Archive for December, 2007

Cloudy Computing from Business Week

December 27, 2007

I just finished rereading the Business Week article about Google’s cloud computing initiatives. A few thoughts:

1) As Anil noted last month, Google’s visibly made a strategic PR shift from quietly talking about their successes to trumpeting things in progress, vaporware or no. SOP in the industry, no harm no foul, and if Business Week wants to follow, good for them – but it’s a long way from the clear we’re-done-go-at-it of years past. Open question: will engineers begin to trust Google less as they see more of this?

2) Google’s control over press coverage is surprisingly strong here. If you’re going to write a legitimate article about cloud computing today, you don’t relegate Amazon Web Services to a sidebar. They’re the ones doing this for realsies, it’s not like they’re a scrappy startup without data center investment, and no question that the excitement about AWS cloud services among tech companies is legitimate. (Google search for EC2, an uncommon term otherwise? 995,000 results.) Eric-fu 1, Jeff-fu 0. 

3) Would it have made the article more or less interesting if they’d mentioned Christophe Bisciglia’s criminal record – for breaking into a Port Orchard ISP? (Look, he was crafty then, too!) Hey, BW, it’s the second result when you use that search engine his company makes.


X ruined Xmas – a meme in progress

December 25, 2007

During the early days of Facebook Beacon, bloggers/tech press/etc. started a reasonably serious conversation about the impact of Beacon on user’s privacy. Then the Facebook Ruined Christmas stories began, and this became less of a tech/activist story and more of a story everyone could understand – and it was all over for the all opt-in version of Beacon.

Then about a week ago, Google Reader started its own weird violation of privacy. Reader has a feature called “Shared Items,” where you could select individual posts to be aggregated onto a single page. The key is that this page’s URL was known only to you unless you chose to share it (here’s mine).

Then Reader added a feature where you could see the shared items of anyone you’ve ever chatted with using Google Talk – which if you also use GMail, means people you’ve ever chatted with inside the GMail app, which is so simple to use that it really becomes “anyone you might have occasionally chatted with using GMail.”

The UI looks like this: my shared items section has five people – and while I consider all of them friends, 4/5 I met in a professional context, 3/5 I’ve chatted with exactly once (in one case at least a year ago), and 2/5 I’ve only ever talked with about work, for some value of work.


(Thanks for letting me manage my friends, Google. They never let me do it when I ask.)

Doesn’t really bother me, and I’ve in fact discovered an interesting post this way, but it’s another weird violation of user’s expectations of privacy. This one has gotten comparatively little press, but when someone wrote about it on Slashdot, the title of course included “ruins Christmas.”

A snippet from a Google Groups post:

This is going to sound like hyperbole, but this new feature has
actually RUINED CHRISTMAS for my family! I sent a share a few days ago
that I thought would only go to a few politically-like-minded friends.
I didn’t realize that because I had chatted with him in GChat, it
would also go to my brother, who is of a different political
persuasion… He called me a nasty name and
told me that if I can’t take a little ribbing, maybe we shouldn’t talk
anymore at all, including at Christmas Eve dinner. My whole family has
taken sides over this divisive political issue, and several of them
are not speaking. I kid you not, this is threatening to break up my
family at Christmas.

So now, techies, we have an official way to make your privacy concern heard – talk about how it ruins Christmas. If the generic argument doesn’t work, tell a Christmas story. I don’t know if it’s good for the industry that privacy issues will be easily reduced to ruining Christmas, but it’s good that these abstract privacy concerns can be made into real user stories that gain credibility with the popular press and mainstream readers.

(Aside: Amazon Wishlists added a feature a few years ago that by-default hides the fact that items were bought for you. Guess why…)

Here are some future ruins-Christmas scenarios:

  • MSN’s Santa bot stops talking about non-Santa-like things and users start trusting it again – and then it broadcasts whatever you told Santa you want for Christmas to all of your friends. And to Bill Gates. None of them buy it for you: Christmas is ruined.
  • During December, Yahoo includes this with every search result:

And perhaps not limited to Christmas – maybe we’ll have Myspace ruined Hanukkah, Wikipedia ruined Purim, etc.

Online Gambling, Microsoft, and Feeling OK

December 20, 2007


I worked for the MSN Gaming Zone during the height of the online casino advertising boom (1999-2001). In either 1999 or 2000, I forget which, >50% of our revenue came from a few online casino conglomerates. It was my forceful introduction to the role online advertising can play in guiding “product” team decisions – we were running ads for now-defunct brands like on every page, we were ignoring advertising guidelines to allow them to run ads that looked like our pages or game controls, we were sourcing games which were good fits for casino advertising, we were building new advertising products (like pop-unders) for casino customers (and X10 cameras). While we were still trying to move the game products forward (this was when we brought Bejeweled), ad-driven development was paramount. My job was to shepherd game and ad products, so I spent my time dealing with this balance.

Our focus at the time was ruthlessly short-term – we didn’t spend the time (have the time?) to invest in similarly scalable revenue diversification (i.e. we had other partners in the advergaming space, but implementing them was much more expensive – until we did the first proof-of-concept Bejeweled skin, hacked up in my office with pictures of team members replacing the jewels, everything was a multi-month effort) and we never once thought about legality. I’m guessing we just thought that someone else was thinking about it (we were just one property in the MSN fold, after all, and while gambling sites were especially interested in our customers, we didn’t “own” the partner).

(This isn’t an indictment of the team, btw. It was clear that there were pressures above our station that were “encouraging” this behavior, and we were executing in an environment that was much more about showing financial progress than building long-term value. That seemed to change in future years.)

In the end, one reason I left this job (to work on backend gaming technologies) was that I felt very uncomfortable with the products that were paying our salary. I don’t have some agenda against gambling – I play the occasional game, as do my parents. But I was sure that combination of the flashy advertising that looked like our site, the egg-on pitches, and the sleazy methods some of these companies used to hook people would, no doubt, pull money out of the pockets of people who could least afford it. I respected the company’s right to allow people to choose to engage in gambling, but I didn’t need to be part of it. I also decided that if I ever worked for a company that supported itself through advertising (as I do today), I would need to be comfortable with the advertisers.

So now Microsoft needs to pay $21MM as recompense. The money is going to different places – missing and exploited children (I think it’s a large leap from online gambling, but it’s not like it’s a bad cause), PSA’s for online gaming, etc. – and I’m not sure I’m uncomfortable with the primary reason being a legal one, since the practical nature of online gaming legality was at best murky until 2006 – but it’s an interesting closure to those days.