Beta – Is Nothing Finished?


As you cruise the Web2.0 aisle, you’ll see almost every site has a “beta” tag attached to it. For those of you who don’t know, “beta” is a label you put on a product before it’s ready for primetime, before you launch. Officially (and according to wikipedia),

the beta period is likely to be unstable but useful for internal demonstrations, but not yet ready for release.

Often this stage begins when the developers announce a feature freeze on the product, indicating that no more feature requirements will be accepted for this version of the product.

What gets me is that many public and totally usable sites still carry the Betama_maps-beta_1.gif stamp. Look at AOL’s Video Product which has been in the news a bunch lately or or Yahoo’s Map service which has been working for over 9 months now (and i really like btw). Or also Google Video also has it although it serves tens of thousands of videos a day. These are not private releases to fix bugs, they are insecurity labels put on to products because the developers aren’t sure if they’ll break.

logo_video.jpgThis completely annoys me. I want people to develop a site until it’s worthy for people to use and then put it out. If it is available for anyone to use – it’s ready. Call it version 1.0. People know what 1.0 means, it means the first iteration. As you fix it and add features, you can go to 1.2, 1.5, 2.0, whatever. But keeping a product in perpetual beta mode is just wrong – have the balls to actually take the training wheels off and see if you can ride.

Not Everyone Sucks

There are some sites that are clever and smart. For example:

1. Writely. They have the best system i’ve seen. At the top right side of thwritely.jpgeir page they have a “beta meter” where users can vote whether their service is stable enough to come out of beta. That’s a great idea. It’s the users who you’re trying to please and if they deem the service solid, then it probably is. This is a company that Google bought earlier this year to build their Google Suite that i’ve speculated about for many a moon.

flickr_logo_gammav12.gif2. Flickr. Instead of being another copycat beta or even alpha – they actually went one more level to the third letter in the alphabet to Gamma. I like it and it goes with their playful nature of the entire site. I totally respect how they do their own thing. Kudos.

Subscription Music Breakdown

In the past few months, i've had quite a few questions about what "subscription" music is. This is my attempt to explain it.

Napster, Rhapsody, MusicNow, MTV, and Yahoo! all offer services where you can get unlimited music for about $10 a month. The one caveat is that the tracks you download with these services are all "rented" – meaning that as soon as you stop paying for them, you can no longer play them. The way this works is that each file requires a license to play. When you download a track you get both the file and the license. For a track to play in a player the license must be valid. Whichever service you use, they automatically renew all licenses every 30 days. If you're no longer a subscriber, the license doesn't get renewed and the files don't play. Another company, EMusic, is a little different – you get 40 downloads of mp3's for $10 bucks a month. While you don't get as many files, you get them in mp3 format and can keep them forever – you truly own them.

Why it hasn't worked? This model hasn't worked for two BIG reasons:

  • Can't find enough music to satisfy $10 a month. What do you want for your birthday? Tell me now. It's hard isn't it. Everybody knows they want something for their birthday, but when they have to think about it NOW, it's tough. It is the same with subscription music. Everybody knows they like a bunch of music and want to download it, but when you're at the front page of Napster, it is hard to remember what you want. Trust me, i've done countless focus groups – this is a big problem. If you can find what you want to download, you don't download and the value of an unlimited download service lessens.
  • iPods and iTunes. iPods are not only pretty to look at, with the iTunes player, they are insanely easy to use. As a device, they are so much easier to use than other subscription compatible devices. Using them, users don't have to ever worry about licenses and they don't have to worry about other media players or connections or anything. An ipod works with – and ONLY with – iTunes which means that it is designed to be simple. Microsoft is a platform company. They make platforms that any vendor can use to sell devices or services. Which is great, but it means that both the devices and the WindowsMedia format itself is going to be much, much more complex – and unfortunately for them, it shows. Until that extra functionality MS allows is really useful, it's only a hindrance.

Will subscription ever be a good way to get new tunes? I believe it will. It is very easy to create music now, and the amount of music being created is only going to keep growing. There is a need for people to find and explore the expanding universe of music. Once there are better searching techniques, I believe the utility of subscription music will rise.

Ian Rodgers, who works at Yahoo Music provided (in this podcast) a great way to think about the advantages of subscription music. It went something like this….

users care about 2 things regarding music: playing music and owning music. If you want to own music, you're best bet is to purchase the CD. You get the music in a lossless format which can be burned into any format at any bitrate indefinitely and also receive associated images, liner notes, etc. If you want to play music, your best option is a subscription platform which allows you to play as much as possible for pretty cheap.

I like that thought, but that doesn't account for iPods, nor the convenience of purchasing only a track vs. an entire album.

That's the theory – what do you think?

A funny sidenote that i like. WMA files (non iTunes) are protected by a technology called in the industry Janus, and by marketers "Plays for Sure." Check out a past blog post of mine which describes why this is a clever reference to a muppet.

Ajax Project Management System Needed

As someone who works with a diverse staff and likes to keep a tight schedule, i online project management tools. I also love gantt charts. The current product i’ve been using is dot project – but this is a pretty cumbersome app. Seeiing that there are so many people who are taking web 1.0 tools and spicing them up for 2.0, can someone please do this for the Project Management tools?

It makes sense for click-intensive tools like mail, calendar, bug reporting, and maps – see: gmail, new Yahoo Mail, Google Calendar, CalendarHub, 16Bugs, and Google/Yahoo Maps – why can’t someone do this for PM tools?

Anyone know of some good stuff? Talk to me

Skype is Great

Ever since i started working with a development team outside of the US, i’ve been using skype to communicate. Back in 2005 when Ebay bought Skype for $3 billion, i did not appreciate the power of the application. But now that i’ve become a regular user, let me just say – it is GREAT! Here’s why:

  1. Ease of use. Installing is a snap. Getting a microphone and device working is easy to do and easy to verify wiht the “test call”
  2. Voice-specific features. There are many IM clients that do voice chat, but Skype really packs the features in. For instance, you can do conference calls, you can mute, hold, add more users, all the things you’d want to do when talking to people. AIM doesn’t have any of these.
  3. Skype In & Skype Out. You can get a regular phone number and either make calls from your PC out to other users or receive calls in. These calls are only 2 cents a minute. Fantastic!

An interesting trend i’m seeing is that apps are adding regular IM chat capabilities to other applications that are popular. Gmail added chat into their mail program as users will logged into mail all day. Skype has IM built in as people keep their voice program running all day. It just makes senes. I can see a day where you have many, many options of how you can instantly send a note to someone you’re talking to or working with.

Google vs. MS: Web Terminals Will Win

I was looking at Intel’s new core, and i heard about Sun’s new Sparc. It’s clear that microprocessors continue to get faster and better, and seem to be mostly utilized on the server side. Laptop and desktop machines don’t need more power because there aren’t that many applications pushing that envelope. For instance, i have a wimpy 1.2 Ghz machine and it does fine. But browser applications are becoming more and more demanding and Operations centers need more and more power from their boxes – which they will be getting with these new chips.

In my opinion, this foreshadows Google and Yahoo’s besting of Microsoft. MS has been very successful for years at making desktop applications, and have ridden the proecssor advances accodingly. There is a fundamental change going on today. All the new applications being build, all the new tools people are using, they aren’t desktop applications. They are browser applications. Compare MS applications Word, Excel, and Outlook (Email/Calendar) to Writely, NumSum, Gmail, and CalendarHub. These new browser applications are still new but you can see how they are just as powerful and networked in ways that MS apps aren’t.

What’s interesting is that this is not a new vision or direction. Sun was there 10 years ago when they touted the Java terminal. They were just 10 years too early

AOL's State of the Union

Time Warner just announced their quarterly numbers. Although TW profits went up, AOL subscribers continue to drop down to 19 million. Just a few years ago they were over 35 million and now they’ve shed around 16 MILLION members. Why is this? Could it be that all the areas they were once dominant in they are now not even second tier? In this new world of social media and collective intelligence AOL is nowhere to be found. As a former employee (2000-2004) at both AOLTW Corporate and AOL Broadband i’ve seen some things. Here’s my take:

  • Social Networking & Blogging. Currently being dominated by MySpace, thefacebook, and others such as Friendster, yahoo 360, etc.. AOL plans to launch something with AIM soon (AIMspace), but i’d say they are about 3 years too late. Why would anyone switch from MySpace to AIM? Tied in closely with this is blogging. So many people, novices and professionals are looking for a place to put their thoughts, rants, and memories. So, while Google is buying Blogger and Yahoo is partnering with Moveable Type, AOL is sticking with their AOL Journals which is very limited in custimization, doesn’t have RSS, and can’t be hosted. I think they either need to get serious or get kill it.
  • Music Services. There are several viable music services out there. For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that everyone and their mother is using iTunes. What else is there? There are music subscription services such as Rhapsody, Yahoo Music, Napster, MusicNet, and eMusic (description of each below). AOL has rested on MusicNet for the past 4 years and last year bought up MusicNow for around $10 million. They had roughly 250k-300k MusicNet subs and i doubt they have anything close to that with MusicNow. At least with MusicNow they are building in community features (i think with MusicStrands), but does it tie into the AIM social network – doubtful. Does it tie in to AIM? Probably not. Is it featured on AOL anywhere? No, not really. When you’re this far behind, the best thing you can do is call in the community. This is what Yahoo’s done with the YME. They know they’re behind in terms of features and functionality, so they made a robust plug-in architecture so the rest of the world can help them catch up. This is why i think Yahoo will be the biggest player after Apple.
    • Rhapsody has been around the longest, is the most web-based and gotten in bed with MS. They have some interesting radio features but for the most part is somewhat klunky. It will be interesting to see what happens with this once MS gets their paws all over it. Supposedly, all MSN music will be powered by Rhapsody.
    • Yahoo Music (with Yahoo Music Unlimited) is slick. As i mentioned above, iIt has some great API’s and ties in well with Y! Messenger. The subscription service is cheap ($60 a year). Unfortunately it has very little subs, but that could change if the WMA issue gets better.
    • Napster is getting better and better, but still has relatively few social aspects. It has a good library and great branding but not much else.
    • eMusic is differentiated with an mp3 library. It’s not all-you-can-eat but it is ipod-compatible which makes a HUGE difference in this world 45 million iPods. They don’t have any mainstream artists but have almost all the indie artists.
    • MusicNet has the largest subscription library but it is simply a fulfillment engine. It powers services such as Virgin, Cdigix, and even Yahoo!. But there is no community here.
  • Advertising. This is when i realized that AOL will always be the JV squad in the internet game. Yahoo was serious about music and went out and bought MusicMatch for $500 million in 2003 and Launch Music (good article) for $12 million in 2001. AOL waited 4 more years then invested $10 million for a MusicNow library. Then advertising emerged as a viable and powerful revenue stream, Yahoo! spent 1.6 billion on Overture and AOL spent a few hundred million on – forever relegating them to minor league ball. Not that they’re doing incredibly poorly, but will they approach anything like Google’s Adsense? The old AOL would have bought whoever it needed to stay on top.
  • Mail. AOL’s golden nugget is the screenname. Users won’t switch because they don’t want to lose their email address and they pay $24 bucks a month for it. Meanwhile Gmail comes out with (basically) unlimited storage – for FREE. Then Yahoo and Hotmail counter with equal storage. Gmail and Yahoo continue to make their services better and better with slick javascript (gmail is the AJAX gold standard) and the new Yahoo Mail Beta is supposedly amazing. What is AOL doing? They make mail the most click-intensive application ever. You need 3 seperate windows to just send a message. And to make it even worse, your mail still expires after 28 days. Wtf? When will they wake up and realize that on a scale of 1-10, AOL is batting about a 3. Let’s break mail down even more:
    • Authentication. AOL requires you to sign on each time you come to it’s site. Sounds reasonable. However if you go to check your mail multiple times a day, it gets annoying. Neither Yahoo nor Gmail makes you do that. Even if you check “remember me” – it doesn’t.
    • Session Time. Gmail lets you stay signed in all day (and actually b/c of this launched a slick app – check out my future post). AOL signs you out after 15-20 minutes. Why are they making it such a pain to read your mail? Should services try to delight the customer?
    • Inbox. Time to bring in some AJAX. The interface is slow and ugly.
    • Integration with other services. No AIM, no real precense, no easy to access address, nothing.
  • Video. This is one space where AOL is doing ok. If you look at the types of video becoming available on the web from amateur (caught-on-tape) on one end to amateur narrative films (iFilm) in the middle to professional content on the other end. AOL is focussing directly on the far end of professional content only. They have deals with many major players to stream the video (NFL, CNN, E!, NBA, WB, etc.) however they make it hard to find the video or to use it anywhere outside of AOL. Their new hi-Q initiative using Kontiki is very interesting because it downloads and dramatically improves up the quality of the video, but the there isn’t much content available in Hi-Q yet – it’s currently only trailers and music videos. My question is where’s the focus on short video clips? There’s an explosion of content coming from short clips such as SNL’s Lazy Sunday that is being distributed through YouTube, Veoh, and now MySpace. This is where the eyeballs are. This is what users are passing around and looking for on the internet. However, AOL is focused on bring TV to the small internet screen. IP might be a delivery mechanism for that someday, but eventually it’ll be viewed on a big screen. I’m much more optimistic about Tivo/Netflix or MS Media Center applications. They have made some big investments in video search. But i don’t know any users to use video search. Basically there are only a few players that host a lot of video (YouTube, Google, and iTunes) and users go to them and search. If something isn’t there, they’ll check one of the others.
  • Instant Messaging. AOL just released Triton, a much needed upgrade over the AIM application that hadn’t been changed for over 4 years. It is still cluttered with Ads, doesn’t integrate blogs or music. Also, check this out: there’s an AOL address book, but now there’s also an AIM address book (powered by Plaxo). And, to make their AOL Mail even more insignificant, there’s now AIM mail which is the exact same thing, but for free. How could you not expect users to be confused when you can’t even integrate AIM with AOL? I’ve started using Yahoo Messenger lately and found it to be just as full featured but with less bugs and easier to use. Google Talk is simplier and easier to use too. Obviously all the users are on AIM so that’s going to be the dominant player for years to come, but it’s horrible how they’ve failed to extend the AIM platform – no API’s, no major improvements, and increasing more cluttered with shameful attempts to suck cash out of it (games, voice, ads, etc.)

This is a long synopsis of a large multi-faceted company but it pains me to see how each step of the way they continue to build creative and useful applications to benefit their members.