Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Much Ado About Yahoo

I have to start out this post with a couple of random thoughts. First of all, this blog is awesome. I heard about it from a fellow UT alum on Thursday and it's apparently written by a girl who moved to NYC from Texas but missed the food so much (like we do here in Seattle) that she experimented to replicated some Southern staples in his kitchen. I checked out a couple of recipes and they looked pretty legit. I'm going to be combing the site later this week to add to my personal stash of recipes (none of which I take credit for, I just make them). The blog is just fun to read overall, so much so that I'm recommending it to anyone who likes cooking (my regulars know that I don't recommend blogs very often, but this is a gem).

The other thing I have to get off my chest is that it was fun watching OU whoop Texas Tech on Saturday. I never thought I'd ever support the Sooner, but for those 3+ hours I declared a personal, temporary truce with OU for the duration of the game since they played against us so respectfully, unlikely Tech. I felt like Tech played dirty against UT and Harrell was really arrogant coming out of the game. I always thought that Bradford was a much better QB than Harrell, as much as I dislike him, and I can't believe that so many pundits picked Tech over OU. It shows how terribly wrong the rankings are when the #2 team simply gives up in the second half when they're down 45-7. God forbid they'd learn from the first half or make some effort defending against OU's second string (yes, they did score on Tech). I'm satisfied with their loss, and implore the pollsters to please show some love for Texas because we had a stronger schedule than OU and beat them in a glorious game (for both teams). So please, don't let them jump us in the rankings!

Jerry Yang Steps Down

Trust me, I did not want to center another post around Yahoo. Unfortunately, when I looked at my long list of articles, the Yahoo ones bubbled up to the top. It's just a truly interesting story for the industry given that Yahoo is literally one of the first successful massive Internet companies ever. It garners them a soft spot in our nerdy little hearts, because I think a lot of people honestly want them to succeed.

I don't think it was a secret that neither Terry Semel nor co-founder Jerry Yang were in any position to effectively lead the company since the middle of last year, and now they're finally both out of the hot seat. Jerry Yang formally resigned early last week citing what I think a lot of tech journalists had already figured out: he was letting his emotional ties to the company keep him from making smart business decisions for it. It's ironic that he's going to be Chief Yahoo again in order to focus on "technology innovation" (among other things) because had he been doing that all this time Yahoo would not be the position it's in today. The company is not in ruin, but it's definitely not heading down a positive path though it is not beyond saving. They went down a path of unfocused products and a lack of competitive edge against Google. They've managed to hang on to being a far second place to Google as a search engine, but their revenues are not seeing real growth.

How did they get here though? Forbes has a surprisingly concise list of Yahoo's 5 biggest mistakes. It's amazing how many products Yahoo comes out with that people don't know about. I think that their terrible marketing strategy has led to projects being aborted that took a significant amount of investment and were not necessarily bad ideas. I was a beta tester for a service that allowed you to send mass text messages, and it really wasn't bad. It needed some work, but they could've made it work and instead chose to get rid of it. I have no idea why they did this and I'm sure they had good reason, but if you figure something like that after a product is developed then how much time did you spend in the design and planning stages? The next big mistake was not buying Google because it was too expensive, which is kind of funny since they didn't sell to Microsoft this year because they were offered too little money. That's irony for you. Hiring Terry Semel is not a surprise entry in the list either, he just did not drive vision for the company very well. One of the reasons I joined Amazon is because I had, and still have, faith in Jeff Bezos's vision. The next item is probably the least important on the list: they didn't beat Google to the punch to buy DoubleClick. Not that it wasn't dumb, but it's not like buying DoubleClick would make them a huge rival for Google. The last item is not accepting Microsoft's buyout offer earlier this year.

What do they do now? Get a competent leader who can inspire confidence in the company's employees and drive development for killer products. Figure out how to steal people from Google by any (legal and ethical) means necessary. Don't scoff at offers from better companies without a clear plan. Go back to simple UI designs. It's really the simple things that will bring Yahoo back on track to being an Internet superpower, and they have enough bright minds to make it happen. Good luck, Yahoo.

Amazon OLPC and CloudFront

I promise, this isn't an ad for Amazon. I just think it's great that Amazon is participating in the One Laptop Per Child program's "Give 1 Get 1" project where you buy a cheap OLPC for $400 and another one gets sent to a child in a developing country (they cost roughly $200 apiece). I've talked about OLPC before and why I think it's great in the face of people saying that giving computers to hungry kids is dumb, so I don't want to talk too much about that. However, to say something about it: it's a great inspirational and learning tool for these kids to help their communities and achieve better things in their lives than they probably had ever thought possible.

Amazon CloudFront is not so charitable, but is really cool. It's based in S3 and is an Amazon Web Service for efficiently distributing content to customers. They basically store your content (media or video games or what-have-you) in various spots geographically so that they can serve it to people near these endpoints faster and is designed to be extremely easy for you so that Amazon does all the hard work. It's still in beta, but an excellent idea. Everyone is saying that digital distribution is the future of music, movies, and games, so it only makes sense to make it easy to serve this stuff up at high speeds without increased infrastructural costs.

Windows 7 Media Center

Last week, Gizmodo posted a very brief video demo of Windows 7 Media Center, and it was pretty sweet. Please in the comments if you have found it re-posted somewhere else because Microsoft made Gizmodo take it down. It's basically Windows Media Center meets an iPhone in that it features intuitive touchscreen functionality through fluid motions that seem cool even though they can appear to be gimmicky at first. Some of the cool features are the fancy slideshows with music, well-integrated Internet channels, one-click access to TV (if you have a TV tuner card, that is), a thumbnail preview for seeking through an HD video, and other bells and whistles. The idea here is to have this OS on a small computer replace your DVR, and having attractive mainstream software for home media PCs could help spread adoption past just TV geeks (especially if sold in nice bundles).

Security Scoop

There were a couple of really interesting security stories last week. I was particularly impressed that Microsoft decided to give away their own home brew anti-virus software, Morro, aimed at developing nations. Are they being charitable? That may be a secondary goal, but that's not the primary motive here. The real goal is to provide a safe online environment for other PC users. These weakly protected machines are often early targets for viruses and worms and, as such, unknowingly become pivotal pieces of botnets. A botnet is a network of machines that can be controlled remotely and are often surreptitiously formed to bring down websites (for extortion, usually) or send out spam under the radar of most spam filters' first line of defense: blocking IPs. Anyway, Morro will replace Windows OneCare (which you probably have but don't know about) and takes a brute force stab at cleaning up the Internet. Security is an arms race and it's not like Microsoft is a security firm so don't expect this to fix everything overnight, but it's an interesting strategy and a great start to what will hopefully eventually replace Norton and McAfee, which I don't use because I don't think that they're better than free alternatives like ClamFree or AVG. You would think that Microsoft would know best how to quickly vaccinate computers for holes in Windows before they could release a patch, so if they play their cards right they can finally have a smack in the face to Apple's ads antagonize PC security by stating that Macs have security issues (they do, that's a fact) but Apple doesn't provide any free anti-virus software.

Europe recently got a new Visa card with a keypad to generate random security codes. At first, I thought it was dumb, but I actually kind of like it. It basically has a keypad on it where you enter your PIN, and it generates the 3 digit (maybe more, but on current cards it's 3 digits) security code usually found on the back of your card so you can use your card online more safely. Even if someone eavesdrop and steals your credit card number and security code, it'll be useless to them without your card's specific random number generator. There are a couple of issues with this though to keep in mind. It doesn't help in non-virtual scenarios. Your card will still swipe, from what I can tell, just fine. So if someone steals your card, they just can't shop online. It won't stop over-the-shoulder attacks, so someone can install a camera in a cyber cafe and spy on your PIN. What does this get them? If they can steal your card then they can use it online as much as they want (or until you cancel it). More importantly though, it's likely that the algorithm will be tied to your PIN so they can probably then create their own security codes as they'd probably have already spied your credit card number. I do not know how the security code is generated so maybe they'll be smart and not tie it to your PIN but rather just your account in a non-deterministic way. The biggest danger here, in my opinion, is the false sense of security it could create for people who shop in real life more than online or are still susceptible to social engineering attacks (like getting called by a charity for a donation, for example). Still, it's a noble cause so I give them props for creativity. It really isn't a bad stop-gap at all.

The last bit of security news is that those crafty Chinese pirates have cracked Blu-ray's far-from-ideal DRM to sell their own lower-resolution copies on the streets. They are ripping the content, re-encoding it as AVCHD (a compressed, 720p format), and then selling it. This is a threat to Blu-ray, but not sure if it's more of a thread to their sales than rampant DVD piracy. DRM will never keep pirates back, only slow them down a bit initially. The MPAA really should pour their efforts into stopping these syndicates rather than worrying about online piracy stateside, because I can almost guarantee that it's not nearly as detrimental as this kind of piracy is.

How Hulu is Surpassing YouTube

CrunchGear put up a very short post about Hulu's revenues being only 30% less than YouTube's this year and expected to at least match YouTube's revenues with less than a tenth of the viewership. It's worth talking about it though now that online advertising has become so important.

There's no question that the past decade has seen a complete transformation in advertising. It's no longer dominated by TV, radio, and magazines, but moving the the Web and, though somewhat in its infancy, to video games. When PC Magazine, probably the foremost print technology magazine in the world, decides that printing a magazine is no longer as profitable as its online articles, you know that the tides are changing. People's day-to-day habits are changing, and advertising is just trying to keep up. Even ad watchdog NAD (National Advertising Division) acknowledges viral marketing to be advertising that follows the same rules as other forms of marketing it that it cannot spread falsified information, like that cellphones emit enough radiation to pop popcorn. Another reason that online advertising is big is that it's measurable. When the economy is down like it is now, you want to see real results with your marketing budget, and TV don't cut it. They're expensive and cast a wide net without any accurate measurement of how many people see it or what they do with that information. With a banner ad, you can see a click. You can attach what are knowns as reftags (referrer tags) to links so that traffic can be attributed to a successful advertising campaign.

Back to Hulu and YouTube, why would advertisers favor a site with 7 million hits in a month over one with over 80 million hits? For the same reason that you won't see hardcore porn on MTV ripe with commercials: they have brand image to worry about. Do you want your detergent associated with a guy getting hit in the crotch? Or how about a Hoover vacuum ad rolling right after a cat riding a Roomba? Granted, that would be a great opportunity for Roomba, but how many of these are there and how easy are they to exploit? That's going to be the true test for YouTube. Conversely, advertisers know exactly what they're getting with Hulu because it's held to the same standards as normal television and they know what series appeal to what audiences. Yes, you could theoretically know that about a YouTube channel as well, but the content producer isn't under YouTube's thumb so they could deviate one day and post something detrimental to the advertisers or even mildly offensive (like curse words). Hulu is a much easier leap to make though since you know what you're getting and the improvement over television is that not only can people click on your ads to give you direct knowledge of how well your campaign is working, but you have accurate ratings of these programs and can get a much better picture of your audience than Nielsen can reliably offer.

YouTube can still be monetized well if Google can effectively filter out content for advertisers and reliably link tags for this content to advertisers, or even have more moderation control over certain YouTube channels to ensure the quality of its content (with a cut of the profit going to the channel owner, of course), but they have to be careful with it and they have to make sure that they don't alienate their audience. Since Hulu has had ads since it publicly launched, they had the luxury of not having to deal with this problem, but YouTube isn't so lucky.

The Remainder

To be honest, I'm a little tired from writing this post. I've spent my spare time for the past 3 nights working on it, and I think it's time for me to stop. Here's a quick wrap-up for the other article I had tagged to talk about:

Gmail now has themes! I don't think you can create your own themes yet, but I'm sure you will be able to soon enough as it appears to be powered by XML files setting variables for various images and colors. The mountains one though is especially cool though as it is dependent on your geographic location for the time so that it can show you an appropriate setting. Check out my current one:

Strangely enough, a Linux website posted a screenshot tour and little preview of Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2. Its features include privacy mode (aka porn mode), web slices (to store away pieces of web pages for easy offline reference), Google Gears integration (for offline usage of certain web applications), and actual stability. IE8 was originally slated to be out before the end of this year but has since been delayed to sometime next year (before summer, I believe).

Intel has launched their Core i7 processors, which are purported to be 4-6 times faster than their current Core architecture, cheaper to manufacture thanks to smaller circuitry, re-introduce Hyper Threading for better parallelization of processes, and integrate a memory controller to increase processor bandwidth (the amount of stuff it can get done at once since it has this new venue for accessing memory).

Zune subscriptions can now keep 10 songs each month DRM-free. I actually never thought of this and I think it's a pretty clever way to try to save subscription-based mp3 sales.

Engadget has posted a review of the Blackberry Storm (formerly known as Thunder), including a video comparison with the Bold, and they weren't terribly impressed. Unlike the G1, it has to be compared with the iPhone and it never seemed to have a real edge over the iPhone with the list of complaints including that it's sluggish, there's a dearth of third-party applications, and that the on-screen keyboard's simulated tactile response doesn't improve it at all.

Wired put up a well-reasoned article that the reason the iPhone lacks Flash support is that it removes too much control from Apple. For example, a tethering application written for Flash could not really be held back by Apple because they can't block sites. Plus, Flash could always introduce security holes.

Gizmodo has a really great explanation of common video codecs and the difference between a codec and a container, and it's really useful for technical and non-technical users to read through. It will help explain why you may sometimes have problems playing videos you've downloaded online, or why not all videos can be played on your favorite mobile device.

Lastly, Network World's rundown of the top 12 myths about how the Internet works is a very interesting read and will likely provide useful tidbits to all but networking experts.

Alright, I'm on call this week so it's time to go to bed. I hope you all have a great holiday weekend! I'm a bit sad that I'll be unable to spend Thanksgiving with family, but Christmas is right around the corner so I definitely am looking forward to the vacation.

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