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Date: Sunday, 19 Nov 2006 22:29

Slide, the company I work for, recently announced that we raised a round of financing. The additional funds will help us grow faster as we ramp up our infrastructure and bring on more engineers and designers to build out our service. It also adds Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and former general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to our team.

Raising money can also draw criticism, as people look at your company and question its value and ability to succeed. Liz Gannes from GigaOm mentioned that "we (GigaOm) can’t say we get the big idea."

Criticism is fair. Far too many companies have squandered investor dollars on services that were ill conceived and poorly managed. But it's also hard to predict the future.

Consider the Yahoo! homepage in 1994:

Yahoo Homepage in 1994

It's hard to imagine this is a company that in 10 years would grow to having a market capitalization in the tens of billions, and would become one of the top two, if not the most, trafficked Internet site in the world.

Or consider Amazon's homepage when it was founded in 1995:

Amazon Homepage in 1995

When I heard of a company selling books online I thought the idea was niche at best. I was wrong. Amazon is now the largest online shopping site. When it was founded in 1995, it had 11 employees by the end of the year. Within four years, it had more than 1,600 employees and four million customers.

As John Gruber of Daring Fireball notes, the success of products and service typically come after a long journey of incremental improvements, rather than overnight success:

"The most remarkable thing about Apple’s iPod/iTunes platform is how incrementally it has grown. These annual iPod/iTunes special events garner tremendous fanfare, and deservedly so, but it’s really just been one small evolutionary step after another.

"It started with nothing more than a $399 5 GB Mac-only MP3 player and a Mac-only jukebox app. Then they officially supported Windows, albeit without iTunes,5 and only on PCs equipped with FireWire. Then the iTunes Music Store, still Mac-only. Then the Windows version of iTunes. The expansion to a family of iPods: the Mini. Then photos and color screens. The Shuffle. Then, a year ago, the Nano and video iPods. And, now, after a year of selling 30- and 60-minute TV shows, feature-length motion pictures. Walk, jog, run.

"Steady, consistent improvement and expansion, one step at a time — and now it’s a juggernaut."

Slide has come a long way since we launched the service at the end of August 2005. Slide hasn't released any numbers about our service usage, so all I can really do is point you to publicly available information. For example, I've graphed the number of links from blogs that we've received (according to Technorati) since we launched.

Slide.com Technorati Hits

The growth is exponential.

As Reuters reports, The Hitwise numbers for October also reflect Slide's strong growth:

"Slide ranks as the sixth-most-visited U.S. photo entertainment site, according to Web measurement firm Hitwise Inc, attracting more visitors than sites such as Snapfish and Shutterfly. In terms of visitors, it is neck and neck with Yahoo Inc.'s Flickr in the category."

Hitwise tracks only US Internet usage, and I suspect if we were to look worldwide, Flickr would pull ahead. That said, it's impressive to see this type of growth through what is basically word-of-mouth distribution. Slide doesn't spend money on advertising.

Another criticism is that Slide is not, at this point, revenue focused. The success of Slide, long term, is ultimately tied to how well we can monetize our service. But it's important to keep in mind that for a startup at the early phase, being overly concerned with profits can actually be problematic, as Paul Graham notes:

"The idea of building something popular then figuring out how to make money from it was born in the Bubble. It sounds irresponsible, but it works. Requiring founders to have a carefully worked out plan for making money is not hard-headed business sense. It's what hackers call 'premature optimization.' The really important thing is to make something people want."

This leaves us with two certainties:
1. Slide has come a long way.
2. It's hard to predict the future.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Tuesday, 25 Jul 2006 07:42

Monetizing Eyeballs

As the online advertising market shot up from $0 in 1995 to $6B in 1999--with projections of hitting $16B by 2005--there was a surge of companies building websites that could "monetizing eyeballs". With the advertising slump that accompanied the dot com crash, in conjunction with the economic recession and post-9/11 economic stagnation, a lot of companies moved away from the online advertising model to premium and subscription based revenue streams.

Today, with an online advertising market of about $12B and Google's 2005 revenues hitting $6.1B--based on 99% ad revenue--the desire to revisit the original premise of an online advertising driven business has increased.

The Economist recently published a report on the online advertising business entitled "The ultimate marketing machine" in which it details a number of new trends that are making online advertising not only a desirable outlet for promotion but also a competitor to traditional advertising channels.

Online advertising is no fad. It has evolved out of thousands of years of commercial promotion ranging from signs written on to papyrus in ancient Egypt to the $300M mega-campaigns of today.

A look at the evolution will show where we've been and where we're going.

Interruption Marketing

In the 1950's with television viewership booming there was a rise in brand advertising. The theory was that the best way to sell your company's sugar cereal was to tie it to a brand that was larger than the product itself. This style of advertising is typically referred to as "Interruption Marketing" because it would interrupt what someone was focused on to present them with the promotion. This was easy to do with television, particularly when there were very few channels to choose from. Of course, The "Tony the Tiger" style brand building of the 1950's didn't scale. The number of brands and the number of channels through which people are exposed to brands increased to the point where people were too bombarded with advertising to even notice. The expenditures continue, however.

Permission Marketing

In response the 1960's brought forth a more subtle form of advertising, where the content and the promotion was blurred. It marked a fundamental shift in print media, with the perennial example being Cosmopolitan Magazine. Cosmopolitan was started in the 1880's and grew rapidly as a publication of fiction stories, printing the works of talented authors such as Jack London and H. G. Wells. With the advent of television the demand for fiction magazines was decreasing and the subscription rates were falling. Helen Gurley Brown, a former advertising copywriter, approached Hearst about transforming the magazine to focus on women's advice, which allowed them to more easily blur the line between paid placements and their content. The influence is undeniable. Cosmo readers today account for £1 out of every £11 spent on cosmetics and skincare in the UK.

An extension of this trend came with the rise Permission Marketing. Cable Television jumped on this trend with stations like MTV that were entirely devoted to promotional content that people would opt to watch. Of course the next wave would be the most interesting, as the Internet allowed for unprecedented interactivity and contextual marketing.

Interactive & Contextual Marketing

The cost per 1000 viewers (CPM) of a Super Bowl ad, the quintessential place for brand advertising, is roughly $25, and there is no shortage of companies lined up to pay. TV averages around $10. This is not that different from newspaper CPM rates which can be anywhere from $5 up to $65.

Of course with this style of interruption advertising you have no real idea how effective a particular spot was. There is no direct customer feedback in the form of an action to the ad.

Overture, an online advertising company that Yahoo! purchased in 2003 for $1.7B, patented the notion of an auction system for advertising that is paid for based on user action (a click of a mouse) rather than simply an impression.

Google, which has come to popularize the notion of Pay Per Click and Contextual Advertising, agreed to issue 2.7 million shares of common stock to Yahoo! in exchange for a perpetual license of U.S. Patent 6,269,361.

Although the costs can vary wildly because of the auction-based pricing system, a click will typically cost a company around 50 cents or $500 per 1000, which is around 25x going rate of CPM. This premium reflects the additional value that advertisers feel they receive from placements that are interactive and require user participation, rather than just passive placements.

Of course CPC advertising is not without its problems. Just because someone clicks on an ad doesn't mean they're necessarily interested in your product. They may simple by clicking on ads on their own site to raise revenue, or clicking on a competitor's ad to force them to waste advertising dollars. Both of these are types of click fraud that are rampant today, with ads for "Clicks for Rupees" tantalizing those in India to destroy the benefits of CPC advertising.

Google and other companies are moving beyond pay per click and initiating CPA, or Pay per sale, advertising models in which the company is only paid if they lead to a sale. The premiums here are far more significant, with potential affiliate rates of $10, $20 and up per sale, which is around 30x CPC and 750X CPM.

Diverse Opportunities for Promotion

The online advertising world has changed a lot since 1999, and it has also had a significant impact on traditional Madison Avenue advertising philosophy. New models haven't destroyed old ones, but have impacted the premiums that they can charge and offered more choice to advertisers. The more time people spend online, in an interactive environment, the more the opportunities there are for promotions that are well metricized and understood. As the Economist noted: "If you can track the success of advertising, especially if you can follow sales leads, then marketing ceases to be just a cost-centre, with an arbitrary budget allocated to it. Instead, advertising becomes a variable cost of production that measurably results in making more profit."

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Sunday, 07 May 2006 07:09

Usability is king. If you can help people accomplish something valuable, you'll succeed. But you already know this; the software industry has come a long way since the late-80s and early-90s. Other industries from grocery stores to snowshoes are also focused on building usable products and services.

There are many conferences, associations, and courses designed to help people learn how to build usable products. Hearing from people's real-life experience also helps, so here are three techniques that may seem counter-intuitive or controversial, but will greatly increase your chances of building a more usable product.

1. Embrace Ugliness

Subtle changes to color, typeface and layout can greatly affect usability. For this reason many people will spend a fair amount of time focusing on fine tuning the user interface to their product prior to its release. If you're working on the 10th iteration to Photoshop (which really should pick up the visual style of After Effects 7.0 by the way), this is reasonable. Photoshop is over a decade old and doing a face-lift to improve readability and increase the smoothness of the interface is well worth it.

That said, if you're working on a new product or a larger redesign, you must embrace ugliness. Do not spend a lot of time perfecting and fine-tuning the interface because you will only get attached to it. In the same way the designers at IDEO will make crude prototypes with cardboard and hot glue so that they can test 10 or 15 prototypes before deciding on one, you too must do this with your digital product. If you make something too pretty, too refined, it will take you longer to build it and longer to change it. It may kill your chances of success.

2. Skip the Lab Tests

Let's go back to Adobe once more. Adobe spends a lot of money on lab tests. They recruit people to come down to headquarters in San Jose, sit in a room with cameras and two-way mirrors, and go through detailed task analysis. All this is a big investment of time and money. For a multi-billion dollar company it's not particularly prohibitive but for a startup it can be a costly process that may not necessarily be the best way to improve usability.

Instead of sinking time and money in to doing lab tests, spend that time and money to instrument your product so that you can learn what real users and doing on their own machines in their own homes. Imagine if Photoshop had a plug-in that volunteers could install that would report back to Adobe how people were using the product--not just 6 people in a usability test, but thousands of people. Think of it as a Nielsen rating system, except for your product. On the web this is even easier because you can even fork your traffic to go through different interfaces and test in real-time which is doing the best.

The advantage of doing this is that unlike lab tests where there will always be debates about exactly how to change things, when the product is instrumented you can see a more direct link to changes and outcomes because the sample size is larger and you don't need to spend a lot of time screening and recruiting people to come to your office at night so you can watch over their shoulder.

3. Don't use Features as a Crutch

No matter what you build it seems like there's always a list a million items long of bells and whistles that people want you to add. In many cases people say they can't (or won't) use what you have unless those things are added. Especially with a new product, there are typically huge holes that have to be patched up in order to make it usable.

There is a trap here, however. A lot of times the core of the product is not what people want, but they try to make you feel better by enumerating a list of things they think you should shoe-horn in to make it less terrible.

If you've built something that no one is using, it is rare that adding enhancement features will get people to adopt it. Typically there is a core problem that has to be addressed. You've got a pig and people try to help you by suggesting you add lipstick, earrings, a scarf, and spray the thing down with Chanel No. 5. The problem is that you'll keep sinking time and money in to this pig until you've driven your company in to the ground. "If we could get another round of financing, we would paint the toe-nails, and I'm sure we'll have a hit on our hands!" you may be thinking.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Design"
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Date: Saturday, 08 Apr 2006 20:13

I spent the better part of a week in Austin, TX for the annual South by Southwest conference last March.

The panel I was on was a bit controversial in that it tried to prove a contrarian point-of-view to the heavily pro-web-standards panels at the conference. My part of the talk was about tables for layout and Flash. I was prepared for some tomatoes to be tossed at me.

We would get the funniest looks from people when they would ask us what our panel was about. I remember being at lunch with Sergio and Jeremy Keith when we told Jeremy about our panel. You could see him overcome by a mixture of shock and confusion.

There's a very simple example that we through out that made the whole thing much easier to understand: You have a box and inside that box you want to center (horizontally and vertically) another box that is of some unknown size (suppose it's an image the server passes to you).

If you are a loyal web standards advocate you will rack your brain to solve this simple problem. Horizontal centering is easy, but vertical-align in CSS 2 is meant to be used to align something within a line of text, not in an arbitrary block level element like a div. You could try to hack it by having a line of text (like a blank space) that is the same height as the bounding container and then offsetting the margin such that you account for the blank space. You could also hack it using Hicks's wrapper div trick (which is complex enough for me to avoid describing how it actually works here). There are also some JavaScript techniques that will dynamically compute the margin offsets and shift the images accordingly. Jeremy was saying he would use that trick to also shift the footer to the bottom of the browser window. The problem with it is that you'll see a noticeable jump as the browser renders the page because it has to shift and element to a new location from where it was originally placed.

Or you could just put the thing in a table that is set to valign center.

What is the best solution? What leads to the cleanest code and the best user experience (fastest load time, least amount of flickering, works in the user's web browser)?

A discussion like this will have even Jeremy Keith nodding his head that, yes, blind allegiance to web standards is not always the best way to go.

It was also nice having someone like Aaron Boodman on the panel. He works on the Firefox project at Google, so he is deeply interested in web standards, but at the same time he gave some great examples from the Google Page Creator project where deviating from standards was important to allow for rich wyswyg editing of the web page.

I had a number of people tell me that they really enjoyed our panel, and I did a round up of some of the blogs that mentioned us: Jackson West, Giga Om (written by Jackson West), Nathan Smith's Sospring, and Larissa Meek.

Larissa's opinion counts more than others because, well, she's a former model who is now a full-time web designer.

I had a great time at SXSW. I met a lot of people who I knew only through their blogs, had some heated debates about web development, and attended some interesting panels. My favorite was the Craiglist redesign. The redesign itself was nice, but the best part was that Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, was actually in the audience. He went up on stage later after people asked him to go up and gave his thoughts on the work he was shown. He was highly vague about whether or not the site would follow any of the suggestions, but the fact that he was simply there made the whole experience much more interesting. Oddly one person who wasn't there was Andrei Herasimchuk, who kicked off the initial "Design Eye" redesign on his Design by Fire site back in 2004. For some reason he wasn't able to attend in person and was just there via webcam.

I also pulled some of my favorite photos other people posted on Flickr:

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Saturday, 18 Feb 2006 09:30

Next month I will be attending South by Southwest Interactive. Most people know of South by Southwest because of the music festival, but there is also a film and interactive festival that precedes the music one.

I will be speaking at a Web Hacks panel run by my co-worker/homeboy Sergio Villareal. Other people on the panel are Kevin Gibbs, Aaron Boodman and Glenda Bautista.

The panel coincides with a number of presentations on web standards, yet tries to argue the benefits of breaking the rules:
"Standards are not the end-all be-all of web methodologies. For years, people have been hacking together ugly, daunting, proprietary, but perfectly functional code. Hear the reasons and learn the tricks from the renegade side of the fence."

I'll go in to more depth on this topic later.

Vote for Slide

By the way, Slide was nominated for a SXSW Web Award for Technical Achievement. (Vote for us!)

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Design"
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Date: Sunday, 05 Feb 2006 20:22

"Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

Google's web keyword search has become an integrated part of many people's day to day life. Yahoo's Chief Financial Office Susan Decker told Bloomberg News in late January: "We don't think it's reasonable to assume we're going to gain a lot of share from Google. It's not our goal to be No. 1 in Internet search."

The people at Yahoo who work on search were not impressed. They responded "Believe it or not, we are still in the early days of search. As all of us at Yahoo agree, we're in it for the long haul, and we're in it to win."

Yahoo's approach to finding things on the web started out very differently from Google's, based on human editors who would go around the web, find sites, and then categorize them in to a directory. This is how Yahoo organized information from 1994 until 2002, when it switched to using Google's crawler-based results. It wasn't until 2004 when Yahoo dropped Google and built out its own crawler-based search solution.

This may explain Yahoo's fascination with "social search" and "the wisdom of the crowds", as both are based on people organizing information for others to consume. Today, unlike 1994, there so many people online that you don't need to hire human editors. People will do the work for you as a natural process of using the Internet.

For example, Yahoo recently bought Del.icio.us, a social web bookmark website, and Flickr, a photo sharing website. Both of these sites are organizing the world's information, yet they are doing it through human editors. Humans will bookmark websites using Del.icio.us, out of which grows an organization structure and rating system (people bookmark what they find interesting). Flickr works similarly where people will take photos and tag them and put them in to pools, so that when you're looking for pretty flowers, you're much better off going to Flickr than Google because you have the ability to see who thought it was pretty, and whether or not you agree with them.

Business Week writes: "By cultivating online communities -- and encouraging people to tap into the collective knowledge of these groups -- Yahoo is hoping to change the way people find information online."

Yahoo is not alone in providing services the use the power of humans to help others find information (companies like YouTube, Digg and Yelp come to mind), and tends to be better at it than Google, which has yet to create anything that can compete with Flickr or Del.icio.us.

RSS and push provide other possibilities as Jeremy Zawodny of Yahoo explains: "[Our new VP] also talked a bit about searching 'without a search box' in the not too distant future. Information may arrive on you screen (computer, television, cellular phone, etc) as you need it—without having to ask. It's one of the many ways search will be reinvented. Those of you using RSS aggregators and news alert services have seen just faintest glimpse of what's going to be possible."

In this light, I hope Slide can make a contribution to help organize information and make it accessible and useful. One system we just released that brings information to your desktop as you need it is a push-based delivery mechanism for eBay auctions. If you go to ebay.slide.com and search for "Nikon D70", Slide will query eBay for you, aggregate the search results and produce a show of the results and push them to your Slide Player (available for Windows, Mac and the web). It will also continue to monitor eBay for you, adding new items as they are added.

With slide, auctions come to you — solution for buyers and sellers

This technique can be applied to other areas as well (dating comes to mind) because the fundamental need for content aggregation and distribution applies broadly.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Tuesday, 13 Dec 2005 07:43

Mashups. Remix. How six months ago? The terms are not particularly new, but the underlying concepts don't seem to be faddish. The idea of aggregating content and providing filters (social, spatial, temporal) is something that embraces the promise of the Internet in ways that were hard to imagine 20 years ago.

RSS has had a significant influence as well, since people are opening up their vaults and making it easier to access content that was previously buried. The publisher gives up some control, but in return they get access to an audience they would have never met. Of course, it's never easy to let go.

I belong to the 9rules Network which attempts to "highlight the very best web content in the world and package it in a nice bow for you to unwrap." This works through an aggregation process--by having various blog website join the network, and by building the 9rules.com site to help people filter through the content.

To help provide a new visualization of the data, I set up a 9rules Network Slide Show using Slide, which aggregates the feeds of all (well, almost, I still need to add some of the new sites) of the sites in the Network. Any images in the posts are placed in to a ticker (we've been described as Flickr meets the marquee tag):

(Click on a photo to visit the site that posted the article)

If you like, you can get this 9rules Network Slide Show for your website or desktop at Slide.com. Instructions for choosing between horizontal or vertical, and modifying the size are on the site.

One of the beauties of the emerging trends in web publishing, syndication and community-based filtering is that there is no "solution" that needs to be found in a scientific sense. Rather, it's an opportunity for a wide variety of people and companies to help people visualize and give context to the vast amounts of data that fill the world's server racks.

It may start with a marquee tag, but there is no shame in that.

P.S. You may have caught Om Malik's post on Slide for the Mac. It's looking really nice, and integrates tightly with the Slide.com website. Email mac at slide dot com if you want to join the beta program.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Design"
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Date: Tuesday, 08 Nov 2005 10:04

A friend of mine teaches art at a high school in Orange County. He sent me an email asking about Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of MySpace so that he could have more information to include during a lecture on media.

Rupert Murdoch is the head of News Corporation, one of the world's largest media conglomerates. News Corp owns Fox, DirecTV, and now... MySpace, a social networking website. MySpace is popular with younger audiences and the site eventually lowered the age to legally join from 16 to 14 to better accommodate its target market. If you don't know what MySpace is, you are either under 12 or over 25.

This shouldn't be a surprise. The New York Times recently wrote that "according to the Pew survey, 57 percent of all teenagers between 12 and 17 who are active online - about 12 million - create digital content, from building Web pages to sharing original artwork, photos and stories to remixing content found elsewhere on the Web. Some 20 percent publish their own Web logs." The article continues: "Most teenagers online take their role as content creators as a given... [with] mounting evidence that teens are not passive consumers of media content."

Xanga, Livejournal and MySpace have become the new after school hangout, with kids turning away from traditional media distribution channels to consume content produced for and by people they know.

There are a lot of social networking and blogging sites on the Internet, so why did Rupert Murdoch decide to pay $580M for MySpace? It certainly isn't because MySpace generates a lot of revenue. Although the site is one of the fastest growing on the Internet (the site adds millions of unique visitors per month), it boasts only $30M to $40M a year in revenue. This is why the site sold for $0.58B--a large sum, but nowhere near as large as what other sites that get the amount of traffic that MySpace receives are able to generate. According to Alexa, MySpace is one of the top Internet destinations, which means that it is surrounded by companies like Google, Amazon, AOL, EBay, Microsoft and Yahoo, the multi-billion dollar titans of the Internet.

The competitors to MySpace such as Thefacebook, Friendster, and Tribe, are nowhere close to the amount of traffic and growth that MySpace is seeing. Therefore, I made the argument to my friend that the reason Rupert Murdoch wanted the company was that it was highly undervalued. It was easy to take a site like this, for a man who made his fortune on advertising, and use it to produce highly relevant, targeted ads, similar to what Google does.

I talked to Max Levchin about this and he had a more cynical view. His take was that Rupert Murdoch was not so much interested in using the site to push heavy advertising to drive revenue, but rather to use targeted brand advertising: "The people who watch Fox News today are old and will die in the coming decades. Kids today don't know who Bill O'Reilly is, or that he had a sex scandal. It's a great opportunity to influence them while they are young and impressionable. It's a long-term play."

This, then, is a bit of a sad story. It began with children turning their backs on passive media consumption and becoming active participants in the world of content production. Yet it ended with the head of News Corp purchasing the engine that fuels their creativity. But there must be a silver lining? As Max pointed out, there are only so many Rupert Murdochs. They can't buy every site like this. And some are not for sale.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Monday, 10 Oct 2005 08:30

A little while ago Max told Sergio and I that he felt the ideal user interface for Slide would be like a burrito: satisfying, but not overly sophisticated. I suspect there is a widespread fear that a website that feels "designed" won't appeal to a consumer market. Tapan Bhat--formerly a Director of Product Management at Adobe, now at Yahoo!--once told me "Don't be afraid to be ugly. People like ugly." This is the essence of burrito design.

Many companies have been successful without paying much attention to design. Indeed, many embrace the notion of anti-design. They're proud of their ugly, busy websites.

If Myspace


wanted the typographic elegance Eris Free is able to acheive

Eris Free

it could hire her to help them (okay, technically she's at Apple now, but there are other people they could hire). But that's not what they're interested in.

That said, I believe Max is wrong. Giving away burritos is great, until a competitor comes along giving out filet mignon.

As Jeffrey McManus, who works at Yahoo!, describes from a session he attended at Web 2.0 called "What Teens Want":
"None of them use Yahoo for much of anything (not for IM, not for search, not for shopping, not for mail) except as a sort of second-chance search when Google didn't give them what they wanted. They hate the Yahoo home page because it's busy and weighed down with ads, no surprise there."

By the way, if you're interested in helping Sergio and I at Slide figure out how to make the filet mignon, please get in touch with one of us. We need someone full-time in San Francisco. It would help if you were good with JavaScript and were interested in techniques like those in Donovan's LivePage.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Design"
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Date: Wednesday, 21 Sep 2005 09:02

NOTE: If this post looked weirdly formatted and broken, it was because Flock inserted a bunch of line breaks in to it and wrecked a bunch of my hyperlinks, and deleted the last paragraph. :(

The WYSIWYG editing is cool, but as with most WYSIWYG editors, it may not interpret hand-written code properly. I don't blame the Flock guys, though. I should be more careful than to use pre-release software on my live site.

Recent Success

You've probably heard of EBay's acquisition of Skype. As Cringely notes, Skype's investors put two years and $20 million into the company for a return of 12,899.88 percent. With results like that you're going to get a fair amount of attention.

I will avoid talking about whether or not I think the acquisition makes sense, or whether or not EBay paid too much. I'm too far removed from the matter. What I will say is that Skype has seen tremendous growth, with a stated 57M users, and making a product that successful isn't easy.

In fact, Cringely will even speculate that EBay, with its $50B market cap and vast resouces, would have a hard time fighting with Skype:

"Yes, eBay could have built a Skype equivalent, but that would take the same two years or more than Skype took to do it. And unlike Skype, eBay would be building its VoIP division in an environment that still contained Skype as a competitor. But the simple fact is that the chances of eBay being able to repeat Skype's success at this time are pretty close to zero. Skype has too much of a head start in terms of members. It would be analogous to eBay starting a payment service in competition with PayPal, which they once did, and that, too, failed. Maybe eBay was trying to learn from the PayPal experience and simply cut to the chase, which is acquiring earlier and avoiding completely any expensive lessons."

Recent Challenges

Another Internet startup, Technorati, which has also seen tremendous growth over the last year, with several million people hitting the site daily, has had a different experience. Technorati is a search company, indexing feeds from blogs and news sources. Recently Google, the top search company in the world, has decided to roll their own solution.

David Sifry, Technorati's CEO and founder, welcomed the competition. Yet some people are not so optimistic on their chances. Ken Norton, VP at JotSpot and former Yahoo! engineer, thinks Technorati's chances are slim.

So who's right? Since Technorati didn't get purchased by Google does that mean that they're in trouble? Or might they go the way of PayPal and end up beating the multi-billion dollar competition.


Now that I'm working at a startup of my own, far from the three 17-story marble towers of my former employer, I've been looking for advice on how to design something useful and sustainable.

I'm reminded of John Maeda's question to Paul Rand:

John Maeda: "Most of your designs have lasted for several decades, what would you say is your secret?"

Paul Rand: "Keeping it simple. Being honest, I mean, completely objective about your work. Working very hard at it."

I also finally got around to watching Robert Cringely's interview with Max Levchin on Nerd TV. Max had two pieces of advice.

The first is about being brutally honest with yourself and admitting that you need to change course:

"One of the things I had to learn at PayPal, which was sort of going back to your engineering question, is actually engineers and me as an engineer but pretty much any engineer get into this trend of thinking, and they like what they're doing, even if it's not necessarily a business-savvy thing to do. And then when the time comes and you have to change your direction, it's actually very painful. The very specific moment when your business counterpart or your manager, whoever, comes and tells you, that code you've been writing for the last six months, I'm really sorry, but you might as well just erase it now, is really painful. That is a very painful moment for an engineer to stomach."

The second is about the importance of execution:

"I actually think that a successful startup is 5 percent good idea and 95 percent execution. It's really - it's just one of these things where can you strike the fear of God into your competitors by releasing every two weeks the features that it takes them three months to write. And by the time they're done copying the features that you built last week, you've got three more months on them. And this is really all about execution."

Of the companies that started more or less around the same time as Slide (ANT, YouTube, Vimeo, Flock, FeedBurner, Technorati, Shutterbook, Furl, Del.icio.us, Digg, Odeo, Yelp, Rojo) sometimes I wonder who will be around in five, ten, fifty years.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Thursday, 01 Sep 2005 08:03

Posted: 8/03/2005
Updated: 9/01/2005

I recently left Adobe to join Max Levchin in his latest quest to create useful applications/services. Max was a co-founder of PayPal, and left after he sold PayPal to EBay. At this point I am the only designer, which means that I am about to bottleneck a growing gang of talented Python programmers.

If you enjoy coding/designing websites that conform to web standards, know that tables are meant for tabular data, aren't afraid of Cheetah, want to push the limits on what is possible on the web, are not afraid to stay up all night to get the job done, and want to work in downtown San Francisco, send me an email.

P.S. If you're a crazy Win32/GDI+ hacker, Mac developer, or QA ninja, you can also contact me and I will put you in touch with the proper authorities. Or just solve this puzzle.


[trumpets playing] Sergio Villarreal (of overcaffeinated.net and a fellow 9rules member) is joining us at Slide. This means that 1) my head will not explode from juggling too much work, and 2) we will have a very talented designer/programmer to push the interactivity and richness of the website.

I've been very particular about the slide.com front-end. I wanted it to be clean and straightforward, but I wanted it architected properly. I want to show that we can conform to web standards (XHTML 1.0 Strict, CSS 2.0, WCAG) without having to sacrifice aesthetics or do away with the seductive, rich features that one associates with non-compliant websites. Sergio is motivated by a similar vision (or maybe he's just good at faking it?), which is why I'm so excited to work with him.

(Sergio also comes highly recommended by Andrei Herasimchuk, and those who know Andrei know he is not easily impressed.)

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Design"
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Date: Saturday, 27 Aug 2005 18:43

Now that CNet has broken the story, I can talk about what I've been working on for the last 6 months.


I'm the designer (there will be two of us shortly, which is good because my head is about to expode) at a company called Slide.

Slide is a company focused on the idea of personal broadcasting. With Slide, you subscribe to the people and content that you care about, and publish content for other people to subscribe to. By subscribing to content, it is delivered to you automatically. When someone adds photos or a link to a website, you get it directly, without having to constantly check a website to see if there's anything new.

Those in the blog community are very familiar with this. We use tools like Bloglines and Newsgator to subscribe to the blogs that we read regularly. As I've mentioned before, I believe that this idea of subscriptions is the third big wave in the evolution of the web (hyperlinking was the first, search was the second), which is why I was so excited to jump in.

Those more technical understand that this is all powered by a variety of technologies (many of which I discussed in "The Syndication Mess") and will learn quickly that Slide can build channels using RSS 2.0 feeds as well as content from your local machine. But the nice thing is that if you don't understand what I just said, it doesn't matter. The goal is to try and simplify the entire process so that grandma doesn't have to worry about XML, RSS and a bunch of other acronyms. She can just subscribe to Johnnie's photos and they will stream by, and new ones come through automatically. The details around whether those photos come from a Flickr RSS feed, from my laptop, whether they're pushed using RSS 2.0 or Atom or going over 443 vs. 80 should be completely transparent to her. It should just work.

In addition to the idea of exploring subscriptions and personal publishing, I've also been interested in working on a connected client-application for a while now, especially when reading articles by people much smarter than I am on the subject. Google and Yahoo! are getting more involved in the area of connected client-applications as well, which is, I believe, the right progression (for an over-the-top assessment, read Kottke's take).

Slide is currently in private beta, but will open to the public on Monday. If you can't wait that long, let me know and I will invite you.


Oh, and one last thing: Right now Slide is Windows only (doh!) but we're building out our Mac dev group, so contact me if that is something you'd be interested in working on.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Wednesday, 24 Aug 2005 05:33

Posted: 8/23/2005
Updated: 8/24/2005

Google has changed its philosophy. Their "10 Things About Google" page was recently updated:


Here is Google's explanation (written at the very bottom of the page):

"Full-disclosure update: When we first wrote these '10 things' four years ago, we included the phrase 'Google does not do horoscopes, financial advice or chat.' Over time we've expanded our view of the range of services we can offer –- web search, for instance, isn't the only way for people to access or use information -– and products that then seemed unlikely are now key aspects of our portfolio. This doesn't mean we've changed our core mission; just that the farther we travel toward achieving it, the more those blurry objects on the horizon come into sharper focus (to be replaced, of course, by more blurry objects)."

Conspicuous? Yes. Do I blame them? Hmm... I guess not.

Google has changed. The company that used to preach "Don't be evil" is now blackballing the press because they dug up information on Eric Schmidt. The company that was once a small, quiet place for nerds to code is now a $85B media company. Is Google going to become the new Microsoft? It already is.


As it turns out the timing of the removal of the "Google doesn't do... chat" was not coincidental. Google has announced a chat client called Talk.

Also, it seems that the New York Times and I are in full agreement. Relax, Bill Gates; It's Google's Turn as the Villain:

An excerpt:

"In the day, you'd hear that Microsoft was the evil empire, especially in Silicon Valley," said Brian Lent, the president of Medio Systems, a start-up in Seattle working on mobile-phone-based search. "Google is the new evil empire, because they're in such a powerful position in terms of control. They have potential monopolistic control over access to information."

Mr. Lent, who worked closely with Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, when all three were Ph.D. students at Stanford University, helped introduce Mr. Brin and Mr. Page to one of the company's earliest investors.

"I like and respect the Google guys," Mr. Lent said, "but let's just say that their ultimate aim seems to me to be, 'One Google under Google, for which it stands.' "

In that article is also the first press mention of my new company, Slide:

"I've definitely been picking up on the resentment," said Max Levchin, a founder of PayPal, the online payment service now owned by eBay. "They're a big company now, doing things people didn't expect them to do."

Mr. Levchin, who last year founded a multimedia company in San Francisco called Slide, said Google "still has a long wick of good will to burn off," but he added, "I'm surprised at how fast the company's reputation is changing."

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Monday, 18 Jul 2005 07:55

Angelina JolieComment and Trackback spam on my website has increased over the last couple months and is driving me crazy. Everything from promises of nude celebrity photographs to poker to subjects that are not family oriented were being advertised on my site. The time came to do something about it. Here is my long, strange trip down the road of preventing spam:

Renaming MT-Comments.cgi

I started where everyone starts. Renaming MT-comments.cgi so that machines searching the web for that file have a harder time finding it. I hit a bug and reverted back. Spammers 1, Johnnie 0.


Most people using Movable Type install MT-Blacklist, which blocks the IP addresses associated with spammers. I installed MT-Blacklist 2.0 but it was incompatible with Berkeley DB, my database. An older version (1.6.5) is compatible with Berkeley DB but not with Movable Type 3.1.x. Sigh. Spammers 2, Johnnie 0.


My next step was to install MT-DisguiseTrackbackURL. This takes the Trackback URL and uses JavaScript to render it on the page. This way a spambot will need to run JavaScript in order to learn about the URL. This isn't a very robust way to protect the Trackback URL, but it was easy to install, and I needed a quick victory. Spammers 2, Johnnie 1.


Next I tried to installed Mt-Scode. This allows you to put a graphic with numbers and letters next to your comment submission form, and require people to write the value they see in an edit box. This keeps the spambots from being able to leave a comment. Unfortunately this required a graphics library called GD. I downloaded GD, but to install it I needed a C complier like GCC or CC, which I couldn't find when I SSH-ed to my account. Not looking good... Spammers 3, Johnnie 1.


Then I decided to install MT-Bayesian. This uses a training algorithm to learn about the properties of spam and then hide those comments from showing up. The original MT-Bayesian is incompatible with Movable Type 3.1.x but I found an updated one. Unfortunately it was extremely processor intensive (read: painfully slow). It also did not rebuild templates in an intelligent way, requiring me to rebuild all individual posts even if the change was only to one. Training was taking a really long time, and due to some bug the comments were still showing up. I thought it was hopeless at this point: Spammers 4, Johnnie 1.

Asking a Question

Then I read about a simple idea: just ask a question and have the person enter the result in the form. You'll notice the question I ask in the comments area. This makes it harder for a spambot to leave comments.

The code for this was really simple. I added the input field to my Individual Entry templates with the name/id of X, and added this snipet of code to MT-Comments.cgi, right under the line that says 'use strict;':

use CGI qw(:standard);

my $data = param('X');
die unless (($data eq 'the-answer') || ($data eq 'The-answer'));

Spammers 4, Johnnie 2.

Movable Type 3.2

Movable Type 3.2 is currently in Beta, but it looks like it has MT-Bayesian type functionality built in. Hopefully the combination of the work I've done so far and Movable Type 3.2 will help me even the score.

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Monday, 11 Jul 2005 09:47

John Maeda: "What is Design?"
Paul Rand: "Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions, there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that's why it is so complicated."

This excerpt is taken from a conversation between John Maeda and Paul Rand. I reflected back on this conversation after I had a discussion about design with Paul Rademacher.

Part of the process of working with form and content involves asking questions. I would prefer to work with people who ask the right questions and offer no answers, rather than those with many answers to the wrong questions.

In the field on interface design there are a number of easy answers that are best pushed aside in order to make room for better questions. What if a Windows application had no application menu? No Save command. What if it had no modal dialog boxes? What if it had no context menus? Asking the questions frames the problems to be solved in new ways. What begins as questions focused on limitations can become an opportunity for thinking more broadly about the problem.

What if you could only use gestures? Would your design become a morass of obfuscation?

Author: "johnnie" Tags: "Design"
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