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Archive for the ‘social media’ Category

A Brijj too far

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When I started writing this sort of a review, I honestly wanted to rip Info Edge apart for releasing such a sham of a website. Having read a lot of what Sanjeev Bikhchandani has written and said over time and having seen Naukri grow into the robust company that it is today, I had considerably greater expectations from Brijj. But I’ll hold my horses, tone down the criticism and look at the larger picture, that the blame is almost universally spread out among the Indian internet landscape. Our idea of innovation is to look at the hottest 50 websites out there in the west, pull elements from each of them and promise to do everything, including an unconditional end to global warming, and hope nobody notices that beyond the stellar messaging (email for body builders, email for stupid people, anyone?) the product is the same wine in the same bottle.

Of course, a lot of Indian internet companies are profitable and in a good shape and at least in theory that should drive innovation across the board. But we seem to be happy to wait for the next big thing to fall from the western landscape, lap it up, spit it out and hope the audience here picks it up and voilà, you have a shortcut to near-instant profit. The strangest thing is that even here where there is hardly a decent business model online beyond the traditional banner spots, you get to hear almost endlessly about Web 2.0 and the like from within and outside the trade almost like it is the gospel that fell straight off the money tree.

What nobody will tell you is that most Web 2.0 companies in India today are neither successful nor feasible in both the long and the short run, including the latest string of Ruby on Rails-powered monstrosities, which often don’t have user bases that don’t extend beyond the developer’s immediate family and a string of former and current lovers. From that point of view, the ‘copy from west and paste here in the east’ routine may sound like a good and easy idea, but it is a malaise that will end up leaving us behind like cheap clattering Chinese imitations before soon. I think someone has to wake up, ground some good beans, brew some strong stuff and smell a whole lot of it.

Now to the product at hand: Brijj

On the surface, Brijj picks out the best of Facebook in terms of presentation (the squeaky clean lines, funky Javascript, Ajax etc) and marries it with the best of Linkedin (references, plug ins for Outlook, Outlook Express etc). But that’s where the similarity and the theory ends. Neither does Brijj have the stupendously awe-inspiring backend data wizardry that is the hallmark of Facebook, nor does it have the professional-friendly feel of Linkedin. For existing users of people networks, the lack of what are considered as standard features also stick out like a sore thumb.

For example, there is absolutely no granular privacy settings in terms of who gets to see what and how much. I am assuming that a lot of it is controlled by who you are a friend of and who you are not a friend of, but there’s hardly any easy way to figure it out. Beyond a few clicks and a handful of links, there is nothing to discover about the website. There is just no surprise factor. It looks and feels like a low cost carrier and the killer blow comes in when you see the best done page: product comparison — where you get to see what the different membership options are. And that is a dead giveaway of the shortcut to profit route, when you are crystal clear about your pricing options and are relatively clueless about the rest of the website.

On the technical front, the site is a bit rough around the edges. The server signature is the standard “NWS” or Naukri Web Server, which is actually Apache under the hood, running PHP and possibly one of the MVC frameworks. There are some duplicate meta and doctype declarations all over the place (UTF-8 or iso-8859-1? Make up your mind!), possibly due to some unfortunate soul including a default editor template in some controller file. There is almost certainly only a limited amount of QA done on it (other than a basic copy check) and page titles and meta tags are the same all over the place. And at least in the logged in home page, there is an invisible DIV with a certain Sonal Mehta’s (apparently, an HR manager at Infy) email and phone number hard coded into it.

So what’s the verdict? I am afraid unless Info Edge puts some real hard work into it and revises/refreshes the product, this will end up in the dustbin before soon. In any case, I can imagine the company having real pressure on it to diversify, especially after their successful listing. With 99acres and other properties not doing too well and still being huge cost points that gnaw away at Naukri’s healthy constitution, this won’t come as a relief in breaking the one hit wonder curse. Positioning-wise, I can’t see too many existing users moving over to this. The switching costs are way too high and the features are way too less and honestly, it all feels a bit too amateurish.

Info Edge is also making critical mistakes like not having a common registration database among its properties. Who on earth wants to maintain yet another login in an already troubled world of products where there is almost nothing that goes by the name of interoperability. I am assuming that at some point Info Edge will roll into Brijj, the muscle of Naukri’s database, but they have again erred gravely by not having it on from day one. It would have stood out as a major differentiator to any other similar product and this is again made considerably difficult because of users having to maintain two different identities on Naukri and Brijj.

Written by shyam

August 9, 2007 at 8:33 pm

Dude, who stole my page views?

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Why does traditional media, including the online ones, struggle so much against user generated content (yes, as a matter of principle and whatever else you can hate the phrase for all you like) and non-traditional media generated content? Beyond the fact that most of the Youtubes are full of content produced by the traditional monsters (note to traditional media: your content discovery model is toast, find a new one or have one shoved down your throat with excessive force), the nagging little problem for the oldies is the cost structure. It is just way too expensive to produce the content they produce, while the average Joe with an N95 on the street might end up producing something that will blow you out of the water on any given day.

Once up on a time, the only way to produce and distribute content online was to pump in a lot of money. Everything would cost a fortune: the wire copies that are required to pump in the non-unique stories, the reporters who would create the unique content and the editors who would package and publish it all online. Web hosting was expensive, technical support was expensive, there was no Blogger, WordPress or even Django and to publish content online you would probably have to create and maintain a content management system of your own.

Before it became the favourite pond of sploggers, Blogger, along with a host of other publishing websites decimated the high entry cost to publishing, personal or otherwise. Of course, the quality of content on the average blog was not quite at par with something that came from a media house’s stable. Where they scored was in terms of width and variety. 200 bloggers on the same platform covers a much wider area than 20 of the best editors sitting together and the monopoly was broken.

All you need now to get published is a domain, a web hosting account and the ability to use a browser, totaling something less than $130 for a year. And if you go about it in a smart way, you can easily break even and even generate differing degrees of profit. This is why you have slew of new online publications that don’t do much of end-to-end original content. It is much easier and cheaper to let the big guys do the heavy lifting; they will just latch on to it and provide that little bit of insight and background, which is mostly not allowed in a normal reportage. There is really nothing wrong with that model, it is an opportunity that the traditional media model has brought about. Nobody should feel any shame in making a living off it.

The average mainstream online media publication (the ones that publish 24 hours or close to it) employs something in the region of 20 – 30 people in production to keep the show going. Mind you, that number does not guarantee any exclusive content; they can comfortably cover most of the day’s events, but creating exclusive content is an additional effort on top of that. Making things even more difficult for them are recent developments like Google’s refusal to index wire copies from publications anymore, while the agencies themselves charge you extra for online usage rights. It suddenly reduces the footprint these publications have on aggregators and search engines.

So, is it really that a Paidcontent or a Gawker Media will be the New York Times of 2010? I am afraid not. They do use a marginally leaner model of generating content, but they are still based on the flawed old model, which is too costly to run and it just does not scale. This is just an interim where there is a bit of arbitrage in terms of the cost vs revenue equation for the new guys, compared to the old ones, but it is not going to last forever and this is certainly not the future.

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Written by shyam

July 29, 2007 at 11:33 am

Posted in Blogs, Media, social media

WordPress.com makes a million, blogs that is

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Congrats to the lads at Automattic on their anytime-now millionth sign up on WordPress.com. The company is the dark horse in the entire blog hosting business and they quietly go about doing their thing. And other than the long-forgotten misdemeanor of placing some icky ads on the WordPress homepage, Matt’s hardly put a foot wrong in recent times. And for a ‘virtual’ company (there is no real office these guys work from), they have accomplished some amazing feats:

1) Use cheap hardware and mostly open source software to deliver performance and reliability that far outstrips any expensive solution out there. The list of software used reads something like this: Debian/Ubuntu, PHP, MySQL, Litespeed, PoundWackamole, Spread, Nagios, Munin, Monit, NFS, Postfix, MyDNS. How often have you read about an unplanned outage on WordPress.com? You can get an idea of their set up at Barry’s blog.

2) Scaling out PHP and MySQL to support an operation of this scale. Okay, it is not quite the LAMP stack (Litespeed instead of Apache, read Matt’s comments here on the subject), but it does make the case that PHP, when done right can do incredibly well, both in terms of scale and performance, which is only augmented by this post by Steve Grimm on the Memcached list about Facebook’s architecture.

3) WordPress.com also has what could arguably be called the best user contributed text content repository online at this moment. There is such a wide variety of content — from technology to adult — that is of a pretty good quality. Excellent and pro-active policing of illegal content has also ensured that there is little spam within the network, a problem that is a growing problem on Blogspot.

With 7.5 million daily page views and 45 million unique visitors, they look more like an acquisition target by any of the big boys who would be drowning in a pool of drool of envy after seeing those numbers. Any guesses as to who they might be talking to/have already turned down?

In any case, way to go guys and keep the good stuff pouring in!

Written by shyam

May 16, 2007 at 8:52 am

Desperation drives CBS into hands of syndication partners?

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CBS, the television network has decided to take a different route from the other networks in disseminating its multimedia content by taking the path of doing syndication deals all over the place. According to a WSJ report (soon-to-go-behind-pay-wall link), the move was necessitated by what the company’s Internet strategist jokingly calls, “CBS.com/nobodycomeshere,” to describe its earlier product – Innertube – that allowed users to watch the videos only on CBS.com.

Excerpt:

CBS is working on agreements with social-networking sites such as Facebook Inc. and Last.fm Ltd. to allow users to post CBS video clips to their profiles, according to people familiar with the matter.

It is an interesting way to go about trying to widen your audience, but the path being taken is not without danger. According to the article, the company aims to monetize the clips by showing ads in the clips, which raises an interesting question: why would Facebook allow CBS to control ad inventory for clips shown on its website?

Apparently, they are doing a deal with Joost and the Facebook deal could also be on the same lines – standard revenue share with the advertisements being inserted by syndication clients. It is very much possible that the WSJ reporter, Brooks Barnes, got it wrong when he implied that the ads would be controlled by CBS, which is precisely what got Photobucket into a lot of trouble with Myspace before they kissed and made up and eventually ended up in bed together.

Syndication is not a panacea for your low traffic woes and it is understandable that CBS is getting a bit desperate for an increased uptake of its videos. CBSNews.com was one of the early pioneers of promoting its video content online, but for some reason it has not taken off or done much for its traffic. If CBS hosts the videos, syndicating it would increase its bandwidth expenses, while not giving it the best of advertising revenues and in all honesty video advertising is still a bit of an unknown quantity.

If the syndication clients host the clips, then CBS won’t have much control over the advertising and revenue share deals always leave you with a bit of an aftertaste in your mouth as it eventually ends up kicking you where it hurts the most for your content producers: the loss of exclusivity and the erosion in the premium you can command based on that.

Maybe the reasons are as simple as what the CBS Interactive president said: “We can’t expect consumers to come to us, it’s arrogant for any media company to assume that.” The problem is not as much that viewers are not coming to websites with multimedia content that is hosted within the website. The network’s competitors have a much better deal in terms of traffic (Foxnews: 528 on Alexa, CNN: 61 on Alexa), while CBSNews.com lags way behind at rank 2099 on Alexa and the CBS.com domain does a more respectable rank of 1861.

It looks more like a CBS-specifc problem of users not coming to their website. Guess there is nothing like taking a path-breaking approach to fixing your problems when you don’t have much to lose in the first place.

p.s: Fox.com has a much lower ranking at 1823, but FIM also owns Myspace and a host of other high-traffic websites now, enabling them to flog their video wherever they please without having to worry about revenue shares or getting the right degree or reach or leverage.

Written by shyam

May 15, 2007 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Media, social media

Internet in India: The upcoming third wave

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It has been my constant quibble that, currently, innovation is Indian internet’s greatest bugbear. Other than the accidental exception of the matrimony websites, I can’t think of even a single company that has done path breaking and /or original things in India. From the big fishes to the minnows, all that we get is yet another email service or yet another social networking site or yet another Digg clone. And the parade is one of never ending ‘inspiration’ and is downright and blatant copying in some cases. So, I got down to thinking, why on earth is it that we don’t see any innovation in this space in our country?

Is it that we don’t have any desire to change the rules of the game? Don’t any of us crave for that killer idea which will change the landscape and the way India is perceived on the internet front? I think the problem lies more with the fact that most of us still do not think natively in terms of the internet. There are not too many of us who are constantly connected, updating information about ourselves and transmitting it pretty much real time. And that is reflected in the ideas that we often come up with.

During the first wave, before the crash came, we had the wonderers and the explorers who just wanted to get on the bandwagon. Most of these were either expats or people with an entrepreneurial itch who just took their latest scratch online. At that time we had the regular content-heavy media websites, lots of copycat B2B websites, the odd auction website or two and even websites that wanted to hand deliver emails sent to others. In short, nothing spectacular; which was not surprising, considering the fact that even the rest of the world too was pretty much getting over their adolescence at that time, coming down from the high of counting eyeballs and setting right numerous other misconceptions.

After the crash that eventually came, we grew up. We wanted to control expenses and took to the notion of revenue NOT being an optional extra for the future. A lot of companies actually started operating in the black and major brands like Yahoo! MSN and Google started treating the country as a serious market than as an outback of sorts or even as an afterthought.

The growth, though, did not extend to the innovation space. What exactly went wrong there? Why have we not seen a Facebook or a Youtube or a Twitter here first? Granted, broadband penetration is not very high in India, but what about text-based content? We have not even come close to scratching the surface of local language content here. Other than a couple of nifty search interfaces, there is nothing, nada, zilch that is happening in terms of innovation there. The only player worth mentioning, Webduinya, is nothing more than the existing Indian English web in a Hindi garb.

The problem is that we don’t think natively in terms of the Internet. Most of us, the first generation and second generation internet adventurers, still think of an offline problem first and then try to find an online solution for it. For the dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneurs like the TATAs and the Ambanis the internet is still unknown territory when it comes to translating their instincts onto it. Thus we look westwards and do the same done-to-death themes of email, instant messaging, blogging, tagging and foist them on the unsuspecting users all over again.

For genuine innovation to show up, the next generation – the kids who are sixteen or younger – have to grow up. These are the natively connected consumers for whom a Google, Yahoo! or an Indiatimes will bring about a faster degree of recollection, with a larger mental footprint, as sources of information dissemination than a Times of India, Hindustan Times or any other traditional media brand we can think of right now.

We can’t start to imagine the needs, requirements and desires of this age group. For us this is a mobile phone-toting, constantly texting and scrapping demographic whose mentality is totally alien to us. We can’t think like them because we are not like them. For the vast majority of the rest of us, this constantly connected world does not exist. We drift constantly inhaling the nostalgic fumes of a static past, rudely woken up often by a world that’s constantly updated, profiled and customized.

We, the adults, can’t imagine a world where a commercial will speak directly to us, addressing us by name, what we normally look for – a world where context will constantly surround us. For the coming generation, context following them is a natural thing. They will grow up in a world where data is mixed, mashed up and beaten out of shape in more ways than can be imagined. The only edition that they’ll ever see is personal and not based on a city or time of the day, which is something most of us can’t even start to dream about.

And that is where the genuine innovation in India will start. Till then we will wander, inadequately tooled, copying and aping what’s already been done a million times before.

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Written by shyam

May 9, 2007 at 2:48 pm

Posted in India, social media

Twitter for traffic updates

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I do not know if this has been done before, but it would be really nice if someone could make a mash up of Google/Yahoo/MSN Maps and hook it up with the Twitter API and provide traffic updates. It should enable you to share routes and timings and fetch updates from your subscription list at fixed times. Any takers?

Written by shyam

May 8, 2007 at 5:59 am

Posted in social media

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