Category Archives: The NY Times Valiantly Attempts To Report on Technology

Because Russian Money is Clearly Worth Less, Somehow

Link: Russian Facebook Investor Adds Stake in Zynga – NYTimes.com

Digital Sky Technologies, or D.S.T., an investment firm with offices in Moscow and London, is leading a group that is buying a $180 million stake in Zynga, a fast-growing San Francisco company whose online games, like FarmVille, Café World and Mafia Wars, are extremely popular on Facebook.

An unusual investment structure, by an unorthodox foreign investor, might shake up many of Silicon Valley’s traditional venture capital and private equity firms, which are losing out on another promising Internet opportunity.

If the Times reporters, Brad Stone and Claire Cain Miller, had bothered to talk to more than one Silicon Valley investors for this story, they would have learned that startups in the Facebook ecosystem are all but radioactive to Valley investors today. Of course Kleiner Perkins is going to say they’re an amazing company, etc., but if they didn’t pull the trigger on an investment, it means they didn’t like what they see (and Kleiner probably isn’t a terrific litmus test for investors

It’s definitely not the case that when an investor passes on an opportunity, that investor is  “losing out.” “Losing out” is the opposite of “winning”; DST hasn’t won yet. Do you feel like you’re “losing out” every time a bus passes you in the street because you could have been on it?

It’s also a little weird the way they characterize the investor in this deal. They raise the fright wig of Russians, criminals, and “unusual investment structures” without really going into what that means. If that’s the concern here, then why don’t you name the “criminal” investor until 18 paragraphs into the story?

Google vs. the “Tyranny of Data”

Link: Should Design Be Held Back by a Tyranny of Data?

The Times’ “Bits” blog today chased the two-month-old story of Doug Bowman, who left Google for Twitter in March. Bowman’s story wasn’t particularly remarkable aside from the fact that he has a great reputation and was expected to have quite an impact when he joined the big G in 2006, and the fact that he was fairly vocal after he left Google that, to his surprise, he wasn’t able to have as much of an impact as he would have liked.

I don’t have any direct knowledge of Bowman’s situation, but it shouldn’t be difficult for anyone who’s worked for a technology company like Google (and I’ve worked for two, and turned down offers from two more) to see the big-tech company dynamics at work here. It’s quite possible that the problem started the day the Google recruiter called him, promising him he’d be able to bring a new discipline to Google, spin up his own team, and “have a huge impact” on millions of users. I hate to be cynical about this, but it’s vanishingly unlikely that anyone brought in to work at a company with thousands of employees and years of established history is going to have any kind of material impact on that company unless they are brought in as a C-level executive (and even then, just maybe). And it may not be the case that “having an impact” is the thing that someone should be shooting for in the first place. To me, it seems to reduce one’s career to a series of video game achievements and sets aside the notion of teamwork and team success. I generally question the credibility of any recruiter who uses it to pitch their company to me as a prospective place to work. If you’re a technologist, you should, too.

I didn’t want to let this go without a few comments on the way the writer, Miguel Helf, approached this story. When you’re writing about something that’s two months old, the expectation in the newsroom is that you’ll add something new to the story. If there isn’t any actual new information, an inferential leap of some kind will usually do. So in this case, Helf makes “data” the villain, pitted against the hardworking, sensitive artist who really just wants to make the world a better place. This is, of course, a narrative framework used by all kinds of writers to make their stories more interesting, but for this story it really clouds the truth and does a disservice to both Google and Bowman (both of whom, I’m sure, felt like they were doing the right thing). Is there a place for a talented visual designer within a large company? Certainly. Is Google the kind of place for a talented visual designer to do his best work? Maybe, maybe not, although I’m guessing a lot hinges on your professional and artistic aspirations (particularly if those aspirations are in line with Google’s minimalist aesthetic). Should the managers of a multi-billion dollar business rely upon data analysis to determine whether the changes their designers propose are sensible? Well, duh. Bowman himself, in his farewell-to-Google blog post, even says “I can’t fault Google for this reliance on data”. So there’s an unfortunate, imagined tension between two schools of thought going on here that is mostly made up by the Times writer, Helf.

Helf’s inferential leap that he uses to keep the story viable is the notion “crowdsourcing,” a buzzword which I’m sure he has devoted a brain cell to, but isn’t really applicable here. Google doesn’t crowdsource much, if anything (since it doesn’t have to — it can generally buy or crunch whatever data it might need). The story as Helf tells it doesn’t actually have anything to do with crowdsourcing. What Bowman objects to is relentless bucket-testing (the process through which a big web property introduces a change on a trial basis, measures the impact, and then implements the change more broadly or rolls back the change based on the responses of consumers). But I think that even focusing on bucket-testing misses the point. In a big technology organization there will always be someone down the hall who objects to what you’re doing, and you’ll always spend a significant amount of time driving consensus. In some cases this is a good thing, because so much of what we do hasn’t been done before by anyone, and we want to make sure we aren’t making expensive mistakes. But there’s obviously a point where it can paralyze an organization, and it’s certainly not the case that that environment brings out the genius in everyone. Those people generally go to work for startups, as Bowman did.

Blaming the Messenger: Slagging Prop. 8 Donor Mashups

Interesting piece by Brad Stone of the NY Times on Proposition 8 donor mash-ups — sites like eightmaps.com that contain freely-available information on people who donated money in favor of Proposition 8.

Stone goes into near-hysterics in his attack of the site, calling it “controversial and provocative” (even though the site’s display of information could not be more neutral) and strongly implying that the site is somehow directly responsible for threatening emails and phone calls that are being made to political donors who oppose marriage equality.

He does point out that information on political donations must be made public under California law (the raw data that people are using to make mash-ups is on the California Secretary of State’s site), but he doesn’t mention that Prop. 8 donors actually went to court to try to keep their donations secret (a judge told them to shove it). But it’s clearly not just the public information, but the mashup that’s to blame here in Stone’s eyes — never mind that this is just a visualization of information that’s already publicly available.

So this is definitely a case of blaming the messenger. But the thing that struck me about Stone’s piece was its utter one-sidedness. Stone couldn’t find a single person who thought that publishing the names of donors was a good idea? How about asking the people who actually, you know, published them? I realize that may be difficult (the owner of the eightmaps.com domain is hidden behind an anonymizer) — but this in itself might have been a relevant fact to include in the piece.

The story quoted the sharp and savvy Kim Alexander, who is pretty much the go-to gal for voting matters in California (and who I’m acquainted with — we attended UCSB at the same time). Kim supports Stone’s assertion that there’s a tension between the public’s right to know who funds political campaigns and the expression of freedom of speech represented by a political donation, and that’s fair. But by making this so one sided, Stone essentially boils a potentially interesting civic dilemma down to another tired version of The Internet Ate My Baby.

On top of all that, I can’t help but think there’s at least a hint of elitism (much as I hate to use that oft-flogged term) when a newspaper attacks web sites run by civilians based on public information and not, say, the Prop. 8 donor sites run by other newspapers that do essentially the same thing using the same information.

Intimidating political donors is obviously wrong. Duh. So let’s enforce the laws that are already on the books pertaining to that instead of weakening the laws pertaining to openness and transparency (as Stone suggests in the piece). Put it this way: If a bunch of chumps from Utah or Colorado are trying to influence how my state is run, I deserve to know about that. And if schoolteachers are making $100 donations to attack the notion of equal protection under the law, I want to know about that, too, before I let them try to teach my kids social studies.

Technology Will Undoubtedly Annihilate Us All And There Is Absolutely Nothing We Can Do About It

Link: Handle With Care

Last year, a private company proposed “fertilizing” parts of the ocean with iron, in hopes of encouraging carbon-absorbing blooms of plankton. Meanwhile, researchers elsewhere are talking about injecting chemicals into the atmosphere, launching sun-reflecting mirrors into stationary orbit above the earth or taking other steps to reset the thermostat of a warming planet. This technology might be useful, even life-saving. But it would inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and impossible to undo.

Is that so, glib technologically-challenged scare-mongering New York Times writer? But wait: if the effects are impossible to predict, how can you say with certainty that they’re impossible to undo? If the byproduct of solar mirrors is that a cooler full of banana daquiris magically appears on the doorstep of every American household (for example), I think we’d have a way to remediate that (as they say in the environmental impact business).

Nonsensical NY Times Story on MSFT/YHOO Integration

To hear the New York Times’ John Markoff and Matt Richtel describe it in their largely fact-free story on the technical integration that Yahoo! and Microsoft will need to do if the merger goes through, you’d think that a Yahoo-Microsoft integration will amount to a cleaning of the Aegean stables.

The writers did take the time to interview someone who did a Unix-to-Microsoft port of a web site after it was purchased by Microsoft, but that port was done eight years ago. And this wasn’t Microsoft’s 1998 Hotmail acquisition (which some people consider to be the gold standard for Microsoft cocking up an acquisition of a *nix-based web property).

So the question is, from a technical integration perspective, could things have possibly changed in the past eight to ten years?

Well, of course they have. The one guy with direct knowledge that Markoff and Richtel interviewed (who now works for O’Reilly and should really know better) was probably migrating from Solaris to some version of Windows NT. One could imagine that LAMP as we know it today was not in the picture. And there are a broad spectrum of software engineering best practices that were not in place back then which go unmentioned in the article.

So ultimately, the piece leaves out several key facts that almost completely scuttle their thesis:

  1. Microsoft has worked with Zend to make PHP run well on Windows Server. In my February 1 post on the merger, I theorized that Microsoft did the Zend deal specifically to make it easier for them to digest companies (like Yahoo!) that extensively utilize PHP. The Markoff/Richtel piece does not mention the Microsoft/Zend deal at all. It does mention that PHP’s inventor works for Yahoo, but it’s a fact that Zend contributes far more to the language today and this has been the case for many years. At any rate, a reader of the Markoff piece could come away with the impression that PHP doesn’t run on windows at all, which is totally bogus.
  2. The hellacious Unix-to-Windows migrations of the late 1990s often hinged on the ability to get Oracle running on Windows, which was a big challenge then and remains a challenge today. But Yahoo uses very little Oracle in its customer-facing properties; the big database in use there is MySQL, which runs quite well on Windows today. I wouldn’t guess that Microsoft would migrate MySQL-on-FreeBSD to MySQL-on-Windows, but they could do it as an intermediate step if they wanted to get a merged Yahoo! running on Windows. But there is no mention of databases at all in the Markoff piece.
  3. FreeBSD, while prevalent at Yahoo!, is not actually the operating system that most companies in Silicon Valley (or anywhere) use. I’ve heard more than one Yahoo! engineer state that the company’s choice of that operating system is a hindrance for a number of reasons. Migrating to Anything But FreeBSD (whether it’s Linux, Windows Server, or Solaris) will have several key benefits — not the least of which being the fact that very few recent college grads are learning FreeBSD today. Another implication for this is that when Yahoo! acquires a company, they acquire that company’s operating system choice as well (all the company’s recent acquisitions, including Flickr, run on Linux, not FreeBSD).
  4. Both Yahoo! and Microsoft have made extensive investments in XML web services, both inside and outside the firewall, which should ease technical integration somewhat. You may recall that XML web services were considered cutting-edge and exotic in 1999. There is no mention of web services in the Markoff piece.
  5. The Windows Server that Microsoft sells today is not the piece o’ crap that Windows NT circa 1999 was. Period. The fact that Microsoft’s server technologies no longer suck is key, but it’s not mentioned in the Markoff piece.
  6. Probably the most ill-informed assertion is that Yahoo! is totally open source or that Microsoft is totally proprietary — or that either of these things would matter on a technical integration level even if they were completely true. But let’s imagine for a moment that someone needed to hack at the kernel of Windows Server to perform some Yahoo!/Microsoft integration task (which seems far-fetched, but let’s just imagine). Are we really to think that getting access to that code would be a deal-killing problem?

Will Success, or All That Money From Google, Spoil Firefox?

Link: Will Success, or All That Money From Google, Spoil Firefox?

"…the Mozilla Foundation has come to resemble an investor-backed Silicon Valley start-up more than a scrappy collaborative underdog. Siobhan O’Mahony, an assistant professor at the School of Management of the University of California, Davis, calls Mozilla ‘the first corporate open-source project.’

The foundation has used a for-profit subsidiary, the Mozilla Corporation, to collect tens of millions of dollars in royalties from search engine companies that want prominent placement on the browser. And by collecting that money as a war chest to compete against giants like Microsoft and Apple, the foundation has, at least temporarily, moved away from the typical activities of a nonprofit organization. ‘The Mozilla community has been a bit hybrid in terms of integrating public and private investment all along — its history is fairly unique in this respect,’ Professor O’Mahony said."

Unique maybe in the sense that it’s achieved so much success, but it’s nonsense that the notion of a public-private partnership to create open source products is "unique" or that Firefox was first. If the writer had gone further afield than UC Davis, that worldwide center of excellence in open source, he might have been able to get quotes to that effect. But I suspect what really happened here is that the reporter started with a thesis he invented while sitting with his feet up on a desk in the newsroom ("hey! Firefox makes money somehow!") and then sought out quotes trying to validate the overall amazingness of his thesis. This is a story that’s been around for years and the writer didn’t add much to it here.

For my money, MySQL AB is a much more interesting story of a for-profit company using open source, particularly since they’ve done such a terrific job disrupting the database market (and, unlike Mozilla, could go public soon). Alfresco is also particularly interesting in the sense that it’s comprised of a bunch of pioneers in the content management field who are using an open-source content management product to disrupt their former closed-source companies.

Google and Friends to Gang Up on Facebook

Link: Google and Friends to Gang Up on Facebook

“On Thursday, an alliance of companies led by Google plans to begin introducing a common set of standards to allow software developers to write programs for Google’s social network, Orkut, as well as others, including LinkedIn, hi5, Friendster and Ning, according to people briefed on the plans. Those people asked not to be named because they agreed to keep the alliance’s plans confidential.”

We’ll see what this looks like when it emerges, but whaddya wanna bet that the “standard” they come up with walks and talks like Facebook’s API yet is every so slightly different (and incompatible) with Facebook’s API?

And how is LinkedIn supposed to factor in here, I wonder, with their famous opposition to the notion of an open platform?

I’m still willing to accept that this initiative is getting lost in the NY Times’ muddled inability to do a decent and technically accurate story on Silicon Valley technology, but it really sounds Google is trying hard to turn “openness” and “interoperability” into the new “embrace, extend, extinguish” here. Which, if successful, would be quite a feat.

Update: A second-day story on this quoted Joe Krause on behalf of Google. From this one could deduce that Google’s entry into the “open but not Facebook” cabal will be the relaunched JotSpot, whenever they get around to re-launching it.

Update: Marc Andressen has more about this on his blog. I wish he’d posted this yesterday instead of letting everybody get half of the story via TechCrunch. Marc’s post clears things up a bit but I’m still interested in seeing what the bits look like. It seems like this is more an attack on Facebook’s proprietary markup language than anything else. Memo to interoperable social network cabal: there is no such thing as a platform that does not use some kind of proprietary semantics to map out its feature set. You’ll find yourself doing this as well if you haven’t done it already.

Side note to web marketers, PR mavens and evangelists: if you want to ensure that there is an elevated level of confusion associated with your launch, one sure way to accomplish that is to provide an exclusive leak to TechCrunch prior to your public launch. I know it’s virtually impossible to get on TechCrunch unless you give them a scoop, but there’s a cost associated with making those guys your media leak of choice. To put it another way, no product launch has ever failed because the product didn’t brief TechCrunch about it a few days ahead of time.

Update: Michael Arrington’s headline on this today says “checkmate!” which is of course nonsense since the game isn’t even half over, OpenSocial hasn’t even produced anything yet and Facebook could of course join at any time if they wanted. His commenters mostly seem to agree.

Saul Hansell of the NY Times has some less hysterical thoughts on this; he points out that “LinkedIn has also said it may ask for a revenue share from those who
create applications for its network. And haggling over money, no doubt,
will slow down the deployment of many social applications.” No kidding. This is my main concern about the path that LinkedIn is going down. Having to ask permission to build an app and then provide a revenue share isn’t a platform; it’s the definition of a walled garden. AOL was successful at this for a while in the 1990s because they were able to bring a mass audience when nobody else could, but these days, that dog won’t hunt, monsieur.

NBC To Launch Loathsome, Defective Video Download Service

The other shoe has dropped in the Apple/NBC divorce. NBC announced plans to launch its own online video service this fall (which suggests to me that they’ve been working on the service for some time now — without a doubt they had this plan in their back pockets during their negotiations with Apple).

I can already tell you that the NBC store will suck because it does so much less (and, if NBC has their way, will eventually cost much more) than the iTunes store. The NY Times story describes it in these less-than-mouth-watering terms:

"The NBC service, called NBC Direct, will begin a testing period in
October with plans to be operational in November. The service will
allow customers to download full episodes of NBC shows for seven days
on Windows-based PCs. The file will expire after the seven days."

"Seven days on Windows-based PCs" is the tipoff here — the Times reporter doesn’t say this explicitly because he doesn’t want to damage our tender little brains, but seven days/Windows-only only suggests to me that NBC plans to use Windows Media DRM. This means that it won’t work on any other operating system, which means NBC has denied itself access to 10-15% of the U.S. market (and even more overseas).

The fact that the NBC service will be "free" is what the NY Times writer chose to lead with. He buried the real story, which is that this is really a rental service, not a store — it will be a totally different business model from iTunes — more competitive with Blockbuster, really, than iTunes.

Here’s the bit the writer really screwed up, though: the terms under which NBC wants to "sell" you videos are not just worse than iTunes, but worse than every single video delivery system that has ever existed. Consider the alternatives you have for watching recorded TV programming today:

  • Taping a TV show to a VHS cassette lets you watch it as much as you like forever and play it back on any VHS player anywhere.
  • Recording something to Tivo lets you watch it as much as you like forever on several different devices (if you have the right Tivo model).
  • Netflix lets you rent a DVD and keep it as long as you like.
  • Amazon Unbox lets you keep a pay-per-view program for 30 days before the movie kerplodes.
  • Even Blockbuster is a better deal, since they adopted the Netflix business model and don’t charge late fees anymore.

It’s not even worth my time to download a TV show for free if it’s going to expire in just seven days, honestly.

Update: The Federal Government of News ran a second story about this with some more detail and some more humorous quotes about how scared the network is of nasty evil internet video pirates. This piece discloses NBC’s fantasy price point for video downloads ($4.99!), suggests that they’re going to support Macs and iPods Real Soon Now, and specifies that the free downloads will contain commercials that can’t be skipped. Just what I was hoping for.

Update: This has now launched. All the reviews I’ve read about it say that it sucks just as much as we suspected it would. I wouldn’t know because I’m using a Mac and the service doesn’t work with Macs. Doesn’t work with Firefox either. Pass.

Fixing Typos by Web Users, Without Raising Hackles

Link: Fixing Typos by Web Users, Without Raising Hackles

"David Ulevitch is trying to turn two numbers into a multimillion-dollar business.

The numbers — each composed of a quartet of digits — are just two of the more than four billion unique identifiers, the street addresses of cyberspace, that permit computers and other electronic devices to find one another on the Internet.

With the cleverness of a Wall Street arbitrageur, Mr. Ulevitch…has figured out how to use the numbers to make a business out of the propensity of Web surfers to make simple typing errors."

Hmm, multimillion-dollar business, you say. I’m very interested in this; tell me more. Just a few digits, you say? Why, this sounds like the kind of business I could get behind. Why, I myself know several hundred digits by heart — surely a few of them could be used to create a multimillion-dollar business. And the great thing about numbers is: if you ever run out, there’s always more where those came from.

I am inspired to erect a thousand-foot-high bronze ziggurat and in it place a set of hand-carved stone tablets containing every news story that attempts to explain DNS to a nontechnical audience. There are few technical concepts that represent a bigger conceptual meat-grinder for the general-interest technology writer. The Times’ normally cogent John Markoff sticks his arm in it up to the elbow on this one, leaving even his technically adept users wondering: are the geniuses at OpenDNS cleverly making dot-com megabux on just two numbers, or four digits, or four billion numbers? (Here’s a hint for our less technically-inclined readers: if internet DNS only comprised of two numbers, the internet would be kinda small.)

Left unanswered is the very valid question of why OpenDNS isn’t just a reincarnation of RealNames, but never mind that. Let’s just take it on faith that these guys are geniuses and move on. After all: there’s lots o’ explainifyin’ to be done.

Markoff goes on to explain in more detail about the intricacies of DNS, but not before attritioning at least half of his readers on that downright painful lede. Mr. Markoff, we’ll be happy to construct a custom-fitted onyx sarcophogus in the Ziggurat of Bad DNS Stories especially for this story if you like.

Apple Releasing a Windows Browser

Link: Apple Releasing a Windows Browser

"Like many of Apple’s strategic moves, the implication of an Apple browser for Windows was not immediately clear, but it is likely that Mr. Jobs is now plotting a broader business strategy that will allow Apple to grow beyond its niche position in the computer market of about 5 percent."

Since the NY Times’ John Markoff can’t imagine why Apple would port Safari to Windows, I’ll suggest one reason why it would make sense. It’s not because, as Markoff suggests, Safari on Windows will help Apple grow market share for the Macintosh (I’m not even sure why it would follow that a Windows user, after using Safari, would want to go out and buy a Mac). Safari on Windows makes sense because Safari will be a development tool and debugging environment for the iPhone, and Apple wisely realizes that developers might not want to purchase a bunch of new Macs just to write software for the new phone.