Monthly Archive for July, 2009

How to create engaging presentations

Last Tuesday, I spoke at Bootup Camp, an initiative run by my good friends Bart Jellema and Kim Chen at Tjoos. Four teams worked for 14 days from 9am to 9pm to conceive, build and launch a business. Speakers came in every day to give advice, and I give my insights into communications, human nature and generating an emotional connection with an audience.

I’m cringing, but people that didn’t attend did ask me to share the videos when I got word. So here it is – enjoy!

An invention that could transform online privacy and media

The University of Washington announced today of an invention that allows digital information to expire and “self-destruct”. After a set time period, electronic communications such as e-mail, Facebook posts, word documents, and chat messages would automatically be deleted and becoming irretrievable. Not even the sender will be able the retrieve them, and any copy of the message (like backup tapes) will also have the information unavilable.

GmailEncapsulated

Vanish is designed to give people control over the lifetime of personal data stored on the web or in the cloud. All copies of Vanish encrypted data — even archived or cached copies — will become permanently unreadable at a specific time, without any action on the part of a person, third party or centralised service.

As the New York Times notes, the technology of being able to destruct digital data is nothing new. However this particular implementation uses a novel way that combines a time limit and more uniquely, peer-to-peer file sharing that degrades a “key” over time. Its been made available as open source on the Mozilla Firefox browser. Details of the technical implementation can be found on the team’s press release, which includes a demo video.

FacebookEncapsulated

Implications
Advances like this could have a huge impact on the world, from controlling unauthorised assess to information to reinforcing content-creators copyright. Scenario’s where this technology could benefit

  • Content. As I’ve argued in the past, news derives its value from how quickly it can be accessed. However, legacy news items can also have value as an archive. By controlling the distribution of unique content like news, publishers have a way of controlling usage of their product – so that they can subsequently monetise the news if used for a different purpose (ie, companies researching the past for information as opposed to being informed by the latest news for day to day decision making)
  • Identity. Over at the DataPortability Project, we are in the finishing touches of creating our conceptial overview for a standard set of EULA and ToS that companies can adopt. This means, having companies respect your rights to your personal information in a standardised way – think how the Creative Commons has done for your content creations. An important conceptual decision we made, is that a person should have the right to delete their personal information and content – as true portability of your data is more than just reusing it in a different content. Technologies like this allow consumers to control their personal information, despite the fact they may not have possession, as their data resides in the cloud.
  • Security. Communications between people is so that we can inform each other in the ‘now’. This new world with the Internet capturing all of our conversations (such as chat logs and emails threads) is having us lose control of our privacy. The ability to have chat transcripts and email discussions automatically expire is a big step forward. Better still, if a company’s internal documents are leaked (as was the case with Twitter recently), it can rely on more avenues to limit damage beyond using the court system that would issue injunctions.

GoogleDocsEncapsulated

There’s a lot more work to be performed on technologies like this. Implementation issues aside, the inline encryption of the information doesn’t make this look sexy. But with a few user interface tweaks, it gives us a strong insight into real solutions for present day problems with the digital age. Even if we simply get companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft ad Yahoo to agree on a common standard, it will transform the online world dramatically.

The information age is still filling up its rocket with fuel

Today, the Wall Street Journal published an article by a fund manager who suggested the Internet is now dead in terms of high growth. While I can respect the argument from the financial point of view (although he’s still wrong), it also shows how widespread and unsuspecting even the educated are for the transformation the Internet is preparing us. Yes, ladies and gentlemen – we ain’t seen nothing yet.

But I won’t get into the trends right now that are banging around my head, making me willing to change careers, country and life to position myself for the future opportunities. Let’s instead start with his core thesis:

The days of infinite margins, 1,000% productivity gains, and growth of market throughout the universe are long over. Internet companies now should be treated, at best, like utility companies that get bought at about 10 times earnings and sold at 13 times earnings. Even then, I’m not sure I would give the Internet sector the same respect as the monopoly-protected utility sector.

I am glad that was said, because this is more of a world-wide problem we have, that has lead us into the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The ridiculous false economy generated over decades of speculative growth – where fundamental asset values were supported by unreal cash – is something we need to stop. The best thing the GFC has taught us, is that valuations need to be supported by independent cash flows with markets not manipulated to inflate their true value. And I can’t wait to see the technology sector (who along with their partners in crime in banking and property) use some basic accounting skills, and come to the rude awakening that, in the real world, that’s how things roll.

Where he is wrong however, is in the innovation that is creating new ways of generating revenue. More importantly, what we are seeing is a stabilisation in technologies invented half a century ago. The Internet and hypertext (the web is an implementation of a hyptertext system) have all been in development for 50 years – and it’s only *now* that we are coming to grips with the change. So to say this is a fad that’s now over, is really ignoring the longer term trends occurring.

As identified in the article, the biotech market will be massive, but I was told by the head of the PwC Technology park Bo Parker in March 2009 that it’s only just resembling Information Technology in the 1970s. However, when in comes to information, things are ramping up for a lot more as the industry has had a lot more time to evolve.

Where do I see things going? Oh man, let’s get a beer and talk about it. Data portability, Semantic Web, VRM, Project Natal, the sixth sense, augmented reality – try that to get your imagination started. I call it the age of ubiquity: ubiqitous connectivity, ubiqitous computing, ubiqitous information – where we have those separate things accessible anywhere and everywhere and when combined will change our lives. Information and communications, after all, are a fundamental aspect of being human that underlie everything we do – and so its impact will be more broadly applicable, obvious, and transformative.

Where’s the money in that? Are you kidding me?! The question is not how many dollars these changes can generate, but how many new industries will they spawn. We seriously don’t know what’s about to hit us in the next two decades for information technology, and clearly, neither do the Fund Managers.

The business model of API’s

Application Programming Interfaces – better known in the technology industry as API’s – have come out as one of the most significant innovations in information technology. What at first appears a geeky technical technique for developers to play with, is now evolving into something that will underpin our very society (assuming you accept information has, is, and will be the the crux of our society). This post explores the API and what it means for business.

API are cool

What is it?
In very simple terms, an API is a set of instructions a service declares, that outsiders can use to interact with it. Google Maps has one of the most popular API’s on the Internet and provides a good example of their power. Google hosts terabytes of data relating to its mapping technology, and it allows developers not affiliated with Google to build applications on top of Google’s. For example, thousands of websites like the NYTimes.com have integrated Google’s technology to enhance their own.

An example more familiar with ordinary consumers would be Facebook applications. Facebook allows developers through an API to create ‘apps’ that have become one of the main sources of entertainment on Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site. Facebook’s API determines how developers can build apps that interact with Facebook and what commands they need to specify in order to pull out people’s data stored in Facebook. It’s a bit like a McDonald’s franchise – you are allowed to use McDonald’s branding, equipment and supplies, so long as you follow the rules in being a franchisee.

API’s have become the centre of the mashup culture permeating the web. Different websites can interact with each other – using each others technology and data – to create innovative products.

API photo visualisation

What incentive do companies have in releasing an API?
That’s the interesting question that I want to explore here. It’s still early days in the world of API’s, and a lot of companies seem to offer them for free – which seems counter-intuitive. But on closer inspection, it might not. Free or not, web businesses can create opportunity.

Free doesn’t mean losing
An API that’s free has the ability to generate real economic value for a new web service. For example, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has become a very real factor in business success now. Becoming the top result for the major search engines generates free marketing for new and established businesses.

In order for companies to boost their SEO rankings, one of the things they need to do is have a lot of other websites pointing links at them. And therein flags the value of an open API. By allowing other people to interact with your service and requiring some sort of attribution, it enables a business to boost their SEO dramatically.

Scarcity is how you generate value
One of the fundamental laws of economics, is that to create value, you need something to be scarce. (That’s why cash is tightly controlled by governments.) Twitter, the world’s most popular micro-blogging service, is famous for the applications that have been built on their API (with over 11,000 apps registered). And earlier this year, they really got some people’s knickers in a knot when they decided to limit usage of the API.

Which is my eyes was sheer brilliance by the team at Twitter.

Crumped up cash note

By making their API free, they’ve had hundreds of businesses build on top of it. Once popular, they could never just shut the API off and start charging access for it – but by introducing some scarcity, they’ve done two very important things: they are managing expectations for the future ability to charge additional access to the API and secondly, they are creating the ability to generate a market.

The first point is better known in the industry as the Freemium model. Its become one of the most popular and innovative revenue models in the last decade on the Internet. One where it’s free for people to use a service, but they need to pay for the premium features. Companies get you hooked on the free stuff, and then make you want the upgrade.

The second point I raised about Twitter creating a market, is because they created an opportunity similar to the mass media approach. If an application dependent on the API needs better access to the data, they will need to pay for that access. Or why not pay someone else for the results they want?

Imagine several Twitter applications that every day calculate a metric – that eats their daily quota like no tomorrow – but given it’s a repetitive standard task, doesn’t require everyone having to do it. If the one application of say a dozen could generate the results, they could then sell it to the other 11 companies that want the same output. Or perhaps, Twitter could monitor applications generating the same requests and sell the results in bulk.

That’s the mass media model: write once, distribute to many. And sure, developers can use up their credits within the limit…or they can instead pay $x per day to get the equivalent information pre-mapped out. By limiting the API, you create an economy based on requests (where value comes through scarcity) – either pay a premium API which gives high-end shops more flexibility or pay for shortcuts to pre-generated information.

API diagram

API’s are part of the information value chain
An economic concept I proposed a year ago (and am going to revise over the coming year with some fresh thought) is called the Information Value Chain. It takes an established economic theory that has dictated business in the industrial age, and applies it in the context of businesses that create products in information or computing utility.

With reference to my model, the API offers the ability for a company to specialise at one stage of the value chain. The processing of data can be a very intensive task, and require computational resources or raw human effort (like a librarian’s taxonomy skills). Once this data is processed, a company can sell that output to other companies, who will generate information and knowledge that they in turn can sell.

I think this is one of the most promising opportunities for the newspaper industry. The New York Times last year announced a set of API’s (their first one being campaign finance data), that allows people to access data about a variety of issues. Developers can then query this API, and generate unique information. It’s an interesting move, because it’s the computer scientists that might have found a future career path for journalists.

Journalists skills in accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively is being threatened with the democratisation of information that’s occurred due to the Internet. But what the NY Times API reflects, is a new way of creating value – and it’s taking more of a librarian approach. Rather than journalism become story-centric, their future may be one where it is data based, which is a lot more exciting than it sounds. Journalists yesterday were the custodians of information, and they can evolve that role to one of data instead. (Different data objects connected together, by definition, is what creates information.)

A private version of the semantic web and a solution for data portability
The semantic web is a vision by the inventor of the World Wide Web, which if fully implemented, will make the advances of the Internet today look like prehistory. (I’ve written about the semantic web before to give those new to the subject or skeptical.) But for those that do know of it, you probably are aware of one problem and less aware of another.

The obvious problem is that it’s taking a hell of a long time to see the semantic web happen. The not so obvious problem, is that it’s pushing for all data and information to be public. The advocacy of open data has merit, but by constantly pushing this line, it gives no incentive for companies to participate. Certainly, in the world of data portability, the issue of public availability of your identity information is scary stuff for consumers.

Enter the API.

API’s offer the ability for companies to release data they have generated in a controlled way. It can create interoperability between different services in the same way the semantic web vision ultimately wants things to be, but because it’s controlled, can overcome this barrier that all data needs to be open and freely accessible.

Concluding thoughts
This post only touches on the subject. But it hopefully makes you realise the opportunities created by this technology advance. It can help create value without needing to outlay cash; new monetisation opportunities for business; additional value in society due to specialisation; and the ability to bootstrap the more significant trends in the Web’s evolution.

Rethinking copyright and its scope creep

Modern copyright has been influenced by an array of older legal rights that have been recognised throughout history, whose legacy development may be harming our future. It traditionally protected the moral rights of the author who created a work, the economic rights of a benefactor who paid to have a copy made, the property rights of the individual owner of a copy, and a sovereign’s right to censor and to regulate the printing industry. I’m not going to say copyright is dead, but perhaps now irrelevant, given the evolution of media. As I’ve argued before, access to information is more valuable than ownership and modern copyright law doesn’t recognise this fully.
Is copyright a little fuzzy?

Rethinking media
Media, content, and other related words essentially are words that reflect human expression. When you read a book or a newspaper article, it’s another human being expressing something to you. That expression in turn, generates an experience for you – such as (but not limited to) interpretation, entertainment and reflection. You can’t “capture” media and lock it in a jar – you can only remember it. No one can own the individual words in a body of text because no one owns a language. But that power of provoking emotions in other people is powerful and outright scary if you truly realise the power.

We are now seeing a dramatic evolution in the media landscape. The disruptive influence, of what was called “user generated content” yesterday and now called “social media”, is making us rethink the media in our world. The thing is, it’s the same thing as any media – it’s human beings expressing themselves. The only difference now, is that the means of that expression has changed – less so technologically and more so the actual process – to one that is many-to-many.
This image is copyrighted

Rethinking value
Social media is about discussions rather than broadcasts. It’s about the producer and consumer of the information interacting. Everyone has an opportunity to respond to my blog post here, and sometimes I respond. Other times I don’t, but that doesn’t matter because it still impacts me and future readers of my blog post with an alternative perspective.

What we are seeing now is a move way from the mass production of media, and a growth in the mass socialisation of media. It’s not about how many people you can push your content to, but how engaging your content can be. The economic models supporting content are still evolving, but it’s engagement that pays the bills. An engaged reader will be more receptive to advertising (which is increasingly important as advertising performance is now more accountable) and for the subscription model of content, engagement is what retains a customer. To retain a readership, you need compelling content.

However this old media adage about compelling content is changing. The socialisation of content isn’t just about pushing content, as insomuch discussing it. It’s about building a community of people that are passionate and interested: an expertise network where value comes from being in the same place as others that are like-minded. An example of this can be see with Read Write Web, who have created an exclusive community manager community. GigaOM, another innovator in the media space, has done the same thing for premium content that runs in parallel with its popular (free) blogs. Compelling content is now about building compelling communities. Copyright works well for static objects – but not so much for people interacting freely.
RWW aggregator

Rethinking copyright
This is a complex subject and I by no means am being definitive here. But I simply want to raise a question of what really is the value of copyright? If content is an expression that generates an experience in a human, then specific types of expression need specific treatment. And if compelling communities are now a new form of engaging with content, requiring a lock down on the content produced may actually hurt value. As another form of content, news has value in its immediacy and is useless a day later as the news is constantly evolving. There’s no value of copyright there as ‘time’ is where news derives its value from – not long-term protection.

Should copyright be dead? No, that’s not what I am arguing – rather, it needs a rethink of what exactly it’s protecting, with its scope reduced. Like a parent protecting a child, if you protect them too much, they might never actually experience life, be happy and potentially ignorant to future dangers – which is what a parent is ultimately responsible for. The aggressive remarks of newspaper executives I’ve heard in the last month about being more aggressive in their copyright may not be the right solution. Protection of assets is valuable only when it enhances future value.

Let’s be careful we not lose sight of what we are protecting and why.
Copyright is for losers