Even with Android, and now Nexus One, Google Still has Apple Envy

While the media has enjoyed positioning the recent launch of Google’s Android-based Nexus One “superphone” manufactured by HTC as a direct competitive threat to Apple’s iPhone, I agree with Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital that this is the wrong question to try to answer as Apple and Google are taking very different approaches to the mobile market. Apple, as in the personal computer market, has focused on developing the most well designed, highest grossing margin, products they can imagine at the expense of market share. Google on the other hand, by open-sourcing the Android operating system to handset and device manufacturers for free, is aiming to become the most widely used mobile operating system at the expense of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and, to a lesser extent, Nokia’s Symbian (which is more widely used internationally) platforms. As Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures alludes to, by leveraging its ability to tightly integrate its applications (Calendar, Gmail, Maps, etc.) into Android, Google can extend the operating system to provide a solution for not only consumers, but the small/medium business market as well, right out of the box. Having also signaled their intent to develop an enterprise version of Nexus One, Google will be able to challenge Research In Motion’s Blackberry platform for larger, more lucrative business clients as well this year. Combined with a strong pipeline of Android-based handsets being released by device manufacturers over the course of the year, it’s more a question of when rather than if Android will become the largest mobile operating system in terms of market share in the United States.

With such a bright outlook in mobile, why would Google be envious of Apple? Because Google wants to be more than just a search company.

Google’s mission has always been associated with organizing the world’s information and making it accessible, which enables users to more easily find content to consume. Apple, whose mission statement has evolved to include spearheading the digital media revolution, focuses on delivering this content in the form of applications, music and videos to consumers through its own devices and services. It’s this difference in how content is discovered and where it is consumed that has enabled Apple to establish a more direct relationship with both consumers and content owners than Google has achieved and, in the process, extract more economic value from both by way of hardware sales to consumers (iPhone, iPods, etc.) and distribution fees (through iTunes sales) from content owners.

Google is attempting to eliminate this relationship discrepancy primarily through acquisition. DoubleClick and, most recently, AdMob were acquired to provide Google with online and mobile display ad monetization capabilities, respectively, wherever the content is, regardless of device. In an effort to keep a larger revenue share, and further bridge the relationship gap it has with consumers who use Google to search but consume content elsewhere, Google has also entered the content business by, most notably, acquiring YouTube to help keep consumers within its network. Combined with the company’s recently failed attempt to acquire Yelp, I agree with Simon Dumenco’s assertion in his Advertising Age article that Google is attempting to become a media company in the process. Because Google’s content efforts have focused on user generated content though, the company has entered into partnerships to match Apple’s content offering- cutting deals with television networks and movie studios for premium content for YouTube, supporting an open app ecosystem on the Android platform and exploring partnership opportunities in the music space (though an acquisition of an iTunes competitor such as MOG or Spotify would make sense for Google and Android at this point).

Regardless of the number of phones that are eventually sold with the Android operating system and applications that are added to the platform, the truth is Google will never be able to replicate what Apple does, as the two organizations have completely different cultures which is evidenced in their respective approaches to mobile. Google’s left-brain, quantitative, engineering-driven approach to business isn’t organized to compete with Apple’s right-brain, qualitative, design-driven model. It’s in the design process Apple is able to foster an emotional connection between its products and consumers, something Google is unable to achieve because it provides software-based services. And because Apple design approach integrates both the hardware and software components of its devices, content providers, including Google, must work directly with Apple in order to reach these consumers. Apple’s design prowess will be on display again next week when they finally unveil the long-rumored tablet device which is expected to bring additional types of premium content from print publishers directly to consumers through these devices- adding more fire to Google’s Apple envy.

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Television Programming Will Require Better Discovery in the Future

The ability to access any television program or motion picture on demand is more of a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’’ as internet-based delivery of digital television (known as Internet TV or IPTV) is enabling a variety of companies to already offer converged video viewing experiences to consumers.

  • Cable & Satellite Companies. While digital television services have traditionally been delivered by cable and satellite providers, these companies have also been at the forefront of providing non-linear television and movie watching capabilities through digital video recording (DVR) and video on demand (VOD) services. Now the likes of Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are joining forces to launch TV Everywhere, a service that will enable their respective subscribers to access their television content on the web.
  • Telecom Providers. AT&T and Verizon are leveraging IPTV to build the most direct competitive offering to that of cable and satellite television. These subscription services include DVR and VOD functionality while also leveraging internet connectivity to allow users to access social networking services and video content from web aggregators through their set-top boxes.
  • Device Manufacturers. Television sets, Blu-ray disc players, video game consoles and digital media boxes are all incorporating Internet TV into their devices to offer consumers alternatives to traditional subscription-based linear programming. LG is producing TVs and Blu-ray players with internet capabilities to enable access to certain video websites and services. Microsoft’s Xbox system is repurposing its broadband connection used for multi-player gaming to deliver a similar video experience while also extending the social nature of the console to allow gamers to watch shows and movies with other Xbox users. Devices from Apple, Roku and Vudu offer dedicated alternatives to traditional cable and satellite boxes, providing their own content catalog to consumers in some cases or partnering with other video service providers in others.
  • Internet Properties. Sites such as Amazon, Boxee, Hulu and Netflix are also leveraging the internet to provide consumers PC-based options for streaming and downloading video content as well as partnering with device manufacturers to extend their respective web offerings.

As set-top boxes and other devices become more powerful and broadband connections get faster, business models will be forced to evolve to address the control consumers have in a converged video experience. So what could slow down the adoption of on demand television by consumers? The actual user experience of finding and discovering programming.

Think about how people discover what to watch on TV today. We know what day of the week, time slot and channel a particular show is broadcast primarily through television marketing. During the airing of any show on TV the network providing the programming for that channel will advertise other shows within its portfolio along with the appropriate tune-in information (typically the show being promoted will be broadcast on the same channel on the same evening or in the same genre as the show you are watching but on another night). Word of mouth marketing from friends, coworkers, etc. fill in the rest of our content discovery needs. Now fast forward 10 years when channels and time slots in a converged video experience give way to on demand programming- how do we discover what shows and movies to watch and recommend?

Current discovery options, available primarily on video websites, are basic filters (find by name, genre, latest and most popular) associated with each site’s content catalog. Clicker, runner-up for audience favorite at TechCrunch50 recently, is trying to enhance this type of discovery by structuring the underlying data associated with video content across websites to make it easier for users to search for content as well as build their own playlists to watch.

TVGuideFiltering only provides a partial solution though. Recommendation engines that offer video suggestions to users based on particular attributes completes the discovery equation. Netflix believes in the power of recommendations enough to award $1 million to a team that was able to improve Netflix’s current movie recommendation results by 10%. While user preferences are the key to Netflix’s recommendation results, other attributes do exist. Word of mouth discovery through friends can be equally, if not more, effective. Based on the homophily principle that “birds of a feather flock together”, if your friends highlight certain shows and movies as favorites then you might be inclined to watch them as well. TV Guide, the original provider of television programming information before the internet existed, offers a web-based solution for discovery through association by leveraging Facebook Connect to allow users to access their social graph on Facebook to see what shows are their friends’ favorites.

Interestingly enough I’ve yet to see anyone combine the power of push and pull (recommendations and search filters) discovery into a single solution. The company that creates an intuitive user interface that incorporates both types of discovery mechanisms to enable the programming of a television has a tremendous opportunity to own the converged video experience across multiple providers or directly with the consumer. An internet company such as Netflix, which has distribution partnerships with video service providers, a large subscriber base and a recommendation engine, is best positioned to provide this type of solution. Some might consider Hulu an option, but it has focused its efforts on being a technology and web distribution platform up to this point. From a start-up perspective, Boxee, a favorite of the early-adopter community still lacks the service distribution partnership, established media relationships and easy set-up to be considered a serious threat in the short-term.

In an on demand environment television networks and movie studios face an equally daunting task regarding discovery- how to promote their content to subscribers. Recently launched Simulmedia is attempting to address this problem for media companies by better targeting users with on-air promotions through data mining. This methodology could easily be applied to a non-linear viewing experience that could really benefit networks and studios. Services that can leverage subscriber data to target users with the appropriate programming promotion will be important as audiences are only willing to tolerate so many interruptions while watching television. Each pre-roll, mid-roll or overlay that is used for marketing television shows takes away from potential advertising dollars that could be placed there instead.

Where networks will have leverage with audiences and advertisers is in broadcasting live events. Securing rights to sporting events, award shows and the like can mitigate some of the effects of non-linear viewership. Knowing the day and time when an audience will be watching television opens up a tremendous opportunity for timing the release of shows, movies and advertising campaigns around the event.

Regardless of whether a discovery solution being implemented for consumers or provides, in a converged video experience both parties have the benefit of leveraging various user and content data sets to create a more efficient discovery process than is available to us today.

Now if I could just figure out my remote.

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Making User Profiles Public: The Case Against Facebook’s Acquisition of FriendFeed

friendfeed-facebookBefore I play devil’s advocate, I will state that I am a fan of Facebook’s acquisition of FriendFeed from both a business and strategic perspective. Most tech journalists have already provided great coverage on the value of the deal from an acquisition of talent, feature capabilities and search functionality perspective– so I won’t rehash it here. That being said, only Marshal Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb commented on the potential downside of the acquisition as it relates to Facebook’s other big move from the same day- launching improved search functionality across its website. With these two announcements, Facebook officially entered the fray in the battle with Google and Twitter over real-time, socially relevant search.

In the process Facebook also signaled its intent to make user profiles and associated content more public- and therein lies the potential problem. Facebook’s success as a social networking platform has been built on the philosophy of having users connect with one another using their real digital identities, which is in contrast to MySpace and many other social networks that allow users to create anonymous identities. This has led to Facebook evolving into a platform where people connect and share their personal interests and experiences with actual friends and family. This creates a sense of privacy within and beyond Facebook’s walled garden (Google can’t index the site’s content for search purposes) that isn’t found on MySpace, Twitter or FriendFeed where user profiles and content are publicly accessible.

By introducing ways for strangers to initiate and participate in conversations with other users in real-time and enabling search along these same lines, both core strengths of FriendFeed’s service, Facebook risks alienating the core audience that has made it the largest social network in the world. We’ve already witnessed the privacy backlash Facebook faced over Beacon, which attempted to push users’ activity from across the web into Facebook. So it’s not a reach to think users might react similarly to their data being made available outside of their social graph on Facebook.

Since Facebook’s core audience of college-aged users are more interested in extending their current relationships online than meeting new people outside of their school and personal social circles, the company is left with a data set problem. Facebook needs its users to expand their social graphs to include casual connections as well as enable consumption of additional content channels (creating additional link value) to better position its social search results with a richer and larger data set than is available today (just do a keyword search on Facebook and compare the results to that of Twitter’s to see the current data set disparity).  As Facebook attempts to broaden its reach and associated monetization opportunities, it risks compromising what has made it so popular and differentiated from other social networks. The worst case scenario for Facebook is that the push to make users and profiles more public creates the larger, richer data set to compete with Google and Twitter but in the process drives Facebook’s core, more private, users off the platform, neutralizing the growth of its public data set.

Luckily for Facebook there isn’t a viable alternative to the site that could capitalize on this potential opportunity in the near-term (we know teens and college kids are under-represented on Twitter due to the same identity and trust issues present on MySpace). That doesn’t mean Facebook can’t or won’t be overtaken someday as Friendster and MySpace were before them. It will be interesting though to watch the timeline for rolling out FriendFeed features on Facebook and whether the next generation of social network users (high school and junior high school students) flock to Facebook or look for alternatives. At the end of the day though, maybe Facebook doesn’t care about these younger users as it becomes large enough to focus its efforts on the older portion of its audience that controls the discretionary spending advertisers are so eager to reach. Time will tell how this case is resolved.

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Why Twitter Needs an Official #HashtagPolicy

Hasgtag logoOne of the main utilities I get out of Twitter is being able to follow conferences that I can’t attend, but am interested in, via TweetDeck. Last week I got my fill by following 140|The Twitter Conference, D: All Things Digital conference and Google I/O Developer Conference at the same time. While the real-time commentary from attendees and participants was exactly what I was looking for, the process I witnessed for getting to each information stream left something to be desired. In each instance, official feature support for hashtags, in some capacity, by Twitter could have led to a better, more seamless, user experience and, in the process, enhanced Twitter’s business opportunity around real-time search through metadata.

Hashtags, like @replies (originally) and retweets, are a community-driven feature on Twitter. It is used to track and organize keywords in tweets around abstract concepts, breaking news and planned events. Since hashtags can be created on an ad hoc basis there is no central repository for registering or finding out about what particular hashtags represent (Mashable does a good job of highlighting options for identifying and tracking hashtags in a recent article). This has led to process laziness by organizers in setting up hashtags for their events in advance or, in many cases, leaving it up to attendees to decide on how best to track events. The result is confusion leading up to, and inconsistencies during, a conference. The most glaring example of this last week was during the All Things Digital conference, which coincidentally enough had Twitter’s co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone as its opening guests.

Follow D: All Things Digital conferenceThis tweet was from the morning of the event. As you can see one of the conference hosts offered up 3 different hashtag options for interested followers, one of which had a completely different spelling. If you happened to be following #allthingsd you would have missed out on all the #d7 and #d7conference hashtag streams. By not proposing one “official” hashtag, a lot of trending topic momentum was lost by the conference and, as a result, potential followers of the event.

What is #140tc tweetOn the other end of the spectrum, The Twitter Conference did a great job of highlighting the hashtag for its event right on their website (in addition to incorporating a Twitter feed of #140tc-related tweets by which to follow the conference). While this did help #140tc become a top trending topic on Twitter, there was still an information gap for Twitter users who didn’t know about the event but had seen the hashtag trending (one of many examples shown above), as there wasn’t an easy way to determine what the hashtag stood for.

Clicking on the #140tc hashtag only generates a Twitter search page with other tweets using the same hashtag. It doesn’t provide any background or meaning to the keyword to help someone decide whether or not to follow the topic- unless it is described in a tweet. Another lost opportunity, through no fault of the conference organizers, for users to find something of interest on Twitter.

Finally, in the case of Google’s Developer Conference, Google did call out their own Twitter account for people to follow at the event (@googleio), but the actual attendee discussion stream appeared under the #io2009 hashtag (among others). Because there were a lot of topics covered at Google I/O, Twazzup was used to aggregate information on related hashtags for the event, which was very helpful- if you knew to look for it, as there was no link or mention of the Twazzup page on the conference website.

Now imagine a world where Twitter supported hashtagging as a native feature. Gone would be confusion over what hashtag to use or follow or what specific hashtags meant for planned events, as Twitter could allow event organizers to own or rent a hashtag (product idea number 301) and provide the associated metadata for their event as part of the registration process (TwitterDaddy.com here we come!). By going through a sign-up process, and paying to secure a hashtag, conferences will be more likely to promote their hashtag as part of their event marketing, which inevitably would help Twitter grow its audience and usage of its platform. Twitter might also consider leaving the hash sign for abstract concepts and breaking news and provide planned events with a new symbol (maybe the ampersand or asterisk) that would still be captured in trending topics- much like StockTwits uses the $ sign for discussions around the stock market.

For abstract concepts (my car broke down) and breaking news (the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court) Twitter could auto-suggest hashtags to users (based on similarly spelled trending hashtags for instance) to help group tweets on specific topics more effectively. This would not only help the trending velocity of topics, but provide a metadata layer to tweets. If Twitter could influence users to increase the use of hashtags in their tweets, maybe by taking hashtags out of the character limit, and enable better grouping of topic-related tweets, the search and discovery value from a user experience and monetization perspective would increase exponentially. Maybe then we might get over our intense fascination over Twitter’s business model.

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What Will It Take to Become the Bloomberg Service for Social Media?

social-bloombergThere has been a lot of development and press coverage in the social aggregation and activity-streaming space over the last month, which peaked last week with the release of Nambu, Seesmic Desktop, Sideline by Yahoo, enhancements from TweetDeck, a redesign of FriendFeed and an iPhone app from TweetStack, that lets you import your TweetDeck columns, to boot. All of these services are trying to solve the growing problem of managing your personal and/or professional activity across various social networks. Twitter is the one constant network across all these applications though, due to its focus on enabling activity streams, growing popularity and ecosystem that turn the river of Twitter’s network noise into useful streams of information. It’s because of the 3rd-party service TweetDeck that I’ve actually started using Twitter on a regular basis over the past month even though I’ve had an account for almost two years (if you’re unfamiliar with TweetDeck, the New York Times had a nice write-up on it last week).

What has struck me in the process of TweetDeck becoming a permanent fixture on my computer is how I use it like a Bloomberg terminal from my years in finance. For the uninitiated, Bloomberg is the de facto system for finance professionals to monitor and analyze real-time financial market data movements, place trades and communicate with other Bloomberg users. Replace ‘finance’ with ‘Twitter’ in the previous sentence and the services sound a lot alike- instead of following stocks it’s users/topics/events and instead of the NASDAQ stock exchange it’s Twitter streams.

With TweetDeck’s recent integration of Facebook Connect, it got me thinking about what a service would look like that brought the best aspects of the Bloomberg terminal to managing a social media experience. Here are my requirements for the ultimate social media terminal:

  • Real-time. Information streamed in real-time, or in near real-time is a must. The “more results” notification Twitter search provides is fine, but I don’t want to have to refresh my browser every so often to get the latest streams from Twitter or Facebook (which is supposedly being addressed by Facebook in an upcoming release) or any other platform- I need it delivered as it occurs.
  • Multi-platform. Access to multiple networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) is also key since I use each one differently (for industry, personal or professional communications respectively) so I need to be able to respond to information en mass or uniquely by network or by user across networks- which can’t be accomplish through just one network (though Facebook is trying!).
  • Filters. The more networks you tap into and greater access you have to other user’s information streams, the more important filtering of information becomes. Without filters it becomes unmanageable noise once again.
  • Neutral. My social media terminal should be built by a 3rd-party and not by one of the underlying networks it provides access to. This ensures, or at least provides the appearance of, neutrality in how streams are handled and delivered. It also frees the terminal provider to build a client that is unencumbered by any legacy interface or platform functionality, and instead optimized for the stream aggregation experience.
  • Actionable. Just aggregating or customizing the presentation of information is not enough- I need to be able to respond and react to this information in real-time leveraging each network’s native functionality (or at least what they expose to 3rd-party services) through a single interface. A dumb terminal is a non-starter.
  • Intelligent. While the first 5 requirements are valuable from a time management and user experience perspective in making it easier to see information, understanding that information in a way that helps you make decisions is the value-add requirement in the list- and leveraging analytics is the best way to achieve this. While there are plenty of Twitter tracking and analytic services, there isn’t a single solution that allow you to define reports or alerts on an ad-hoc basis that automates the tracking of sentiment (positive and negative) or velocity (increased and decreasing) around people/topics/events (though Juice Analytics has an interested blog post on this topic). I would imagine individuals and corporations involved in social media would consider this service a must have to be successful and would pay a premium for it.

TweetDeck has made a good start in meeting these requirements for me to date (not too surprising since its founder, Iain Dodsworth came from the finance industry), but still has some work left to do on the multi-platform services side and especially analytics (though I haven’t seen anyone who has addressed this functionality yet). As such I give TweetDeck, which I feel is currently the best of the bunch, a 4 ½ out of 6.

Because TweetDeck leverages APIs that are readily available to other companies in building its service, it does face a growing number of competitors focusing on Twitter as its entry strategy (though according to Twitstat it is currently the most popular 3rd-party Twitter application in terms of usage) as well as on the social aggregation side. You can also be sure that Facebook will use its amazing size and mindshare to try and own this space (especially in light of their failed attempt to acquire Twitter).

Bloomberg was in a similar situation but succeeded in part due to the value added services its users received from using Bloomberg’s proprietary platform (by way of its in-network email service, trading capabilites, etc.). If TweetDeck or anyone else can figure out what its value added service is to its networked users, in addition to meeting the 6 requirements I highlighted above, it has a great chance of building something special.

    So what does your social media service look like?

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