5.24.2014

It's an amazing new world


This morning I was set to leave for a trip to Florida with my family.  This is how the morning went.

My wife and I closed the door to our apartment, opened Uber on our phone, and ordered a cab within minutes right to our door. I could track the cab as it drove the six blocks to meet us, and the cab knew exactly where and which side of the street I was standing on. Magic moment #1.

Once we were in the cab and on the way to the airport I opened Google Now which told me our flight was on time, what gate it was at, and the weather at both my departing airport and in the city we are landing in. It also had a record of the flight reservation and hotel reservation. All of this information was provided proactively by extracting details from my email over the last few months. Magic moment #2.

Then when we arrived at the airport both my wife and I looked at our phones to see our boarding passes already available on our lock screens, courtesy of Apple Passbook. These instantly displayed because we were at the location and time our boarding passes were relevant. Magic moment #3.

All of these things were not possible, not even imaginable, just a few years ago. Every single part of my travel experience has gotten easier because of intelligent mobile technologies. It really is an amazing new world.

3.17.2014

Amazon Prime's price hike: when companies don't have your best interests at heart


Amazon announced this week that Amazon Prime would be seeing a price increase for the first time since its launch 9 years ago, from $79 to $99.

If the rising cost of shipping, and improved abilities to deliver next-day or even day-of are at the heart of that price increase, then it seems completely fair and customers will understand. But the question on the table is: how much is expenses related to Amazon Prime's core value proposition affecting the price increase, or instead is it the side ventures that Amazon is bundling in as "value-ad": Amazon Prime Instant Video and Kindle Owners' Lending Library.

In particular, Prime Instant Video, Amazon's Netflix and Hulu+ competitor, must be a significant cost for Amazon to continue to building out. Licensing content, especially platform exclusives, is an increasingly costly venture as bidding wars for the best content heat up. Additionally, Amazon is investing in Original Series of its own that it provides for free to Prime customers, which ads to the ledger.

Prime Instant Video, Lending Library and Original Series are all great value-ads, but I don't know many people who use any of the services regularly, and I haven't heard of anyone upset that they can't pay for them individually, instead of one of the competitors.  So if it turns out the expense of providing all of these "value ad" features to Prime customers, without giving them a chance to opt out and only receive free two day shopping, is driving the membership increase-- then how does it feel?

At some point, Amazon customers won't want to subsidize Amazon's efforts to enter new markets-- at least not without choice.

Marco Arment has an excellent blog post "Worse" about how Amazon and its tech peers are increasingly making decisions based on monopolistic interests, instead of customer interests:
This isn’t just an Amazon problem. In the last few years, Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have all made huge attempts to move into major parts of each others’ businesses, usually at the detriment of their customers or users. (How sad is it that Microsoft isn’t even in this list? They invented this move.)
These decisions are ones we all deal with as customers because we value the primary service enough, but we wish we didn't have to.  And it forces us to always be on the lookout for alternatives-- new products, new companies, that don't force us to accept those terms.  Think about the negative karma that companies have generated by forcing us to use Google+ instead of Google Reader, Apple Maps instead of Google Maps, Twitter photos instead of Instagram, etc.

I strongly believe sacrificing customer satisfaction to pursue monopolistic tendencies isn't a good long term strategy.  Especially if the product companies provide us as a replacement for their competitors is inferior.

1.05.2014

Four Progressions That Will Shape Internet + Technology Culture in 2014

As 2014 gets under way and we begin packing for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, its time to think about the advancements in internet and technology that could impact the way we all consume content and interact with each other. While we’re excited to see the latest in wearable technology, break-through high resolution TVs and connected electronics, the real game changers may not be device-specific at all. Instead, we’ll be thinking about the more subtle forces that could impact the future of marketing. Here are four progressions we see shaping internet + technology culture in 2014:

1. Public vs. Private Interaction 

In its early days, popular mobile messaging app Snapchat was heralded as a way for teens to send racy photos outside of the watchful eye of parents. But, as the audience grows in to the tens of millions, Snapchat is being recognized for what it is— the necessary outgrowth of years of “public” being the dominant value on the social internet. Sure, Snapchat’s photo-first messaging strategy is quick and fun to use, but its the freedom of impermanence that really drives the service in a way that can only be such a relief after understanding the exhaustion of the opposite.

It’s become clear that the drive towards openness is a symptom of a persistent Facebook-guided social media culture that has its limits and its repercussions. For many, it’s become tiresome thinking through the necessary polish and potential ramifications of sharing each piece of life content. Snapchat’s disappearing messages offer a way out — a way to engage with friends and family without thinking it through very hard, like you might in person. If that’s something we’re all yearning to return to, then Snapchat is just the beginning of a new wave of platforms and products that offers an alternative to the public eye.

2. In-depth vs. Snackable Content

In a year where Buzzfeed more than tripled its size, it seemed as if every publisher was rushing to emulate the magic formula by turning every article into lists, slideshows, animated gifs and Upworthy-esque headlines. The result is a web culture that in some ways feels like its one giant tabloid magazine for the attention-challenged generation— big, bold, suggestive headlines paired with flashy imagery in place of real depth or context. The snackable content format fits perfectly with the rapid-fire news stream that Twitter and Facebook has established. But like the gif-column, the news feed is a ride consumers may be starting to feel differently about.

 Just when it seemed blogging had been made extinct by 140 characters, new publishing platform Medium was conceived by the very same founder to provide a construct for people who want to write without distraction. Even more drastically, in December we saw the launch of The Information, a $400 / year online technology publication that promises just a few articles, on topics that deserve depth and dialogue. It may be time to start thinking differently about the content we create for consumers.

3. Open vs. Closed Infrastructure

The feature wars between Apple and Google, Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (etc.) have been well covered. But while everyone is focused on the land grab over a billion users messaging + photo + friend platform of choice, the bigger struggle developing may be over the destruction of the very fabric of the internet. The early days of social media were defined by openness— structures such as RSS feeds, open APIs and chat protocols. This early web infrastructure helped services grow and content spread in a collaborative, user-centric way that benefited all.

But in 2013 Google substituted its open Google Chat platform for its new proprietary Google+ Hangouts to compete with Apple iMessage, an equally closed messaging platform. Google also closed the RSS-powered Google Reader in hopes of making the silo’d Google+ the proprietary social news platform of choice instead of Facebook. Twitter notoriously reigned in its once public API to control its customer more tightly. The question is, will users be comfortable with these decisions as long as they are continually given new features, or will embracing the open internet begin to serve as a stand-out differentiator?

4. A La Carte vs. Bundled Video

Every time a cable network and broadcast company battled over carriage fees the cry for a la carte television becomes louder. The truth is a la carte is here, it’s just arriving through the back door of connected TVs and streaming video providers. In the last year, the arms race between Hulu, Amazon and Netflix has resulted in numerous water-cooler worthy original shows being created outside of the traditional broadcast model. The future is being defined by these new "channels", libraries of archive + original content a consumers wants to pay for at ~$8 a pop.

Unfortunately each library of content is silo’d in independent application gardens. Connected video systems like Apple TV require viewers to jump in and out of each ecosystem instead of easily navigating all of a user’s subscribed content in one menu, and may not even support each 3rd party “channel” as a competitive practice. We are in the golden age of television content, but managing your television has never been more difficult. This must be solved now, because a la carte will really be tested if the traditional networks and premium video providers like HBO start to disaggregate from the cable bundle as well.

Reference Links:
* This blog post was cross-published on the SS+K Blog

11.22.2013

Instagram Borders Are So 2012


From what I'm seeing, most people are not adding borders on their Instagram photos anymore.  Borders used to be basically standard-- part of the way we all looked to Instagram to make our less-than-spectacular mobile photos beautiful.

Now almost no one I follow regularly on Instagram uses them, or least uses them very rarely.  Why is that?  My guess:
  • we want the extra space to capture as much of our photograph moment as possible
  • "square" has become enough of a framing accent to a photo that borders often feel repetitive
  • borders have started to feel very generic + cheesy, exposing the repetitiveness of using the same stylized filters over and over
  • phone cameras keep getting better, so stylizing photos seems less and less necessary
That last point is interesting, because I'm even using filters less and less all together on Instagram photos.  Many of the filters can make a photo a bit grainier, less real.  Instagram is now the best place to share and enjoy photography as a whole, and and less a utility for making photos prettier.  It's replaced the camera on many people's iPhone screens.

I think these are pretty big and exciting developments in the Instagram ecosystem.  It's interesting to see, after all the bells and whistles, its the community that's most compelling.  And it contributes to Instagram's potential for longevity.

What does everyone else think?

10.31.2013

Why Auto-Expanded Images + Vines on Twitter is Bad News


This week Twitter rolled out a major change to the tweet stream:  auto-expanded photos and vines in users main feeds.  Now instead of having to click to expand the Twitter card to view some rich media content, a 437x218 px thumbnail will be clearly visible directly below the respective linking tweet.  The tweet stream change rolled out across web, iPhone and Android all at once.

While at first this might not seem like a big deal, auto-expanded content could have an immediately negative effect on user behavior:
  1. Auto-expanded images break the democracy of content in your tweet stream.
    Instead of scanning all content equally, users' eyes won't be able to avoid skipping to the next image. And instead of engaging with the most interesting content in their stream, users will be drawn to the most visually stimulating.  With Twitter prioritizing rich media over text, conversation and link sharing no longer has equal standing.  In other words, Twitter is on its way to becoming another Facebook or Instagram, instead of the maintaining its status as the world's quickest and most robust news feed.

    The effects of images in the tweet stream may not be immediately evident when everyone is just getting adjusted, but consider Facebook.  While much has been made over the years of Twitter's 140 character limit, the optimal post on Facebook is actually 80 characters or less.  With Facebook's emphasis on photo + video in the news feed, written text (even a minimal 140 characters text) can't compete for attention.  Is this what Twitter wants for its future?

    The auto expanded images and videos are also accompanied by now immediately visible reply + retweet + favorite buttons.  The buttons makes the tweet stream feel much busier and slower to scan than ever before.  This is most notable on the desktop, where as many as twenty or more buttons in repeating rows of four now clutter the page above the fold.

  2. Brands were just given a back door to banner advertising on the homepage.
    Brands invest a great deal of time, energy and money in building communities on Twitter and communicating with their followers on a regular basis.  Planning for auto-expanded images + vines will become an immediate best practice for brands that want to maximize message exposure and engagement. Many brands also have more human and capital resources to invest in creating imagery to accompany every post, which contributes to the uneven playing field in the tweet stream.

    This reality will be even more apparent when brand tweets are paired with Twitter's paid promoted tweets platform.  Promoted tweets are published "above the fold" in the first few tweet placements.  Promoting a tweet with an auto-expanded image will allow brands to serve up a prominent visual banner ad on the homepage of Twitter for the first time ever.

    It's important to note that while brands will (and should) take advantage of the new Twitter format, high quality + high value content will still be critically important.  This is reinforced in two ways: users being able to easily unfollow brands that clutter their tweet stream with noise, and Twitter's auction model that factors a brand's quality score into the cost of advertising.

  3. Two links and minimal text per post becomes the norm.  
    Since including images in posts will be required to attract viewers, images will now be included in posts even when the goal is to share a link to an article.  This is immediately becoming the standard for publishers, who are pairing image links with article links to draw attention to their articles.  Because Twitter requires 22 characters per link to wrap the link in their URL shortener, two links eats up 45 characters (including a space in-between) before any copy is even written.

    It's worth noting, as well, that the new auto-expanded images appears to break article preview Twitter cards.  So when publishers pair images with their article links to maximize attention in the tweet stream, they're prioritizing the new form of banner ad over the valuable content + context they were providing to their readers upfront, before the click.


  4. Twitter images + Vine videos get preferential treatment. 
    Ever since Instagram pulled support for Twitter cards, images that were uploaded directly to Twitter have been more visible on the platform than photos shared from their competitor.  However, while the Twitter cards imbalance was Instagram's choice, the new auto-expanded images feature now gives Twitter's own image format a distinct advantage over any other image hosting service.

    Now users can expect to see plenty of Instagram photos (and images created using other tools) downloaded and re-uploaded natively directly to Twitter's image platform.  Popular API hacking tool IFTTT already has a recipe for automating the process of porting a photo from Instagram over to Twitter images.  This will create fragmentation in engagement around the same content, duplicated across platforms.

    This home court advantage will likely help boost Vine's success, as well, which is critical as Instagram begins to roll out its own advertising format.  Branded video on Instagram, with its :15 second time limit, is expected to be incredibly popular with advertisers looking to bring video spots to the 150 million strong Instagram audience.  Auto-expanded vines paired with paid promoted tweets will be a powerful tool for Twitter to combat Instagram's new offering.
With Twitter's IPO just around the corner, auto-expanded Twitter images + vines may just be one of many big changes coming to the platform.  For the health of the platform and its long term potential, Twitter must think through the impact all of its design decisions will have on user behavior.  It also needs to evaluate clearly which values Twitter wants its platform to stand for.  Choices like auto-expanded rich media may seem small at first, but they could do more to disrupt the democracy + dialogue the platform has been known for than any other changes Twitter has made to date.

8.19.2013

Facebook Home, One Way Or Another

How Facebook for Android is a trojan horse for Facebook's larger ambitions.



You've got to wonder whether this strategy is written on the board somewhere prominently in Facebook's offices: do something extreme, make people uncomfortable, and then when it's been soundly rejected, take a step back and find a way to make it happen without anyone noticing.  Since the days of Beacon Facebook has done this time and time again.  Facebook introduces a major change that take invasion of privacy, lock-in and control to a whole new level, cause a crazy uproar. Then, when the uproar has subsided and nobody is paying attention anymore, Facebook finds a new, quieter way to accomplish the very same thing.  Even Facebook's stock price has taken that path, finally flirting with profitability after a tumultuous IPO.

The latest culprit of this bait and switch strategy? Facebook Home, Facebook's attempt to own our mobile operating system.

Facebook Home's launch may have been the company's biggest failure yet.  It was announced with great fanfare, with commercial partners, and with lofty claims about this not only being the greatest version of Facebook ever-- but a whole new way of experiencing mobile.  The problem was, though, Facebook Home took mobile lock-in to a whole new level by suppressing much of what people do on their phones a layer below Facebook's own features.  It also showed a complete misunderstanding of the motivations of many Android users.  The result was a minimal usage and HTC's Facebook Home phone being discounted to 99 cents within a month of going on sale.

But as we should know by now Facebook never gives up.  While almost no one is using Facebook Home, a tens of millions of people are using Facebook for Android.  And Facebook Android app, it turns out, is the perfect back door to introduce Facebook Home features away from the critical public eye.  First came Chat Heads, Facebook Home's clever and fun messaging platform.  Then came Cover Feed, Facebook Home's very attractive newsfeed screensaver.  Both features were introduced as opt-in options, and I've activated each as soon as they were available (note: as a Facebook for Android Beta tester, I sometimes receive updates earlier than the general public).

As it turns out, Facebook Home's best features are pretty great.  Chat Heads makes messaging much more accessible than ever before by elevating text messages above the Android application layer so you can send messages without having to leave what you're doing.  And Cover Feed makes turning on your phone a few hundred times a day much more interesting and enjoyable by introducing new photos and status updates from your friends in beautiful full bleed panning display that you can 'like' or comment on immediately, every time the lock screen appears.  My Facebook usage had waned considerably over the years, but since turning on Cover Feed I've browsed and interacted with Facebook at exponentially greater volumes.

One day with Cover Feed and you can see why Facebook wants this so badly.

Facebook turning its regular Android app into a trojan horse for Facebook Home features isn't going to solve all of its problems.  Cover Feed is great, and new features seem to be getting added regularly (just this week Facebook added support for audio controls in the lock-screen).  My biggest critique with Facebook Home when it first launched was its blatant disregard for 3rd party applications, which it needs to play nicely with if it wants to own more real estate on the phone.  I'm loving Cover Feed, but I'll be more likely to stick with it if I can integrate photo streams from other applications as well (first-up, how about Instagram support, which at the very least is part of Facebook's own family?).  And Facebook is still quietly working on Facebook Home, hoping to get it to a place where Android users consider it a compelling alternative to the stock operating system.

It's clear to me, though, whatever happens-- one way or another, we'll all be using a version of Facebook Home sooner or later, whether we realize it, like it, or not.

7.02.2013

Replacing Google Reader


Today is the first day us geekerati won't be powering our daily reading with Google Reader (at least those of us who still rely on RSS).  There were many of us who loved and relied heavily on Google Reader, and I wrote a story about how hard it is when a beloved product doesn't love you back.  But the question I'm being asked is, what are you doing now for RSS reading?

#1. Backing up my Google Reader data
Google has enabled us to export all sorts of data from Google Reader via its personal archive service Google Takeout, including a list of all of your RSS feed subscriptions, starred items, and more.  I exported my Google Reader data and stored it to Google Drive.  You only have until July 15th to do this, so get on it.

#2. Creating an account on Feedly
If you're a power RSS reader, you need an RSS reader that is flexible, personalizable and accessible on all of your devices.  Feedly is a good choice because it's an RSS reader in itself and has also built an API backend to replace Google Reader's 3rd party application community.  I am not in love with Feedly itself (it always seemed to pretty to me), but its leadership position in the RSS marketplace means it's dependable for all my needs.

#3. Transitioning my mobile applications
I do most of my RSS reading on my phone, and often underground in the subway.  I rely on power RSS reading apps that let you cache feeds to read offline, skim lots of content quickly, and sync data among other things.  I've opted for Reeder on iOS and Press on Android, both because they're the best in their respective marketplace and because they both sync cleanly to the Feedly cloud.

#4. Testing out new RSS products
While I'm relying primarily on Feedly, Reeder and Press right now, I'm also exploring other options.  The one I'm most excited about is Digg Reader, a very new product from the Betaworks team that is being developed with the power user in mind.  I love the synergistic social news ecosystem that Betaworks is developing with Digg, Digg Reader, Bit.ly and Instapaper.  They have a long way to go towards making this a reality, but I'm optimistic.  I'm also considering testing Feedbin and News Blur, two cross-platform RSS readers that have admirably put a stake in the ground for a paying business model that could help sustain them long term.

So that's my post Google Reader RSS plan right now.  What's yours?

Additional reading: A bittersweet goodbye to Google Reader, the online girlfriend who dumped me.

6.21.2013

But Do People Really Want Video on Instagram?


This afternoon Facebook held an event to announce video capture would finally be available to Instagram's 130 million users. The experience of creating a video is ripped right from Vine (touch and hold to record, lift your finger to pause), which is good because Vine was the first mobile video product to be welcomingly easy to use. Instagram video also has some interesting new bells and whistles that differentiate it from its video predecessors-- video stabilization, filters, and the ability to import content, to name a few. With Instagram video you certainly have the ability to create a more visually compelling product than ever before, in a way that feels very native to the Instagram experience. But I have to ask, after the initial excitement is over, will people really want that?

Part of the magic of Instagram is its innate ability to make any photo instantly attractive. It essentially created the idea of "one touch magic button" apps that is now a benchmark for how simple and powerful a mobile product should be. But while adding stabilization and a filter might make any video more attractive than it was to start with, it does not in itself make every video interesting enough to spend 15 seconds with. In fact, applying the promise of Instagram magic to video content might even make viewers more upset when they stop flipping through beautiful photos long enough to watch.

That's my biggest concern with Instagram video. It's great that Instagram has developed such amazing tools to make regular video better looking. But if the Instagram community starts being bogged down by :15 second videos that would have been a lot more interesting and native to the experience as photos, it will make spending time in Instagram a lot more weighty. Almost like your friends ran a :15 second ad in the middle of your beautiful photo stream. I'm already feeling this in the first day-- browsing the feed is slower, and it's more complicated to discover new interesting content in the "Explore" tab. Myself and many others open Instagram countless times a day to briefly scan through the latest photos for a moment break and smile. A steady stream of sub-par video will make that a bigger lift, and less enjoyable.

Now how does this all compare to Vine? Vine has been so successful because if provides the right balance of capability and confinement. In 6 seconds people can be as creative as they want to be (and there's been some truly impressive Vine art). But 6 seconds also limits uninteresting content in a way that doesn't disrupt the flow of scanning content that is necessary in social platforms like these. Vine's limitations somehow lower the bar for what video content has to achieve to be compelling, and that's what so differentiating and impressive about it. It's also established itself for what it is-- browsing the Vine stream you get exactly the experience you're looking for. Wouldn't it be strange if people could suddenly start taking pictures with their Vine app?

So while I'm very impressed with the video product that Instagram has put together, and I'll probably even use it every once in a while, I don't think it's going to be the market disrupter that Instagram originally was. I don't think it's going to be the magic bullet to make ammateur video instantly more proliffic and compelling than before. And I do actually think one of two things will happen-- people will not use it all that often, or Instagram will add some sort of view filter that lets people browse only photos if they want to, to preserve the amazing experience they've been cultivating since their launch. And Vine, and other single-purpose apps, will continue to flourish despite Facebook's relentless attempt to take the whole cake.

At least I hope so.

Disclaimer: The SS+K Lab that I co-founded built the popular Vine search engine VineViewer and has previously built applications for Instagram, as well. We love both equally :)