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Archives for October 2010

The Yahoo dance

Maggie Shiels | 09:39 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010

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Yahoo can't seem to catch a break these days.

Yahoo logo

 

Roughly two years on from the devastating bid and subsequent failure by Microsoft to buy the company, Yahoo has never really managed to rally. At least, that is the perception among many here in Silicon Valley.

But can you blame people for thinking that way?

Bloomberg News reported that Yahoo's stock has dropped 44% since the company spurned a $47.5bn (£30bn) Microsoft takeover bid in May 2008.

The new boss Carol Bartz, who replaced chief Yahoo Jerry Yang after he stood down as CEO, has so far not been seen as a raging success having made cut after cut after cut.

Carol Bartz

 

Since her arrival, executive after executive has either walked the plank or jumped before being pushed.

And being named the most highly paid boss of an S&P 500 company did little to endear Ms Bartz to the Valley.

The web portal/technology company has rebranded itself under Blake Irving but has so far failed to wow when it comes to product launches, despite the fact that there is some good innovation there.

Now Yahoo is back in the news with talk of a takeover bid being spearheaded by AOL, another company that has been regarded as wallowing in the doldrums after it was bought by Time Warner for $164bn in 2001 only to be sold earlier this year for a relative song at $10bn.

So how real are these rumours of AOL supposedly being busy knocking up a deal with a bunch of private equity firms? The Wall Street Journal has them practically married off.

The paper reports that Yahoo has asked Goldman Sachs to find out if the expressions of interest are credible and if any approach becomes formal - what steps to take.

Goldman Sachs has "previous" with Yahoo having helped it fight off Microsoft.

Reuters News reported that talk of a deal with AOL sent Yahoo's share price way up earlier this week.

Analysts and industry watchers are split on the validity of the claims that Yahoo is being eyed by AOL in a takeover attempt.

"Personally I don't give this a lot of credence and think the speculation has been leaked to judge reaction to a takeover," Augie Ray of research firm Gartner told BBC News.

"It's difficult to see where the benefits are of such a combination, which of course depends on any financial components."

Mr Ray admitted that he sees any merger as neither a "win-win" nor a "lose-lose" proposition:

"They both have content strategies that are both sound. They have a great deal of users. In fact they seem very alike and I don't necessarily see a tremendous need for one to fill in one's weaknesses and lend strength to the other.
 
"They strike me as quite similar companies. If you talk about a combination between Yahoo and a social network, that to me would make more sense."

That ship has most possibly sailed. Yahoo famously back in the day tried to buy Facebook for $1bn.

Yahoo and AOL are staying mum over the whole affair; while reporters on one side of the aisle talk things up, the other side pours cold water over everything.

Amid all the flurry, Yahoo suffered a brief outage of 20 minutes when visitors to the main Yahoo.com page were greeted by the message "Server hangup" and a blank page.

The timing did not go unnoticed.

Boosting science education

Maggie Shiels | 10:35 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

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It seems to be an almost accepted truth that science and maths education in the US is in danger of going the way of the dodo.

OK, so I exaggerate. But the issue is one that has been long talked about in technology circles and in Silicon Valley for the obvious reason that they are worried about where their next workforce is going to come from.

A couple of years ago, then Intel boss Craig Barrett lamented the state of the US education system as a whole.

Last year I spoke to Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, who talked about her concerns over young people sticking with science, especially female students.

Even the president of the United States of America has weighed in on the issue, vowing to up the amount of money invested in the area.

And last month, the president joined 100 CEO's and Ms Ride to try and change the bleak maths and science picture in the US through a programme called Change the Equation.

Scitable

 

One of many groups also trying to elevate science is Nature Publishing Group, the publisher behind Scientific American and Nature magazines. It has launched Scitable, a social network for science research and education.

"The big picture view of why we started the site stemmed from a serious concern about the future of science and how science education is working," said Vikram Savkar, senior vice president and publishing director at Nature Publishing. He is also in charge of the Scitable initiative:

"We are the leading publishers of scientific publications and work with researchers trying to solve world problems. As we took a survey of the scientific community we uncovered some serious problems, namely that in the US, 40% of students who start out in their freshman year studying science drop out of science a year later to study another major.
 
"As we looked at what was happening around the world, we developed real concerns that there would not be enough highly qualified and motivated researchers to do the research needed to solve world problems over the next 40 years."

That was 2009 when Scitable was born with the aim to present an open teaching and learning library aimed at college students or AP level high school students.

Mr Savkar said another goal was to level the playing field for students in poorer countries where the drop-out rate is higher: "In Uganda it is not unusual to have one text book for an entire classroom which is 10-15 years out of date."

Scitable acts like many social networks, letting teachers, researchers and students share and contribute content as well as connect with peers and browse and search articles. Users can also set up online classrooms, reach out to experts, build a personal scientific network and get involved in online discussions.

To date, there are between 50,000 and 100,000 faculties who have used the site and there are one million users spread over 165 countries.

"This speaks to a real thirst for high quality online accessible materials," said Mr Savkar.

Everything is free without having to register. There is premium content available for those that sign up, but it is also free.

The curriculum was originally restricted to the study of genetics but has just been extended. Mr Savkar said:

"We had to start somewhere and rather than chew up the whole curriculum we chose genetics because it is also one of those foundation subjects that once learned will help in other life sciences.
 
"It is an exciting topic and so important to our mission to help students be more attracted to science and consider it as a career. Those drop-out studies show that once a student loses sight of what it is all for, they are lost to science."

Funding is provided through sponsorship from leading companies like Intel and Roche who get the opportunity to put their name under the noses of students and prospective employees.

Mr Savkar told BBC News:

"We have put some fantastic world class content out there that people can find nowhere else. That content becomes the watering hole that attracts teachers and students who can come together to learn and meet, leading to substantive interactions.
 
"Scitable is quite new and its progressive approach to science is not a big expensive text book. I think what makes this work is there are people who are here to learn, to teach and to share. In drawing on 140 years of expertise in publishing science research at the highest level, we aim to breathe new air into science."

Scitable just recently added the topic of cell biology and ecology to the site.

In a further effort to democratise science education, Scitable has also introduced a mobile version of the site. Translation into foreign languages is the next step.

Facebook stumble

Maggie Shiels | 09:30 UK time, Friday, 8 October 2010

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Facebook introduced a number of new features this week aimed at putting users in control of their information, but it seems that despite their best intentions the social networking giant has erred over its groups feature.

The aim of the new groups product is to allow people to map online how they live in the real world with discreet groups or cliques - be it a family group, a book group, a work group or whatever.

The whole idea Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told BBC News was to let "people share things they wouldn't have wanted to share with all their friends.

"There are some things you are comfortable saying to all your friends at once but a lot of things you only want to share with your close co-workers, or your room mates or your family. This unlocks all this potential where people now have a way to communicate with these people that they didn't have before."

While that might well be true, it seems a lot of people are unhappy that anyone in a group can add anyone to the group but the person that is being added does not get asked if he or she wants to be added. The people you invite to an open group are automatically members; they don't have to accept.

Entrepreneur and blogger Jason Calacanis is particularly unhappy about the new groups feature for that reason and fired off an email to tell Mr Zuckerberg why. He was added to a group called NAMBLA, which stands for the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Definitely not something you want on your profile.

And that is Mr Calacanis's point. In his email to Facebook he said he was "force joined" to the group and that he most definitely is not a member.

Mike Arrington, the founder of tech blog TechCrunch was also added to the group and he in turn added Mr Zuckerberg to no doubt make a salient point.

While the feature allows anyone to set up a group and add anyone they want, if it is public everyone can see the membership. While NAMBLA is not a serious group, the prank played on Mr Calacanis could easily have repercussions and are more than likely to proliferate.

"I found myself added to a group without being asked, and that was worrisome," SearchEngineLand.com editor-in-chief Danny Sullivan wrote in a blog post.

"I was pretty aghast this had happened. Groups got it wrong from the beginning by failing to ask if you want to be included," Mr Sullivan said.

The NAMBLA group is a parody, but some in the security profession note there are some sinister aspects to the hole Facebook has left in their new product.

"This could be abused in a very nasty way," said Chester Wisniewski of security firm Sophos in a blogpost.

"Imagine you are traveling to the United States from overseas and your friends find it amusing to add you to a group that looks terrorist related. You might find a welcoming committee from the border patrol that you weren't expecting.

"There doesn't seem to be a way to opt-out of this feature, although you are notified if you are logged into Facebook. As usual it would appear the ability to connect trumps your ability to decide what should be done with your identity when it comes to Facebook," said Mr Wisniewski.

To give Facebook its due, it did actually pre-brief a number of privacy organisations about is new features ahead of launch. Larry Magid of ConnectSafely.org, which gets funding from Facebook, told the BBC that on the whole he liked the groups feature but was wary of this very aspect.

"Mostly I am happy they are giving users more control and I think the groups aspect for the most part does give you this added control," said Mr Magid

"The only worry I have is that friends can add people to the group, so if you create a group and are in a group you have to be aware of not only who you add but who others add.

"As long as you are aware of who is in the group it can be a great privacy tool. If it gets out of hand it could give you a sense of false security."

And while the product was tested intensely inside Facebook, the way real people in the real world use it has clearly differed from what the company expected. Google found this out to its cost with Buzz which was slammed over privacy concerns.

Facebook spokesperson Jamie Schopflin told the BBC "we made the decision to allow group members to add others to the group in order to make the product simple, and because it resembles something we all understand: adding one of your contacts to an email thread. Similar to the controls in place for photo tagging, you can remove yourself from a group at anytime. If you remove yourself from a group, you can't be added back by a member.

"Many social dynamics on Facebook are determined by the people who use it. If you have a friend that is adding you to groups you do not want to belong to, or they are behaving in a way that bothers you, you can tell them to stop doing it, block them or remove them as a friend - and they will no longer EVER have the ability to add you to any group. If you don't trust someone to look out for you when making these types of decisions on the site, we'd suggest that you shouldn't be friends on Facebook," said Ms Schopflin

The problem of course for a number of people is that some of those "friends" on Facebook are not "friends" in real life because a lot of users connect to others for business or professional reasons.

At the end of the day, the solution is an easy fix for Facebook and one that will earn them goodwill and show they are being responsive to the needs of users. If you truly mean to give users more control, then give people the opportunity to say no thanks to a request to being added to a group.

Twitter's new boss maps the future

Maggie Shiels | 08:40 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010

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Even though Dick Costolo has only just got his feet under the desk as the new chief executive officer of Twitter, there was little doubt in my brief conversation with him that he has had a lot of time to think about how to lead the company.

Dick Costolo

 

There were no great revelations about direction but it struck me that he is sending out a clear message to anyone looking at Twitter as a possible acquisition - forget it.

"We both want it to be a long living independent company," said Mr Costolo of his approach to the business and that of co-founder Ev Williams who decided to step down this week as the CEO to focus on product.

The reason I even mention the issue is because last week buying Twitter was the question du jour for every CEO who took to the stage during the technology conference TechCrunch disrupt.

Mind you another constant was "when will CEO Carol Bartz leave Yahoo?"

All undoubted mischief making by TechCrunch boss Mike Arrington who himself succumbed to takeover overtures from AOL.

But I digress.

In the mind of many analysts, the company's decision for Mr Costolo to move from his role as chief operating officer to that of chief executive officer is a sign Twitter is growing up.

PJ Louis at the Gerson Lerman Group said:

"COO Dick Costolo, has been elevated to the position of CEO in order to turn Twitter into a profitable business.
 
"Williams' efforts are not trivial. Costolo's skill is making money. Williams' passion and drive are what helped create Twitter but now Twitter needs someone who can focus the company on turning a profit."

Mr Costolo said that suggestions he is going to suddenly get overly aggressive when it comes to milking advertising dollars is off the mark:

"The impetus for these changes was the fact we just rolled out new Twitter and it was a remarkable success and I would go ahead and say it has been one of the most successful digital product launches I have ever witnessed."

Mr Costolo is not a person given to hyperbole. He has been around the block given he was the founder of Feedburner which was acquired by Google in 2007 for around $100m. During a stint at the search giant, Mr Costolo was an advertising product manager. He is also an early investor in the micro-blogging service which has over 160 million users.

So no sudden moves on the advertising front, simply because Twitter said it has been making pretty good inroads in that direction and will continue with those and other efforts. Mr Costolo said:

"Our advertising efforts have been remarkably successful and we are now in position to expand our ad rollout because the initial launch was so successful. We still aim to have hundreds of advertisers by the end of the year as planned all along.
 
"This particular shift [in management] has nothing to do with that effort to continue to expand the advertising platform."

In fact Mr Costolo told the Mixx conference of the Interactive Advertising Bureau "we're definitely beyond the experimentation stage."

He told the New York Times "right now, there's a line out the door to advertise with us and spend significant dollars with us."

As to the number one item on his to do list as CEO, Mr Costolo said:

"[T]op of the agenda is scaling our growth internationally. We continue to grow at a tremendous pace now in multiple countries and around the world simultaneously. Managing that growth is a significant challenge in one county but managing that growth across multiple continents all at once is a challenge few companies get the opportunity to tackle."

One of the main points in that expansion is around localisation and language. For instance, Mr Costolo pointed out that in South Korea where they are growing rapidly, language translation is done by a third party client and that is something the company hopes to improve upon.

So what about all those stories that everyone in Silicon Valley from Facebook to Google should buy Twitter? Mr Costolo said:

"Ev and I both had board seats before this change and we both have board seats now. He owns the same percentage of the company that he did on Monday. Ev and I are consistent with the view that we see this as a long living independent company that can change the world."

Disruptive technology?

Maggie Shiels | 11:49 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

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Techcrunch Disrupt is a showcase for start-up companies to pitch to the great and the good of Silicon Valley.

Techcrunch, the inimitable blog behind the conference, also names some firms as possibly disruptive and gives them a slot in "Silicon Alley". For us in the press, this is a cross between running the gauntlet and a treasure trove as eager founders try to interest you in their wares. The experience depends on your state of mind and on how rushed you are.

And so last week, I caught up with some of the start-ups that might become a household name, might get acquired or might flame out.

A lot of things in one go

According a vote, the most disruptive company was Qwiki, which won $50,000 and the Disrupt Cup.

Screengrab of Qwiki

 

The company describes itself as a new visual information experience. When the user enters a subject, up pops a host of mixed media, including videos, photos and narrated text.

"We are a mix of art and science," the company's creative director Rasmus Knutsson told me. "We have an intelligence algorithm that picks up the data - it goes through the Qwiki machine and out comes this very visual, very immersive experience."

Easy-use cases are researching a holiday destination or buying a house where a user will be given the history of an area, a timeline, maps, videos, photos, places to hang out and so on.

At the moment, Qwiki has over two million topics to trawl through. It did OK when I asked it to pull together data on Bonnie Prince Charlie. I didn't much care for the robotic female narrator; no doubt there will be options on that in the future.

Qwiki relies on Wikipedia for its information but hopes to eventually use data from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and Linkedin.

Mr Knutsson stressed that for him, Qwiki is not a search engine but a "new way to get information about a lot of things in one go".

As a sidebar, one of the founders, Louis Monier was behind Altavista, the first large-scale search engine on the internet.

Local newspaper on steroids

It's all about being social these days and Dehood is no exception.

Screengrabs of De Hood application

 

In this case, founder Babak Hedyati wants to travel back in time and re-awaken local neighbourhoods of yore.

"It's a throwback to the way neighbourhoods used to be before we all started conducting our life online and living in virtual worlds," said Mr Hedayati.

Think of Dehood, he said, like a local newspaper on steroids.

"The local paper is very good at reporting and editorialising and writing lengthy pieces on things that happen and communicating with local shops and bringing deals to people," said Mr Hedayati.

"In our case, we want to bring people together for something good and forge a sort of kinship - for example, if you care about keeping the neighbourhood green or safe or you want to create a block party or bring the parents together to make the schools better or drug-free.

"These are causes that local people can join together and in the process find and meet people who are like themselves that care about the same issues and help them develop friendships in the neighbourhood."

Local merchants use the service to offer local deals; others have used it to find a lost pet.

Mr Hedyati hopes people will check Dehood the way they once checked the local paper to find out what is going on around them, who is around them and what the latest buzz is.

DeHood has apps for iPhone and iPad and plans others for Android and Blackberry.

Makeover for the web

Also trying to leverage the power of community is Styleseat.

Melody McCloskey

 

it is a service aimed at beauty professionals: hairdressers, massage therapists, personal trainers, manicurists and so on.

"Word of mouth has been huge for this industry in the past," said 26-year-old co-founder Melody McCloskey.

"The problem is people are spending more time online - instead of speaking to friends face-to-face to, say, recommend a service, they are more likely to send links to things. For this industry, that is a downfall because the tools haven't caught up and those who work in this sector are at a disadvantage.

"So we want to take that real-life word-of-mouth chatter and translate that to the online world and empower providers to share the work they do."

Ms McCloskey said another challenge for many of the two million professionals employed in this sector is that they often can't afford to set up their own individual sites and don't have the savvy to do so. That is where Styleseat hopes to come in as a middle man.

There is a freemium model that allows small businesses to create a web presence and a premium service that includes booking and scheduling options and keeping track of clients and feedback.

Ms McCloskey says the business was inspired by her own need to find a good hairdresser after suffering three expensive bad experiences.

"That was when I realised the consumer is not empowered - and even more so, neither is the professional. So this is a way to get their work out in front of more potential customers," said Ms McCloskey.

'eBay of space'

Ever found yourself in a foreign place or a strange city with nowhere to lay your head and very little money in your pocket?

Airbnb advert

 

That scenario is what inspired the creation of AirBnB. Two of the three guys behind the company, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, rented out an airbed in their apartment to a desperate conference-goer who needed a cheap place to stay.

From there AirBnB has spread to nearly 8,000 cities around the world and has billed itself as the "eBay of space" aimed at disrupting the traditional hotel model.

The firm's Carly Chamberlain described AirBnB as an "online location rental platform" that includes everything from "an airbed to a castle and from an igloo to posh apartments".

"We are starting to pop up in remote locations, the names of which I have never heard of before. During the World Cup, for example, some people were so far out that they came and picked up their BnB guest at the airport."

Just as the accommodation varies, so does its price - from $20 to $2,000.

The company gets a bite out of both ends of the deal by charging travellers between 6-12% of the price and the renter a 3% fee.

To police the service, the company relies on reviews and social networks like Facebook where travellers and renters have the opportunity to screen one another.

No more rude awakenings?

Talking of a place to lay your weary head, how do you guarantee a good night's sleep if your other half is an early riser? Lark founder Julia Hu promised the crowd at Techcrunch Disrupt a way to make the alarm clock obsolete.

She describes her product as "pajamas for the wrist" - it's a wristband that receives a signal from the user's smartphone and "emits a gentle vibration that wakes you up, no matter how deep a sleep you are in."

"Most people have smartphones," said Ms Hu, "and we are using that technology to get you up and let your other half snooze."

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