Tuesday
Mar132012

My thoughts on Posterous' acquisition

Yesterday the news broke that Posterous has been acquired by Twitter. Since I doubt Twitter has much interest getting into the blogging space, this is very likely a talent acquisition. Unfortunately, the phrase “talent acquisition” has come to mean shutting down the service within a few months.

In their public statement, Posterous said:

Posterous Spaces will remain up and running without disruption. We’ll give users ample notice if we make any changes to the service. For users who would like to back up their content or move to another service, we’ll share clear instructions for doing so in the coming weeks.

In reading this, it could not be more clear that they intend to shut down the service. The sentence “Posterous Spaces will remain up and running without disruption” is clearly intended only to be true in the immediate term, as the following sentences make reference to giving ample notice and providing a way for users to move their content to another service. This is unfortunate, but to someone that has been paying the least amount of attention to Posterous over the past year, it’s been clear that the company has not been doing well.

First, in January of last year, Garry Tan, one of the two co-founders1left Posterous to join the investment firm that initially invested in Posterous, Y Combinator. While this doesn’t immediately spell disaster, it is worrying when a co-founder quits the company. Second, in the fall of last year, Posterous decided to try to pivot from being a public blog platform to “Posterous Spaces”, which was some sort of private blog/social network hybrid. Presumably this was intended to compete with Tumblr, who had been Posterous’ primary competitor for years and who had developed a rich set of following/liking/reblogging features that Posterous lacked. However, it wasn’t a complete pivot, as users could still create traditional public blogs on the platform.

I never really got Spaces, and I don’t think many other people did. And there was still the problem of how the company would make money - to many people, including myself, Posterous seemed too good to be true, providing a free blog without ads or heavy branding, giving away all the powerful features with no way to directly pay the company. Last fall I was reexamining my decision to choose SquareSpace to host my blog, as well as looking for a place to host multiple blogs for the podcasts I run, and so I was comparing as many services I could find using a variety of criteria. I ended up writing the following summary of my findings of Posterous:

Posterous is in the “seems too good to be true” camp. They get moderate to high marks for everything except the everything-is-a-post category, (also known as the “Tumblr” category). It’s certainly a very compelling site for someone that doesn’t want to pay anything and still get everything. The GA/Feedburner integration is also surprisingly good, and modifying the templates I can add any other JS-based stats app (a la Mint).

With regard to the “too good to be true” thing, my earlier comment2 about “one wonders how they make money” comes into play. Simply put, there are a number of things that could potentially happen:

  • It shuts down due to lack of money
  • It starts to “monetize” in unpleasant ways, either by demanding money or with ads or something
  • Significant changes in how the service operates may be made. They made one such change with the switch to Spaces earlier this year
  • It’s sold to a company that does one or more of the above

So while the Posterous software seems to be pretty close to what I’d need, I’m less bullish on whether the company’s interests are the same as mine.

Sadly, it appears as though I was right, and much sooner than I ever would have thought. It’s unfortunate, too - I have a soft spot for Posterous, as I had used Posterous for my personal blog before SquareSpace, and I was very happy with the software and the service. In fact, some of my content from my Posterous days has made it here. It saddens me to see a service whose failing is not the technology itself, but in failing to find ways to make money with it.

This is why I like SquareSpace. Instead of the company playing around with ways to make money or shutting down and/or selling out when they can’t, SquareSpace just charges their customers to host their sites. That’s it. And although the amount of money I pay per month isn’t large, it’s more than your typical shared hosting account, which means that I know they’re making a healthy profit off each and every customer, thus ensuring that the business will have the means to continue to operate for a long time.

1 There was apparently a third “co-founder”, Brett Gibson, that joined Posterous as a result of an aquisition by the company, but I can’t find much information about him. He’s listed in Crunchbase under the “Former” section, indicating that he, too, is no longer with the company.

2 My “earlier comment” was not included for brevity, but one of the bullet points from above my summary was:
sites are completely free. there appears to be no way to give them any money at all - no premium themes or charging for features. one wonders how they make money
Monday
Feb202012

The Centration Show

I’ve started a new podcast, and it’s about psychology! Each show Julianne and I will be taking one aspect from the world of psychology and exploring it. Our first show is up, and in it talk about the term behind the name of the show, centration, Piaget’s stages of the development process, conservation, “Naughty Teddy”, and Corinthian Leather.

Friday
Feb172012

Of Mountain Lions and Men

You can read my thoughts on all the publicly available information about Mountain Lion on the Ask Different Blog in my article entitled “Of Mountain Lions and Men”. Cheesy title, I know.

Thursday
Feb162012

Ambushed

I awoke this morning to a sea of posts about Apple’s latest operating system, Mountain Lion. Instead of sending out invitations and holding a press event or waiting until WWDC to announce the next Mac OS X, last week Apple instead secretly met with an indeterminate number of journalists both in California and on the east coast and did some few-on-one presentations of Mountain Lion (the “one” being a single journalist). The journalists were then given a MacBook Air with Mountain Lion preloaded and an embargo not to publish until yesterday.

So today rolls around, and, not wanting to be caught last with the news, all the big publications posted their in-depth reviews bright and early. To suddenly go from not even thinking about the next version of Mac OS X (recently, it’s been about 2 years between releases) to being bombarded with huge articles to read, videos to watch, hundreds of tweets, etc. felt a bit like being ambushed.

For as long as I’ve been paying attention, Apple has announced products in only two ways:

  1. They hold a big event, or are keynoting at a big event, and send out invitations in advance.

  2. They issue a press release on their site or take down their online store for a few hours, then bring it back up with new products.

That’s it.

In the first case, journalists are invited about a week prior to the event. This invitation is typically leaked online, liveblogs are set up, and everyone that’s interested follows along, furiously refreshing to see the latest announcements and pictures.

In the second case, the press are given no heads up whatsoever, and scramble around piecing together the story after the information is available online for all to see.

In both cases, for us non-journalists, it feels as though Apple is communicating directly with you. The liveblogs allow you to vicariously be present as the products are announced, and changes to Apple’s website are things anyone can see. While the press clearly are privileged to actually attend events, it still feels very much like direct communication from Apple.

Contrast this with the announcement for Mountain Lion. No invitations, no event, no nothing. Select members of the press are given a secret presentation and advance access to this information for several days. Then, when the embargo is lifted, a barrage of content engulfs the unsuspecting and unprepared public; articles with word counts each more colossal than the last.

Also note that there will be no video of this presentation made available anywhere, as no presentation was publicly given. After reading all the live blogs and all the news articles everywhere after a typical Apple event, I like to watch the video to fill in the missing pieces and to see how some of the stuff that’s been written about was used in the demos. By having private meetings, I feel that I’m being left with an incomplete picture; many different articles but nothing to use as a frame of reference.

John Gruber asked Phil Schiller about this uncharacteristic change in how Apple’s doing product announcements. Schiller’s response, “We’re starting to do some things differently”, seems to indicate that this strategy will continue to be employed in the future. Gruber also speculates that the reason for it this time is that Apple tries to limit their special events to retain their significance, and that the recent iBook Textbook event and the upcoming iPad 3 event will use up their reserve for the time being. This may be true. However, why not simply issue a press release and update their website? Why all the secrecy and embargoes?

Also, I don’t know how many journalists got this special treatment, but I doubt it was more than a dozen or two. I recognize that there are constraints that prevent Apple from giving this presentation to everyone, and that even at special events there must be a limited number of attendees, but these secret meetings gave those that were invited a huge advantage on the coverage. In fact, only those journalists, and no others, are free to write about details of Mountain Lion, as the only other way to obtain Mountain Lion is through the Developer Program, which restricts members with an NDA.

Maybe this is just how things have to be at Apple now, what with the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs, I don’t know (John Gruber alludes to as much in his post). But part of the magic of Apple is the buildup to a great product launch, following it live, and talking about it with friends for the rest of the day. If you cut straight to the end you miss out on the best parts.

Sunday
Jan222012

It's all about selling more iPads

On Thursday, January 19 Apple held an event in New York City to unveil their vision of the future of textbooks and learning. Phil Schiller took the stage and showed off iBooks 2 with some app-like interactive textbooks on the iPad, unveiled a free tool to create textbooks for the iPad, and finally demoed a new “iTunes U” app that incorporated both the existing iTunes U lectures as well as the ability to manage additional course material on the iPad.

See the pattern? No, it’s not that everything was about education, it’s that everything was about the iPad. As someone that owns a Mac and an iPhone but not an iPad, I was surprised and a little frustrated that I have no way to download and view the new textbooks, nor can I preview the books I create with iBooks Author on either my Mac or iPhone - the app insists that I connect an iPad to do it.

There doesn’t seem to be any technical reason why iTextbooks can’t be used on a Mac - newer MacBooks have a multitouch trackpad that can be used to simulate all the necessary gestures that an iTextbook expects, and most of the demoed interactions with the iTextbook were done in landscape mode, so it’s not the orientation of the screen either. Also, and this might be a personal thing, but I hate typing on touchscreens - it’s tough to position the device so you can type on it, and there’s no tactile feedback, so in some ways iPads are worse than MacBooks for interacting with these textbooks. Even in the demo video Apple made1 the typing seemed like something that most people, students included, would rather avoid.

It’s also interesting to note that this is the first real case of something that can only be done on an iPad. In all other use cases from Apple (mail, calendars, videos, etc), the iPad is a bit of a compromise between the portability of an iPhone and the screen real estate of a MacBook. This event shows that Apple is eager to start making the case that there are some things that can only be done on an iPad.

On the most recent Hypercritical episode, John speculates about ways that textbook and education markets could actually be disrupted, saying that black text on a white page would be sufficient provided that Apple creates an infrastructure so that teachers, administrators, and school boards could monitor student progress from a centralized system (I’m paraphrasing). He also says that a key weakness of the dominant player in the ebook market, Amazon, is their proprietary book format and that a smart move for Apple and other competitors would be to standardize on an open, interoperable standard that cumulatively has more users than Amazon’s.

Yet this presumes that Apple’s primary goal is to grow the iBookstore, and have it make inroads into the education market. However, I suspect that Apple’s primary goal is instead to sell more (a lot more) iPads. The reason why they demoed fancy videos and interactive graphics is because that’s a clear differentiator between the iPad and the smaller, less capable “tablet” products on the market. And the textbooks on the iBookstore and those created with the iBooks Author app are being used to leverage platform lockin - once you make the expensive choice to invest time and money into textbooks that can only be used on iPads, you’re guaranteeing a steady revenue stream from schools that adopt the platform for years to come.

Of course, it isn’t exactly a huge revelation that a company that’s made its money for the past 35 years by selling hardware is going to want to pursue that same strategy. But it’s worth bearing in mind that despite the lofty, philanthropic goals in the presentation and the marketing of these services and software, that all they want is to sell more iPads.

1: At 6:52 there is about a second of students furiously typing away on iPads. Maybe it’s possible to type that fast, I don’t know, but I doubt most people can be as fast with a touch screen as they can with a keyboard.