Sparrow & Selling out

My friend Peter Cohen tweeted something regarding Google's acquisition of Sparrow:

Ah, the righteous indignation of people who think they should be able to tell entrepreneurs what their exit strategy should be.

As is normal, Peter's insight is profound, accurate and direct.  His knowledge and experience in the Apple world is expansive.  Like Peter, this acquisition excites me.  The Sparrow team has good instincts on software usability, and that sensibility is sorely needed at Google.  Google's best UI was their search page, and in my opinion they've never replicated that success.  Adding Sparrow to Google is a win for both parties.

Sparrow + Google

If this acquisition is positive, then where does the angst on the part of Sparrow customers come from?

Sparrow was a new product from a new company.  It was smartly promoted and marketed, but I think most customers still realized they were buying an app from a startup.  Buying a product or a service from a start up is relatively risky compared to buying from an established company.  Simple apps like casual games are one thing, but when you are adding a new software product to your life on an ongoing basis you become very invested in it.

This investment goes beyond the purchase price, which admittedly is low.  The App economy rewards small transactions done many more times than traditional software applications.  There is the case that Sparrow customers didn't spend much on the app, so they aren't really out much.  That fails to account for the time invested in the product.  Post purchase you had to install the app, configure the app and then learn to use it.  If you kept using it, it means you found some intrinsic value in the interface.  Something about it made your experience with your email better.  Email remains one of the primary uses across all platforms, so adopting a new mail reader is a huge investment.  People made that investment because they believe this was a product that would last if it was successful.

There's the rub.  When companies are purchased as talent acquisitions, they time and money investment of the customer gets a poor return.  Today, you can still buy Sparrow.  But what if Mac OS X 10.8.3 breaks it?  Or iOS 6.1?

The success of Sparrow does not belong solely to the executives or investors.  I am not arguing that the company leadership did anything wrong, or unethical.  What I am saying is the current industry ethos of build-to-promote-to-be-acquired goes against the perceived social contract of software customers.  The average customer is not considering the potential implications of a later acquisition when they decide to purchase a product, and if they did it may be harder to get a user base of the ground for a startup.

In my completely unqualified opinion, Google/Sparrow could have served the community better by specifically outlining the products future.  How much longer will it be on sale?  How long will maintenance last?  Eliminating uncertainty would go a long way to soothing people who were a big part of the company's success.

Hello, NanoComputer (NC)

I just read a very insightful piece on SeatllePi about the iPad, and the split it represents in computing.  Go read it.  It's better than anything I'll write here.  The premise is that the iPad is the first in an oncoming wave of computing devices that represents as large a shift in computing as the microcomputer did.  For the non-nerds among us, you know the microcomputer as the Personal Computer.  Before the PC, computers came in mainframe and minicomputer sizes.  A minicomputer was furniture sized.

The above article does an excellent job putting a point on thoughts I've been having since the iPhone came out.  The iPhone and iPad completely hide and eliminate all the "power" features that I love about computing–and that frustrate everyone I know who isn't a geek.

Clearly Apple is a leader in this movement.  I think people forget that Google is trying the same thing with Android and Chrome OS.  The action in computing appliances is Apple and Google, and I would not be surprised if this becomes a market that is much larger in units and revenue than the PC market is today.

Where's Microsoft in this?  They dominated the PC era, but they seem as flatfooted in the NC era as IBM was in the PC era.  Surely the brains in Seattle are waking up to this threat–but Windows 7 and Windows Mobile represent a pitiful response.

IBM has thrived by maintaining ownership of Big Computing.  They're still the dominant mainframe company.  Perhaps Microsoft will do the same with PCs, and step aside as someone else takes the lead for the next generation.

Here's to hoping no one gets a monopoly this time.  Our world is a better place with Apple and Google keeping each other on their toes.

The Next Big Thing™

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked in conversation is "What's next?" This is certainly a fair question as my job description contains the words "new media." The engineer in me always wants to say no one knows and offer a list of disclaimers. Even those industry moguls and mad scientists working for startups generally can't get a clear picture of what the market will reallydo with their shiny new toy. For this post however, I will throw caution to the wind and reveal to you the trends I see emerging.

We're all experiencing the transformative effects of the much-hyped social media technologies. The decentralization and democratization of human communication warrants the discussion volume we see–after all, any voice in the crowd can now address millions of people. The effects on human communication, and even human consciousness, from things like Facebook and Twitter will reshape much of western civilization. Even without the development of new technology, or even iterations of our current platforms the effects of extended mind theory are surfacing. There's no doubt in my mind that Google has become a vast, shared extended mind for many people. As more and more people adopt Facebook, Twitter and other tools, our extended mind may begin to become even more collaborative--and the emergence of a primitive collective consciousness will follow. In fact, I believe it already has--but that is the topic of another post for another day. The fact is, new technologies are emerging.

One of the most exciting emergent tools is geo metadata. Thanks to the increasing amount of devices that incorporate both digital logic and GPS receivers, applications are emerging that take advantage of location to offer compelling services. Urbanspoon and Yelp on the iPhone are great examples. They show you restaurants and/or other local vendors along with reviews of those locations by people who have been there. Extending this model further leads to social networks build around location like Loopt and Google Latitude. These networks let you see where your friends are in relation to you and what they are doing. None of these services offer the user base or depth of functionality of Facebook, nor the quirky charm of Twitters communal stream of consciousness but they are great sings of what's to come.

As GPS hardware becomes ubiquitous, it will make sense for Facebook (or whoever the leader in social networking may be) to add geo metadata to their platform. Imagine if you could sort the Facebook Newsfeed by proximity to you instead of time, or if you could view your friends photos by location instead of by who's in them. The technology to do this exists today. All we need are more people accessing social networks from mobile devices with GPS to make this critical mass technology.

The addition of geo metadata sets the stage for the really amazing stuff--augmented reality. Augmented reality is a modern cousin to virtual reality of old. Simply stated, augmented reality is the ability to accurately place computer generated images in 3D space over live video. Most of the accessible iterations of augmented reality so far have been impressive marketing initiatives. My favorite is a site that will turn you into a Transformer if you have a web cam. It's completely useless but fun.

Much more useful, exciting and transformative is augmented reality applied to mobile devices. The easiest way to show the potential here is to share a video of an app already released.

In this demo, the iPhone becomes a veiw port to a hidden world.  It takes data and turns it into a virtual, physical world invisible to the naked eye.  Now imagine if the data set accessed by this application was not subway stops, but instead the location of your friends.  Or, your friends status updates.  Or, the sushi restaurants nearest to you, along with reviews made by your friends (or strangers if you choose).  What if images taken by your friends appeared in the locations they were taken?

The technology exists.  All of it.  Once these data sets connect and become accessible, books like Daemon and Snow Crash are less science fiction and more social commentary.

I can't wait.

Google vs. Facebook. Web 1.0 vs. Web 2.0. Anonymous vs. Transparent.

An article on Wired crystalized something I've been thinking about for a while. By all appearances, Facebook and Google are moving toward adversarial strategic positions on the web. On the one hand, you have Google with it's focus on embracing and promoting open standards, open source and open content--all the better to allow them to aggregate it for you. On the other hand you have Facebook, who encourages you to hand over your digital life wholesale where they will use a closed model to create a very seamless experience for you to interact with your friends--all the better for them to sell ads.

If we remove advertising and money from the equation, the implications of the two models are very different. Google becomes a technological libertarian state--which is very true to early and pre-web Internet culture. You choose how you participate online. You can be an observer, offering no interaction at all. You can be a personality, offering your views and opinions for the world to see. You can even be anonymous, and engage others in an antagonistic way.

Facebook, however, encourages you to be you. In fact, it's against the terms of service on Facebook to create a profile around a fictitious identity. The value Facebook brings is connections to people you know, and that makes is difficult to do anything on Facebook as an anonymous user. The Facebook model encourages you to be transparent, and largely reinforces social norms.

Google and Facebook have each become symbols of a much larger battle over the fundamental model of online interactions. When you take openness beyond Google's libertarian-like stance you get anarchy. Site's like SomethingAwful and 4chan represent the Anonymous banner to it's most extreme case. Here people revel in their lack of identity, and compete to see who can be the most shocking, the most vile--primarily for amusement.

Internet culture is pioneered by the anonymous corners of the web. It's been interesting to watch web culture infiltrate mainstream western society, and to see the fabric between the anonymous web and the transparent web draw thinner and thinner. The rapid advancement of memes, and the degeneration of humor are a result of this intermingling.

Of course, the transparent web is causing the opposite effect on regular life. The standard Web 2.0 watchwords of transparency and accountability are more than just buzz terms. When you publish your thoughts, activities and pictures in a way all your social spheres can see, it's much more difficult to be duplicitous. The complexity of telling two parties two different things is greatly increased by the transparent web.

While I don't think either trend will ultimately "win", it is interesting to watch these competing models simultaneously influence the development of the Internet--and by extension human culture.