Thoughts on the Diaspora project

On one of the StackOverflow podcasts, Joel and Jeff discussed what made StackOverflow tick, as they usually did. Jeff made a point: anybody could hack a StackOverflow clone over the weekend. It wouldn’t be as polished but the core use cases are simple enough for this to be a weekend project.

StackOverflow did not take over the Q&A space because it’s great software. I think it actually is pretty good on the software side, but it’s been a runaway success because the guys have managed to create a community, fast. Its launch was a mother of all online launches:

  1. the community was in a dire need of a better solution to Q&A
  2. the product delivered that solution (that’s the software part)
  3. by pre-seeding the site with good content and with persistent evangelism, they got enough user mass for the project to take off

People came and kept coming back because the product rewarded them for doing so. Not unlike Facebook that also rewards you for being there, although in a different way.

Speaking of Facebook, what are the chances that Diaspora will give them a run for their money?

Again, it will not be determined by the quality of their code. Open source alternatives to Twitter, for instance Status.net, did nothing to slow Twitter down. By the time these clones have started popping out, Twitter had enough people bought into it that it didn’t matter if you could download a clone and run it on your server.

Why would you? All your friends were on Twitter already.

With Facebook the game is even harder. My dad is there, and so are million other dads and aunts and non-techies. They won’t run their own Diaspora; their highest technical accomplishment is uploading a photo on their Wall.

So, technically, yes I could run my own quasi-Facebook but would anybody come? Hell I run this blog but for many people Facebook has replaced the internet so if I am to reach them, I have to first link to this post from my FB.

Perhaps the question itself is wrong. As The Onion recently reported, “New Social Networking Site Changing The Way Oh, Christ, Forget It, Let Someone Else Report On This Bullshit“. With a plethora of existing tools already at your disposal, you indeed have all you need to share whatever you want to share with whomever.

The guys behind Diaspora would have to answer our need to share in a very different way, and doing so they’d also have to be excellent community managers, just like the StackOverflow team has been. What I think is that Facebook doesn’t suck badly enough for them to have a clear shot at victory. And without a pressing, dire need, no product to satisfy it can be made.

PS Not feeling so social? Check out the Mine! Project for a very different take on owning and (selectively) sharing your data.

Adobe folds

Adobe is not going to war with Apple and will abandon its code translation tools. Hence no avalanche of Flash developers suddenly being able to target iPhone/iPad. Funny, I thought Apple updating its terms would lead to an uprising that would ultimately lead to mobs breaking the walls of their walled garden.

Microsoft couldn’t even ship a  media player with Windows without getting slapped with an anti-monopoly fine from the EU commission but Apple can apparently do whatever they want even though they are the undisputed leader in their smartphone niche.

But perhaps Adobe’s defensive statement “the iPhone isn’t the only game in town” isn’t just about sour grapes. It really isn’t. When a close friend and a devoted iPhone addict recently admitted that my Droid (Milestone in the EU) felt markedly faster in every way, I saw that as a turn of the tide. Developers won’t be voluntarily submitting to Jobs’ despotic rule when they have an alternative that is no longer “just” viable but actually superior in some ways.

Is Google Buzz Catching On?

At launch time I used to have 2-3 updates daily in my Buzz. These days, without extending my follow list, I get maybe 25. Sitting there, a real-time component in a decidedly asynchronous Gmail.

Making assumptions based on anecdotal evidence is rarely a good idea. Still, Buzz could be seen as a moderate success – simply thanks to its distribution model.

With a 100+ million users monthly, you can push a lot of mediocre stuff and still get a log of usage.

Long term, though, I don’t see how Google could take it up a league to compete with Twitter. Not unless they take if off Gmail.

It lives inside Gmail so that it gets traction as a result. But an inbox is the last place where I’d want to check for updates. E-mail is broken; it’s either sporadic (for the lucky ones) or overwhelming (the rest of us).

You are scared of inbox because it usually means bad news (or more work – but that’s bad news, too). If you weren’t, there wouldn’t be GDD methods such as Inbox Zero. Whereas real-time messaging is where you go for information and fun, something you’ve unlearned to expect from e-mail.

Taken off Gmail, Buzz could be a technological rival to Twitter but I think that ship has sailed. Unless they can come up with a new model for real-time messaging,  I think Buzz catching up is largely due to its distribution strength and not a sign of an adoption based on new, unique value.

Google catching the tablet frenzy

Does Google’s purported entry into the tablet market make it a viable market?

With the iPad being widely perceived as a trying to reverse the decline of the print media – making it essentially a book reader with net access – I side with the pundits who concluded that it’s too big to be useful as a  carry-on device and too constrained to serve as an all-purpose computer.

Whatever deals Apple can strike with publishers, though, Google can get better ones. On Google Books, you can already search over 7 million titles. And Google’s settlement with the Association of American Publishers can open doors to many millions more.

Thus if Google delivers its own tablet/book reader, we are likely to get not a selection of high-brow subscription options but potentially a Book Market with an unlimited catalog and very interesting pricing.

This being an utter speculation of course, I still think Google is far better equipped to create this market. Kindle was the first step but it’s just a book reader, making its $259 price tag seem big. iPad is sexier but Apple doesn’t have as much clout with publishers as Google does. Google just might get this right.

When it’s not time to share

… then it’s not time to get a new phone.

It dawned on me, with the unveiling of Microsoft’s Kin One and Two, that if I can’t be bothered with a stream of Facebook updates, I cannot justify buying a new phone.

This image from a review on Engadget tells it all:

I mean, if I don’t have these gals on my Facebook and Myspace and Twitter, I am not cool enough to get this phone, right? So I wonder:

  • What this phone would look like if I turned the social functionality OFF.
  • What it could do for me if my important friends were not on Facebook.
  • How I could connect to friends who aren’t on approved social networks

This is not a critique of the Microsoft phone. There’s nothing wrong with it per se.

My beef is: on the web, I can choose to ignore Facebook and still be social when I want to. The phones, connected as they have become, force me to go through channels.

I don’t have my friends on Facebook; I have my friends and some of them happen to be there. For those who aren’t and who are, for instance, “just” blogging, well tough: I probably won’t have them on my homescreen holding an ice-cream cone and smiling like they just won the lottery.

For phones to become 1st class citizens of the Web, they need to be aware of it. Facebook is not the whole internet.

Chrome OS will succeed – in your bathroom

You may wonder what world do the pundits live in – it’s not the same one occupied by you and me:

[W]hat about my son who is in high school. By the time Chrome OS comes along in big numbers he’ll be in college. Why take a $1,000 computer to class? Couldn’t he do everything he needs to do on a low-cost computer that’s lightweight, replaceable, uses low power, and just uses the web? Absolutely!

I suppose if he pursued a degree in feminist studies, yeah, maybe a Google OS (read: online apps exclusively) could carry him towards it. Last time I heard, Mathematica wasn’t on the Web.

Scoble says that Google OS is NOT about killing Microsoft. He predicts a new range of utility computers you’ll put in the kitchen and the bathroom. But would you take that kind of device to college? Other than amuse you in the dorm bathroom?

Google wants to eliminate the need for desktop OS, or at least make it irrelevant. They can’t sell ads through desktop apps. But since Microsoft’s dominance on PCs isn’t any less absolute than it was 10 years ago, Google has to invent its own market to compete outside the browser.

Bathroom PCs: why not; for $50 or less, I’d take a couple. There, Google OS may have already won since there’s nobody else competing there. Displacing Windows on college students laptops? I don’t think so.

The OS Opportunity – Long Gone

Every now and then we hear the Web is the new OS. But is it big enough, fast enough, smart enough?

To the extent that you can make do with a MacBook, Google Docs, and Twitter while sipping late in a hip geeky cafe, yes, your Use Cases are covered. Their list is still growing.

Assuming for the sake of the argument that the Web will indeed render the Operating System irrelevant, why talking the PC manufacturers into ditching Microsoft and building their own shit?

Extrapolating the (questionable so far) success of the cute little darling Litl, which is a utility gadget for browsing the web while shaving (screenshot #3 at the homepage), the writer at Daring Fireball says:

If a small startup can build the Litl, why couldn’t a big company like Dell or Sony? People today still love HP calculators made 30 or even 40 years ago. Has HP made anything this decade that anyone will remember fondly even five years from now? Inkjet printers?

If Palm can create WebOS for pocket-sized computers — replete with an email client, calendaring app, web browser, and SDK — why couldn’t these companies make something equivalent for full-size computers?

Indeed, the very same companies who grew big in the PC ecosystem precisely because it is an ecosystem built on ONE platform – Windows – should now abandon it and create their own, each of them?

That reminds be of the bizarre decision of Samsung to develop their own smartphone OS, Bada, and put it side-to-side with their Android offering. That Google pulled it off with Android is only a testament to the messy state of mobile operating systems, not a challenge to do the same on PCs.

It boils down to this:

  1. Either PC OS is irrelevant and Web will overtake everything, rendering billions of dollars invested in creating a brand new OS a wasted investment, or
  2. The desktop still matters, in which case good luck creating the partner infrastructure Microsoft has been building for the past 25 years or so.

Either way you are screwed. The OS wars are being re-fought on mobiles but there is no undoing the past quarter century of PC history.

The importance of being earnest

You can’t screw around and expect to make it BIG TIME.

What I’ve seen today at the WebExpo 2009 was just that: a somewhat serious attempt at delivering a talk, or a pitch, with hope that it’ll stick. And I liked all of them; after all, I wanted to learn from what they had to say. The trouble is, anybody can be “kind-of” successful after giving it some effort, but: if you’re about to make any effort at all, why don’t you give it your best? How about knocking some socks off?

Easier said than done, I readily admit.

What prompted me to blog this was the talk by Peldi about his story of bootstrapping a ‘successful’ microISV. I put successful in quotes because Peldi is, of course, a mini-Microsoft in his own right; a wildly successful entrepreneur that we can’t really take any advice from without being misled. However, what was worth following and imitating and what could truly benefit every one of the hopefuls in the room was this: his passion and seriousness.

You could miss the seriousness because he was so funny but it was there. No screwing around; focus. Determination.

We in the tech business are easily distracted by the latest fad and acronym but clearly what counts isn’t just technical savvy but putting all things required to make it work together. Values, learning, passion, skills, you name, you’ve got to have it – and want to be good in it. It takes some serious work and concentration.

Passion glues it together. Not just wanting to ‘make it’ but actually wanting to do something great. Something valuable.

Bottom line for me was, testing and trying it out makes no sense. Dive in and do all you can; that’s what’s going to make the difference. A useful lesson indeed.

The elusive Twitter business plan

Could it be true? Twitter is working on a paid plan, say some. Almost hard to believe, given the overall consensus that Twitter is never going to make a dime.

You know how it is with consensus, though – as soon as people reach it, someone proves them wrong.

Given the questionable (based on mixed reviews) direction Facebook has taken, should we expect “premium treatment” to be given by Twitter to its paying subscribers? Such as the ability to “tweet” into your stream based on your profile, interests, and activity so far? So far we can only speculate.

One thing is certain: there is already a lot of commercial activity going on Twitter; I get followed by at least 2-3 consultants every day. Twitter has to introduce some kind of system into the game or else I’m afraid its service will become another stinking ad channel where 99% of all content is pure, unadulterated crap.