Phil Sim

Web, media, PR and… footy

Why doesn’t any one want to buy Skype?

It’s kind of hard to fathom that the only way for eBay to get rid of Skype is to go the IPO route. After all nobody is going IPO right now because the market is in such a hole, and while its not talking of doing anything until 2010, even then its unlikely that the market would be all that shapely for an IPO like Skype.

Surely you might think there would be a host of companies lining up to take Skype off eBay’s hands.

Skype is a clear leader in the VoIP stakes and thats going to be a key battleground for online dominance in the future. It seems clear that technologies like IM/VoiP/video conferencing and mobile will converge and whoever has Skype would have a dramatic advantage on this front.

I was one of the millions who downloaded the Skype iPhone application and I have no doubt its a game-changer. I now use Skype on the iPhone more than I use our landline. Indeed, I’m now seriously considering a move to naked DSL. Once the 3.0 version of iPhone comes out and Skype makes use of the push functionality to enable you to receive Skype calls on your mobile without having the app open, then thats going to increase its value measurably again.

eBay thinks Skype can make it as a stand-alone business but I’m sure its value could be increased dramatically if one of the big IM vendors had ownership of it and integrated it into their IM client. So what’s stopping them?

For me Google would be the natural fit – they haven’t had a huge amount of success getting GTalk to catch up with Yahoo and Microsoft’s messenger but if you combined their base with the Skype base you’d certainly have a much bigger number and one that would be pretty dominant in the business space. If you tied in the cool technology that Google acquired through Grandcentral then Google would pretty much overnight be a commanding leader in this consumer converged IP communications space.

But it appears Google thinks it can go it alone in this space. It probably thinks Grancentral, now Google Voice, is a home-run and that it doesn’t need to fork out a couple of billion for Skype. However, I think this is such an important space – and one that is generating immediate returns – that I’d certainly be tempted to get as much critical mass as quickly as I could if I was running Google. I’m guessing though the technology integration issues here would be massive and that might be the real killer on this potential deal.

Skype would be a great buy for Microsoft. Microsoft IM does much better with the youth market while Skype is more of a business tool so there wouldn’t be much overlap. And if you could turn even a small proportion of that Microsoft IM into paying Skype users, you’d very quickly increase Skypes revenues. But Microsoft probably can’t go down that path due to the very tight-knit relationships it has built with telcos all over the world. Here in Australia, for example, it has a very close relationship with our dominant telco, Telstra, who I’m sure would get very worried if Microsoft was to buy Skype.

Which leaves Yahoo! Again, I reckon its a good fit for many of the same reasons as I described with Microsoft and there’s no obvious conflict there. Indeed, it would be a good non-advertising revenue stream which Yahoo! could really do with to make it less susceptible to the ups and downs of the advertising market. There was a lot of talk about a Yahoo! and Skype merger prior to them ending up with eBay. But that was when Yahoo! was a lot stronger than it is today and Yahoo! has quite sensibly tried to get back to concentrating on its core business. Mind you, you might argue that Yahoo!IM is a key element of its core business. I somehow doubt Wall Street would appreciate the play and there is more news of Yahoo! cutbacks over at the New York Times.

Whatever the case, its clear that there are significant road blocks stopping Google, Yahoo! or Microsoft from making a play for Skype.

Which doesn’t leave a lot of buyers, does it? Outside of these three its hard to see where there are any obvious synergies and you’d think anyone else acquiring the company would just lead to the eBay situation all over again. The WSJ expressed some scepticism that Skype would make it to IPO and that this was just a cover for eBay to push up the price. But when you look at it, eBay just doesn’t have that many options.

Personally, I don’t think Skype will make it as a stand-alone in the same way that ICQ never made it despite being the dominant IM client at one time. In the end, the marketing might of those same companies that are shunning it right now will probably overwhelm it. Skype has competitors coming at it from all angles as well, with telcos and VoIP companies all battling for this same market share. These dangers are pretty obvious and I really can’t see the market coughing up the multi-million dollar valuations that have been splashed around in the past 24 hours.


Filed under: AJAX Challenge

Big fat pipe good. Same old international bottleneck bad.

For years, as a technology journalist I would bleat about Australia being a bandwidth backwater and how we needed fibre-to-the-home for our digital economy to stay competitive with the rest of the world.

Yet now it’s actually happening, I’m finding myself basically saying: “meh”.

Let’s face it ADSL+2 is pretty damn fast. Next G wireless is even pretty bloody good. I don’t feel myself wishing for faster broadband all that often.

I do, however, find myself wishing for more of it. I use ALOT more high bandwidth internet services. I don’t even use Bittorrent and I was shaped on my 25Gb plan last month. That’s the biggest problem we have in Australia. It’s not speed, its download limits. Because when you’re worried about being shaped or having to pay exhorbitant excess useage fees, you don’t use the Internet to its fullest. You don’t just automatically click that video link, you wonder if its worth sucking up another 50Mb of your cap. You start to freak out that your kids have been sitting at the computer for a worrying amount of time watching YouTube.

Will Fibre-to-the-home mean unlimited broadband finally in Australia? I’m not sure. Correct me if I’m wrong but the reason we’re stuck with download limits is primarily because of the high cost of international carriage, getting data from Australia and through the undersea cables to overseas destinations. The fibre-to-the-home plan isn’t going to solve that bottleneck. So what’s the point if I can stream video to my home at 100Mbps if I’m still counting bits because of download limits.

That aside, my other reason for the ‘meh’ attitude is I’m yet to be convinced that as a country we will really leverage all of this bandwidth. As some of the industry groups have promoted, the announcement needs to be accompanied by a broader strategy for generating a return on investment by what is enabled and how it is leveraged. Is a big fat network enough to kickstart a thriving digital industry capable of exporting services and products. No. Can a big fat network lead to its use to power far more effective e-government. Yes. Will it? Probably not.

Yes, the national broadband network will enable some pretty cool digital entertainment services – most of which we’ll simply repackage from the US. But I’m struggling to get excited because I can’t see how else my nation or my own lifestyle is really going to be enhanced. So like I said, meh.

BTW, was quite surprised at the amount of international coverage the announcement got including Australia Launches Broadband Network Plan,  Australia to build $31 billion fiberoptic broadband networkAustralia to build $30 bln broadband network and Australia to build $31 billion broadband network.

Filed under: AJAX Challenge

Back to Firefox and then back again

When it comes to browsers, I’m a performance junkie. So when I recently tested the new Firefox 3.1 beta (soon to be known as 3.5) and I found that on our MediaConnect platform it was performing even better than Chrome, I decided to make the switch. This was helped in some part by the fact that I also stumbled onto the ChromiFox extension, which meant I could keep the Chrome look and feel – including tabs on top – but still be able to make use of the Firefox extensions I’d been forced to give up.

Tonight,  I’ve tested out the new Beta version of Chrome and I’m back. I think I was gone for a full 48  hours. Admittedly, I may have come back anyway as I discovered Firefox 3.1 had a pretty major problem in not recognising Gears. But the beta Chrome is definitely faster than the stable version. And interestingly, I found there were a number of things I missed about Chrome while I was away lile the Home page and my Application Shortcuts.

What all this underline though is the tremendous level of competition and innovation we’re seeing at the browser level now. I’ve tried three new browser versions in the last couple of weeks – the new Safari and the Firefox and Chrome betas – and they’re all fabulous! You really can’t go wrong with any of them. All we need now is for Microsoft to catch up! With IE8 ready to come out of beta, I’m hoping once they have a stable platform they can really focus on performance and get back in the race with the other browsers out there.

We’re going to see some amazing apps built off the back of these new web platforms.

Filed under: AJAX Challenge

Behavioural advertising should reward niche sites

Google’s announcement that it is finally jumping into behavioural advertising or what it is calling “interested based” advertising is going to be a revolution.

Well, it will be for big, mainstream sites. Your big portals will now be able to serve up content that is just as relevant to reader’s interests as your niche portals, which to date have tended to receive higher CPMs than general portals. General portals should be able to significantly lift their CPMs and advertising returns because they will be able to serve up far more relevant content to their users.

However, I can’t see how this isn’t going to suck for niche content providers. So let’s take my blog. At the moment, if you’re interested in reaching Parramatta Eels fans then there are only a couple of sites on the web where you can go to advertise to reach those people. Mine is one of them. So there is a pretty good chance if there is an advertiser out there who is of interest to one of my readers, they’re going to see the ad on my site and click through on my site. I’m therefore rewarded for delivering that niche content to that user.

However, if Google learns that my reader is interested in the Parramatta Eels and then everytime that user visits one of the big portals where they are likely to spend more of their time, chances are their going to see that content elsewhere first so by the time they get to my site, they’re far less likely to click through on the ad. I get zero reward for that.

What I think Google needs to do to make that equitable is to also reward the sites that the user visits to make the decision as to what ad it should show. So when my user visits and based on the fact they previously went to they serve an ad which gets clicked on, then I should get a cut of that revenue. We all win then. Big portal gets a higher CPM, I get many additional revenue opportunity, the user gets more relevant ads and of course Google should increase their revenues. It would also encourage far more sites to become adsense users because you could get revenue without even having ads on your site.

However, without rewarding the sites that help you build that profile, it simply encourages page whoring. The Internet will become more-and-more sensationalised with the only thing mattering is page views and not the niche value of your content.

I realise there are issues. Of course, it is likely that a Parramatta Eels fan will visit more than one Eels fan site, but it wouldn’t be that difficult for Google’s big computers to divvy up the spoils fairly. Behavioural advertising is going to be a boon to online companies but please Google make sure, everyone is fairly rewarded.

Filed under: Google

The Ultimate Email Configuration

I’m kind of obsessive about experimenting with new ways to manage and process my email but I think my obsession can now finally come to the end. Let me present to you, ladies and gentlemen, the ultimate email configuration.

Before we start: If you have anything less than a 22-inch monitor then stop reading this article, get in your car, drive down to a computer dealer and buy one. They’re cheap as chips these days and once you have a decent sized monitor you’ll open up all sorts of possibilities in terms of how you configure your windows and screen real estate to enable you to process more information and become more productive.
Ok, so this is a GMail solution and it makes use of the recent Multiple Panes lab feature. Broadly speaking, we split our email into 3 panes. One to process mail, two for items that need to be actioned and the third for items that are just passing through. It looks likes this:
So first thing to do is firstly go into your lab settings and enable it. 
By default, Multiple Panes puts your additional panes to the right of the main menu. However, even with my 24-inch monitor, I still found that I wasn’t seeing enough of the subject heading to be able to reliably see what the mail was about. So instead, we’re going to put the pane underneath the Inbox.
The point of this configuration is to keep you Inbox nice and tidy at all times. We want to keep it down to less than 10 mails at all time. So every time we read an email we do one of two things – star it or archive it.
Underneath the Inbox panel, we have a panel for Starred Items. These are emails you need to come back to and either reply or action but can’t do immediately. Having them in a panel underneath the inbox means they are there as a constant reminder that you have items to attend to, and you’ll find yourself trying to knock them off anytime you have a free moment to keep that panel as tidy as your inbox. To only show starred items, put is:starred in pane 1.
The bottom panel is what I call my ‘Throughbox’. My throughbox is for mail that is just passing through. Newsletters, alerts, mailing lists and so forth. None of this stuff needs to be actioned so it doesn’t need to come through your inbox, but you still want to see what comes through just in case there’s something you really should be on top of. So you set up another pane just for these emails. I’ve found it to be far more effective than something like Otherinbox, which just didn’t work for me at all. To set up your Throughbox, create a label and then for every single post that you don’t need to show up in your inbox, immediately click Filter Messages Like These under the More Actions button. Then tell the filter to skip your inbox and add the Throughbox label. Then go back into your Multiple Inboxes settings and put in label:throughbox in panel 2.
I’ve been using this configuration for a week now and it’s Friday afternoon and I’m actually going to leave the office with an empty inbox! I reckon it will take a good month before I’ve trapped the majority of lists and so forth I’ve ended up on and have them sailing through the throughbox rather than clogging up my inbox, but this has already made a major difference to mail processing capabilities. GMail Labs is sheer genius. There’s so much innovation flowing out of Google and into the labs, but I can’t help but imagine what we’d see if they allowed developers outside of Google to add Gmail extensions to the labs.

Filed under: AJAX Challenge,

TechCrunch to dump Federated Media

TechCrunch looks certain to dump Federated Media as its ad partner with the growing media organisation now investing in a direct sales force.

Michael Arrington has previously questioned their relationship with Federated Media, complaining about both the margins Federated were taking and also the fact that TechCrunch was effectively holding up other lesser blogs. Then today, I noticed that on the Crunch Board, TechCrunch is advertising for not one, but two sales directors.

The ad says: “[Techcrunch is] expanding our direct-sales effort to deepen sales relationships with each agencies, branded advertisers and start-ups.  Sales directors will be self-starters who can both design custom programs and sell packages to agencies and direct to clients.”

Given that in January this year, Arrington wrote a post which for all intents and purpose, looked like a final warning that Techcrunch was about to give Federated the flick, it seems almost certain the relationship is about to end.

Arrington wrote: “I don’t make any advertising or revenue decisions around here, that’s left to our CEO Heather Harde. But I’m nervous about our ad partner Federated Media, which supplies about a third of our total revenue. They’re going through layoffs (I read this on their blog), and payments from them have dipped substantially in recent months (which isn’t a surprise given market conditions).”

This raises two issues. One is the future health of Federated Media. If they do lose Techcrunch it comes on the back of Digg, and Om Malik’s network going elsewhere. They have restructured recently, cutting back staff.  In that ‘Is it time to switch ad partners?’ blog, Arrington beefs that when TechCrunch generates a lead, it goes to Federated Media who will then disperse the budget around a variety of blogs. Clearly, Federated gains a great deal from having those flagship blogs which do an awful lot of its marketing legwork for it. Its problem is, as organisations like TechCrunch become bigger and able to support a direct force they don’t need Federated anymore. But Federated kind of needs them.

The second point is this would apprear to signal an aggressive growth strategy from TechCrunch. The company is also hiring an Events director, an executive assistant and a bookkeeper. Certainly, TechCrunch looks well placed to start thinking bigger. They have been profitable since inception so Arrington would have built up a relatively tidy warchest over that time. And with ad income plummeting and other blogs likely to be in financial trouble, I can see TechCrunch starting the great tech blog rollup that Arrington has blogged about previously

If TechCrunch wasn’t planning a big growth push, it would likely have just switched ad networks, the fact that it’s investing in a significant internal sales force suggests its aiming to go into expansion mode and to do that in this climate, it needs to expand its network.

If you’re betting on the outcome at The Industry Standard, I think it’s a whole lot greater chance than 33 per cent of this happening.

Filed under: AJAX Challenge,

GDrive just around the corner

Back in November, I predicted that GDrive would launch sometime during the first quarter. I’ve now basically confirmed that will be the case, or at least very close to it, with restricted testing due to begin in a matter of weeks.

You’ve seen a number of blog posts around the place lately giving various hints and indications to what GDrive is going to look like. I’m using all of the information that has made it into the wild, plus the information I’ve picked up myself recently to give what I’m pretty confident will be a reasonably accurate description of what Google is going to unveil, probably in March.

GDrive will be a cloud-based storage system, with full desktop syncing capabilities and widespread integration across Google’s product range. It will be one of the most significant new product launches in the company’s history.

Google Web Drive will be a client application, not dissimiliar to something like SugarSync. This will be the application that you will use to sync your various folders to your Google web drive. Users will have a public folder and also the ability to create shared folders.  There will also be a photos album that will load files directly into Picasaweb. You’ll also have the ability to undelete files and restore previous revisions. In other words, its going to match feature-for-feature all of the other syncing products on the market today.

The web interface will be an upgraded version of Google Docs. I’m expecting this to be renamed GDrive and Docs becomes the name of the word-processing application as it was in the first place when it was branded Docs and Spreadsheets. From this same interface you will have access to all your files on your Gdrive including images, music and video.

GDrive will underpin Google’s application strategy. It’s a critical launch and it’s going to be very interesting to see what pricing the company comes out with. While they have been very generous with GMail (7Gb), they’ve skimped with Picasaweb (1Gb free). I’m sure there will be a free offering but how big will it be? For all the talk about ad-supported applications, in the end I think we will all end-up paying for our apps based on the storage we use.

Filed under: AJAX Challenge, ,

Cranking up the Gears

Over our Australia Day long weekend, our dev team added Gears support to our Influencing media relations platform.

Our MediaConnect and ITJourno portals are very much Rich Internet Applications (RIA) – they makes heavy use of javascript, with a big initial load and then no page refreshes except for loading content. We’ve built them with the intention that they are a tool our clients will use regularly throughout the day and that justifies the significant up-front load. However for our casual users, I can understand why that initial load has been frustrating. We’ve also suffered problems because IE renders Javascript pages so slowly in comparison to other browsers .

With Gears support, and particularly when loaded from Chrome, what previously might have taken 30 seconds or more to load completely is now down to less than 10 seconds. Chrome also lets users create an application shortcut which  pretty much transforms our website into a desktop-style application. Firefox3 is not too far behind in performance and Prism can also be used to create the desktop-like experience, although its a more complicated process than the one-click Chrome function.

We started re-architecting our site three-years ago with the expectation that RIAs would be common-place by now and browsers and other new technologies would be optimised to support that kind of environment. We launched early last year and the fact that Internet standards, browsers and related technologies had not progressed as we might have expected has been annoying and frustrating. Don’t even get me started on the amount of time we spent having to develop work-arounds for IE6. If you’d have told me 3 years ago, we would still have a significant group of users stuck on IE6 I’d have laughed out loud.

I’m thankful IE8 is getting close to coming out of beta, although reports suggest that the performance gains are modest, when compared to Chrome and Firefox3, but I’ll take any progress over none.  It’s probably going to take another iteration for Microsoft to get IE to where competitive browsers are now, and that’s probably when developers will get bolder with RIA-style functionality. In the meantime, though, we have Gears and a stable Chrome and a decent environment with FF3 that we can point users too, but we’d much rather not have to recommend one browser over any other. 

Sometimes, moving at “internet-speed” isn’t moving very quickly at all.

Filed under: AJAX Challenge

Syncing getting better but still a way to go

Regular Squash readers will know that I’ve followed the online/offline space very closely for a long-time and have followed the emergence of various synching products as they’ve come to market.

I’ve favoured SugarSync for quite a while, who just this week announced another $10 million capital raising which I’m hoping will keep the innovation ticking over with those guys.

However, it appears they are going to need to as there are some very cool new services hitting the market, including ZumoDrive, profiled by TechCrunch yesterday.

ZumoDrive isn’t actually a synching tool – rather it tricks your desktop into thinking its using the local drive when in actual fact its saving your file to the cloud.

Unfortunately, I missed out on a beta invite so can’t report on how it works but it would need the option to override as there are just some files I want on my desktop. However, for many devices like older PCs and netbooks where you might not have a big whopping hard drive this is an awesome idea.

Reading the ZumoDrive story on TechCrunch I also stumbled across Syncplicity, which I see has what for me has been the biggest failing with SugarSync – file sharing! SugarSync is supposed to be rolling this feature out in January but its already apart of Syncplicity so I’m keen to see how it works. And I’m going to have to give Microsoft’s Mesh another go, shortly.

The reality is all of these products are still fairly immature. Here’s my wishlist.

1. More intuitive synching between XP and Vista – because XP and Vista structure their file system slightly different; ie in XP My videos, My pictures, etc are under My Documents while in Vista they run in parallel so it’s difficult to get these folders synching correctly. I’m sure the problem also exists synching across non-Windows operating systems

2. Rule-based synching. I’d like to be able to set up rules as to what gets synched, what gets stored on my hard drive, what is offline. For example, I’d like all documents older than a month to be online-only (although still look like there in my file system) but not to sync any large videos because it blows my download quotas. I’m sure everyone has different needs based on their download limits, how many computers they use etc.

3. Shared folders with rules for who can do what in the folder

4. Intelligent updating so that every time you change a large file it only changes the bit you’ve changed rather than having to re-upload and download the entire file

5. The ability to also synch to external services. I’d like any file I put in My Pictures to automatically upload to Facebook or Smugmug.

Filed under: AJAX Challenge

Human editing giving Techmeme a very different feel already

Right now, the top story on Techmeme is the piece I just posted on – Google Chrome coming out of Beta.

In case you missed it, last week Gabe Rivera the creator of the Techmeme aggregator announced he was adding a human editor to his payroll. Ironically, I was involved in a blog conversation about two years earlier with Gabe over the merits of a human editor versus an all-automated solution and Gabe at the time suggested he would look at human interference at some point in the future but probably not for Tech.

A couple of years later down the track, he’s changed his mind and Techmeme now has a journalist adding editorial judgements to the mix of story rankings and grouping.

So let’s go back to that Google Chrome story. Right now, it has just one link from Tech BLORGE. Under the old algorithm model, one-link would never be enough to get a story up to the top of Techmeme especially on a busy news day like we’ve seen over the past 24 hours.

I also just saw two links that were previously attached to that story – but which were actually about Google Native Code rather than Chrome dissapear from the Grouping. Not sure, if they were added their manually or removed manually?

So the obvious advantage of the new human-editing approach is clearly that stories can rise to the top far quicker based on an editor’s decision rather than waiting for the blogosphere to decide its a hot issue and promote the piece algorithmically. However, that’s kind of why I go to Techmeme – I want to see what the community has decided is the hot news – not what an editor thinks as I can after all get that anywhere.

The removal of those too, means, you’ve got that element of human error (or correction) which again makes it more like a traditional news site. I don’t know, the site just feels different and I’m not sure I’m digging it.

There have been many complaints about Techmeme as a self-perpetuating echo-chamber where people simply write about a story because its at the top of Techmeme. Now, having a human interfere (enhance) the rankings means you can prevent this happening somewhat, but it introduces the equally problematic issue that now you have bloggers writing about something just because Techmeme’s editor thinks it is a cool story.

I would suggest Gabe has gone the route he has because it makes his software platform far more valuable than it was previously. The idea doesn’t work unless you have a critical mass of people linking to each other and there aren’t that many blog categories where that happens. It also means that you can’t really on-sell the technology because you would just end up with each user of the platform having pages that look identical.

By introducing a human-editing angle to the memeorandum platform, Gabe will be able to potentially sell his platform to any media company who can then use machine-editing to enhance its human editing process. That will potentially enable media companies to run more sites with less resources but still maintain the overall editorial control and feel with their own real-life editors. It’s a pretty attractive model.

P.S. It will be interesting to see what happens with this post as it links to the aforementioned Google story but has done so in a tangential way. I guess the way it should work is the algorithm will add it and then the editor would remove it? Let’s see…

Filed under: AJAX Challenge

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