Facebook at 10: I Expect More

Today should be a celebration. Facebook has reached the age of 10. It connects over a billion people. However, as active as I am on Facebook and as much value, and fun, I find from it, I can’t help but be terribly disappointed. I suppose it was inevitable. Monetization (and going public) are harsh mistresses. So, what’s the source of my disappointment? I wanted the social web, not a social site.

I hate to say I saw this one coming. When Facebook went public, listed right there under “risks” in its S-1 registration statement was a note that people conducting social activities on other web sites represented a risk to their business. But I want that to be their business.  I want my social graph to follow me everywhere.  Bringing that graph across all sites should enable all sorts of functionality and value. The problem is that this represents value for us, not Facebook. Monetizing an API is a tough business, certainly more difficult than taking a billion people and monetizing them through advertising. Thus, while Facebook offers Facebook Connect and some sites try to integrate in rich fashion with Facebook and your social graph, this is nowhere as ubiquitous as we all want it to be. And that’s because, plain and simple, Facebook doesn’t make any money that way. The realities of business have hit the ideals of connecting the world’s people. We want to connect them…on our site.

It’s a shame, really. We all want a social web. It would transform our experience, for the better, on most of the web sites we visit on a regular basis. But we’re not going to get that from Facebook. Instead, we get sponsored ads and brand posts and shockingly mis-targeted sidebar advertising. Do we have any chance to get that and, if so, where is it going to come from? Interestingly, we might actually see this connected social web. First, Google and Google +. Don’t laugh. Yeah, no one really uses it. Or do you? Google is actually insinuating Google + into a variety of activities (YouTube, App store, even search) in a way that pushes the social web site to the back but transforms your ordinary activities with social connections. This is a vastly underappreciated move on Google’s part. The other potential? IBM. Again, don’t laugh. Some years ago, fearing Facebook’s control of the social graph, Google launched an initiative called OpenSocial. In typical Google fashion, they lost interest quickly. Fortunately IBM understand the power of an open social graph connecting disparate systems, within and across the enterprise as well as with customers. Thus, IBM has assumed stewardship of the OpenSocial initiative and is actually devoting real resources to it. Starting from the enterprise out is not always a sexy approach to software distribution but it can actually deliver much more complex solutions albeit in longer time frames and with less visibility. But don’t disregard OpenSocial.

Facebook at 10. A remarkable accomplishment. A powerful force. But most of all, a perversion of the real social vision. The next 10 years will be much more exciting.

 

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Pardon My Disruption, Episode 3

Pardon My Disruption, Snowbound Edition

I have been working with the Stamford Innovation Center to produce a monthly show I call “Pardon My Disruption.” I am a big fan of the ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption” in which two literate sportscasters (no, not an oxymoron but clearly a small universe) banter about and debate the news issues of the day.  If you’ve never seen an episode of PTI, you can watch it here.  It’s a great format and if you’re interested in sponsoring this for technology in a big way, get in touch with me.  I’m really going to see if I can get this done.  Until then, I’m taking this tentative first step with the Center’s Marketing Director, Peter Propp.  We generally do this live the second Friday of every month at the Innovation Center but with Nemo hitting the region last Friday, we did the session remotely (using Google+ Hangouts).  You can enjoy the show at the link which opens this post.

Our subjects this time included:

  • Meetup.com
  • Dell goes private
  • IBM Connect trip report
  • The New York Times gets hacked: Cybersecurity

Meetup.com

Meetup is one of the best kept secrets of social media.  Some of you may remember the blockbuster 1988 business book Megatrends by John Naisbitt.  That was one of the very first business books that captivated me and to this day, I remember Naisbitt promulgating a “high tech/high touch” philosophy.  (This wasn’t the dominant theme of the book but is one of the points that sticks with me to this day.) Remember, at this time, technology was nowhere as prevalent in our lives as it is today.  At this point, Windows was still a new product, the Mac was still in its infancy and the leading PC manufacturers were Compaq and IBM.  Anyhow, Naisbitt’s point was that the more technology invaded our human lives, the more we would have need for a human touch to counter the impersonal nature of computer interactions.  Even as we move more interactions to social platforms, email and other technology-based platforms, it would be folly to forget Naisbitt’s forecast.  Tweetups — where Twitter users actually get together in a physical location — and Meetup are two of the more obvious manifestations of this phenomenon and bring with them a power that’s not present in virtual-only communities. We’ve seen this with getting Pardon My Disruption off the ground.  We tweet about, we Facebook and LinkedIn it, but the largest driver of traffic to the physical event is Meetup.  If you haven’t looked at Meetup, you should.  Some of my best meetings of a month are Meetup groups (New York Tech Meetup, New York Enterprise Tech Meetup) and I find a fair number of social activities there as well (e.g., the Bucket List Bunch).  The New York Tech Meetup is a powerful force in the New York tech community and gathers over 700 people to an NYU auditorium every month.  Getting tickets to it is akin to getting tickets to a Springsteen concert on Ticketmaster; you have to keep clicking refresh on your browser and get tickets in the first 10 minutes they’re available or basically they’re sold out.  A powerful platform to bring people together physically.  How quaint in this virtual world.

Dell

I’ve often chided Google for being a one-trick pony…but it’s a damn good trick.  Dell (nee PCs Limited) came up with a great trick 30 years ago — build PCs to order.  In the intervening years, even slow-moving behemoths like HP have caught up with that trick and it’s now an industry standard.  Meanwhile, Dell has tried to change the story, moving upstream into servers, networking and services.  But it has been a slow slog. In today’s next quarter obsessed world, it’s hard to make radical surgery on a company.  And make no mistake about it, Dell needs radical surgery.  Going private doesn’t solve their problems, by a long stretch.  Even as a public company, Dell has, charitably, underperformed in its efforts to remake itself.  You just have to scratch your head and wonder how so many tech stalwarts managed to miss the mobile and cloud revolutions. And Microsoft’s involvement in the Dell financing only complicates matters or, more troublingly, sends the message that Dell’s “reinvention” won’t be so different from today’s Dell. And this deal leaves Michael Dell firmly in charge and one has to wonder if he’s the man to lead the reinvention.  Dell has largely been off my radar screen for a decade.  We’ll see if this move leads to a more disruptive Dell or just incremental, and insufficient, changes.

IBM Connect

I’ve posted recently about IBM Connect and the remake of IBM so I won’t say much here.  The only thing I’ll add here is a few thoughts about the impact of its Smarter initiatives internally.  While suggesting that the external market may not be precisely aligned with the way IBM is selling its collaborative solutions, there’s no ignoring the fact that the Smarter message has served to focus and align the company internally.  It’s almost nauseating  how universal IBM people talk about Smarter this or that.  It permeates all levels and functions of the organization.  One of the challenges of large companies in a fast-moving world is getting all facets of an organization focused on a consistent and aggregated message.  IBM’s ability to get the disparate business units aligned around consistent messaging and even more, deep product integration is a truly remarkable accomplishment.  If customers start to align with IBM’s messaging, IBM is unassailable. No one can deliver what IBM is delivering.  It’s a big if, but as a long-time IBM watcher, a fascinating story to watch unfold.

Security

As much of a technology lover as I am, in my rare dark moments, I have grave concerns about the fragility of the systems we’re building.  Quite simply, no one really understands how they all work and so that leaves us vulnerable in some deeply troubling ways. From what can only be called state-sponsored cyberwarfare down to more mundane financial theft, we live in fragile and troubling times.  The solution is not simple, complicated by the disgusting politicization of this issue in Washington. I won’t turn this into a political screed but instead in the webcast, we focused on what we as individuals can do.  Bottom line:  you need better password practices.  It used to be that we didn’t want to write our passwords down because the biggest risk was someone sitting down at our computer and stealing things.  Now the biggest risk comes from someone who steals your password over the Internet.  For those of us who can’t be bothered to have different passwords for different sites, once they’ve got your password, they can harvest it in myriad ways.  So, do what I’ve done.  Get a password manager — I use Dashlane – and make sure you have strong passwords and different ones for every site.  And if you’re concerned about the security of the password vault, and it’s a legitimate concern, write your passwords down…or get used to the “reset password” function of your web sites.

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See you March 8 at the Innovation Center.

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IBM Connect Trip Report: Moving Up the Organization, Uneasily

IBM has celebrated its 20th anniversary of Lotusphere…by renaming it. Nearly 10,000 people are in Orlando this week at the newly-renamed IBM Connect to hear IBM’s social story.   It’s a fascinating story and Lotusphere…er, Connect…demonstrates that opportunity and tension beautifully.

I find the agenda this year to actually be fascinating.  Loutsphere used to really be a geek-fest.  All of the sessions were deeply technical and dressed up attendees wore t-shirts without holes in them.  Now, those people are still here but there’s a significant presence of people in business functions, often wearing blazers and even ties.  This clearly reflects the evolution of technology from something for geeks to something that solves business problems.  IBM has obviously embraced this with their Smarter Everything mantra.  This speaks directly to the CxO level and very little if at all to the deep technology person.

So, have they been able to pull this “social biz” thing off?  Well, first, let’s just say they’re no Salesforce.  Dreamforce was part technology conference, part evangelical fervor (http://www.hfsresearch.com/Social-Business-Goes-Mainstream).  IBM Connect is, well, IBM.   IBM’s actually in a fascinating position.  On the one hand, I love the vision.  IBM is promising and, to a large extent, delivering a solution that only IBM could deliver.  Their product portfolio is comprehensive, second to none, and surrounded by a complete set of services.  On the other hand, this is a market that’s still building bottoms up, where IBM is very, very weak.  They talk about how they have no problems getting into to talk to the C-suite but I’m not sure that that’s delivering commensurate business results.  This Smarter Everything approach requires buy-in at very high levels and that surely lengthens their deal time.  There are others who raise legitimate questions about whether IBM’s getting the return on its software investments so far. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-22/ibm-makes-more-money-selling-less-of-what-people-want  Basically, IBM is making a big bet that the future of technology is a huge, high level business solution, which clearly moves it far afield from its traditional Lotus customer, and brand.

It has been interesting to note this week that IBM is making a big play with its Kenexa acquisition.  Kenexa and Smarter Workforce mentions have been ubiquitous.  It was so over the top that I asked a senior IBM person if this was part of the corporate-mandated talking points for everyone.  He actually found it an interesting observation, noting that while it was not a corporate mandate, Kenexa was the “new shiny thing” and that therefore, it naturally got a lot of attention, especially at that billion dollar price point.  Kenexa is certainly a noteworthy acquisition for IBM but the attention it got this week was overstated.  We can expect to find more normal positioning for Kenexa as the bloom comes off the flower…or when IBM makes its next big acquisition.

We analysts love situations where what vendors are saying drifts very far from what they’re really selling, and what the customer is buying.  IBM is dangerously close to that situation.  But I understand, and support, what they’re trying to do.  This market is undergoing a long-term evolution and it’s hard to turn battleships, both IBM’s and its customers’.  IBM is going to have to keep telling this story over and over until it sticks.  It will lead in the short term to situations like this conference, where there’s an uneasy connection between the past and the future, between the legacy technologists and the new business approach.  Each year, though, it will get a little easier and a little more cohesive.

Watson wins. Jeopardy wins. IBM wins. Next up: the rest of us?

If you know me, you’re not surprised to learn that I’ve been practically a life-long fan of Jeopardy.  That’s why when I got an invitation from IBM to watch last night’s final episode of the Watson vs. Ken Jennings vs. Brad Rutter match along with IBM’s Dr. David Ferrucci, the Principal Investigator behind Watson, I jumped at the opportunity.  I was not disappointed.  It was an exciting evening and the opportunity to chat with Ferrucci was memorable.

I’m always hesitant to write things in the afterglow of a moment like this because certainly emotion gets the better of me.  I can’t help but think, however, that we will look back on this moment as a defining moment.  In a brief conversation with eWeek‘s outstanding enterprise reporter, Darryl Taft, I talked about this accomplishment in lofty terms.  I likened it to President Kennedy’s establishing a landing on the moon by the end of the decade of the 60’s as a national priority.  I was about to write “this one isn’t quite that significant”…but maybe it is.

What did I mean by that comparison?  Well, setting a moon landing as the target accomplished two things:

  1. It set a target, unifying disparate research and development efforts towards a single common goal.
  2. It set a deadline, giving some urgency to what might otherwise have been “leisurely” scientific endeavors.

So too did winning Jeopardy create those two conditions for the team of IBM researchers who spent four years preparing for this moment.  Without Jeopardy, these advances may never have come together, at least not in this time frame.  For those who think this a frivolous activity, I’d note two things:

  1. Competing at Jeopardy is certainly a tremendous challenge for natural language processing.  If you can win at Jeopardy, many other commercial applications are feasible.
  2. IBM, sensitive to this charge, today announced an initiative whereby they’ll explore options to apply the Watson technology in the healthcare space.

So what do we make of this?

Certainly IBM gets a massive PR boost.  Winning as it did a decade ago with Deep Blue at a chess championship is interesting.  However, the last time Americans cared about chess was when Bobby Fischer was world champion.  (I was a young kid.  A long time ago.)  Jeopardy, however, is a cultural icon and also a great fit for IBM’s target audience.  It would have been one thing to win at Wheel of Fortune (easy challenge, easy competition), another thing to win at Jeopardy (harder challenge, Ken Jennings; UPDATE interview with Jennings here).

More important, perhaps, for IBM, this validates some decisions it made years ago.  Remember when they sold the PC division to Lenovo?  “How could you get out of the PC business, IBM?  It’s the future,” people cried.  Instead, IBM quietly doubled down on cloud computing and big data (although we didn’t call it those things back then).  Looking pretty prescient today, aren’t they?

Now, a lot of this stuff isn’t really commercially viable just yet.  IBM threw a lot of hardware at this problem.  10 racks of servers, 15 terabytes of RAM, 2,880 processor cores operating at 80 teraflops.  But you’ve got to love Moore’s Law.  This will be mainstream computing in 5-10 years.  It will be on your phone in 15.  Pretty exciting stuff.

A few other random observations after my conversation with Ferrucci:

  • Certainly Watson had some advantage in terms of access to information, but the humans had an incredible breadth as well.  One of Watson’s big advantages was not in the information but actually in the time to assess whether it should hazard a guess based on a significant statistical analysis involving competitive position, confidence of answer, how much time was left, etc.  Watson was just a better game player.  That’s why Ken Jennings was so visibly frustrated.  Watson made decisions faster.
  • Watson was a shrewd wagerer.  Based on their analysis of Jeopardy games, the IBM researchers concluded that most players didn’t wager enough on daily doubles.  Watson was an aggressive wagerer early in games when presented the opportunity.
  • Category names were for the most part not very helpful to Watson.  Tying those things back to answers was so nuanced as to be often not valuable.
  • As IBM added some information sources to Watson, results didn’t markedly improve and so they were removed to conserve capacity.  Wikipedia, despite widespread concern about its unreliability, was a highly regarded source, comparable to “traditional” encyclopedias.

Personally, it was an exciting evening.  I was actually rooting for the humans to win.  The fact that they did not, though, is hopefully exciting for our ability to apply computing power to important, valuable tasks that will benefit us all.  Maybe that will be the lasting legacy of the three nights:  it caused us to focus on new vistas for computing benefits and ask some interesting questions about how we might take that next quantum leap.

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