Cue The Future

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"I'm living in the future, so the present is my past" -Kayne West

Define:Quora

A broader take on Quora

Quora is a new startup, founded by talented ex-facebookers, which is currently the topic of much discussion and investor lust. It is a Q&A based product that has done a great job of getting intelligent people asking and answering questions.

I am not a Quora power-user, but I do spend a few hours a week on the service consuming information, and actively contribute when I feel I have something to add. It’s a fantastic product/service that I’ve used to learn a lot of great information. If the Quora elevator pitch sounds like Yahoo Answers, it’s not. The difference is that Quora has done a damn good job of getting the right users to date and building tools that encourage them to participate.

Yahoo Answers (and similar services from that era) thought of themselves as platforms for users to find someone willing to answer or research on their behalf — this did a good job of getting mediocre to bad people involved in answering questions, usually for some reputation or monetary benefit. In contrast, Quora aggregates people around interesting questions and lets experts contribute as questions get traction. I think this is because Quora positions itself far differently from the find a decent answerer or researcher, here’s a quote from a Quora founder on how they think about the product’s value proposition:

I don’t think it’s any one thing, but it’s a bunch of little things. Part of it is the right audience. Instead of just Q&A, we think about this as blogging. Some people call it inverse blogging or reverse blogging. When you write a blog post, you write to your audience. When you write on TechCrunch, you know that these people are expecting techie news about startups.

When you come to a question page on Quora and it’s blank there are a bunch of people waiting for the answer. An expert will look at it and say “there’s an audience here and I know exactly what they want to hear. And I actually know about this stuff, or know enough to research and produce a really interesting piece of content, and it’s going to go to the perfectly targeted audience who opted in to hearing about this.”

The product reflects this view, questions are never really finalized or answered, they are simply active or not. The fact that each answer contains the ability to suggest edits, and that each question has a wiki summary are two components of this shining through. The feed structure is effective at effectively reflecting how active a question is and encourages engagement (and re-engagement) with answers to the most interesting questions.

I’m planning on posting a deeper look at why Quora might be a better blogging platform later this week, which is one of the reasons I love the service. I may also look at some other interesting use cases. If you’d like to help me (and others!) learn more about what makes Quora special, Answer “Why do you love Quora” as a question on the site. If you need an invite, let me know in the comments.

*Fun Question: Replace Yahoo Answers in paragraph three above with Mahalo Answers, does the analogy still work?

    The concern of privacy

    I read an interesting article on USA Today’s website: “Some ditch social networks to reclaim time, privacy

    The reporting is on the trend of more and more people quitting social networks.  What spoke to me most is how much of a minority opinion this was. Here’s a quote:

    Lucca, Italy-based Seppukoo helped 20,000 people erase themselves from Facebook after the site launched last fall. Two-month-old Web 2.0 Suicide Machine — where a noose dangles near a ticker tracking the digital mayhem (“181,898 friends have been unfriended, 329,908 tweets removed”) — has been used by 2,600 people. Thousands more are waiting to be accommodated by the site’s small server, says Walter Langelaar, 32, one of three programmers who created the “art project” for Moddr, a media lab in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

    20,000 people?

    2,600 people?

    Facebook has 400 Million active users. Twitter is in the mid 8-digits. Myspace is in the hundreds of millions.

    With more users, you’ll have more attrition — I don’t think the “trend” being reported here is much to think about. Facebook has maintained incredible user-activation (50% of it’s users log-in daily). The examples in the article are clearly  from a minority.

    My friend Ben Casnocha posted yesterday about privacy, RIP Privacy and Identiy Synthesis on the Web.  It’s a good read, and I would wager he would agree with my statements above, especially given his statement that: “many users do not understand how their personal information is tracked and displayed. But I do not think the majority mainstream users of any age care and I think no young people care. Young people will soon replace old people.”

    Ben and I may be buying slinkys on this one, but the privacy argument is becoming moot.  Here’s my outlook:

    1. There are still large risks associated with giving up privacy, but far fewer than decades past.
    2. Our culture is clearly headed to sharing more, not less, information.

    Bottom Line:  Privacy is dying. We are wasting our time trying to save it. Instead, let’s make the world safer for those who are living out in the open — because pretty soon, the majority of us will be.

    It sounds radical, and full of the brashness of youth, but… I’m pretty sure it’s correct. I think that message needs to be spread wide and far. And I don’t just mean removing the risk to US Citizens like those profiled in USA Today above, I mean protesters in Iran. As Jonathan Zittrain noticed in a talk I attended last year, Iran could pretty easily/cheeply use Amazon Mechanical Turk to identify and persecute dissidents (starts at 32:45).  The safety of privacy will increasingly be an illusion that can be destroyed almost at-will by those with real power.

    You want that in twitter friendly length?  No problem. Put this in your pipe and tweet it:

    “Focus on making the world safer for living without privacy — soon, you won’t have any left.” /via @tylerwillis  http://bit.ly/bOdSSN

    The creator of Gmail on the iPad

    I’m a big fan of Paul Buchheit, the guy coined “Don’t be evil” and created both Gmail and Friendfeed. Now he’s working at Facebook, cooking up exciting things I’m sure.  He’s wrote a post about product design, using the iPod, iPad and Gmail as examples today. It’s a great read if you’re thinking about how to build a new product.  It is required reading for all entrepreneurs.

    He thinks about the iPad similarly to me, which makes me pretty excited — when smart people come to the same conclusion as you entirely separately, you are on to something; and Paul is very, very smart.  I’m humbled and excited.  Here are excerpts from our two posts, back to back:

    Here’s what I wrote:

    The most impressive innovation, and the one that truly makes Ambient Computing possible, was the A4 chip.  That chip is at the hart of the new devices speed and responsiveness. While, I hope this new chip design extends to the iPhone in the future, it currently, makes the iPad capable of near-instant boot and it empowers applications to be incredibly responsive.  It removes all of the experience associated with computing other than getting into your desired program and completing your goal.

    If Apple has built a machine that almost entirely removes the starting cost of completing an action on a traditional computer (which, even in good scenarios, often takes 20-30 seconds on non apple machines), then it has created a machine that’s much more capable of capturing cognitive inspiration from it’s owner – making you, as the user, more likely to act on your ideas.  Apple is already good at this (going from sleep/closed to working on a new macbook is generally a sub-10 second proposition), but carrying a laptop with you everywhere is a nuisance, and pulling a computer out of your bag for a 1 minute task in most situations is awkward (and often rude). Smartphones already handle these issues well, but they are generally sluggish and unreliable for anything but the simplest tasks.

    If I was Scott Forstall, I’d be focused on empowering applications that resonate heavily with this crowd:  cookbooks come to mind, board games also, news/photos/communication will be killer (and already are on the machine), what else?

    Here’s Paul’s take:

    So where does this leave the iPad, with it’s lack of process managers, file managers, window managers, and all the other “missing” junk? I’m not sure, but one thing I’ve noticed is that I spend more time browsing the web from my iPhone than from my laptop. I’m not entirely sure why, but part of it is the simplicity. My iPhone is ready to use in under 1/2 second, while my laptop always takes at least a few seconds to wake up, and then there’s a bunch of stuff going on that distracts me. The iPhone is a simple appliance that I use without a second thought, but my laptop feels like a complex machine that causes me to pause and consider if it’s worth the effort right now. The downside of the iPhone is that it’s small and slow (though the smallness is certainly a feature as well). That alone guarantees that I’ll buy one to leave sitting next to the couch, but I’m kind of atypical.

    Ultimately, the real value of this device will be in the new things that people do once they have a fast, simple, and sharable internet window sitting around. At home we’ll casually browse the web, share photos (in person), and play board games (Bret’s idea — very compelling)…

    Steve Jobs changes computing (again)

    Dear Reader,  I apologize for the length of this article. It’s actually two articles smashed into one.  All together this post will take roughly 5 minutes to read.  I generally like to keep my posts shorter, but, I felt this level of completeness was required to deliver you any real value in a topic so loudly discussed as this product launch.
    Thank you for reading.  -Tyler Willis

    Today marked an historic announcement. Surprisingly, I’m not talking about Obama’s first State of the Union, but rather Steve Jobs’ unveiling of the new iPad.  So, how has Uncle Steve changed the game? Let’s take a look.

    A perfect machine for Baby Boomers

    I’m convinced the iPad is the perfect unit for a selling into a large market that hasn’t been catered to yet, has plenty of disposable income, and is would benefit the most immediately from what we will all come to recognize as a new type of computer: Baby Boomers.

    At the time of the 2000 census, there were more than 79-million Baby Boomers in the US whom are now starting to slow down the pace of their daily lives as they transition towards retirement. Their personal computing needs (outside the office) aren’t very intensive — they communicate via email, read the news, share photos, maybe use video chat and do light research.

    So, it would seem that current laptop or desktop computers do far more than is necessary for this audience.  And since added complexity often causes frustration, there may be a better solution. What would the perfect “home computer” for a boomer look like?

    That machine would be:
    – Simple to understand and use
    – Quickly capable of completing tasks (see below)
    – Be available whenever and wherever a need to interact with the digital world arose.

    Here’s what that computer should be able to accomplish:
    – Email/Calendar
    – Booking movie tickets or reservations online
    – Looking up references (online recipes, fact checking, manuals, etc.)
    – Video chating with their family
    – Storing pictures of family trips or events
    – Occasionally doing light amounts of work
    – Online Banking
    (note: this is not intended to be exhaustive list,)

    When you think about a machine that handles those common tasks well, and does so in a very responsive and always accessible way, the iPad is really the first good answer (more will follow if the iPad is successful).

    Apple creates Ambient Computing

    This type of machine represents a new concept — Ambient Computing.  Ambient Computing is robust enough to handle most computing tasks but requires much less effort to access than a traditional computer.

    The most impressive innovation, and the one that truly makes Ambient Computing possible, was the A4 chip.  That chip is at the hart of the new devices speed and responsiveness. While, I hope this new chip design extends to the iPhone in the future, it currently, makes the iPad capable of near-instant boot and it empowers applications to be incredibly responsive.  It removes all of the experience associated with computing other than getting into your desired program and completing your goal.

    If Apple has built a machine that almost entirely removes the starting cost of completing an action on a traditional computer (which, even in good scenarios, often takes 20-30 seconds on non apple machines), then it has created a machine that’s much more capable of capturing cognitive inspiration from it’s owner – making you, as the user, more likely to act on your ideas.  Apple is already good at this (going from sleep/closed to working on a new macbook is generally a sub-10 second proposition), but carrying a laptop with you everywhere is a nuisance, and pulling a computer out of your bag for a 1 minute task in most situations is awkward (and often rude). Smartphones already handle these issues well, but they are generally sluggish and unreliable for anything but the simplest tasks.

    Bridging the accessibility of a mobile device with the robustness and trustworthiness of a full computer, will appeal to the large audience generally — which will grow over time.  But, Apple’s best bet for establishing this device category is to put up impressive sales numbers for the first model.  There’s also a huge immediate ability to replace the standard machine for lightweight home PC users – like baby boomers, as outlined above — or families, as outlined by Kottke.  If I was Scott Forstall, I’d be focused on empowering applications that resonate heavily with this crowd:  cookbooks come to mind, board games also, news/photos/communication will be killer (and already are on the machine), what else?

    Sure, there are fairly unacceptable limitations like no camera, no easy solution for printing/scanning periphery, and questionable support of other screens (TV) for media content, which will have to be ironed out in V2. There are also broader reaching issues that might cause trouble for Apple: like the lack of flash support and the inability to show and track most web advertisements in mobile Safari. But with the hardware improvements announced today, the content and consumer-billing relationships Apple has built, and the knowledge that they can improve over several generations (do you remember the first iPod?), I think we are looking at a large market that Apple has a good chance of succeeding in.

    That’s why I’m bullish on the iPad. With the keyboard dock, this could be a full-on replacement PC for some non-power consumers (Think of  WebTV — and trust me, WebTV users didn’t need multi-tasking). For heavier users, this still provides a great “ambient computing” experience that can allow someone to act on their immediate thoughts with far lower effort (creating more personal value), while still having a more robust machine capable of handling more demanding tasks.

    I’m concerned about the movement away from open systems, but, that doesn’t change the writing on the wall for this type of device need — kudos to Apple for seeing and defining a great first step at an ambient computing device that I expect to become a category definer.

    Great job Apple.

    Ancillary thoughts that might be interesting to you:
    – Who called this first?  Carl Howe back in 2005?
    – I think the computing setup of the future looks like cheapish, durable long-term machines at home and work (think mac mini), smartphone for always there, and a “slate” for heavier-duty work that can travel with you. Phones and slates will change every 1-2 years, the stable machines will go 4-6.  Heavy duty tasks (ex: quickbooks), will migrate towards the slate over time.  At some point, you’ll see home/work machines becoming just docks/enhancements to the “brain” of your slate.  Slates will have to allow for more open computing for this future to occur (i.e. the iPad technology will have to run/support full OSX.
    – Many of my friends hate the lack of multi-tasking. Let me make a bold statement: multi-tasking is not important in ambient computing, which, by it’s nature, will be most useful for single tasking.  Multi-tasking is a nice to have, but one that threatens Apple’s music sales (streaming pandora vs. using itunes) and encourages pundits to classify the machine as a replacement computer (hmm, kinda like I’m doing above), which Apple doesn’t want as it would set consumer expectations for the device too high and possibly cannibalize laptop sales (which are much higher margin right now).

    Social data for search giants

    I had a good conversation this afternoon with a friend who works at Google, and we touched on ideas about how the world of search and the world of social might collide.

    We agreed that no one’s going to beat the established players in search, and if/when an entrant does beat Google, it will be with a disruptive technology that uses a very different method of information discovery. Executives at Google have all read Innovator’s Dilemma and they are rightly concerned that real-time search and social search (and soon, geotagging) could represent this disruptive technology within search. The company is focused on how those movements might interact with search and have experimented with including real-time content in search results.

    I’ve got several ideas on how real-time and social data could affect search, in particular, the conversation reminded of an email chain I had contributed to this summer; I’ve pasted my bit below:

    Here’s a more complete description of the search idea I mentioned to you today.  Aside from some of the interesting strategies available to the big 3 search providers, I think Facebook has an opportunity to play an interesting role in search by offering a service adding social data to search results.

    Facebook could offer a Facebook Connect implementation specifically for search engines that allowed them to check URLs against a database of friend’s posted links.  This would allow the search engine to enhance relevancy. Think of it like this (forgive the quick/ugly mockup):  http://skitch.com/tylerwillis/bswcr/presentation2

    This could help Facebook move the needle on three strategic goals: increase engagement, increase ubiquity of graph availability (connect), and user growth.
    – Offers a quick/easy way to gain influence in a new area of user’s habits, namely search.
    – Easily the biggest Connect implementation to date if done with Bing, Yahoo, or Google. Huge legitimacy marker for Connect’s capabilities.
    – It offers a large, visible step towards FB becoming ubiquitous, which would have a positive effect on new user signups.

    It would be great to make a launch partner of a top-notch engine (Bing or Google). Biggest problem would probably be building something that served results fast enough for Search Engines to actually use.  Only real question I can come up with is whether Facebook would be willing to be part of a search solution of companies they see as competitive (Google specifically) – IMO, the benefits laid out above outweigh the costs of propping up a future competitor’s current solution.

    Bottom line: John Borthwick sees an oncoming verticalization of search; my answer to Borthwick’s claim is the part of my argument I hold most tenatively, but, for most people, I believe that content isn’t interesting just because it is now, social, or nearby; our information discovery platforms must still apply good filtering and context to it’s content/results to meet a user’s needs. Anderson’s Vanishing Point Theory alone isn’t enough to build a universally interesting news application — one has to apply other metrics to judge it’s interest to a reader. Innovator’s Dilemma has shown us that the disruptive technology will get there soon enough (Individual services building upon their success with consumers who care a lot about now/social/nearby and getting better and better at relevance for the mass market), but it’s also shown that large organizations can adapt to disruptive technology by either buying a smaller organization that’s kept independent and encouraged to continue growth (Youtube, attempted with Twitter) or by pushing an corporate shift despite likely stiff internal/organizational resistance. Google failed to buy twitter, therefore it has to push forward with the latter option.

    Using the type of UI displayed in the rough mockup I included in the email (link), Google could add social (or realtime or location) data as a contextual meta-layer. I can tell that Google is already thinking of this meta-layer, because it’s exactly the layer that sidewiki is writing to (conversations occuring about information found at a website address). But, Google has misstepped with Sidewiki by trying to own the input. Our conversations are fractured, and occur all across the web, Google should instead focus on indexing and storing data from other services (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and using that information to display that content as a meta-layer on top of search results and/or to reorder search results. Luckily for the goog, they’ve got some experience with indexing and displaying content from disparate locations.

    This idea is complimentary to my opinion about bit.ly being a great asset for a search engine to pickup.

    About the Author

    Tyler Willis is the Vice President of Business Development at Unified, which builds enterprise marketing technology for brands and agencies.

    This blog is about how the future will affect technology, marketing, and the things we care about most. Learn more about Tyler.

    Speaking

    Tyler is a featured speaker and instructor for The American Marketing Association, and is a popular speaker on topics related to social marketing and how technology is changing our lives.

    Recent engagements:
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    Lightweight Update

    I write infrequent (quarterly at most), semi-formal updates of what I'm doing and thinking.


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