It’s Frothy Around Here

I realize that I may be guilty of "not getting with the program" on this whole electric car business, but does anyone else scoff at the idea there will be 100,000 Better Place cars on the road in 2010 or Tesla’s at every stoplight anytime soon?

Agassi, who spent months studying his venture, makes an interesting observation about the valley and the Motor City. "Detroit is a car manufacturing center. I think what we’re looking at is not something that can be done in a normal way. . . . It needs an Internet approach, a Google approach."

I’m generally an optimist but I really wonder about who is smokin what when I start reading things that apply the simplistic logic of "Silicon Valley does tech, tech changes everything, lot’s of money going into alternative energy, therefore SV will be the next Detroit".

First of all, neither of these companies is manufacturing cars in the traditional sense of auto companies do it today. The Tesla (which looks like a real blast to drive, I see them around town every so often) is a Lotus Elise chassis retrofitted with a new power and drivetrain system and technology licensed from AC Propulsion. Better Place isn’t manufacturing anything as far as I can tell, the premise appears to be a distribution system innovation dependent on some yet to be revealed electric car fleet emerging.

I admire the ambition of the people who build these companies, and even more so the investors who step up with the capital to make it possible, but having said that I would like to see some actual accomplishments in the marketplace of commerce and not just in the marketplace of ideas before we crown ourselves the next center of the automotive industry.

Lastly, the technology press that covers these companies displays a spectacular amount of ignorance about what is going on in the broader automotive marketplace. Car companies from Germany to Japan are investing billions of dollars, euros, and yen in new automotive technology, which by the way has proven to be expensive and time consuming to do irrespective of how many smart people are working on it.

It my view that the only certainty in clean technology right now is that we’ll end up with a whole bunch of ethanol plants in the middle of the country, and for years to come we’ll still be generating the overwhelming amount of  our electricity from coal.

Newspaper Circulation Plunges

Overall, average daily circulation for 770 newspapers was 2.8 percent lower in the six-month period ending Sept. 30 than in the comparable period last year, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported. Circulation for 619 Sunday papers fell by 3.4 percent.

This is nothing but bad news for newspapers. Their print circulation is plummeting with no bottom in sight and their online efforts are mismatched to their business structure, which is capital intensive.

Only having an outsider’s view of the industry, I can only speculate but it does appear that there is a basic structure problem in print operations, online, “writing operations”, and advertising. They have tried breaking up these companies into parts and selling off the discrete operations. Printing and distribution are not core functions but despite breaking the companies up into parts the impact on the financials has been incremental.

The online businesses developing under newspaper brands strike me as being constrained in a number of ways, not the least of which is that they are tied to a newspaper brand. Extending depth (time spent) as well as reach will only get them so far, the Times may well be right that it will take decades to get them to the point that they, on their own, eclipse print revenue. The integration of online and print newsgathering isn’t the solution.

The biggest problem that these companies have is that their advertising model is obsolete. Newspaper advertising, even online, does not narrowly target and worse, it does not help me because it’s not interactive. In the online side of the business, aggregators will continue to eat away at newspaper’s numbers and this reflects an inability of newspapers to adjust their delivery model in response to changing behaviors.

Despite knowing all of this the NYTimes has failed to deliver on the business modernization that Sulzberger promised back in 2005. Indeed, instead of doing, as Nisenholtz referred to as “the community stuff” the Time has instead done stupid things like TimesSelect.

This quote should be on the Sulzberger’s business card to instill a sense of humility about how badly he has mismanaged that American institution.

“Internet people are frontierspeople, [behind them] are the barbarians like me — the shopkeeper. We’re their worst nightmare, but we’re coming.”

Ironically, the NYTimes story linked above misreports their own circulation drop, stating it as a 3.5% drop when in fact the ABC numbers are 4.51% on weekdays and 7.6% on Sundays. Maybe the first step in their recovery should be accurate reporting.

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Dictators Unite!

Am I the only one that has noticed the level of hand wringing and condemnation over Pakistan’s repression of democracy activists this week is getting a lot more airtime than the identical events happening in Venezuela right now? Oh yeah, the same thing is going on in Georgia (country, not the state) as well.

Maybe Musharraf should start wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, the media might back off the pressure. There’s a real inequity about the way some dictator’s are treated in MSM coverage these days.

The world page from the NYTimes today didn’t even mention the demonstrations going on in Venezuela and the story on Georgia almost made it sound like there was a bad flood or something.

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Meta Social Networking

I’ve been using a couple of new things lately that are taking advantage of social networking not for the purpose of creating yet another social network (YASN) but rather aggregating the activity feed of the collection of networks we use or simply bringing them to a consolidated interface.

Plaxo Pulse comes to mind immediately in this regard, they treat social sites as nothing more than feeds that are aggregated for the purpose of updating you on what is going on.

I also find their relationship classifications to be refreshingly simple and effective. Contacts are business network, friends, and/or family; the key observation is that any contact can be all or simply one of these selections and each has increasingly levels of privilege in your network. This is much better than the way Facebook and Linkedin do this.

The newest version of Flock delivers on the vision of a “social browser” with integration to social networks, photo sharing, blogging, and bookmarking sites. I just started using this Mozilla-based browser after dumping Firefox and trying a bunch of the others (side note: opera is really neat but not supported by websites I use, Safari v3 is “good enough” but not better than the competition, Camino is much better than Firefox but lags behind what Flock is delivering).

I am really enjoying Flock and having a number of “wow” moments as I get more into it. In fact, I am writing this post with the integrated blog editor and while it won’t replace Ecto for me, it is good enough for quick posts.

Lastly, FriendFeed is a deceptively simple service that takes the power of the Facebook front page feed and applies it across a very wide range of social networks and services that people use. This service is most like Plaxo Pulse but much broader in the services it supports and their widget for embedding the feed is much better than Pulse’s, but it’s currently limited to iGoogle and Facebook so embedding it in a blog is not possible (or just not obvious).

In each of the 3 examples highlighted here the social dimension is not a true network but an abstraction of a network that already exists. It doesn’t take much imagination to pick off a range of popular applications that would similarly benefit from adding social features, yet I am not alone in suggesting that social network proliferation is not the answer but rather extracting more mileage out of the services that already exist.

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Twitter Thoughts

I twittered from the Defrag event instead of blogging it; not for any specific reason other than just trying something new. I liked it, here are some observations:.

  1. The twitter storm (aka twitterhea) can be a little overwhelming. Fortunately for me, I’m not known for abusing my twitter privileges so I got a hall pass but I can see how for some high volume twitterers this could turn off followers.
  2. The lack of groups functionality in Twitter is a major limitation. Hat tip to Dennis for forwarding this link about faking groups in Twitter.
  3. The groups issue is more complicated than just allowing for a tag of identifier that followers can use. I would love to have the ability to generate self-forming groups around events, for example at Defrag there were 6 people I knew who were twittering but I only knew them because we met, there had to be more people who were twittering and were hiding in plain sight. How about using something like Quova to discover when tweets are coming from a common access point and group them together?
  4. The 140 character limit inspires much debate and commentary, I won’t add to that other than to say I looked at my tweets from Defrag and was struck by how much context was lost because of the character limitation, however when I looked at the aggregate tweets from all the other people twittering Defrag it was as if the context had been reconstructed. It was as if you took an image and broke it down into bags of pixels that you distributed to partygoers and they self-organized and reassembled the picture to it’s original form.
  5. Snitter is awesome but the threading of replies in Twitterific may turn me, following replies that are unthreaded is a pain. One other unexpected benefit to using a desktop client: performance on Twitter mon/tues was just awful through the web interface (I think Tues may have been our wifi connection), however my Snitter client just breezed on through with little interruption.
  6. I moderated the VC panel on Tuesday afternoon and because Albert Wenger was on the panel I brought my laptop to the podium and took questions for the panel via Twitter without telling the panel until it was over. In terms of interaction, I thought the VC panel was one of the better than I had seen or participated in and it was no doubt due to the fact that there were more interesting questions being generated from the audience than I could have done on my own.

I would encourage conference organizers to embrace Twitter, it’s a great tool for bringing people together and encouraging backchannel dialog that is in broader view than IRC. I’ll twitter future events but will likely balance blogging and twittering for the best effect.

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