Some of us have started to dial up Netflix, Hulu, iTunes or TV Everywhere for our fix.

And more recently, particularly in homes with iPads or other tablets, we’ve had a third option — tuning into the Internet and all the glorious programming on it.

But how? How do you “turn on and watch the Internet”? — that amorphous, chaotic, noisy, sprawling beast where 72 hours (or more) of programming is uploaded to YouTube alone. And how do you make the experience as simple as flipping on your TV with your remote?

That’s the problem we’ve been trying to tackle all along with Showyou. Where some folks make apps that help you find a movie or TV show to watch, we’ve wanted to make an app that let’s you watch the Internet.

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Showyou 4.o, launched just this morning, is as close as we’ve ever come to that goal, and to an app you can “Just turn on.”

We’ve focused the past four months on making an easy-to-use app even simpler still. Tell people that and you’re not likely to elicit the “oohs” and “ahhs” you get when you introduce a new feature or three. But as others have noted when you do it right simple is damned hard:

Our goal is to try to bring a calm and simplicity to what are incredibly complex problems so that you’re not aware really of the solution, you’re not aware of how hard the problem was that was eventually solved. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product.

For us this means showing you just the right videos to you every time you open the app. So you can just turn it on and start watching. And so it feels like magic.

We’ve done that by making it easy to connect your social networks to Showyou, bringing in videos from those social networks (as well as videos shared by the people and channels you’re following on Showyou) and displaying them in a grid that was easy and fun to browse and to explore.

And with Showyou 4.0 we’ve gone a step further. While you’ll still see our signature grid, it’s cleaner and more focused so you can spend less effort browsing and more time watching. This updated grid works and looks great on both the regular iPad and the new iPad Mini. And the list of videos we bring to you on the iPad now uses the same “Smart Feed” we introduced on the iPhone this summer.

Married to this more focused feed is a new carousel player. Just tap to start watching, and swipe to go to the next video.

Tap. Swipe. Play. It’s that easy. And it’s incredibly fun.

And if that’s still too hard, you can put the app in “autoplay” mode with a little Autoplay toggle at the top. If you have an Apple TV, the new carousel player is a delight to use with Airplay. It’s a glimpse of the future, a peek at how we’re likely to watch in the coming decade.

One of the lessons we’ve learned with Showyou over the past year and a half is that the way we interact with the tablet is different. We don’t quite “lean forward” the way we do in front of a PC; but we’re also not in a passive, lean-back mode, either. We want functional and useful ways to interact, but want those interactions to be as easy as possible.

With that in mind, we made a few other important changes with Showyou 4.0 on the iPad. Ways to lean forward, go deeper, but without furrowing your brow or breaking a sweat.

For example: you’ll now see a toggle at the top of the grid. Tap that and you’ll see a more detailed feed view with relevant information for each video in your grid — which friends shared it, what they said about the video. For some videos you’ll now see topics related to the video — tap on those and you’ll be transported to a new grid full of videos related to that topic. It’s the feeling you get browsing the web, the open-ended nature and secret thrill of going down the rabbit hole. But with the simplicity, ease-of-use, and consistency you get from an app.

These new topics screens are a good example of what we’re increasingly able to do with the huge amount of data we collect and process: over 11 million links to videos parsed and processed each day from the Twitter and Facebook feeds of people who use our app; over a billion social signals all together around nearly 100 million videos.

There are also dozens of smaller things, dozens of little touches that add up to something real, tangible. An easier to use tray that lets you surf through hundreds of channels and follow the ones you like with a tap. A much simplified sign up process. Intelligent handling of errors from the Facebook and Twitter auth services (any good app maker will nod their head in approval at this one; these are fragile systems and we’ve done our best to compensate on our end for a lot of that fragility).

In the end, of course, the irony is that you do all this work with the hope no one notices. As Jony Ive so aptly put it in the quote above, the goal we all have (or should have) is “to bring a calm and simplicity to what are incredibly complex problems so that you’re not aware really of the solution.” We hope people will feel that way about this latest version of Showyou.

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In Between the Platforms

It is winter (almost) and we are discontented. [1]

The source of our current agita? We’ve been told there is a new gold rush, yet just a few companies have hit the motherlode so far (and maybe just one, really). And so as happens every time someone cries “Gold!” people have started to worry, to freak out. Maybe this new El Dorado is just another myth. </Gold Rush metaphor>.

In a business that absolutely fetishizes youth, one of the advantages of being a little older is it’s easier to stay calm during these predictable periodic Freak Outs. I think this is the fifth or sixth such episode I can recall over the past 20 years. Another advantage: you learn through painful experience that just as there are laws of physics there are certain immutable truths that apply to our digital world.

Here’s one such truth. If you create a free consumer-focused service, you’re competing with lots of other people and things and companies for a very finite resource: people’s time and attention.

That’s a particularly hard truth to accept for those who got used to the fresh and breezy ways of the web, which could and did deceive lots and lots of people into thinking they were building something special. The nature of the web — lots of very short visits to lots (and lots and lots) of sites — too often nurtures the illusion of growth. Just hook your web service up to Google Analytics or Kiss Metrics and watch the numbers climb. “Look at my up and to the right chart showing growth in unique visitors to my site!” Think of how many breathless posts you’ve read in just the past year or two trumpeting some incredible rise in unique visitors to some web service (or how many bro’grammers thumped their chest and told you they were “crushing it”).

But  as most of us have learned by now, lots of unique visitors doesn’t mean you’ll make money. You have to extract hard cold cash from those visitors (great businesses including Amazon, eBay, Fab, Etsy, Airbnb, Bandcamp have done this). Or, if you’re giving something away for free to people, you need to win their time and attention, the more the better. Why? Because attention, measured in units of time, is one of the best objective proofs we have about the depth of relationship between your service and the people who use it. The more time people spend on your service, the deeper the relationship you have with them, and the easier (generally) it is for you to sell some of that time to advertisers.[2]

And very few services are actually able to gets lots of attention from lots of people. This has always been true. Dig into a lot of those hockey stick graphs showing growing web traffic and you’d find a sad truth — lots and lots of short visits of a minute or two. A lot of people figured out Distribution on the web; hardly anyone solved the riddles of Retention and Engagement.

You might get 30 million unique visitors a month to your web service; but if they don’t stay around for long it’s unlikely you’ll ever make money from them. The only people who have made gobs of money from this arrangement are Google and various ad networks who aggregate all this shallow attention across lots of sites into something more marketable. And the clever souls who managed to flip their hockey stick visitor charts into an acquisition offer.

If you think that’s wrong or maybe too cynical, ask yourself this: How many web services from the first decade (call it 1995-2004) really built big (billions of dollars of value), durable businesses based around our attention on the web? I can only think of three: Yahoo!, Google, and AOL. How many since 2005? More, but not as not many  as you’d expect– Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yelp, LinkedIn, and probably WordPress and Tumblr. Maybe Pinterest will join the list (too soon to tell). It’s never been easy to build a billion dollar business based on a thing in limited supply, our attention, regardless of the platform or medium.

At the end of the day only a few services have a strong grip on our attention. We only have so much of it to give. That’s the hard truth.

And that hard truth is made manifest on the mobile platform.  As Hunter Walk has correctly  noted people only have room for 20 or so apps on the main screen of their smartphones or tablets. If your app isn’t one of those 20, you basically don’t exist.The limited shelf space on the first screen of your mobile device reflects the limited time you have to give. The web sometimes obscured that reality.

Depressed? If you’re a real entrepreneur (or investor) you shouldn’t be. Get your app onto someone’s main screen, and you’ll find the opportunities may be even bigger on mobile than they ever were on the web. When you’re lucky enough to build such a service, you’ll be rewarded with gobs and gobs of attention. With our app, Showyou, the average session length on the iPad is over 40 minutes. On the iPhone it’s over 20 minutes. I know other leading app makers like Flipboard have seen similar usage patterns. I’ve been doing this 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it, except for Facebook.

So if you’re making something for consumers that’s free, don’t ask “mobile first” or “web first” — that question is settled. Most people will increasingly spend most of their time on smartphones and tablets, you need to make something specific and great for those devices.

Ask instead if you think yours is likely to be one of the 20-30 services that people allow into their lives. That’s a damned scary question. It’s the one every entrepreneur should have been asking all along. And it ought to send a lot of people running, scaling back their ambitions, or revising their plans at the least. [3] You have to have a plan for Distribution and Engagement and Retention. Getting onto that first screen requires you to meet all of those challenges (too many people think it’s just about distribution). Ask any app maker, even the most successful among them, and they’ll tell you these challengers are very real, they’re daunting, and there ain’t any easy answers right now.

But for some of us entrepreneurs, it’s time to dream those impossible dreams, to conjure up Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and all the others in the pantheon of the Crazy Ones. Because we’re in between platforms. When things are hard, and haven’t been figured out yet, and there isn’t a playbook. When people think you’re crazy and foolish and won’t give you any money. That’s when habits change, when opportunities arise, and the big new things get built and invented.  [4]

1. I’m talking about the here & now in the metaphorical-if-not-real Silicon Valley of course, not the England of Richard III:

Fred Wilson: Rethinking Mobile First

Vibhu Norby: Why We Are Pivoting to Web First

Fred Wilson: What Has Changed

Om Malik: Who Says Startups Are Easy?

2. Yes there are exceptions, and yes this is simplistic. Google has built the best free business on the web by converting relatively small units of attention (time) because they also are harvesting “intention.” And conversely, there are examples of services that chew up a lot of our time & attention but don’t convert that efficiently into money. Facebook is currently such a business; so are most mobile chat apps. And I should note it’s not always an either/or choice (free w/ attention, or paid for); historically some of the very biggest and best consumer services combined both, e.g., magazines, newspapers, cable television.

3. This is not to say there will only be 20-30 viable mobile businesses; rather, I’m arguing there will likely only be 20 or so big businesses on mobile, businesses worth more than $1B. There will certainly be dozens if not hundreds of smaller, very interesting and viable businesses. But entrepreneurs will need to be thoughtful about how much money they raise and from whom if they’re not going to be one of those big $1B+ businesses. Don’t raise $15M if you don’t think you have a real chance breaking into that Top 20 list. Conversely, might be an interesting strategy for a VC to invest smaller amounts in this next tier, to look for targeted niche players.

4. The honest entrepreneur should be very alive to this real threat: the big platform operators (Apple and Google for now) know all about the importance of those 20-30 apps. Why do you think Apple booted off all those Google apps, and Android is chock-full of Google service by default? They love them some vertical integration. Yikes!

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