Month: December 2010

Nov/Dec And Year-End Review

2010 has been both phenomenal and difficult, or, in some aspects at least, phenomenally difficult. When I left Network 18 two years ago I did not have too great an idea as to what I wanted to do. There were a few concepts, ideas and then some, but there was nothing concrete. If anything, the two years have been a continuing education. It has made me realize how little I knew beyond the tiny niches that I had specialized in. Within a big company, then term 'generalist' is easy to don, outside it, knowing a bit about a lot of things just don't make you one of those. You have to know your stuff and know it well.

To be honest, it has not been a struggle financially. Yes, it is not as lucrative as it would have been if I was still with a big company, but I had tracked and anticipated my expenses well and did maintain a very good balance. Where I did struggle was with having a definite purpose. There was no coherent whole in everything that I was doing that aligned well with an overwhelming desire to do something substantial. In short it was pretty OK, but it was also all over the place.

A month ago that scenario finally changed. It has been written about in a previous post, so I won't go into that again. The formal switchover should happen early January 2010. I am pretty excited to finally have this direction in place and can't wait to get going.

The personal angle aside, 2010 has been an interesting year for the domain that I do most of my work in. We had yet another year of looking eagerly at the unrealized potential in a lot of segments – mobile, e-commerce, broadband and media. While a lot of the early excesses have now thankfully been curtailed, most of the above mentioned segments don't seem to have a strong story behind them. Mobile has the strongest revenue aspect going for it but it has plateaued, broadband is a mess and media – well – the less said about it the better. I can't really look at any significant event – save the listing of Makemytrip.com – from the year.

I could, though, call Android as a significant event, but that story is just getting started. The amount of momentum behind the platform is incredible and the key factor is that even though it may not be worthy in terms of an user experience comparison with the iPhone, if you are switching from one of the other platforms, it is a significantly better offering at a substantially lower price point compared to Apple's flagship phone. For most users in countries with a massive population, the iPhone is priced out of their reach. As the process of building Android devices gets easier and simpler over time the platform will only take off even further from here.

Which brings me to Google – a company that is seriously underrated for how good they are. I can imagine them actually not being too put off by a lot of the negative press about being a one-trick-pony. It affords them a bit more of wriggle room as they come under increasing scrutiny from a variety of bodies. While they are often portrayed as a sort of Alice in wonderland for geeks, a slightly drier look at the company would show them as quite calculating and precise. I can't imagine the romance going forever for Google, but it is a certain bet that 2011 won't see the end of it.

Then there is the 500-million member social gorilla called Facebook. 2010 was the year when they dominated the airwaves along with Apple and Google. I am still not sold on the opportunity size for the company and I think the second market valuation is hugely inflated due to investors who want to buy in (still a reasonable bet to make good money on an IPO if you have deep enough pockets to participate in a round) and the fact that very little is actually known of the company's balance sheet, other than strategically leaked bits of positive information.

The problem for me with Facebook is simple. Without the audience there is little value in the product. I stopped logging in a month ago and disabled my account a almost two-weeks ago. I am yet to notice any major problems as a result of opting out. If I were to do the same thing with my primary Gmail account, all hell would break loose. Facebook is a massive time sink that generates a massive amount of junk data. I also have issues with the numbers that regularly get posted about Facebook. Strange thing is that Youtube is not too far away from Facebook in terms of traffic, but you would not value Youtube at $50 billion any day.

I think that by end of 2011 Facebook will have to present at least the first formal steps towards an IPO. I guess we have already seen this process being kicked off with a more polished and suave Zuck in the public appearances. I may very well be proven wrong about this, but Facebook will have a very Digg-like situation if they don't do the IPO jig by 2012.

AOL/Yahoo!: I am still holding out on the assumption that Carol Bartz knows what she is doing. Even though everyone is aghast at the relentless 'sunsetting' that has been making its way through the product line, the fact is that Yahoo! is a horribly inefficient set up. You won't realize the extent of this until you have worked with the company (we were a syndication partner at Network18) and the mess that their Indian operations are just a reflection of their global mess.

At the same time, I won't hold that assumption for any longer than end of 2011. Three years should be enough to restructure a ship even the size of Yahoo! and it is necessary to see some real hints about the direction beyond the usual corporate gibberish. I do get the feeling though that Bartz has a limited timeframe to do what she is trying to do – failing which she will probably be pushed into looking at a sale. I know it does not entirely make sense, but I guess the game is to cut flab, show real results, shore up valuation and go for the sale if the direction dance fails to find its steps.

AOL – the less said about it the better. It has an all too familiar smell about it now. A stellar 'narrative' backed by really no great connection to reality. I was willing to give Tim Armstrong a bit more of rope, but the recent acquisition of About.me brought back many strange memories. Trainwreck in slow motion from a company that has a dreary past in the M&A and restructuring world.

Twitter & the locationistas: Twitter has seriously disappointed me. I have previously defended the company and the direction in which they are headed, but it can no longer be done. They seem to really have the dog-chase-car-gets-car problem. It is a great platform with a very engaged audience, but they need revenues and strong growth in that to keep going. They just seem to be making things up as they go along. Till the end of 2009 there was the anticipation of the product heading somewhere. 2010 was a case of a loss of that momentum for the product. Yes, they have strong growth in the user base, but that by itself is an useless metric to judge things by.

The locationistas are just plumbing and not products by itself. The only hope in this line of business seems to be an acquisition when the going is good. Honestly, I don't think any of the new companies have the legs to go it on their own. LinkedIn used to be a favourite on that front, but they seem to have stagnated more than anyone else. Groupon seems to be fun at the moment, but it is too early in the day to say if they can sustain the pace they are keeping now.

It looks pretty grim by those standards, so let me stop the doom and gloom and look at what would I like to see next year:

1. Some sense in broadband/3G pricing in India. The current levels are atrocious. ISPs/operators have to take a hit on the margins, else we will have another boring year.
2. A genuine location-based social network in India.
3. A better start up ecosystem in India.
4. An investor/VC to fund an online-only media website in India run by a handful of good journalists.
5. Television content on the net, without ads. I'll gladly pay a premium for this.

Have a great 2011!

Filed under: Frontiernxt

Elgg, Buddypress, Drupal: Different Flavours for Different Reasons

One question that I repeatedly get to hear from users and clients trying to set up private social networks is the ‘which’ part of it. This post is meant to act as a very lightweight guide for that process. We will consider only Elgg, Buddypress and Drupal for this. There are numerous other options available like Dolphin, Ning and Jomsocial, but Ning falls out of the list due to it being a hosted solution and I have little experience with Ning and Dolphin in their current iterations.
The crucial question in selecting one of the many options is whether you know what you actually want? The effectiveness of the solution used can vary wildly depending on how clear you are about what you really want. Some of the solutions are pretty close to plug-and-play. Install them, fill in some data and you are good to go. The others are barebones frameworks, they need a lot of work to be made into a product. Clients also often make the grave error of underestimating the management overheads of running a full fledged social network. Between the technology, product and administration tasks it can easily wind up taking up a lot of your time (and often money too).
Social network frameworks also require much higher specification infrastructure to support it. While you can keep a blog going on a $3-per month shared hosting solution, most of these social networking products will start to become unusable on shared hosting as your user base and concurrent usage starts to climb. In such a scenario, it may be the best idea to go with a Ning or the commercial offering of Elgg, so that you are shielded from the technology parts of the puzzle.
A quick checklist of things that will make your choices easier would run like this:
1. How many users are you looking to support
2. Will it be only free users or paid users or a mix of paid and free?
3. How comfortable are you with managing technology (both coding and infrastructure)
4. Minimum budget
5. Time that you are willing to spend on it
6. What degree of support are you willing to provide users?
Most of the private social networks can be split into three kinds:
1. Solely for communication: You want only the ability for members to sign up and communicate with each other in common threads.
2. Full featured: You want a clone of the features of the bigger networks.
3. Full featured and heavily customized: You want a clone of the bigger networks and also a lot of custom features added on.
In the case of (1), you can easily make do with a Google Groups set up or something similar to that. Anything else is really an overhead that you get little value from. For (2), go with one of the commercial offerings and you will get the best of both worlds. (3) is where most of my work has been and in and thus the longer elaboration on the point.
In using a customized solution you are making a substantial commitment to a platform from which switching won’t be easy or cheap. Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses, but one thing that is common among all of them is that after a point in the growth curve you have to constantly reevaluate problems you had fixed earlier. A simple example is of a feature that lists all users in a single page. This may work flawlessly when you have hundreds of users, but it will get your site to a crawl when you move into the thousands.
The three solutions under the scanner here – Elgg, Buddypress and Drupal – all take different approaches to producing an outcome largely owing to their respective lineages.
Elgg is a social framework that has a few modules in its out-of-the-box form which enables it to work as a bare-bones product.
Buddypress is based on WordPress and it is now a full fledged plugin on the WordPress platform which is a content publishing engine.
Drupal is a content management framework which has nothing social in it out-of-the-box. It takes a lot of work to get it to be a social networking site. You can read the guide to it here.
The three solutions can be further evaluated under the following heads:
Ease of use (users): Buddypress is the easiest of the three to use since the base framework it uses is WordPress. Elgg comes in second, while Drupal is the hardest to figure out.
Ease of use (site administrators): Buddypress is the easiest again due to the WordPress lineage. Drupal comes second becomes of its superior update notifications and built-in tools to atomically manage users and permissions. Elgg finishes third because of its really clunky administration interface.
Development: Elgg comes in first here because of its origin as a social networking engine. It also has code that is targeted only at PHP5, which means that it carries little bloat from the PHP4 days. It also has the best API of the lot and a well executed views system. Buddypress comes in second because of the simplicity of the WordPress API, but it can quickly become a major limitation if your requirements start of exceed what is provided out-of-the-box by it. Drupal suffers because most of the heavy lifting for the ‘socialization’ of the platform depends on various modules. Customizing these can often be quite complicated.
Platform Maturity: At the core Elgg is the youngest of the three, but it comes up on top again. It is a very well designed and executed platform at its core and its entities system is built to scale well if you can throw the right amount of hardware at it. Drupal comes in second because of the solid core it has been built on top of. Buddypress comes in third because of the core WordPress engine, which is still only a publishing engine and not really a framework.
Flexibility: Drupal comes right on top here because of the dazzling array of modules that it can leverage. There is a module for almost everything you can think of in Drupal. While it is a different matter that it can be a nightmare to integrate them all in a logical manner, the fact is that Drupal does give you the option to pull it off. Elgg comes in second with its well-designed API that allows you to extend it quite well and without too much trouble. Buddypress will be last here because it is tough to get it to do anything that is not there at the core.
It is most tempting to tally these scores and proclaim a winner based on my experiences, but I won’t do that since every social network has requirements that are unique to itself. This is meant more as a guide to help you along the way of making better informed decisions regarding your platform choices.

Filed under: Internet, Social

The Myth Of Zuck

I finally managed to watch The Social Network, the movie on Mark Zuckerberg. If this is what bad PR looks like, I would certainly love to buy some of it for myself. Yes, there are bad bits in the movie, but it portrays the man in question as an awkward hero going all out to realize his revolutionary vision. Everything else is collateral damage in that journey, if it did not work out well. I don't think a movie by Facebook itself could not have done a better job of creating the legend.

Apparently, CBS ran a 60-minutes segment on him last night and it was more of the puff piece specials that have been flowing from the media on Facebook (and other valley tech majors) for a while now. I do not know Zuck, I have no idea what is really the truth. But what is seen and available in public is so manufactured and manipulated. They are really taking a book from the Steve Jobs edition of 'Making of Legends' and putting a social layer on it.

Coming back to the movie, the image transformation of the protagonist could not have been more poignant. The first time you see him on the computer, he is using the terminal to download pictures of women for Facesmash, in the end he is using the terminal to work with Apache on some Debian-based distribution of Linux. Always alone, only with his magnificent vision (and bash) for company, but always forging ahead.

Filed under: Business

Death Of The Homepage Revisited

Looks like I am not the only one who is bothered by thoughts that surround the decline of the homepage. Gawker's Nick Denton posts a pretty long one on the upcoming changes to the Gawker properties, of which the most significant change is the end of the home page as we have known it at least on his network of sites. It is worth reading the post in detail and Felix Salmon's even longer take on it (it is good till the half way point, after which it disintegrates).

A quick summary of the proposed changes yields the following interesting points:

1. Plateauing of ad revenue and rising cost of content: Selling ads at quantity (CPM) is always a game with a predictable (also undesirable) end. Things get even dicier when you are a publisher of quality content (unlike a Facebook or Twitter, where the users do it for you) as the cost of producing content in the vein of Lifehacker or Gawker is not something that gets cheaper as you add more hands that create it. There is also the 80:20 problem, that 80% of your traffic comes from 20% of your content.

2. Contrary to what he says, it is the death of the front page: If every page was a front page, you'd see only excerpts of stories there. There is no more a front page, every page is a story page. I am reasonably certain that there is a graph inside Nick's computer that says engagement is greater and bounce is lower on the story pages than on the section and home pages. There may actually be a lot of method to this madness.

3. Day parting is a bold step. I think this will be a limited measured run. If he cracks it, Nick would have made the first foray for any content publisher online into this domain. As an added bonus he gets a solid legacy to lean on, which is much better than the slimy bits that is associated with him and Gawker.

4. Content cross-pollination – This is old school and done-to-death. But I think the attempt is to make it one continous system (in format) across the system. Milk more page views. Nothing new here.

5. Video: Differentiated inventory again, with more day parting. I like this.

6. The last point makes the clear that this is the final move in a long term strategy:

  • Build the audience
  • Build a differentiated set up for ads (cut out the networks)
  • Build a different ad framework (new formats)
  • Alter the brand's (Gawker's) persona
  • Hit growth targets
  • Cash it in
Filed under: Industry, Internet

Samsung Galaxy S Three Month Review

I have now spent a good three months with the Samsung Galaxy S and it has been an interesting time. The phone is good enough for me to persist with it. It is no perfect and Samsung has botched what could have been a perfect non-iPhone iPhone with a bad choice of filesystem and issues with lag.

In its current shape it is rooted (SuperOneClick), lag fixed (OCLF) and running a Samsung beta release of Froyo (2.2, I9000XXJPH, 2.6.32.9). It has a pretty high Quadrant score (1852), but I really don't think much of that. Overall, I am quite happy with the phone. In a lot of ways, it is like Windows XP once you get used to it. It can really annoy you at times, but over time you get used to extracting the best out of it.

My current workflow on it involves the usage of it more as a communications device (calls, email and light browsing), followed by a bit of gaming and very little in terms of music or videos. I do read a lot on it, using both the e-book reader and the browser, but 90% of the heavy lifting on the phone for me is still voice. Mail is handled by the native Gmail application and a lot of work-related data is handled through Dropbox.

So, what do I still like about the phone after 3-months:

1. The screen. It is gorgeous and even in my horribly clumsy, grimy hands it still does not have a single scratch on it.
2. Application stability. I have not yet come across a single application that does not install or run properly on it.
3. The Mobile Access Point feature. Saves me a lot of the usual tethering (cable or bluetooth) nightmares.
4. The camera: both the videos and photos are awesome IF you have decent lighting.
5. Decoupled core applications (you can't get this unless you are on 2.2).
6. App quality is steadily getting better.

What I don't like:

1. They are destroying an awesome phone with a lousy OS implementation. Official Froyo is miles ahead of the 2.1-update 1 release, but it still gets it wrong so many ways.
2. Market still remains the weakest link in the chain. Pick any part of it and it will be lousy.
3. It requires tinkering to make it run both fast and reliably.
4. There is no single, easy-to-understand interface to manage app access permissions. (More of an Android problem).
5. Samsung Kies.

Apps I can't do without:

1. Email – The Official Gmail App.
2. Browsing – Opera Mini (I have Fennec, Android's native browser, Opera Mobile and Skyfire installed, but on EDGE it is Opera Mini all the way).
3. E-books – Aldiko.
4. Twitter – Tweetcaster.
5. Maps & Location – Google Maps.
6. File Sync: Dropbox.
7. News & Reading: Express News, Everpaper.
8. Blogging: Tumblr.
9. Music & Video: Doubletwist.
10. Games: Angry Birds, Falling Ball, Air Control Lite.
11. Productivity: Swype
12. Geek: Connectbot (SSH sessions)

I don't have a single paid app on the phone yet. This is something that will change in the coming months. I still have not fully settled into the Android world to make that sort of a commitment, even though at Rs. 90 – Rs. 500 per app, it makes for massive fight with temptation every time I stroll over to the market to prevent myself from picking up something.

Filed under: Android, Industry, Mobile