Vonage: please buy some or all of us

Anyone who has been following the Vonage IPO story – as my friend and conference-organizing colleague Mark Evans has, and as Om Malik has – won’t be surprised that the voice-over-Internet pioneer is rumoured to be shopping itself around. The prospectus for its initial public offering, which was on and then off, then back on again, has been out there for months with little or no interest, or at least not enough to make it happen. That’s not a great sign.

As I’ve mentioned before – and others have too, including Mark and Om – Vonage’s IPO smacked of more than a little desperation to raise some cash while the iron was even slightly warm, and the story at CNN/Money fits with that. Whether an IPO or a takeover, Vonage needs money big-time. Its marketing costs have exploded, thanks in part to those Woo hoo! commercials (which I actually kind of like, if only because I like the song), and it needs a river of cash flow to pay for the expansion it needs to remain relevant.

As Om and others have pointed out, research shows that cable VOIP services are taking share away from standalones such as Vonage – and doing so at an increasing rate. That means the window is rapidly closing, and the risk for Vonage (which was started by VOIP pioneer Jeff Pulver, whose VON Canada I am appearing at next week) is that it could become the next TiVo, a pioneer that winds up winning the early battle but losing the war.

As someone told me once, the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land. Alec Saunders says buying either Vonage itself or the stock would be the “ultimate triumph of greed and stupidity over common sense.” Of course, as we all know, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen πŸ™‚

Doesn’t Amazon want to get naked?

Feel a chill in the air? That’s because Shel Israel and Robert “The Scobleizer” Scoble – authors of the blogging book Naked Conversations – got the cold shoulder from Amazon.com during a recent show-and-tell about blogs at the online bookseller’s HQ in Seattle. To be specific, they apparently got a frosty response from Amazon’s chief technology officer, Werner Vogels (hat tip to Toronto VC blogger Rick Segal).

Apparently, Vogels was pretty skeptical about the benefits of blogging and challenged the star bloggers to prove that it was worthwhile for a company like Amazon, and didn’t like the answers he got. Here’s what he says on his blog:

“Welcome to life at Amazon, we set a very high bar for our own works and we expect anyone that comes to sell us an approach to actually be prepared to really defend their ideas. Just because blogs are cool and everybody is doing them does not automatically mean that we should institutionalize them at Amazon.”

He also says that:

“I wanted them abandon their fuzzy group hug approach, and counter me with hard arguments why they were right and I was wrong. Instead they appeared shell-shocked that anyone actually had the guts to challenge the golden wonder boys of blogging and not accept their religion instantly.”

Perhaps all Vogels did was challenge them, but from Robert and Shel’s descriptions of it, my impression is that it was a bit more than that. Shel – who is one of the nicest guys around – says it was a very rude way to treat someone who had been invited to Amazon to talk, like asking someone into your home and then shouting at them about their taste in music. Shel says:

“Werner, if you want to have a public debate on how Amazon could improve its customer relationships with more employee blogs or corporate blogs, please name the time and place–as well as the neutral referee. I require only two rules. (1) Let me have my say next time, without you interrupting, and (2) Let’s both agree to the same agenda before we go public with it.”

It’s fine to challenge orthodox thinking, and obviously Vogels believes that Amazon.com is good enough at getting feedback that it doesn’t need blogs. Fair enough. But it sounds like he was rude, and just doesn’t want to admit it. And as Rick Segal hints in his post, it doesn’t help that the photo Vogels uses on his blog is an unsmiling portrait that looks like something they might post on The Smoking Gun. Sounds like he has a chip on his shoulder.

Update:

There’s been plenty of blog posts – and lot of comments on posts, including this one – from both sides of this issue, including opinions from people such as Seth Finkelstein (who comments below) that Shel and Scoble should be able to take this kind of thing because it’s all part of “the conversation.”

As I responded to Seth, that’s all well and good, but it’s another thing to be sandbagged and shouted down (if that’s what happened) when you’ve been invited to speak to Amazon.com about something.

As for it all being part of the conversation, who says we shouldn’t apply normal standards of behaviour to online conversations as we do to offline ones? If we were at a party and someone was drunk and shouting or being belligerent (not accusing Werner of this, just an example), then I would have word with him, and I would hope other party-goers would too.

Scoble has posted a response to Werner here, and Werner has posted something akin to an apology here. In other news, he appears to at least be seeing the humour in what’s been going on, since he uploaded a nice mugshot to Flickr for us all to use πŸ™‚

Father of the Web speaks on neutrality

My friend and fellow tech writer Tyler Hamilton from the Toronto Star had a great piece in the paper the other day based on an interview with the Father of the Web himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (hat tip to Rob Hyndman for pointing me to it). Sir Tim said that he was “very concerned” that the big telecom companies were trying to impose tiers of service and other roadblocks that would change the neutrality of the Web. He said:

“It stops being the Net if a supplier of downloaded video pays to connect to a particular set of consumers who are connected to a particular cable company. It would no longer be an open information space.”

Among other things, Sir Tim said he fears a time when Internet access and all that it represents is filtered through the networks of these large telecom players, who then determine what sites and services work best and are therefore the most popular, and even co-operate with operating system makers to determine how the network functions. This would completely change the open nature of the Web, he said.

“The place you buy your shoes has been decided by the search engine, and the search engine was been decided by the browser, which has been decided by the operating system, which has been decided by the computer,” he said. “Then your choice of shoes is dictated by your choice of computer.”

Attempts to incorporate some kind of protection for net neutrality into U.S. legislation have so far had mixed results, and some of the major Internet companies are not impressed. The other Father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, remains concerned about the potential for harm.

A new dot-com poster boy (updated)

Move over, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. Sure, you guys likely got a few hundred million each from eBay for your stakes in Skype. But at 30, Friis is almost over the hill in dot-com terms, and Zennstrom is almost 40, which makes him officially a geezer. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the wildly popular university social network Facebook.com is 22, and his company is reportedly on the block for as much as $2-billion, according to an article at Businessweek Online.

Facebook was set up by Zuckerberg as a way for friends at Harvard University to meet each other and network about social events, in much the same way that Shawn Fanning set up Napster to help friends at university swap music. But while Shawn got tied up in lawsuits from the RIAA and his company eventually went bankrupt, Mark and his college pals — who dropped out to work on Facebook from a rooming house in Silicon Valley, according to this great piece in the Harvard Crimson — stand to become extremely wealthy. It is a private company, but Facebook appears to only have about five major stakeholders (although it has done a couple of funding rounds with VCs).

And who would pay a ridiculous sum of money like that for a university social network? Well, media giant News Corp. paid close to $1-billion for MySpace.com, which is a similar social networking site populated largely by teens sharing information on which bands they like. According to comScore MediaMetrix, Facebook.com is the seventh-most heavily trafficked site on the Internet, with more than 5 billion page views in February — more than Amazon.com, Ask.com or Disney.

It’s reasonable to assume, as Businessweek does, that Facebook.com would likely interest any media giant that wants to compete with News Corp. — and that includes Viacom, another media conglomerate run by a 70-year-old billionaire (Sumner Redstone). Young consumers are living online, and big media companies want to reach them where they live. And Mark Zuckerberg might soon be able to live pretty much wherever he wants to, instead of sharing a flat with a bunch of college buddies.

Update:

For what it’s worth, Rafat Ali over at paidcontent.org – which has a great track record on this kind of thing – says that Facebook has been on the block for awhile, and that everyone including Viacom has looked at it, and that the $2-billion figure is “at best, hearsay, and at worst media manipulation.” But Carlo at Techdirt points out that many people (including me, I confess) said similar things about Skype, and look what happened there. Om Malik says that they should have sold out for $750-million because they are slipping in popularity (Markus from plentyoffish.com makes some good points in his comment on my post)

When is a conference not a conference?

I apologize for having conferences on the brain lately, but as you may or may not know, some friends and I are organizing one (it’s called mesh, and it’s in Toronto May 15th and 16th), so it’s kind of been eat, sleep and breathe conferences lately. And there’s also been a lot of talk about the subject over the past few months, the most recent instalment of which was Jeff “Buzzmachine” Jarvis’s post about the successful “unconference” on journalism he attended in Philadelphia.

Jeff clearly hates traditional conferences, as many people – including me – do, and so he is totally down with the idea of getting rid of the usual PowerPoint presentation crapola and letting the “audience” become part of the show. As he put it:

“ThereÒ€ℒs a meeting coming up about linking and I was quite obnoxious in my response to the invitation, pitching the Winer gospel of the unconference. I told the organizer to blow up the panels and tear down the essentially insulting distinction between panel and audience and get the people in the room to truly link.”

Jeff’s comments are just part of the ongoing discussion about how (and how not) to have a conference about Web 2.0 topics, since Web 2.0 is all about the conversation, interactivity, and so on – which the “unconference” idea is all about. And this discussion covers the spectrum from the BarCamp end of things, where the event is more or less a get-together of like-minded people in a room somewhere, all the way to the more organized and traditional ETech or New Comm Forum or whatever. And, of course, it also covers the spectrum from free all the way to those $1,200 a day mega-conference/trade shows.

For the record, mesh is not an unconference, although the benefits of those are obvious. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a boring old mega-conference riddled with PowerPoints either. We’ve been wrestling with how exactly to do it (and using some Web 2.0 tools while doing so, as Rob describes), but we think that there is a Third Way, one that mixes the best of traditional conferences – the organization, for example, which can help those who might not be quite ready to become part of the show – with the best of the unconference, such as the interactivity and openness to ideas, and the desire to get a real dialogue going with the participants (not attendees, and not “the audience”). Others seem to think that a combination is also a good thing.

And that’s why we plan to have an “unconference room” set aside, one that will be open to all to talk about whatever they wish, as well as workshops loosely organized around themes, where debate and ideas can really get flowing, and some other cool ideas that I can’t give away just yet – including a different approach to keynotes than you would get at a standard conference. We’ve got lots of things in the works. In the end, it comes down to letting people become part of the dialogue in as many ways as possible. That is what I think Jeff wants, and that is what we want. And we think that is what you want.

Got any thoughts? Let us know. Send me an email, or post a comment here or over on the conference blog.

Doing journalism out in the open

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the blogosphere’s reaction to the Microsoft Vista and Apple stories – both of which started out as big headlines (complete with exclamation marks) about a lot of code being rewritten in the Microsoft OS and Steve Jobs selling a bunch of stock, but evolved as smart bloggers responded to both with skeptical posts. It turns out that rewriting 60 per cent of the Windows Vista code is likely not what is happening, and that Steve selling stock is a little more complicated than it appears, and not as negative as outlets such as The Register made it seem in their initial story.

In writing about these stories, Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 makes a reference to sausage in his post about it, which I assume is a nod to that great quote from German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck about how “People who enjoy eating sausage and obeying the law should not watch either one being made.” Scott says this kind of thing is “what happens when the ‘community’ is in charge of the facts,” but I think that is overstating the case somewhat. No one was “in charge of the facts,” and in fact very few newspaper reporters are ever “in charge of the facts,” or at least rarely all of them. Facts emerged, and some things emerged that were not facts, and were (relatively quickly) shown to be not facts. In other words, sausage was being made.

More recently, there has been some backlash against Robert Scoble of Microsoft, who lashed out at the writer of the original Vista story – and at The Register (which has a bit of a history with The Scobleizer if you want to look it up). Scoble said that:

“We should now start deriding people who link to non-credible sources. I will. Anyone who links to that jerk down in Australia anymore is simply not doing bloggers any favors. Same for anyone who links to the Register.”

This got Phil Sims’ back up over at Squash, since he knows David Richards, the author of the original story on Vista – and provided a somewhat mixed (ethically speaking) description of his media colleague. Following Scoble’s rant, Phil has said he is aghast at what the Microsoft blogger is recommending, particularly since he is the co-author of a book called Naked Conversations. Domenic Jones has accused The Scobleizer of censorship, and the two have bashed it out in Scoble’s comments section – a wonderful illustration of what a comments section can be for.

Is Scoble recommending censorship? Domenic may have a point, but I think that’s going a little far. He has definitely flown off the handle, however – and is that in part because the story was about his employer? Perhaps. But while there has been noise and fury, and errors a-plenty, there has also been reasoned response and correcting of errors – although not by the original authors, which is something to note (Shelley at Burningbird has her own inimitable response to Scoble’s proposed link policy). In other words, journalism has occurred. It may not be the best-tasting sausage you’ve ever had, but there it is. And to give Scott credit, he ends his post on a reasonable note:

“Consumers will ultimately benefit from greater access to more varied and more accurate information, but they will be witness to the ugly process of the truth being made.”

Update:

Scoble has posted something like a “mea culpa,” and gets some support from James Robertson after what he sees as an attackby Nick Carr – and there are some interesting points made in the comments on Nick’s post, which Scoble takes part in, that are worth reading. Mitch Ratcliffe also has some perspective on the whole affair, and so does Rick Segal (clever headline, Rick).

A chat with Michael Robertson

I know that all the fuss about Michael Robertson and ajaxWrite.com was ages ago in blog time – days being the same as years in the blogosphere – but I wanted to write about it anyway, because Michael said some interesting things to me in an email that I wanted to pass on. Besides, I was on vacation. I only blogged a couple of times, believe it or not – once to mention Dave Winer (because I couldn’t help myself) and once to mention our Web 2.0 conference, which I expect you all to come to.

Michael, whose track record includes mp3.com, Linspire.com and many other startups of note, sent me a message about the launch of ajaxWrite, at which point I mentioned that I was already pretty familiar with it – warts and all – since it had been all over tech.memeorandum.com for most of that day (okay, I checked memeorandum the odd time too while I was on vacation – so sue me). He mentioned that the site had been “a little slow because of the unexpected traffic,” but that other than that things were working fine.

Naturally, I asked him how he thought ajaxWrite would stack up against Writely.com, since many people – including my friend Mark Evans – noted the obvious similarities with the Web 2.0 service that Google just bought (which I have used many times in planning mesh and quite like, particularly because it allows real-time collaboration on a file). Here’s what he said:

“Writely has a richer feature set then ajaxWrite does because they offer online storage and sharing. We just launched ajaxWrite, so we’ll match them over time.”

In other words, it sounds like the version we’re looking at now is just 1.0, or maybe 0.9. Not surprising, since Writely has been around for some time now, and Michael has presumably been watching its success. He added:

“Having said that, ajaxWrite has a significant advantage. It looks and operates like a true desktop application, not a web page with some pseudo-menu-buttons. This means it’s immediately comfortable to desktop users, making a seamless transition possible. Imagine software/services being embedded into the browser/email/OS to seamlessly launch support for popular file formats as encounter them.”

Then I asked him whether it bothered him at all that Writely had been bought by Google and therefore the field had grown substantially more competitive. Here’s what he said:

“No. I don’t subscribe to the “google is invincible” nonsense that the press promotes. They now have near-Microsoft status on the FUD meter. A blogger simply suggests that Google might be working in a category and the tech press automatically assigns the space to Google.”

He went on to mention all the attention paid to the “mythical” Google Office, back when the company was rumoured to be talking with Sun Microsystems about something important (which turned out to be a fairly lame toolbar bundling deal).

“It was stunning how many people were talking about ajaxifying OpenOffice after the silly Sun/Google love in. I like Openoffice, but it’s a pig. It will never be a web app. To even suggest this shows a lack of understanding of the technology. If Google is all knowing, all coding and all products like so many people believe, why would they buy a tiny shop like Writely? Because they don’t have anything going on in this area and need something – that’s why. Yes, Google can throw money at it, but give me the small talented team over the rich behemoth any day because they’ll move faster and be more responsive.”

Them’s fightin’ words, Michael. Let the battle begin πŸ™‚

In case you haven’t read enough opinions about it already, Alec Saunders thinks ajaxWrite is a dud, Mike Masnick thinks the odds are stacked against it, TDavid thinks it’s part of an unsustainable Web-app explosion and Paul Kedrosky says it is yet another example of Michael’s “stick in the eye” marketing. Oh yes, and apparently ajaxWrite – despite its name – isn’t really Ajax at all. Any comment on that Michael?

One word for Web 2.0 in Toronto: mesh

mesh logo Some of you out there in blog-land may know that I’ve been helping to organize a Web 2.0 conference here in Toronto over the past few months – along with my technology reporter/blogger colleague Mark Evans from the National Post, lawyer/blogger Rob Hyndman, entrepreneur/blogger Mike McDerment and Expedia.ca founder (and now blogger) Stuart MacDonald – and I’m pleased to say that we are locked and loaded, and our website is now live.

It’s being held on Monday the 15th and Tuesday the 16th of May in Toronto, at the MaRS Collaboration Centre, just south of the Ontario legislature buildings at Queen’s Park and it is called mesh. So get over there and sign up – and tell all your friends about it, too. Book early and book often! Subscribe to the RSS feed for updates, and tag anything you think participants (not attendees) or panelists and moderators might be interested in with the tag “mesh06links” at del.icio.us. Got any ideas for workshops or questions that need answering? Let me know here, or post a comment at the blog at http://www.meshconference.com/blog.

As you can see if you visit the site, we’ve got some incredible speakers and panelists lined up, including Om Malik of gigaom.com, Paul Kedrosky of Infectious Greed, Steve Rubel of MicroPersuasion, Tara “Miss Rogue” Hunt of Riya, law professor and columnist Michael Geist, podcaster extraordinaire Amber MacArthur, political blogger Andrew Coyne, entrepreneur Jason Fried of 37signals.com, veteran blogger and commentator Stowe Boyd and many others. A full list and schedule of events over the two days will be coming soon, so watch the site (and the associated blog) for details.

Why did we call it mesh? Because “A Web 2.0 Conference In Toronto” was too long to fit on a T-shirt (not to mention boring). Plus, mesh says it all when it comes to what the interactive Web is about – and what we are hoping to do with this conference, which is to get some of the best minds on the planet together to talk about what’s going on out there, and what’s coming next. So let’s connect, share and inspire – let’s mesh.

Dave’s dark side returns to the forefront

Well, I guess the blog hiatus I mentioned yesterday didn’t last too long – my old friend Dave Winer has gone and done something outrageously stupid, even for Dave (and that’s saying something). After a couple of posts in which he made cryptic comments about someone stealing ideas from him, and how he was going to retire from blogging and disappear somewhere, now comes a bombshell from Dave’s long-time friend Rogers Cadenhead, who took over the RSS Advisory Board and so earned the everlasting Wrath of Winer. TM

According to what Rogers said in his post, he got a letter from an attorney acting for Dave, asking for money to be repaid and intellectual property of his – related to the OPML project – to be returned and any use of that property by Rogers Cadenhead to cease. As described by Rogers, this refers to development work that he did for Dave on scripting.com and Weblogs.com, and also some things he did related to the development of OPML, which according to Rogers is largely an open standard.

Of course, this whole affair stems from the RSS debacle, which gets weirder by the day. And let’s remember one thing: Rogers Cadenhead has supported Dave throughout the years, trying to work with him on RSS and other matters – and in fact, tried so hard to defend Dave that others have accused him of being a “Winer lackey” and “sycophant.” And this is what he gets for it. As he puts it:

“[Dave] has succeeded in making me sorry I took his invitation back in 2004 to get involved in RSS, a syndication format that will forever be mired in childish personal animus because of his mistaken belief that allowing other people to contribute to its success will rob him of credit.

Dave has a response here, but it does little to change the perception of a spoiled child who wants to hang on to what he feels is his toy, and not let anyone else have it. And as Shelley points out at Burningbird, very few people are talking about it (other than a few brave souls such as James Robertson), which in all likelihood is because they are Dave’s friends or because they are afraid of him, or because he is so toxic that they don’t want to get involved. And what sucks about that is it allows a beneficial technology to be held hostage by a single man.

Blog hiatus – I hear the beach calling

If posting is light over the next couple of weeks, please don’t be concerned – I’m in Florida, enjoying a little sun and sand and relaxation with the family. If you know the state at all, it’s a little town called Venice, just south of Sarasota – very quiet. Not much happens here, and that’s just the way I like it. It’s already been a couple of days now since I checked tech.memeorandum.com, and pretty soon even blogosphere legends such as The Scobleizer and Dave Winer will be but a distant memory. I can’t even check out any of the cool new services that Mike Arrington at TechCrunch.com and Pete Cashmore at Mashable.com are undoubtedly writing about because I’m on dial-up πŸ™‚ Ain’t life grand.