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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!