Archive for August, 2007

Couchville - Traditional TV Meets Web 2.0

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Couchville logoI’ve seen my fair share of useless web 2.0 start-ups lately. Give me something I can actually use. Couchville is that something. It is very rare and refreshing when a new service comes along and surprises with a stunning experience.

I had no expectations from a service that offers TV listings. After all, TV is so old school, right? Wrong. Couchville has done an excellent job of incorporating new-web technology with traditional media to create a wonderful experience. Couchville quietly launched in February 2007. Only recently has it come to my attention. Simply put, Couchville offers dead simple TV listings - and I mean that.

When you hit the site, you are prompted to enter postal code (or zip code) and your satellite/cable provider to create a personalized grid.

The viewing experience is phenomenal. An uncluttered, intuitive interface displays only the necessary functionality without any useless features. The AJAX viewing grid can smoothly be dragged to a desired viewing period without the need for a page refresh. Your arrow keys can also be used to navigate through channels. An explicit red time bar clearly indicates current TV listings in your area. Surprisingly, only a few subtle text ads appear on the page.

Click here for a full screenshot: Couchville screenshot.

Here are some of the other useful features offered:

  • Users can hide channels they don’t want to see, creating a customized viewing experience.
  • An AJAX calendar function allows you to quickly and easily viewing listings for other days or months. 
  • Users can add shows to their favourites for easy tracking.
  • A buzz chart tracks what is hot from the previous week.
  • The site provides background info and descriptions for each show, as well as a permanent link for easy access.
  • The search function autocompletes your query, requiring you to only type a few letters.
  • A drop-down menu quickly allows you to jump to any channel.

I was actually surprised at how fast the site operated as well. Kudos to the Couchville team. I guess I just can’t say enough good things about the service. I would highly recommend that anyone who checks TV listings check out Couchville. You will not be disappointed.

Couchville has succeeded at doing ONE thing very well - that being TV listings, obviously. Their strategic focus must be applauded. Too many companies have been caught trying to be everything to everyone. These companies got killed.

Digg - 112 Days After The Meltdown

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Digg logoIt’s been 112 days since the Digg meltdown. Contrary to what many had predicted, the social news site seems to be back to normal. Not much has been said about the pending lawsuit(s). Digg ringleader Kevin Rose seems unphased. His new start-up Pownce seems to occupy a considerable chunk of time. My conspiracy side tells me that Pownce is an insurance policy should the Digg fiasco take a turn for the worst. The clever bastard has a back-up plan…

So really, what has happened to Digg since the user backlash? Nothing. Simple as that. Ok, sure, the blogosphere went nuts for a couple days, but everything returned back to normal pretty quick. 

What has the Digg kerfuffle taught us about social media?

  • The viral component of social media that induces explosive growth can work just as effectively in an opposing manner. In other words, the very mechanism that creates community can just as easily destroy it.
  • Don’t mess with your users. Seriously. Even a hint of dishonesty or deceit will likely result in detrimental consequences.
  • Be quick to respond. Should an unfortunate event unfold, provide prompt communication to mitigate user anxiety and explain the situation.

This was truly the first time we witnessed the collapse of social media. It finally *broke*. Much has been said about the benefits of social media, but little has been mentioned about its potential flaws. I’m not a critic of social media, but rather a unbiased observer. The spontaneous, uncontrollable nature of this beast may never be tamed, but it can be studied and understood. It is my hope that this will help prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

Are We Too Dependent on Skype?

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Skype logoSkype goes down. The world stops. A gazillion blogs post about the outage. Boo hoo. Life goes on…

The majority of Skype users don’t even pay for the service, so it’s pretty hard to point the finger at a company who doesn’t receive compensation from the majority of its users.

In reality, we use Skype because it facilitates our lives and/or saves us loads of money. We should be thanking them. But a greedy few choose not to address this.

On the other side, however, I do feel some sympathy for those who pay to use premium Skype services. They are customers. Such a lengthy outage is inexcusable. If I were a paying customer, I’d be pissed off too.

Another point to note is that Skype is used extensively as a conferencing tool by many small companies and start-ups. These companies live and die by the service. It is very common to see an executive meeting scheduled around a Skype conference call. This free alternative is great, but a paid service offers more reliability and support should a mishap present itself. The companies that use Skype’s free conferencing service have no right to be upset if the service goes down, unless of course they are paying customers.

One thing is for certain: even if Skype does go down for a couple days or even a week, people won’t switch to an alternative service. Why? Because all their friends still use Skype. They would have to presuade their entire contact list to switch over to achieve maximum value. Is this going to happen? Not likely.

I guess what I am trying to say is that if you aren’t willing to pay, you can’t expect a perfect service.

Are we too dependent on free services like Skype? Is an outage acceptable to a user who doesn’t pay? Is it OK to demand a lot from a free service?

Mahalo - A Directory In An Identity Crisis

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Mahalo logoYou’d expect that when a new player enters a space, it hopes to attract users from competitor sites, right? That isn’t the case with Mahalo. But then again, Mahalo claims to be in a space that it isn’t actually in. You follow? Mahalo is a search engine in an identity crisis. Heck, it’s not even a search engine. It’s a directory. The search function is nothing more than a glorified shortcut to an individual directory page. “Guide Notes” and “Fast Facts” aside, this is really nothing more than DMOZ.

Mahalo lacks a dynamic, continuous crawl process - it’s static. Therefore, I don’t see how it can be called a search engine. Personally, I’m not convinced that you can define a search engine as such without an algorithm. Having said that, it is of my opinion that Mahalo won’t be able to compete with the big boys. Simply put, I can’t see people switching from Google or Yahoo. Mahalo has quickly realized this and since introduced Mahalo Follow. Now, users don’t have to switch services - they can continue to use Google or Yahoo at their leisure. In the event that a Mahalo result is available, it is automatically displayed in the sidebar.

It seems that Mahalo Follow is a good, passive approach for the company. It may even be the business model in the end (in my mind at least). I respect that the company has only been around for a few months, but the fact that this ’search engine’ lacks ’search results’ for many popular queries is inexcusable. I won’t even touch on unique, long tail queries…

On another note, Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis has been quoted as saying, “SEO is bullshit. If you generate a web page with good content, Google will rank the page properly”. Hmmm… that seems pretty hyprocritical. You see… directories thrive on SEO. Their very structure and nature are tailored for search engines. Even quasi-directories like Wikipedia and IMDB drive a significant portion of their traffic from search engines.

Consider this: both Mahalo and a given directory site contain unique pages with keywords and phrases stuffed into important areas such as the page title, URL, and header tags. In other words, Mahalo is a ’search engine’ dependent on other search engines. SEO is a primary traffic source. Instead of competing against Google and Yahoo, Mahalo has cleverly positioned itself to reap the benefits of these search giants via SEO.

Basically, Mahalo plans to profit from the search results of the other search engines.

If you are still not convinced, type in “Berlin vacation” or “save on your energy bill” into Google? Which directory ’search engine’ has a front page result?… You should never see a given search result in another search engine results page - it’s ridiculous. Need I say more?

What’s your take on the situation? Do you think Mahalo is a search engine?

Wikipedia - The Central Source For All Human Knowledge?

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

Wikipedia logoWill Wikipedia one day be the central hub for all human knowledge? This may sound crazy, but I’m not so sure that it’s as far-fetched as it may seem. The site has developed a loyal following and continues to generate an unprecedented amount of traffic. Founder Jimmy Wales always had a vision “to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language”. In other words, if someone wants to learn something about anything, they can find it on Wikipedia in their native language. This seemingly unrealistic goal is now within reach.

This is where the nay-sayers step in. Many discount the credibility of the site, stating a lack of accuracy and accountability. Some refute the reliability of sources. Others even claim that the ‘mediocrity of the crowds’ depreciates the quality of articles, arguing that a single, expert voice can provide a more clear, authoritative perspective. These are the critics of social media.

One thing is for sure: most numbers, measurements, dates, and quantitative data cannot be argued. It’s fact - it’s indisputable. Qualitative data, however, is a whole different story. Biases and opinions can creep into articles at any given point, subtlely manipulating the thoughts of the reader. Though Wikipedia users and editors do a good job of controlling this type of behaviour, it will always be present. When disputes arise, authority must be present. A moderated system such as Wikipedia can create bureaucracy and formalization, but it also helps to deter potential gaming.

Wikipedia has also successfully opened the playing field. Transparency and accessibility are key. Anyone can access all information in all languages without the need for a login or special permissions - this even includes all edits. A by-product of this is that information inefficiencies are eliminated. It is well known that many companies and organizations profit from a lack of information distribution. The introduction of such a system levels the playing field for all.

The concept of a free service also eliminates another tall barrier to entry: price. Historically, people had to purchase books or other learning materials to educate themselves on a particular topic. Now, this can be done at no cost. Anyone can view all information without paying a cent.

Finally, anyone can edit any article at any time. This is probably the most important feature. Furthermore, it probably carries the heaviest weight outside the walls of the site as well. Though there is a level of moderation, anyone can provide input, information, details, clarification, or data to further enhance the quality and depth of articles. The potential effects and widespread reach of this function simply cannot be articulated.

Obviously I am a big fan of Wikipedia. But it’s not so much the brand I’m a fan of, as the idea behind it. The principle is what interests me. Creating a free learning network for all mankind in every language is not an easy task. It’s not about Wikipedia, or competition, or brand names, or fames, or eyeballs. It’s about human knowledge. Once we can all access all information, the potential is only limited by our own creativity.