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Posts Tagged ‘probably inaccurate opinions’

As a user of Facebook, and completely (I’d like to believe) divorced from my e-political/iPolitical views- I’m a little worried about the drop off in quality of the news feed lately. Roughly speaking, the new feed mostly seems to contain boring stuff from people who’re distant acquaintances, rather than all the cool stuff my close friends are up to. This has also resulted in a drop in my daily fbook usage to ~5mins a day (I think), where it previously would have been larger than I’d care to admit to on this blog.

4 hypotheses. In no particular order:

1. Stage of Life Theory: The feeds are the same ‘quality’- it’s just that I’ve aged a little (nearly 30, almost married) from the stage of life (early 20s, single) where I care about what ‘certain’  other people are doing (trendsetters, opposite sex), and this reflects in my interest in the feeds.

2. ‘Friends’: Where I once had maybe a 100 or so friends, I now have nearly 800 ‘friends’ on facebook (and I’m not even that popular). Roughly anyone I have ever met times the probability that one of us was proactive about friending the other. It could be that this is simply too many more people than I care about, and facebook can’t separate the people I care to know more about from the others. Maybe it’s a bit like approval voting : voting for everyone is like voting for no-one.

3. Quantity vs Quality: It used to be that people had to go to facebook and type stuff in, so they only did it when they had something interesting to say. Now, it’s a free for all- people share articles right from the page they’re on, there’s 4square checkins, FPlaces checkins, facebook likes being reported, tweets pulled in, instagrams posted and other technologies even I haven’t heard of. And as marginal cost goes down, so does average quality. (HT:PP)

4. Nothing’s changed with the feeds: I’m just a hater making stuff up (quite likely, but I try not to be too obvious in public).

Which is it? I’m genuinely interested…

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On the subject of whether US antitrust law can or should stop this merger, I have no opinions. Antitrust law is best left to people who understand it better than I.*

But back to our topic, in a move that seems wrongheaded from every hat I could possibly find (except, of course the hats owned by ATT and Deutsche Telekom shareholders), T-Mobile agreed to be bought out by AT&T. If consummated, this will leave the US with:

  1. A sole major GSM provider.
  2. Only 3 major wireless providers.
  3. One less provider of good commercials.

In short, I’m not a big fan. However, M&A is not (and should not be)  accepted or rejected in the court of public opinion. I will however note that legacy industries in the US, in a truly biblical move, have organized into trinities. There are now three mega-airlines, Delta, United and American. There are still 3 major car companies (Ford, GM, Chrysler) after a frightening brush with there being 0-1. There always have been 3 major sports (NBA, NFL and MLB). And so on. By contrast, I could think of only 1 major duopoly (Coke vs Pepsi), which is really also a trinity once you include Dr. Pepper and their productions. So, a short question. Why?

 

*A summary I was once given on the subject:  if prices go down, predatory pricing is alleged, prices staying flat is called collusion, and rising prices are attributed to monopolies.

 

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By the time this post is up, Nokia will have announced its new strategy to go with Windows Phone 7 in some shape or form. With the HP/ Palm marriage consummated, this will leave us with 4 major platforms in the smartphone space  (I’m assuming that the two Nokia OS’s will soon be put out of their misery). So here are my thoughts on how this will play out-

  • With WinP7 now tied to Nokia, I suspect the other manufacturers will slowly bow out of that platform- one dominant OEM is bad news for smaller OEMs. If that happens, a lot of their joint future depends on how fast Nokia can get competitive WinP7 devices to market.
  • HP/Palm will win several awards for the best product brought to market roughly 6 months later than needed to be seriously competitve. There’s something to be said for just getting stuff out the door.
  • Android Manufacturers will win the award for worst executed vision- a special commendation to Motorola for Xoom pricing and the Atrix Dock. Android Jalebi launches late December 2011, bringing some much needed Indian representation to the high tech industry.
  • The iDevice behemoth will hopefully, at some point, slow down (try the 2:50 mark). More realistically, I suspect they’ll continue to sell millions of devices to people like these. John Gruber will exult on how this shows how truly individualistic humans are.

To summarize, the carriers win as all 4 camps make concessions to get carrier support for their device(s). Apple makes lots of money, Google makes a fair bit on mobile, Microsoft continues to dump money in the general direction and HP makes the most beautiful printers anyone’s ever seen.

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This blog likes to think of itself as perched somewhat uneasily near the cutting edge of Web X.O technology (where X is a magic content free number, currently 3 but really moving so fast its best to use a placeholder).

Even so at least half the authorship of this august site must confess to be somewhat baffled by the raison d’être of a born again genre of web startup – Question and Answer sites (socially enabled, heavily funded and often invitation only).

Now Q&A sites have been around for a while, with services such as Yahoo Answers completing the difficult task of both attracting a massive user base and providing no apparent social value whatsoever. Or almost no social value – a good meme is not to be scoffed at.

Stellar examples such as Yahoo notwithstanding, the powers that be in Silicon Valley have evidently fallen in love again, and Q&A startups such as Quora, Aardvark are all over the place. Raking in millions in venture funding, earning column inches in the best kinds of blogs, and throwing parties for everyone in San Francisco. Quora in particular has been praised for creating an exceptionally high quality seed community, albeit one that is both small and more than slightly unidimensional. More and more, Q&A sites have been called the future of search.

Yet think about it. If you want to know something that is already documented somewhere, or can be worked out from information documented someplace, a traditional search is probably your best bet. Given a reasonable search query and a good search algorithm (and a lot of work has gone into the latter), many many ‘questions’ have an answer available instantly. Speed is therefore not the strong point of sites such as Quora – even if you get a good answer relatively quickly (by which we mean a few hours here), you probably want to give things a few days to get the most out of the community.

Now lets say search won’t cut it because your question requires an expert. And lets assume you’ve managed to get a huge population of users to sign on, so that any given question can in theory be mapped to someone who knows their stuff. Lets even assume they actually see your question – a very hard matching problem in the first place.

Even so, its unclear what the incentive is for anyone to spend the time needed to give good answers (remember they need to beat what the person asking could find using a web search). This is especially true where the question is uncomplicated and thus a little boring (to the expert). I’ve heard people point to Wikipedia to prove that users will volunteer high quality information on a wide range of topics. Perhaps, but the demands being placed on the community here are even higher – volunteer information *and* do it when someone else wants you to, not when you feel like it.

Quora, with its flourishing and tiny community of Silicon Valley techies endlessly discussing startups, business plans, technology and the bay area, isn’t a good place to get answers to questions in general. It is a good place to have a conversation, initiated by prompts, if you’re a particular type of person. Its hard to see the difference between whats going on within Quora and the back and forth chatter – often also initiated by questions – on the Android forums or a Linux Users discussion board or the Cricinfo facebook page or World of Warcraft discussion boards.

In other words Quora seems a Q&A site thats really just a super successful specialized online forum. There’s a place for them and you can find them in many shapes and forms – its the oldest internet application around.

But look long and hard at Quora and the chaotic (but large) Yahoo Answers and  you understand why the important task of enabling information retrieval in general will require better search, better semantic algorithms and better content matching. Its not going to happen by hoping some amorphous, omniscient community in concert with a little special social sauce will come to the rescue and do the work for you.

I could be wrong of course. Its been known to happen.

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A very interesting part of Facebook just left beta – their virtual currency, Facebook Credits. The idea is to have a common unit to use across all applications (games and otherwise) within Facebook, so that you can buy your farm animals or your virtual birthday presents or your zombie killing weaponry or additional scrabble tiles using the same Facebook Credits (TM).

Of course the term ‘virtual currency’ is interesting because there is nothing fundamentally virtual about it. In much the same way as the things you can buy with credits (so called ‘virtual goods’) are of course no different from any other type of good. Bricks and bytes are different but not in any fundamental economic way and anyone making money in the multi-million dollar market in virtual goods knows this. Of course for the present they remain legally different, so Facebook Credits cannot legally be used to buy so called real goods. The fact that the law here distinguishes between the indistinguishable should be obvious when World of Warcraft characters are sold on E-Bay or the fascinating and complicated virtual economy within Second Life crashed taking hundreds of thousands of real dollars with it. (As an aside you’d think that virtual economies would provide a lovely sandbox for useful research by economists keen to understand how the real economy works.)

So why does Facebook want a virtual currency? Why does Second Life?

The reasons you hear most often are first, that gambling laws occasionally make it difficult to freely allow dollar payments within these applications.

Second, that this is an attempt to lower transaction costs for the user. Facebook is kind enough to create a single currency, convertible to dollars only through a few restricted channels. That saves us the trouble of having to provide credit card details to many vendors. Now of course for this service they also charge massive (30 percent) transaction fees, a pound of flesh far exceeding what a credit card takes. Arguably there is no lowering of transaction costs – instead only a conversion from time costs to money.

But really this is not about making transactions easy (Paypal provides a single payment portal anyway) or even archaic gambling legislation (most applications wouldn’t be affected). In fact, its all behavioral. The reason to do this and the reason why everyone makes money is that virtual currencies exploit the mental accounting quirks in most people – where funny money isn’t the same thing as coins you can feel or even charges on a credit card. At least for a while, spending a Facebook Credit is going to be a lot easier than spending a dollar. And so we do it more.

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The bay area is home to some of the worlds greatest universities, richest venture capitalists and smartest entrepreneurs. Yet it is also an echo chamber of ideas and opinions. In the heart of Silicon Valley fads and bubbles abound, good money is thrown after bad and an active regulatory environment helps change the rules every so often.

So for example, take the industry sector we refer to ‘CleanTech’ or ‘GreenTech’. Why does the market (in the form of private venture funding) back certain horses and not others? And are the outcomes socially efficient? Actually coming up with answers to that question would be far too complicated and out of character for this blog but one might begin by staring at a couple of graphs.

Lets start by following the money

Where has venture capital been going?

And next lets look at where we could actually get cheap renewable electricity from (This next one is from a report for the California Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative – 2 years old now unfortunately).

Electricity generation costs

Its worth questioning whether a combination of policy that picks technology winners (California’s large solar subsidies) and capital that goes where everyone else is going has really led to a socially optimal mix of green energy startups?

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