My answer on Quora to: What will be the leading trends & technology for 2012?

Connected TVs done right - Apps instead of browser interface experience. Slick integration with companion devices that take on a role as the new learning remotes with program previewing, recommendations, content mashing and social interaction. DECE’s Ultraviolet standard prevails, making purchased content available on any device.

In Vehicle Cloud Services - your photos, your music and (maybe) your video from your personal cloud to the car. First versions offered are likely to be attempts that confuse walled gardens with competitive advantage. The second wave will see cloud domain experts offer services directly to the car (Dropbox, Google Music, Ubuntu One, Spotify, etc).

Music Industry Shift - A major music artist will drop a record label and sign directly with Google Music, initiating a trend where the direct-to-consumer platforms prevail on content distribution, while traditional labels transform their businesses around image rights, merchandizing and event organization (or flop).

Personal Cloud services go mainstream - Storing your music in the cloud and streaming it to mobile phones, accessing your files from any device, buying digital content and getting it delivered directly to your cloud, taking a photo from your mobile device and instantly see it on your home computer. Amazon, Microsoft Sky Drive, Dropbox, Ubuntu One, iCloud, SugarSync etc will be services that the majority of connected people won’t go without.

Teleporting - OK, wishful thinking…

Google Music – The Music Label Killer?

Speculation was raging in the hours leading up to Google’s Music announcement on Wednesday. Will Google Music kill Spotify? iTunes? Pandora? Amazon? The more likely and arguably more important scenario seems to be the death of the Music Labels.

But let’s rewind for a moment. Google essentially announced what Ubuntu One has been doing for 18 months and later replicated by Amazon – a cloud powered music store and music streaming service – with a couple of important “tweaks”; sharing purchased music with anyone on Google+; and Artist Hub, a platform for independent artists to distribute their content (music, interviews, live concert recordings, etc) directly to consumers. In other words, one of the slickest examples of social music (just look at the reaction to Christina Warren’s music shares moments after the announcement) and a direct-to-consumer distribution platform powered by the combined audience of Google search, Google+, YouTube and Android.

The latter is the killer tweak – and that which could lead to the death of the music labels (and MySpace’s final breath, but who cares). Or at least, the music labels as we know them today – while none of them could ever match the volume and economics of Google’s audience reach, they could certainly become Google service providers in the areas of merchandizing and concert/event organizers. Maybe they already have, but that’s a question for Universal/EMI and Sony Music.

Of course, none of this is relevant if Google Music remains a US-only service for too long.

(Disclaimer: I work for Canonical and on Ubuntu One. These are my personal views.)

The Behavior Changing Cloud

Cloud services are hot. Google Docs making document creation and collaboration a cloud job, Dropbox raking in users and getting the cover of Forbes magazine, Apple getting the headlines even for a half baked iCloud, Spotify and Groovshark giving us access to any music for (almost) free and getting mighty close to a truly social music experience. Most cloud services offer a combination of convenience, instant gratification and entertainment – but fewer have a behaviour changing impact on your daily life. Three cloud services have done exactly that for me recently:

Photo taking behavior. A subtle feature of the Ubuntu One Files app for Android phones made me exponentially increase the number of photos I take and toss my digital camera in an eBay listing. The app, which gives me access to all of my files, from all my computers, on my mobile phone – has an option to automatically upload any photo taken from my phone to the cloud and then automatically sync it with all of my computers. Goodbye tethering and other hassles around getting my photos from one device to another. Lytro better not come out without connecting to my personal cloud.

Music listening behavior. Spotify, Pandora and have changed the way I discover music. But I also like to own a copy of my favorite music. And I also like to be able to access my entire music collection and playlists anytime, anywhere and on any device. But I’ve never been willing to take on the burden of copying my music from one device to the other and then recreating my playlists. I no longer have to thanks to services like Amazon CloudPlayer, Google Music and the less known (but first to nail this) Ubuntu One Music. My entire music collection is now synced to the cloud and available via online & offline streaming to my mobile devices. I can also buy music from one device, and it immediately shows up on my other devices, ready for listening.

Books reading behavior. OK, so I jumped late on the Kindle bandwagon. Not a huge fan of being restricted in the “where and how I can consume content I paid for” category, so I resisted for a while. Having my entire library in my pocket all the time, with immediate access to hundreds of thousands of books from the classics to the newest releases and instant delivery of any purchase, did me in. I still can’t walk past a bookstore or library without walking in – but anything I find of interest I wind up buying on my Kindle (sometimes while still standing in the bookstore). The exception – children books.

Disclaimer: I work for Canonical and on Ubuntu One, so it’s unsurprising that some of its services happen to solve my worst digital painpoints.

On Kids, Parenting and the Real Time Web

As a single dad with personal and professional interests in the Real Time Web – I inevitably pay lots of attention to the online world when educating, entertaining and communicating with my kids.

There are two aspects that deserve consideration: a) choosing those applications that can complement their schooling, provide entertainment and facilitate communication and interaction with family and friends – and b) educating children on the opportunities and threats of the online world in general. While the former is being fulfilled by a sky-rocketing number of online startups, the latter identifies a potential shortfall of most existing school programs.

There are literally hundreds of secure experiences for kids online, the more popular being the fun-centric social games & virtual worlds like Disney’s Club Penguin. I personally tend to prefer those who cleverly combine entertainment with education or address communication and interaction in a useful way. My favorites follow:

Moshi Monsters by Mind Candy – A virtual world for children which does a fantastic job at combining fun, education and safety for kids age 3 to teens. Users adopt their own monster, decorate their home and acquire points (rox) by solving puzzles that cover a multitude of subjects (math, spelling, vocabulary, geography, history, visual recognition, hand-eye coordination, etc) across several learning stiles. Kids can also connect and exchange messages with their friends and everything is subject to parental supervision and approval. Has great potential to evolve into an online school or a collaboration platform for parents, students and teachers. Elected as best game ever by my own kids…

KIDO’Z – Based in Israel – arguably the most outstanding technology innovation center worldwide – KIDO’Z is a downloadable browser that gives kids from 3 to 7 years old a fun and secure web environment to independently watch videos, play games and visit approved websites – and parents the ability to manage content access, set usage levels and have piece of mind while their child is online. The platform is also due to include secure instant messaging and social networking tools in an upcoming release.

Vikido – Another young Israel-based startup, led by a talented founding-duo which includes a TechCrunch “femme-preneur to keep an eye on” (and unquestionable tech hottie). Vikido, currently in Beta, launched a web-to-mobile application that allows children from 3 to 9 to record and send voice and video messages to friends and family through an awesome toy-like web interface – which doesn’t require reading or writing skills. With a strong focus on safety (parents manage everything through an admin panel) – Vikido is a wonderful way to keep families in touch when work, location and other household structures create distance. At last, a perfect alternative to the controversial child-phones.

Our generation is technology-driven and that’s not going to change. According to Nielsen, the average ownership starting age for mobile telephony goes down every year (9.7 years old in 2009). The average 13-17 year old sends 2000 texts per month. Today, kids already represent 19% of social networkers worldwide. Education at an early age is therefore an obvious consideration – but it does trigger a few questions:

Why aren’t schools revamping their curriculums to leverage online tools? This can be as simple as using Google Earth to learn geography to something a bit more sophisticated like creating a secure virtual world/social network to assign and review homework, create after-school programs and encourage participation and collaboration among parents, students and teachers.

Why aren’t schools preparing their pupils for the online world? Cyber-bullying, stalking and internet addictions are constantly in the headlines. Not to mention the consequences a lack of online etiquette or content privacy knowledge can have on a child’s college application, internship or job interview. Parents clearly need to have a role, but most parents do not have that knowledge themselves.

Come on schools…

The Rise and Growth of Social Location Applications

The impressive proliferation of Social Location Applications has been hard to ignore with the recent tech media and blogosphere’s enamourment of the space. Facilitated by the ground-braking usability of the iPhone and Android platforms, a number of start-ups have been able to combine geo-location with social and gaming features to launch several new applications which range from clever to useful. I’ve enjoyed tracking the space for some time so the following is a snapshot on a handful of the more interesting applications and a brief future outlook on the space in general.

When thinking of an ideal social location service a few questions are automatic: Does it facilitate my meeting and staying in contact with friends? Is it fun and engaging? Does it help me discover what’s around me in terms of places, events and activities? Is it easy to use and available everywhere I go? Does it have long-term usefulness? Ultimately these questions address the Stickiness and Usability of an application – in this case as follows:

Stickiness = usefulness + entertainment + social interaction

Usability = available content + locations + devices + ease of use

Foursquare – The first to combine clever gaming features with location updates, Foursquare has enjoyed the advantages of being the media’s favourite throughout 2009. Backed by the same investors of giants like Twitter and Zynga, they’ve also led their social location competitors in terms of user-acquisition.

Stickiness (3.5 out of 5) – The Foursquare application allows people to earn points by “checking-into” locations and sharing that information with their friends – cleverly including those on Facebook and Twitter. Title badges (mayor-ships) are earned for being the most frequent visitor to a single location, which encourages competition among users – though initially fun, this model’s appeal is arguably short-term. The information shared among users is a pin-on-a-map visual with a brief “I’ve just checked into” message – useful to nearby friends who may want to meet-up or compete for a mayor-ship, but not ideal for those who are interested in discovering nearby places, events or activities.

Usability (3 out of 5) – As I write, Foursquare has announced a new upgrade that will enable check-ins anywhere in the world as opposed to the current list of a few dozen cities worldwide – which is currently a huge limitation to its growth and appeal. The application is slick and easy to use, is available for both iPhone and Android, with a full functionality mobile browser version for other smart-phones.

Gowalla – Though very similar to Foursquare with its focus on gaming and friend-tracking, Gowalla has managed to nail Foursquare’s shortfalls from day one: Unlimited locations, a slicker application and most importantly – the ability to scrape friends from Facebook and Twitter.

Stickiness (3.5 out of 5) – Gowalla, like Foursquare, relies heavily on a gaming approach to create its appeal. Users stamp their “Passports” when visiting places and compete for a mayorship-like Top 10 ranking at each location. Users can also pick-up or drop-off items (virtual goods) at different locations, with the ability to track who has “owned” an item previously. Gaming aspects aside, Gowalla’s virtual goods model is interesting as one can easily foresee how virtual items could eventually be traded-in for real items. Gowalla is initially fun and engaging but as with Foursquare – its focus on gaming and friend-tracking is less ideal for truly discovering what’s around you.

Usability (3.5 out of 5) – Gowalla can be used anywhere, users can simply enter new locations when these are not automatically detected by the application – which is currently available for the iPhone, with a near-full functionality mobile web browser version for Android and other smart-phones.

Flook – Launched in November 2009, Flook is the newest entry in the social geo-location space. Founded by the team who built Symbian (disclaimer: whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting), they have taken a completely different approach from the gaming and friend-tracking model of other social location apps: a usefully serendipitous discovery of nearby places, events, activities and “things” via picture/information cards.

Stickiness (4 out of 5) – Flook allows users to take a picture of anything, add some text and a “Card” is automatically created with the picture, description, location map and creator info – which can then be shared on Twitter. Users can browse Cards from their friends, from a nearby location or search specific categories. “Flookers” can also collect points, introducing a light competitive gaming aspect and potentially, a future virtual goods business model. In its initial release, Flook has placed a lesser emphasis on the friend management features commonly found on other apps.

Usability (4 out of 5) – Another appealing aspect of Flook is that most content is created by its users and as a consequence – locations are unlimited and discovery is a pleasantly unpredictable experience. By browsing Cards, one is just as likely to find a hidden flower garden, a free power socket, a major landmark, a cozy restaurant or a local farmers market. A current limitation of Flook is its iPhone-only availability – but the application looks great and is intuitive to use.

Loopt – One of the first to enter the social location space with a simplistic  check-in and friend tracking approach – which has been replicated by a dozen or so other companies (Google Latitude included). Loopt claims millions of users across hundreds of devices, though suffering the recent media hype around Foursquare and Gowalla’s gaming model.

Stickiness (3 out of 5) – Loopt is currently focused on what can be considered the foundation service or starting point for any social location app: the ability to share your real time location with friends and track who else is nearby. Their first step in expanding beyond that is a recently added restaurant and event discovery feature.

Usability (2 out of 5) – The application is currently available on iPhone, Android, Blackberry and hundreds of other smart-phones…but only in major cities around the United States. Their map visual shows icons of nearby friends, restaurants and events and the app is extremely easy to use.

FUTURE OUTLOOK (Functionality, Monetization, Consolidation and Acquisition)

Functionality – Today’s Social Location apps can be broken down into three functional categories: Gaming-Centric (Foursquare, Gowalla), Discovery-Centric (Flook) and Basic Friend Management (Loopt, Brightkite, Google Latitude, etc). Most have understandably been focused on user-acquisition rather than monetization but surprisingly, only Gowalla has gone directly where users reside today to import people’s existing relationships – Facebook and Twitter. With the availability of Facebook Connect and Twitter APIs I expect most applications to implement a similar feature in the short term (most have already included the ability to share content across Facebook and Twitter). Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Being Ignored in the Crowdsourcing Debate

power-of-the-crowdThe debate around crowdsourcing – the outsourcing of a job or problem to a large and open group of people – is heating up again as an increasing number of brands are gaining headlines by launching design and ad creation contests.

On one side of the debate are those who argue that crowdsourcing is nothing more than outsourcing cheap labor and a temporary fad, while on the other are those who believe that involving large, undefined groups of people can increase creativity and productivity at lower costs.

Critics of crowdsourcing, usually people with an Ad Agency or a professional design background, are quick to point out that crowdsourcing is just a fashionable term for something that’s existed for ages; call it freelancing, outsourcing, competitions or spec-work. The latter, I’ve learned, is somewhat of an insult in the design industry which has even taken an official position on the subject through AIGA. Probably the strongest point I’ve encountered though, is regarding the sustainability of a model where many spend the time to produce work but only one gets paid for it.

Notwithstanding these points – crowdsourcing has had a growing number of success stories and media exploits recently: Unilever dropping its agency Lowe to pursue a crowdsourcing ad campaign for their Pepperami brand. Netflix announcing the $1M winner in its long-running call to improve its recommendation algorithms. The impressive growth of services like Crowdspring and Innocentive. Mofilm crowdsourcing video ads for large brands and linking these to the major film festivals worldwide. The self-proclaimed first crowdsourcing Ad Agency, Victors & Spoils. Across the board, participation in these crowdsourcing campaigns has been strong, with businesses and brands expressing satisfaction with the final creative products received.

What both sides of the debate are ignoring, at least in the advertising space, is the potential impact of the Real Time Web on the future of crowdsourcing. With so many available tools that facilitate online conversation and collaboration, there can be as much value (if not more) in the crowdsourcing process as there is in the end result. The experts call this Engagement. In other words, while the ROI for most of the crowdsourcing activities to date has come from the cheaper creative result (and the press coverage that came with it) – by treating the process as an interactive and potentially viral campaign, crowdsourcing ROI could come from both Engagement and the creative result.

What drove me to contribute the millionth opinion on the subject is my surprise at history repeating itself once again – the reluctance of most Agencies to embrace a new model in its early stages. After all, who is in a better place to generate the kind of value described above than those who are experts at client brand strategy, campaign planning and insight? The case for Agencies to embrace real-time web crowdsourcing seems pretty straight forward:

  • The strength of a Client proposition that combines the Agency’s partnership, strategy and direction with the benefits (Engagement, creative and cost) of crowdsourcing.
  • Being able to generate more value from the individual creative contributions resulting from crowdsourcing by recognizing broader trends or individual brilliance.
  • Extending the life of a creative team on a single client account (one of the issues behind the broken model of agencies)

Looking ahead:

Crowdsourcing in the real time web is in its early stages and as such, is bound to evolve from its current state. For it to become a sustainable model, there needs to be a way to improve the current “many work one gets paid” issue. As the software world has been able to teach us with open-source communities, recognition, reputation and reward (both monetary and non) are an important factor. In applying the open-source principles to an Agency-driven model, I can imagine a platform that allows agencies and advertisers to rate contributors (reputation & recognition) and assign a share of the profits to those who had the most impact on overall ROI.

I for one am enjoying the debate and look forward to its evolution.

Social Games and Offer-Scams: Sorting Through the Noise

ScamLittle did I know at the time of writing Dissecting the Success of Social Gaming - that only a few days later, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch would send the industry into a frenzy with his blowing the whistle on offer-scams (the shady lead-gen and subscription offers provided by some advertisers in exchange of points to be spent in-game on virtual goods).

While Michael deserves huge kudos for bringing attention to the issue and for triggering action (Zynga and MySpace have since announced tighter controls on 3rd party offers), much confusion has arisen across the media from the cyber-echo of his points. Here’s an attempt to clarify:

  • Scams are not generated by the gaming companies. They come in through the third party suppliers of lead-generation offers that allow players to gain virtual points without having to pay for them.
  • Offering free points to players for filling out surveys, signing up for newsletters, etc is not a scam nor is it unethical business in principle. What is a scam and absolutely unethical is for advertisers to ask for mobile phone numbers as a way to sneak-in a charge or a monthly subscription fee to the unaware user.
  • The social gaming business model is still sound. As reported by Zynga, about 1/3 of its revenue comes from offer suppliers. To understand what impact scams have on a gaming company’s business, the more relevant figure would be the percentage of that 1/3 that are scams.

There is no doubt everyone in the supply chain needs to recognize the issue of scams and eliminate them by doing their part in vetting the advertisers: Facebook, the gaming companies and the third party offer suppliers (OfferPal, SuperRewards, etc). Well done Mark Pincus of Zynga for being the first to act.

For a balanced reaction to this loud debate check out this article on Inside Social Games.

Facebook’s New Roadmap: A Business Model Dilemma?

Puzzled!With its Platform Roadmap announcement on Wednesday and judging by the headlines, Facebook seems to have launched its own version of a H1N1 crisis in the application development community.

Though under the auspices of giving app developers “new ways to attract and engage” users, Facebook has actually taken away the tools they have most relied on to grow their user-bases: status updates and notifications. In exchange, access to email addresses and the Inbox have been introduced through the API – virtually eliminating the viral one-to-many communication that has been essential to the success of gaming and other app developers.  As the success of social gaming companies is as much about stickiness and retention as it is about viral marketing, I’m not subscribing to the call for a crisis. With respect to Facebook’s strategy though, a few inquisitive considerations are in order:

Is this about improving the user experience? Nah, I don’t buy it. It was already easy enough to “Hide” updates from games and third party apps. Plus, has anyone figured out what qualifies a status update as a “News Feed”?

Is this about Facebook wanting a piece of the gaming success? Absolutely. By eliminating the viral marketing tools that have been vital to user acquisition, Facebook is basically pushing app developers towards promoting via paid advertising.

Does Facebook have a business model dilemma? Advertising has been the primary business strategy to date, one that’s worth in excess of $500M in 2009. With the micro-payments for virtual goods market set to clear $1B in 2009 in the US alone, and with the astounding success of social gaming companies on Facebook – shouldn’t Facebook try to capitalize on its applications platform position by introducing a micro-payments solution of its own rather than stifle the growth of these companies to maximize ad revenue?

Dissecting the Success of Social Gaming

IWouldntDissectYouSo what’s so fascinating about the Social Gaming space beyond the entertainment factor for those of us who enjoy the occasional game?

Simple: just about every company in the space is astoundingly profitable.

In dissecting the success of companies like Playfish, Zynga, Playdom, MindJolt, etc – a few things become clear very quickly: Their expertise is more about viral marketing than it is about game development. They’ve mastered massive user acquisition at lowest possible costs while introducing simple business models to generate revenue. Even more importantly, they own the relationship with users/players which is not only critical to their promotional strategies but also to game development and future business models.  In other words, their success formula looks something like this:


Simple Gaming – The simplicity approach taken on by game developers, both in terms of access and game mechanics, has significantly facilitated user adoption and repeat visits. Access, which for all companies is browser-based, is also about being on or off platform.  On-platform games (those on Facebook, MySpace, etc) get to leverage massive and easy-to-target user bases. Off-platform games have more flexibility with game development at the expense of “viral-ability”. On the game mechanics front, enabling users to quickly understand game play, making that game play light touch, interactive and competitive have been key aspects in triggering user adoption and return. The light and casual approach to game mechanics has also dramatically reduced game development times (3-6 months for most developers), but has also facilitated a cloning wildfire.

Cloning – Very much a legacy of traditional gaming as the Ataris and Nintendos of the world can teach us. Though easy to frown at companies who constantly release obviously cloned games, cloning is arguably a smart business approach in early stage and immature markets. After all, people like to play instantly recognizable concepts just as they like to watch familiar formats on TV (what’s the last original Reality or Game Show format you’ve seen?). Additionally, if the uptake of Facebook games is of any indication, a cloned game is more likely to fulfill areas of the market that haven’t been reached by the original game developer than it is to erode at that developer’s existing market.  For example, when Zynga introduced Café World earlier this month (16M users in its first two weeks), it didn’t visibly impact Playfish’s Restaurant City user and growth counts. As the market matures with users demanding games with more depth and sophistication – cloning will become more difficult and as a consequence, an un-sustainable model. The first test of this may come with the recently announced Facebook version of Sid Meier’s Civilization classic.

Virality – Let’s be clear upfront: Zynga and Playfish have both invested millions in advertising to gain their initial player critical mass. They have also mastered making the most out of that initial investment, using virality to significantly reduce additional user acquisition costs.  Read the rest of this entry »

Another blog on Social Media?!? Blah…

Illustration by Michael Mucci

The first post in the blog that shouldn’t exist.

Though I’ve been contributing to the Real Time Web debate for several years through various blogs, online newspapers, conferences, consulting, jobs and even launching a few ventures – I have always been reluctant to open my own blog. Why? A quick Google search for “Social Media Blog” returns a hefty 1.6 Million results. Guru-ship in Social Media and Digital Marketing seems to be the most common CV-filler in the current recession as life-coaching was after the bubble burst back in 2000.

So I blame it on passion. On a healthy dose of “opinionism”. On an incorrigible need to experiment and challenge. Did I hear vanity? Probably so, though reading my own work comes close to what most people feel when listening to a recording of their own voice.

DigitalPopuli is about sharing insight, criticism and experiences while living the Real Time Web. It is also about experimenting and as a result, about being wrong. For starters, I’d like to play around with a Posts-in-Progress (PIPs) concept. In other words, introducing a post topic before writing the post itself, encouraging input and then quoting and referencing contributors in the completed post. In addition to hopefully improving the quality of blog entries, it will be an interesting test of a value-driven viral content concept – more on this to come.

More importantly, looking forward to another Social Media Blog.  Blah…