July 31, 2012

Another Bureaucratic Failure

We can all enjoy a bit schadenfreude at Microsoft's expense. But it's sad to see a more noble organisation, the W3C, brought down too.

Still, the rule is simple : workings programs trump abstract "standards" any day. And the realpolitik is that if you have programs to execute something, you (may) have the (makings of) a de facto standard. If you don't, you don't have any kind of standard at all.

Ultimately the blog post gets it right. We're better off with a W3C that retrospectively "officialises" existing de facto standards that the browser makers are innovating, rather than tries to think up standards itself. 

July 23, 2012

New Yahoo?

I suppose I should have an opinion on Yahoo bringing in Marissa Mayer to rescue it from (popular and profitable) non-entity.

Frankly I have no real insight. But here's the golden rule. You can't be a great technology company and a great media / content company at the same time. (Unless you are Nintendo, and then you're really just a great media company that understands technology well enough not to let it get the upper hand.)

Yahoo has, for as long as it's worth anyone remembering, been a media company. In fact it's been an OK media company, with lots of traffic and a respectable profit. It's been run as a media company, by media people. And its only real problem is that it's been judged and found wanting against the tech. giants of our age.

So, it's never cared about its geeks. It dabbles with technology in only a lacklustre way. And it's squandered some really great tech. acquisitions.

But suddenly, it wants to be a tech. company after all???

How is that going to work? Can Mayer do a 180 degree turn? Re-inspire the geeks who already work there? Bring in more talent? What will happen to all the media people? How will Mayer manage to keep them happy if she explicitly tries to turn Yahoo into a tech. culture? Or, will she fire them (as Marc Andreesen advises)? Done badly, this could be a disaster, with Yahoo ripping itself to pieces as it tries to slam into reverse.

Alternatively, if Mayer is really clever, she may figure out how to keep running Yahoo as a media company while doing something exciting with it. Like Nintendo, Yahoo *could* become a media company that understands technology well enough to use it properly.

Here are a few random ideas :

1) Yahoo is nowhere in mobile. It's never going to own a platform, a crucial service or make extraordinary hardware. Give it up. Yahoo mobile apps are simply a necessary cost of keeping its media channels in play.

BUT Yahoo, as a brand, *does* have a chance with TV. None of the tech. giants have successfully colonised TV yet. It's still an open field. Yahoo's brand, content, sales-force and in-house media know-how give it a shot at the smart TV market. It's not clear what plans Yahoo have for smart TV. Do they have an OS for it? Well, if not, here's a thought : partner with Ubuntu who do have a slick and robust operating system and interface for TV but are unlikely to make much headway with it by themselves.  A combination of Ubuntu's technological maturity with Yahoo's brand and audience (including its sports channel, partnerships with gaming companies etc.) could make up a compelling package for third-party TV manufacturers.

Seriously. No-one in the world really wants a "Google TV" or a "Microsoft TV". These brands have no connection with what anyone thinks of when they think of TV. The Yahoo brand has a great advantage here because people do recognise it as a *content* brand. A news, sport, entertainment portal. Which is what smart TV is aspiring to become.

2)  AOL made a play to be a great web media company in its acquisitions of Weblogs Inc., TechCrunch and The Huffington Post. Much has gone wrong, and some of the biggest and smartest personalities have left. Did that signal the idea was fundamentally flawed or just that the chemistry didn't work out that time? Might it be worth, for example, Yahoo buying Mahalo to bring Jason Calacanis into the fold?

3) More than that, online education is an area which is continuing to grow. Yahoo Answers is a massively popular site. But compared to Stack Overflow or Quora is looking decidedly old and unloved. What could Answers become if paired with Mahalo and put under Calacanis's influence and ambition?

(Aside : I would have suggested Yahoo go for Instructables too, but I just discovered that they were bought by Autodesk : a move I consider very sensible. That leaves another cute Squid-Labs offshoot : HowToons that could work in a Yahoo context.)

4) Perhaps what Yahoo! needs is a big statement. Something cool. Hardware, because hardware is what makes big statements. Apple had the iPhone. Microsoft had Kinect. Google is going with the glasses. Yahoo have the money to buy themselves into this game. So what about Parrot? Drones are coming, and Parrot have the leading consumer drone platform. AR Drones would get Yahoo into robotics. Into augmented reality. Would give it a noteworthy gaming / entertainment platform. Would inspire geek lust. Etc. And Parrot + a successful push into TV would open up an interesting home automation front.

5) Many people have commented on the sad decline of Flickr under Yahoo. Not sure there's much more to say, except, I'm very surprised that Flickr is not better represented on the Yahoo home-page. The Flickr blog has some wonderful pictures. I'm not sure why Yahoo don't promote Flickr and Flickr photographers on its front page.

6) OK. Showing my prejudice here. The only Yahoo service I actually use is Pipes. It's good, but again, its potential feels underdeveloped.

So let's be bold for a second. Pipes is the great, philosophical, something-or-other of our age. The shift we think of from web 1.0 to web 2.0. The move to social. To apps. The coming of Netocracy. These are all, fundamentally, about the shift from managing stocks to managing flows. Most people are now drowning in the deluge that floods through Twitter, G+ and the Facebook Wall. Even Email has never really been conquered. We are *desperate* for tools to manage our flows. And Pipes, one of Yahoo's nerdiest, most out-of-place, quirks of a service is potentially the solution. If it can, paradoxically, be both professionalised and made usable by the wider base of Yahoo members.

How could Pipes be professionalised?

a) The UI is cute. But programmers are never going to work in that kind of environment. Pipes should offer a plain text alternative. A simple, "little language" to define and edit piping networks. Have an editor in the browser. Allow the scripts to be accessed via Git (and so shared on GitHub). Provide syntax colourers for popular offline editors like Eclipse and Emacs. Make sure programmers can think of Pipes as quick to write and convenient to work with.

b) Pipes should be fast, and a cloud service. By which I mean, it should be possible to host a Piping network on a fast server and pay for it. Like Amazon AWS and Google App. Engine.

c) Pipes should talk to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Status.net, Yammer, RSSCloud. Maybe even AMQP.

d) Most important though, Pipes should be integrated with Yahoo mail. You should be able to use it, inside Yahoo mail to filter your incoming messages, send auto-replies, create alerts and summaries etc.

e) You should be able to embed a Pipes network within an external site. In fact, it should be possible for a third-party to build a product such as RSSGraffiti on top of Pipes. And build it in an afternoon.

At the same time, how can Pipes be made more accessible?

a) The most popular rival to Pipes is probably http://ifttt.com/wtf . If I was running the Yahoo Pipes strategy I'd look seriously at whether we could buy it or hire its people. At the very least we'd be pitching Pipes as a rival to it and offering similar functionality on the same engine.

b) Remember the push into education I suggested? Pipes could gain a more child-friendly UI putting it in competition with MIT Scratch and Google Blockly. Promoted in a "learn to program" course, via Yahoo's own kids / study zone it could gain some traction in schools.

Does the data-flow model of Pipes lend itself to more general programming tasks? Sure if you look at the use of Max/MSP and PD for music or VVVV for graphics. And, I'd argue that, building piping networks is likely to be an increasingly important metaphor for programming in the worlds of the cloud and device swarm.

Imagine, for a second, Yahoo teaching kids to create their own VVVV-style eye-candy on large-screen Yahoo branded TVs through a Pipes-like UI as taught by a series of lessons on the study zone. Imagine those skills then being useful for mashing up websites, business process modelling, etc.

c) An iPad app. Multi-touch is a great interface to compose piping networks.

7) Here is an outstanding question I'm trying to make up my mind about. Does Yahoo need its own browser? A long time ago I thought it absurd that Microsoft wasted its money and energy on a browser, when the future belonged to web-standards. More recently we've seen how important it is for would-be giants to have their own browsers. They give you the chance to push web-standards the way you'd like them to go. Or at least vote for the tentative standards you'd really like to see. Of course, a Yahoo browser would be most likely built on WebKit, just as Apple's and Google's are. But it might still be worth having. 

Update : Bill Seitz comments : http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/z2012-07-16-MayerNewYahooCeo

July 08, 2012

Mozilla Deprecates ThunderBird

Mozilla is cutting development on ThunderBird.

And where's Chandler when you need it?

Seriously though, it's probably an inevitable move from Mozilla. Desktop email clients that look like Outlook are a legacy product. And Mozilla has to husband its scarce resources very carefully these days.

Though, actually, there are two bold and exciting moves that someone *could* make with email clients.

1) Scrap the desktop GUI and write your new UI in the browser with the standards of  HTML / CSS / Javascript (or CoffeeScript). I'm not saying that TB should move to being "webmail". Keep TB as an installed client on your local computer. But use the browser as its front-end.

Going forward, that would be cheaper to maintain, more fun, and make it easier to follow the slickness of things like GMail.

2)  Upgrade TB to be a more general communication client talking Twitter, Jabber and FB too.  Start to do what GMail is doing : integrate emails into the general stream of other media. Everyone wants a way to post things via multiple channels. If email clients don't evolve to talk these other protocols, some other messaging client will expand to swallow email. (As FB are threatening to at the moment.)