Wednesday, 17 December 2014
From a New York Times Magazine excerpt of Nicholas Carlson’s upcoming book, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo:
In many ways, Yahoo’s decline from a $128 billion company to one
worth virtually nothing is entirely natural. Yahoo grew into a
colossus by solving a problem that no longer exists. And while
Yahoo’s products have undeniably improved, and its culture has
become more innovative, it’s unlikely that Mayer can reverse an
inevitability unless she creates the next iPod. All breakthrough
companies, after all, will eventually plateau and then decline.
U.S. Steel was the first billion-dollar company in 1901, but it
was worth about the same in 1991. Kodak, which once employed
nearly 80,000 people, now has a market value below $1 billion.
Packard and Hudson ruled the roads for more than 40 years before
disappearing. These companies matured and receded over the
course of generations, in some cases even a century. Yahoo went
through the process in 20 years. In the technology industry,
things move fast.
Carlson’s take is pretty brutal, and paints a bleak picture for Yahoo’s prospects as an independent company. (Activist investors are pushing for a merger with AOL.) And it doesn’t seem like Mayer is going to get much more time.
I would argue that Yahoo lost its way early. Yahoo was an amazing, awesome resource when it first appeared, as a directory to cool websites. Arguably, the directory to cool websites. It was hard to find the good stuff on the early web, and Yahoo created a map. Their whole reason for being was to serve as a starting point that sent you elsewhere.
Then came portals. The portal strategy was the opposite of the directory strategy — it was about keeping people on Yahoo’s site, instead of sending them elsewhere. It was lucrative for a while, but ran its course. And it turned out that the web quickly became too large, far too large, for a human-curated directory to map more than a fraction of it. The only way to index the web was algorithmically, as a search engine. And one search engine stood head and shoulders above all others: Google.
Yahoo reportedly had an opportunity to buy Google in 2002 for $5 billion. Yahoo, under the leadership of CEO Terry Semel, declined. And that was the end of Yahoo.1 We all know hindsight is 20/20. There are all sorts of acquisitions that could have been made. But I would argue that acquiring Google in 2002 (if not earlier) was something Yahoo absolutely should have known they needed to do. The portal strategy had played itself out. All they were left with was their original purpose, serving as a starting page for finding what you were looking for on the web.
Buying Google in 2002, at whatever cost, was the only way for Yahoo to return to those roots. Google wasn’t just something shiny and new — it was the best solution to date (even now) to the problem Yahoo was originally created to solve. In a broad sense, buying Google would have been to Yahoo what buying NeXT was to Apple in 1997: an acquisition that returned the parent company to its roots, with superior industry-leading technology and outstanding talent.2
In short, Yahoo’s early 2000s leadership had no understanding whatsoever why Yahoo had gotten popular and profitable in the first place. That serving as the leading homepage for the entire web was important and profitable, and that the only way to maintain that leadership was to acquire Google.
Google, on the other hand, learned an important lesson from Yahoo. The basic gist of portals never really died: Google has gone on to build all sorts of properties like Gmail, Google News, Maps, and Google Plus, all of which are designed to keep users on Google-owned sites. But Google never conflated these things with web search. The google.com home page remains to this day as spartan as when it first appeared, and they fully understand that the point of it is to send users to other sites.
Yahoo’s loss of focus on indexing the web was a mistake in the late ’90s. They had a chance to completely correct that mistake by acquiring Google in the early 00’s. They blew that chance, and it’s been all downhill for them ever since. ★
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Adam Goldman and Peyton Craighill, writing for The Washington Post, “New Poll Finds Majority of Americans Think Torture Was Justified After 9/11 Attacks”:
A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation
techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the
treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington
Post-ABC News poll.
By a margin of almost 2 to 1 — 59 percent to 31 percent — those
interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with
the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable
In general, 58 percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can
be justified “often” or “sometimes.”
I find this disappointing, but not the least bit surprising. This cartoon by Jen Sorensen explains the hypocritical nature of U.S. support for torture. There are many Americans who see the United States’s role as the leading nation of the western world as entitling us to do things we’d never tolerate if done by others. What I would prefer would be to see the United States lead by example — to be the last nation to torture prisoners.
When the Senate report was first released last week, a host on Fox News, Andrea Tantaros, had an on-air reaction that many found comically absurd:
“The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome,” she
said. “We’ve closed the book on it, and we’ve stopped doing it.
And the reason they want to have this discussion is not to show
how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this
discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.”
“They apologized for this country, they don’t like this country,
they want us to look bad. And all this does is have our enemies
laughing at us, that we are having this debate again,” Tantaros
I don’t think there’s anything funny about it. I think Tantaros perfectly explained why so many Americans think they support torture: if you start with the assumption that the U.S. is morally good, then whatever our government did must have been morally justified. That’s the thinking. Alas, that’s backwards. Our morality is based on our actions, not the other way around.
On the one side: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. On the other: Do unto others before they do unto you. Only one of those mindsets is “good”. ★
App Store Rejection of the Week: ‘Papers Please’ ★
Phill Cameron, writing for Gamasutra:
Papers Please launched last year to both critical and commercial
success, and placed you in the role of a border inspector working
for a totalitarian regime. The demands on exactly what is required
for entry into your country grow over the course of the game,
until you implement a full body scanner to check for explosives
It’s this scanner that Apple has deemed to be “pornographic
content,” according to Lucas Pope, the games developer.
So here’s an App Store rejection that many disagree with, but which is easy to understand from Apple’s perspective. Apple tends to err on the side of running the App Store with Disney-esque family values. The company places inordinate value in its family-friendly reputation.
Pornography usually involves nudity, but nudity is frequently not pornographic. Pornography is famously difficult to define, but I think one aspect almost everyone would agree with is that pornography is intended to create sexual arousal. I haven’t played Papers Please, but by all accounts, it’s a serious game attempting to create a dystopian police state. The nudity seems to be oppressive and invasive, not pornographic.
This case highlights the way Apple holds games (and apps in general) to a different standard than other iTunes content. Movies, music, and books are not held to the same PG-13-ish standards that apps are. I can buy A Clockwork Orange from iTunes, but if I made a game that showed the exact same things that are depicted in that film, it’d have little chance of being approved. Conversely, an R-rated movie version of Papers Please could depict this scene without a hitch when it comes to iTunes.
Update, 13 December: Developer Lucas Pope says Apple has asked him to resubmit the app with the nudity intact.
Transmit for iOS Update Restores ‘Send To’ Feature ★
After a considerate conversation with Apple, Transmit iOS 1.1.2
has been released with restored “Send To” functionality.
While the process feels less-than-perfect, this resolution is a
nice reminder that, just as we thought, there are good people at
Apple who will push hard to do the right thing. We hope you enjoy
Transmit iOS 1.1.2.
I was optimistic that this would happen, because it just didn’t make any sense to me why they weren’t allowing this. With many controversial App Store rejections, you may not agree with Apple’s rationale, but you can at least understand it. This one just didn’t make sense.
Tools and Toys’s Favorite Camera Accessories ★
Speaking of photography, Tools and Toys has put together a solid list of accessories.
Ken Rockwell Reviews the Fujifilm X100T ★
The Fuji X100T is the world’s best digital camera because no
other camera has its ability to capture great photos perfectly in
any light, all usually on the very first shot. It’s also the
world’s quietest camera, with a completely silent electronic
The X100T has an astonishing combined optical and electronic
finder that allows perfect viewing of anything in any light. A
lever push selects each one, and even shooting with the optical
finder the just-shot image can pop up for review! New in the X100T
is the ability to use the optical finder and have an electronic
inset at the bottom right to magnify a focus area. No other brand
of camera can do any of this.
The X100T is a mechanical jewel, made at least as well as a
$7,000 LEICA M240, with all-metal dials, lenses and top and
I own and adore the year-old X100S. The T update brings face detection, Wi-Fi, the silent electronic shutter, and a few other improvements, but not enough for me to consider upgrading. This is a great camera.
Just like the older versions, ergonomics are superb. The X100T is
designed for photographers, not computer programmers. The X100T
has all the dials and controls we need right at our fingertips,
not buried behind a function button.
The menu/settings system could use a thorough redesign, but in terms of shooting controls — having aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation as analog dials is just wonderful. It feels like a camera. And image quality is excellent. It’s a little too big to fit in a pocket, but it’s way smaller and lighter than my Canon SLR. I already have a good camera in my pocket; the X100 series hits a sweet spot for me, between image quality, photographic control, and weight. $1300 isn’t cheap, but in my opinion there aren’t many cameras left that (a) cost a lot less than that; and (b) are good enough to justify carrying them around instead of just shooting everything with your iPhone.
How Overcast Asks for Reviews ★
My strategy to get good App Store reviews is simple:
- Make an app good enough for some people to love it. By nature,
you’ll lose some people along the way, but that’s OK: an app
that strives to satisfy as many people as possible will usually
only get people to kinda like it, not love it.
- Accumulate a huge surplus of goodwill from those customers with
a combination of step 1, usefulness, delight, and adding more
functionality over time.
- Make it easy to rate the app with a button that’s never
annoying or in the way, like in the Settings screen.
Maybe it’s just me, but in the past year, I’ve seen fewer apps interrupting me with an alert asking to rate the app. (When I do see such a prompt, I still do what I recommended last year: I give it a review with a low star rating.)
I’m also seeing more and more apps asking, in an earnest and honest way, for reviews in their App Store update notes. That’s a great practice, and I often do just that to reward them.
HockeyApp Acquired by Microsoft ★
I didn’t see this one coming. From the HockeyApp team blog:
We want to be very clear about the most important thing: we remain
dedicated to our mission of making the best mobile app development
feedback and testing distribution platform in the world. Your
HockeyApp apps and accounts will continue to work and the team has
not stopped working on advancing the platform. Throughout the next
few months, we’ll reveal more about our plans with Microsoft.
HockeyApp is the leading rival to TestFlight, which Apple acquired last year and began officially supporting within Xcode a few months ago. I’ve always liked HockeyApp — it’s what we use for beta distributions at Q Branch.
Very curious to see what comes of this.
If You Enable iCloud’s Two-Factor Authentication, Do Not Lose Your Recovery Key ★
Harrowing tale from Owen Williams at The Next Web: his iCloud account was locked because someone seemingly had attempted to hack into it. But he couldn’t unlock it without his recovery key (which he couldn’t find), even though he still knew his account password and had access to his second “trusted device”, his iPhone.
I think he’s way too harsh on Apple’s policies here, though. Even the headline of the piece seems off to me: “The Dark Side of Apple’s Two-Factor Authentication”. The lesson here is that if you enable two-factor authentication, you might need to access your recovery key even if you haven’t forgotten your password or lost your trusted device. Apple should make that clear.
The lesson is decidedly not that Apple should allow you to talk your way back into accessing your account over the phone, which seems to be what Williams wanted. That’s exactly how Mat Honan’s account got hijacked two years ago.
The Talk Show Bond Anthology ★
Back in 2011, Dan Benjamin and I reviewed the then 23 James Bond movies made to date (including the non-EON production Never Say Never Again). David Smith has collected those segments into a standalone feed so you don’t have to hunt for individual movies, and don’t have to scan each episode trying to find where the Bond discussion starts. This is so great.
‘They’re starving for material. Starving.’ ★
From a fascinating 1997 interview with Paul Thomas Anderson by Roger Ebert:
Q. Los Angeles is filled with people who want to direct films. They’re always asking, “How do I get started? What do I do?” You have somehow managed to negotiate a path to that point. What do you tell people who want to be directors?
A. That there is nothing else I can do, and nothing else I will do. “No” is not an option. I have to do this or I will die. I only get to direct because I can write - that’s the key. The scary thing is, if you can write, you hold a lot of cards. They’re starving for material. Starving.
Instagram Hits 300 Million Monthly Users, Surpassing Twitter ★
Perhaps it’s as simple as photos being more appealing to a broader audience than tweets. But I say part of Instagram’s success is that their interface is simpler, and the rules for what you see in your feed are like what Twitter’s used to be: a simple chronological list of posts from the people you choose to follow. Insert your own “Correlation is not causation” disclaimer here, but it seems to me that Twitter’s slowing growth corresponds pretty closely to its complexity increasing over the past few years.
Put another way: Instagram is clearly run by people who get what it is that makes Instagram a cool thing. Twitter seems run by people who just don’t get Twitter.
Apple and IBM Deliver First Wave of IBM MobileFirst for iOS Apps ★
This press release from Apple is rather dry — full of blustery enterprise-ese that has a sedative effect on me. But I’m glad I stuck with it to the end, where they have links to both IBM’s and Apple’s galleries of these apps. These don’t look like “enterprise” apps. They look like regular apps — really good ones, the sort of apps Apple would choose to feature in the App Store. This was a huge question I had about this deal. Great design is fundamental to what sets iOS apart, and what has enabled iOS to lead the post-PC disruption of the entire consumer computing industry. Would great UI design play a part in this IBM/Apple enterprise endeavor? Looks to me like the answer is yes.
(Interesting color palette on that insurance retention app — looks like something I’ve seen before, can’t quite put my finger on it.)
(Apple’s iTunes team has put together a good list of apps, books, and podcasts to promote Hour of Code, including The Talk Show.)
Grantland’s Oral History of ‘Boogie Nights’ ★
Fantastic look back at the making of one of my favorite movies ever. Here’s just one tidbit from postproduction supervisor Mark Graziano, regarding the spectacular opening shot/scene:
I remember that shot because I’m a Scorsese fan and I love that
shot in Goodfellas where he goes into the Copa. And here’s
Paul basically … he never said so, but the way I read it was he’s
trying to one-up that Goodfellas tracking shot. And he did.
The whole movie owed a creative debt to Goodfellas to my eyes. Goodfellas created a mold for this sort of sprawling, years-long period-piece ensemble saga. The flow, the pace — the genius use of pop music to establish the era.
Thursday, 4 December 2014
Mozilla’s then-CEO Gary Kovacs in April 2013:
One of the most interesting things he spoke about today was why
Firefox has not been released on iOS while Google has offered its
Chrome browser on iOS for some time. He confirmed earlier reports
that Apple was blocking its submission due to Mozilla wanting to
use a different web engine.
“iOS has a policy, generally speaking, where you have to use their
web engine,” Kovacs said. “Our web engine is different. … I would
love to see far more energy behind iOS. We refuse to make the
Mozilla VP Jonathan Nightingale, earlier this week:
We need to be where our users are so we’re going to get Firefox on iOS.
That it took them until 2014 to bend to practicality — iOS has been growing in popularity worldwide ever since it debuted, and Apple was never going to allow them to use their own rendering engine in an iOS app — epitomizes everything wrong with Mozilla as an organization. I’m all for idealism, but Mozilla has been idealistic to a fault. (Exhibit A: their stance against H.264 video.)
To once again quote the great poet-philosopher Kenny Rogers, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” Their refusal to create an iOS version of Firefox unless they could use their own rendering engine was a losing hand. They’ve now spent close to a decade bleeding relevance in the only part of the market that is growing: mobile. Compare and contrast with Google’s iOS version of Chrome.
Practicality wins. I’ve long suspected that Mozilla’s leadership didn’t understand why Firefox beat IE. It wasn’t because Firefox was idealistically superior — open source, free of charge, superior support for open standards — but because it was just plain better to use.
What Nightingale tweeted is exactly right. They need to be where their users are. But their users have been on iOS for seven years. Better late than never, I say — and it’s worth noting that Chrome for iOS has only been out for two years. But there’s no logical reason why it should have taken Mozilla this long to make this decision. ★