I'm reading various reports on Google's announcments about search today, and it sounds scattered and totally uninspiring. And I might add, disappointing.
Google is today a big company, and it seems to lack the resolve to go into middle age with any passion. If ever there was a time to show some exciting new features for search, this was it -- and none of it was in any way exciting.
When Google came along, the CEOs of the existing search companies didn't pay much attention. They probably didn't understand what was so exciting about Google. It was very much like the way the leaders of the minicomputer industry reacted to the early PC, at first dismissive, then with arrogance. Their products seemed to assume they would overcome the challenge, and none of them did. The only one to make the transition was IBM, and then a few years later they would try to lock in the users, and finally lose out to the new companies that had cloned their products.
Twitter is that kind of generational challenge to Google. They have no choice but the same one IBM had with the Apple II, and Microsoft had with Netscape. They must compete, with a respectful product, one that is compatible with Twitter, and gives users a benefit of coming from a strong mature company. The time for this product is passing every week, as Twitter stabilizes and delivers a reliable service. Google's clone should have come out last summer when Twitter was having trouble keeping their servers up.
If I could talk to the management at Google, I would tell them to stop everything, go away for a week, and learn how to use Twitter, yourself. Get an inkling of what is so exciting and different about it. You can't get the gestalt by looking at the features, you have to see how people are using it and who they are. It's not about Oprah or Ashton Kutcher, it's about the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, and a hundred NY Times reporters who are breaking their company's rules by using Twitter the way bloggers were telling them to use the web. Twitter is in many ways the realization of the full promise made by blogging so many years ago. It's really exciting to see it come to fruition, but it's also depressing that it's all happening inside one company's environment. I don't honestly think it can work that way.
Google! You can't afford to stay on the sidelines. It's an urgent issue for your company. And pretty soon it won't be an issue at all.
When Netscape came along in 1994, I wrote a blistering piece about how the Internet had made Microsoft irrelevant. Bill Gates wrote back asking if this meant they'd sell any fewer Flight Simulators or CD-ROM encyclopedias. That wasn't the point. Google's search revenue won't feel the rise of Twitter for many more quarters. But the place people turn to for news is shifting. It never was Google, that wasn't something it ever did well. But it is something Twitter does, and at this point it doesn't do it very well. But the path is very clear, the information they need now flows through their servers. They just have to figure out the user interface. They will eventually figure it out. That's the half of the problem that Google already knows how to solve. But Google doesn't have the users. None of its products have the kind of flow that Twitter has, nor the growth that Twitter has. That's what Google has to get busy building. Once Twitter is delivering the news search that Google can't, it will be way too late. This is probably what the Google management doesn't understand because they aren't using Twitter themselves. And if they're like most other big companies, their employees don't want to tell them what they're missing, assuming they know.
To Gates's credit, a few weeks after his lame excuse, he figured it out, and had his famous December analyst meeting where he outlined how he would attack the Internet. Unfortunately for all of us, but especially Netscape, an attack wasn't what was needed, support and love from a mature leader would have worked much better. But at least he woke up. There's no sign at all that Google is aware of the challenge.
Back in the early days of the net Stewart Alsop would write these open letters to Bill Gates and Jim Manzi telling them what they were missing. I guess for Google in 2009, that job has fallen to me.
Writing about open formats got me in the heady mood of the 90s. Back then we believed the Internet would be a free speech engine of democracy. I still do, to this day, but it doesn't dominate discourse the way it did back then. Today, money is more important. The purity of the early vision has been tainted by abominations like "user generated content" and "crowd sourcing." In the 90s, our websites had blue ribbons which stood for freedom. One of mine still does, to remind me of those days.
NPR is having its pledge drive, so I gave my money -- $150 for the year, and I encourage you to give what you can. I listen to NPR, and watch PBS. I like FreshAir, All Things Considered, Frontline, Nova, Bill Moyers. And I admit that when there's a new Frontline, I download it via BitTorrent, and I seed it to make sure it's available for others. This adds to my $150 annual contribution. I'm giving some of my bandwidth to make sure people who live outside the US and who may not be near a PBS station, can get this stuff. I want them to know how we see ourselves in the US.
Is this legal? I don't know. Does PBS object? Again, I don't know. Until now, I've never asked.
If they do, I'd encourage them to look again. BitTorrent is a very rational technology. It's a perfect fit for PBS. And it's not well understood by even some tech companies like Apple, who is banning it from the iPhone. And it's being throttled by ISPs, when they can.
Now here's the pitch. If PBS actively promoted the BitTorrent distribution of their programming, the same way it distributes podcasts of the NPR shows, it would become a celebrated cause of the net. I tell people to give, but now I could give them another reason. PBS is embracing the Internet, and helping develop the platform in a way only they can do.
Think about it.
Mark this day on your calendar.
After years of saying that instead of emulating print newspapers, Internet-based news should present the newest stuff first. I don't want sections, I want flow.
It never seemed to me it should work any other way. Almost exactly 10 years ago, on May 9, 1999, we put up a web app called my.userland.com that ran off the same content flow as my.netscape.com, using a then-new format called RSS. Their aggregator allowed you to lay out your own newspaper on the screen of your Mac or PC. UserLand's aggregator presented it as a flow, which I later called a "river of news" -- last-in-first-out. Want to know what's new? Visit the site and scroll until you're caught up. If something catches your fancy, click and read. When you're done, hit the Back button and resume the scroll.
So this period is important because ten years ago RSS happened.
And today is important because today the NY Times joined the party. They're now presenting their news flow as a flow. Gone is the pretense that news on the Internet works like news on paper. Welcome to the NY Times river of news, as presented by the NY Times.
I've had my own version of this flow for a few years. I knew this was coming, a source at the Times briefed me on it, privately, a few weeks ago. I turned off my flow, and will leave it there for the forseeable future. Go get the river at the Times website so they can get the ad revenue. Seriously. And congrats. Let's go do the other thing now, get the Times to carry news written by people who don't work at the Times. Then we'll be ready for the future.
See the next post for a note on why open formats are so important.
If you look at the archive of Scripting News for May 1999, ten years ago, you'll see how important open formats are.
At the time, a large company, Netscape, had done deals with major content vendors, Wired, Red Herring, Salon, Motley Fool and several others, to provide a flow of news for their new web app, my.netscape.com.
They didn't have to make this information public, they could have done private deals with each of the content sources. But they didn't. The format was documented publicly and the feeds were available to anyone who wanted to build on them.
At the time, I liked the river format, not the newpaper format that Netscape was using. Because the feeds were out there for anyone to use, I didn't have to do deals with the content companies.
They were open in another important way -- anyone could flow their content through my.netscape.com, not just the big pubs. Suppose they had never heard of you, but you wanted your webzine to be part of their system. Because the format was open, and because their web app was too, anyone could join. This was important because at the time something new was happening -- weblogs, and they could be part of the flow because of this openness. If you had to get approval, maybe only the weblogs that Netscape liked could be part of their system. That would be wrong, imho.
And when Netscape was acquired by AOL at roughly this time, all the work could continue, even though their app was gone, and the people who worked on it had moved on. It truly was a coral reef, and for me as a technologist, there is no higher praise.
Today, Facebook is nowhere near as open as Netscape was in 1999. If I had a different vision for Twitter, I'd more or less have to start from scratch. If Apple doesn't like or understand your app, you can't ship it for the iPhone. And if Google failed, we'd all be up a creek without a paddle. Now you might observe that those companies are alive and Netscape is gone. Maybe you can't be open and keep your franchise going. But what's the point of being alive if you're not free? And we don't know the outcome yet for most of these companies.
Regardless, I think it's important to honor the contribution that Netscape made in laying the foundation for all the great stuff that has happened with RSS and is still to come. Thanks Netscape!
Ten years later, we now know how well RSS worked. And let it serve as a lesson for all who follow. Let others compete with you, encourage it even. It's how you stay sharp and it's how you build markets, not just companies.
Dave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California. "The protoblogger." - NY Times.
"The father of modern-day content distribution." - PC World.
One of BusinessWeek's 25 Most Influential People on the Web. "Helped popularize blogging, podcasting and RSS." - Time.
"The father of blogging and RSS." - BBC.
"RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer's 'Really Simple Syndication' technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape's 'Rich Site Summary', which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages with regularly updated data flows." - Tim O'Reilly.
Dave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.
"The protoblogger." - NY Times.
"The father of modern-day content distribution." - PC World.
One of BusinessWeek's 25 Most Influential People on the Web.
"Helped popularize blogging, podcasting and RSS." - Time.
"The father of blogging and RSS." - BBC.
"RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer's 'Really Simple Syndication' technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape's 'Rich Site Summary', which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages with regularly updated data flows." - Tim O'Reilly.Dave Winer
My most recent trivia on Twitter.
© Copyright 1997-2009 Dave Winer.
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