TILE: find words fast

30 Dec

TILE in xcodeI’m excited (and not just a bit self-conscious) to be releasing TILE for iPhone and iPad. TILE is the first app from the AppsGuild studio I’ve spun up here in Seattle. I’ll write more about AppsGuild (and what makes it a new, interesting, and very different kind of organization) soon, but for now I thought I’d tell you about TILE.

Oh no! Another Word Game?

Even if  you’ve played Boggle®, Scrabble®, LetterPress, Words With Friends, SpellTower or any of the other 10,000+ word- and letter-based games on your devices (like I have), I think you’ll find there are several things quite different about TILE, things that I like, things that I think the word-game-hungry might also like. I think this because I really still enjoy playing it, even after playing many hundreds (thousands?) of times while building and testing it, and because my 20 beta testers played an astonishing 6,000 one-minute rounds in the first 30 days of playing with it. Zoinks!

As you might expect from an xBox founder, I like games. I’ve always been a big fan of word- and letter-based games, from hidden-words to crosswords, anything. To me they tap into my reading and thinking brain and don’t feel like a waste of time. I don’t mind my kids play these kinds of games. I have a lot of great memories of playing Scrabble and Boggle board games growing up, and of playing GrabScrab at iLike (though I honestly wasn’t very good at that one). I really enjoy LetterPress and Words With Friends on my phones and tablets. I even like Hangman and still play it with my kids! But my very very favorite games on mobile devices are quick-to-play, like Dots, or combine quick-play and head-to-head strategy and real-time competition (Galcon on iPhone is my all-time favorite). As much as I like LetterPress and Words With Friends and Scrabble (and other turn-based games like Hero Academy), they are just not my favorite pacing for mobile gameplay. I like to pick up my phone and whittle away a few moments if I have some to spare, or to take a break from something and clear my head with something fun. Cut The Rope and Angry Birds are fun and fast to pickup and drop, but they are really about hand-eye-coordination – though I thoroughly enjoy them I honestly feel like I’m wasting a lot of time playing them. In the industry these are the “snacking” games of the “casual games” category, they are a quick bite to eat and don’t take a lot of time or effort. TILE is perhaps a more brain-healthy “snack” — certainly I am pulling words out of my long-term SAT-taking memory to improve my high-scores!

Another impetus is that I find turn-based games just too slow-paced, or I have to start many concurrent games if I want to spend more than 30-seconds with the game. I get irritated with LetterPress opponents who take a long time to take their turn, and the notifications from the game interrupt me over the next several hours – ugh. I have also found most word and letter turn-based games to be full of people who cheat to win – given no time-limit on your turn and an internet full of Scrabble- and LetterPress-cheat sites, I just don’t enjoy playing against people who brilliantly come up with words like “quezal” regularly.

I tried off-and-on for many, many years to build a good version of multi-player GrabScrab for mobile, and I think the solo play version captures the adrenaline while the coming-soon head-to-head Versus version of TILE will capture the true anxiety of that fun game in a shorter time-format.

Building and building and building and building…

Late in May of 2013 I woke up at about 2am with the fully-formed idea for TILE, finally realizing how to marry ideas from LetterPress and Dots and Galcon to yield a GrabScrab-like fun and easy-to-snack game. I cracked open XCode and wrote a quick solo-mode proof-of-concept in about 2 hours and found it fun to play. Shockingly, my wife also found it fun to play! I then spent about 10 days putting together a smoother UI, high-score infrastructure, and a more robust dictionary behind the application before putting solo-play-mode it into beta with about 20 friends. When they played it over 6,000 times in the next 30 days and had friends borrowing their phone to play and sending me beseeching email to add me to the device-limited beta, I was pretty sure it was actually fun and perhaps a bit addictive. In hindsight, I could have (and should have) shipped TILE right then – it was almost in its currently shipping form, minus some scaling and UI tweaks. I was delayed a bit by summer (my wife and I dedicate summer to spending time with our kids and family and traveling with friends) but through the summer and fall I was also delayed by an almost Sisyphean obsession with the head-to-head Versus mode of TILE. After an inordinate amount of coding, test-harnessing, testing, debugging and feedback on the multiplayer match-making and head-to-head mode, I decided I really needed to rework its UI further before releasing it, so it will come in a future update.

Pricing: It’s not free-to-play

For now TILE unabashedly costs $0.99 – you get exactly what you pay for, and it’s more entertainment than 1/3 of your morning coffee. If you like word games at all, I promise you’ll get $0.99 worth of real enjoyment from TILE in the first 10 minutes playing. I don’t run ads between every few games like you get in most word games, and I don’t try to squeeze money out of people for different colors, timers, or cheats. I do hope to eventually come up with an unobtrusive way to charge for useful or fun things within TILE so that you won’t need to pay for it up-front, but this simple low price is where I’m starting because I myself prefer paying for things simply and just once.

Thank You!

To all my beta testers, especially but not limited to my wife, Adam Doppelt (and his wife Shannon!), Hadi Partovi and Phil Kast who gave me such great feedback — thanks so very much for your advice and support, I promise I’ll take more of it to heart more quickly in the future, especially the “ship sooner” advice.

I very much hope you enjoy TILE and look forward to your feedback about it.

follow TILE on twitter | share TILE on facebook

x’ing my fingers about xBox

21 May

No surprise I wasn’t invited to the big tent. Despite my recent venting of frustration on the state of xBox, I’m honestly crossing my fingers that the xBox-720/xBox-8/xBox-∞/neXtBox XBox One announcement goes well today and they have a successful launch this fall.

It will go well if they demo a game that blows our mind and that we want to play. It will go poorly if there is no unique game demonstration and we are instead shown a lengthy set-top-box-tv-app-platform-bullshit-bullshit demonstration.

Great must-have games, sell consoles. PacMan, Pitfall! and Asteroids moved the Atari 2600. Mario sold the NES and Super NES. Zelda, 007-GoldenEye and MarioKart sold the Nintendo-64. Tony Hawk, Metal Gear Solid, and Grand Turismo sold the Playstation 1. There was that Halo xBox thing that seemed to have worked pretty well, also. This isn’t a truism just about consoles – this is a truism for all computers and operating systems and phones and tablets and e-Readers and devices as well. PCs were originally mostly purchased for Multiplan – there’s always a “killer app” or set of apps or content which kickstarts the market. Since the new xBox and Playstation 4 aren’t going to be backward-compatible with their old titles… there had better be some very unique and must-have content ready for launch.

Sony’s Playstation 4 announcement event and PR did a good job focusing on games and game-tech, and everything about the event, the graphics, the PR was fine-tuned to gamers. This was solid and refreshing versus the guide-tv-movies-netflix focus that Microsoft has been spewing of late. I remain impressed that Sony are holding back on showing the physical console – this is terrific restraint and gives them strong opportunities to take back press coverage from Microsoft post xBox-announce today. But the games – inFamous Second Son, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Watchdogs, some others – while truly fantastic looking, did not look particularly approachable or compelling to me. I think Sony better have some very compelling games up its sleeve for launch. These are good but not buy-a-new-console good, in my opinion. And I don’t seem to be alone in this opinion.

Alex St. John (another former Microsoftie and, oddly, also an Alaskan) wrote an insightful post giving his perspective on the new xBox — it’s worth a read, I agree with quite a bit of it. His point that xBox is being run and guided by non-hardcore-gamers and old-dudes who think more about places to watch Sponge Bob and listen to music than they do about games is particularly spot-on. I also agree that technologically it’s good that Microsoft is returning to more of a PC architecture and hopefully more of a PC operating system kernel (likely since Dave Cutler is working on it these days). I was the original proponent of xBox using the Windows kernel so that we could share technology and improve the PC+Windows experience with everything we learned about stability, fast-boot and UI/UX from consoles. This goal took a bit of a back-seat in the original xBox and was completely tossed-out in xBox 360, and as Alex notes, it caused damage to the PC game ISV community, as they became fractured — DirectX was consistent between PCs and xBox, but everything else about programming them was different.

Like Alex, I’m not overly excited about the expected hardware. I do think it’s interesting that it will have HDMI-in as well as HDMI-out, there are cool things to do there — if done right (a big “if” given who we’re talking about) you could make the console the primary input and control point for the TV, as I pointed out in my post about what I’d want in an Apple TV device. This is a strategic point to own.

In any case, I’m looking forward to watching the live-blogs of the launch. If the device is quiet, small, and really fast and has at least one cool games, I will of course get one.

Actually, I’m lying. Even if it’s big, loud and slow, if it has a kick-ass unique game that looks playable and approachable and fun I will buy one and many others will as well, despite whatever horrific TV-guide and Blu-Ray and Netflix and lame third-party apps are announced and demonstrated in the big tent today.

(update: the announcement was almost the very worst of every horrible possibility I could have imagined. TV-focused. No live-game demos. Bad jokes. Horrible presentation. No game footage at all until 35m in – overall we saw more Price is Right footage than game footage. It’s not clear yet if the launch titles will be super-compelling, we’ll have to wait until E3.)

Morin Tastes Own Medicine

7 May

Last Friday Facebook blocked Path’s “Find Friends” feature over brewing spam complaints. Shortly thereafter Dave Morin, Path’s CEO, proudly stated that “Path does not spam users,” but the tactics he is defending today are the very same practices that he himself cracked down on as “spam” when he was running the Facebook Platform. I watched the crack-down from the front-row at iLike, an early Facebook platform partner.

Compare Morin’s description of Path’s “feature” to the Facebook policy that was put in place while Morin was the head of developer relations for Facebook Platform. The official Facebook policy was that apps were forbidden from doing exactly what Morin now calls “not spam”:

Misleading Notifications To Users Will Be Blocked By Dave Morin - Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 2:31pmOver the last few weeks we have noticed several developers misleading our users into clicking on links, adding applications and taking actions. While the majority of developers are doing the right thing and playing by the rules, a few aren’t – and are creating spam as a result. Going forward, if you are deceptively notifying users or tricking them into taking actions that they wouldn’t have otherwise taken, we will start blocking these notifications. The bottom line is that if the notifications you send are the result of a genuine action by a Facebook user and that action is truthfully reported to the recipient so they can make an informed decision, you should have no problems. If you do find some notifications blocked, it was probably because this wasn’t the case and we will be happy to inform you of some best practices by other developers that have prevented this issue. If you've been blocked by us for deceptive notifications, the error message you will see is - 200 Permissions Error.

Here’s Dave Morin’s opposite opinion of spammy app behavior from Facebook’s 2007 anti-spam policy – pretty much the same policy that’s still in effect and caused Path to lose access: https://developers.facebook.com/blog/post/26/

Specifically, an app with a pre-selected (opt-out) checkbox sending messages to your entire address book if you simply pressed “OK” was what Facebook, under Morin’s oversight, considered to be a punishable violation of the terms of use. Let me say that again: the exact form of invitation interface Path uses was specifically called out and forbidden by Facebook under Morin oversight, in order to preserve the sanctity and user-experience of the Facebook platform ecosystem.

Obviously the tables are turned now that Morin is trying to build his business rather than regulating an ecosystem. The early Facebook Platform was so over-run with user-acquisition spam that it’s easy to understand why Facebook took the measures it took, to crack down on the incredibly aggressive techniques used by ethically challenged companies abusing the system to grow their user-base.

So it really doesn’t surprise me that Path’s access to Facebook friends was blocked, and in fact I’m glad as a user that Facebook is enforcing the rules. It does seem disingenuous at best and genuinely ethically questionable to me to spend your last job regulating such spammy activities and enforcing policy that forbade them, only to turn around and build a company based on just those activities. To then publicly defend your actions as “not spam” is just sarcasm.

Why do I care? I was CTO at iLike, and we were a launch partner on Facebook platform in 2007, at one point acquiring over 10M users in just 2 weeks. It was an amazing roller-coaster ride in engineering, operations, and business development. Although we used Facebook sharing and invites and we A/B-tested our notifications like crazy, we shied away from the extremely spammy tactics of the Slide‘s and RockYou‘s and others of that era, yet Dave Morin’s platform team punished good and bad apps alike. We watched the Facebook platform devolve into a sheep-throwing race to the bottom for users, and a cat-and-mouse game between aggressive apps skirting rules and the inconsistent Facebook enforcement of that time. We always aimed to keep iLike users’ best interest first and so focused our efforts on creating user value around music, concerts, and artists. Our viral user acquisition growth stuttered and suffered, but our artist and user happiness kept growing, just more slowly. Because I think we had a useful app with useful notifications and a company culture of respect for users and their privacy, I personally wish Facebook’s platform team had acted to block-out and shut-down aggressive apps and companies doing bad things rather than creating a treadmill of technical restrictions for all apps which hurt good apps while also punishing the bad. I wish they had early on implemented a simpler set of broad rules and used an active review and harsher enforcement policy more like Apple’s App Store. They’re doing better at this by shutting out Path over this kind of violation.

As for Path, I was skeptical but willing to give them a second chance after the egregious Apple address book issue last year. Now I think their M.O. is clear. It’s hard to imagine ever trusting Path to put users first when the CEO can so completely change the definition of “not spam” from one job to the other, depending on which side of the table he’s sitting on. What exactly do Dave Morin and Path believe is right for users and their product? Whatever works right now? Whatever they can get away with for growth?

Dealing With xBox Always On

8 Apr

Nat Brown

xBox’s @adam_orth “deal with it” mashable.com/2013/04/05/xbo…. what a prick. in other news, new xBox controller relabels ABXY buttons FCKU.

— Nat Brown (@natbro) April 5, 2013

After the Adam Orth PR disaster and subsequent apology several people have asked me what I think about the rumors around always-on-digital-rights-management (DRM) in the next generation xBox and the potential to not support used games.

I don’t have definitive knowledge here. I can say that I have been hearing conflicting stories from insiders about what “always on-line” means, and it sounds as if there is confusion internally and externally about how users and games will be authenticated to xBox Live (XBL) accounts and to the console, and it’s all about the used-games market.

Purely from an end-user simplicity and usability perspective, I personally think it would be incredibly stupid to require on-line access all the time. Always-on-line authentication for instant piracy prevention is something that overly-anti-piracy numbskulls at Microsoft have been suggesting for 15+ years for Windows and Office as a way to combat piracy on PC’s. It has never been reasonable to do this given the spotty connectivity of the world’s computers, although some of their other dumb-crazy/-irritating ideas — DRM companion chips, Intel “secure-boot”, etc — have made it into the PC ecosystem, just like they stuck these overly-protective and mostly ineffective and expensive things into the original and subsequent xBox. For the most part, all of these mechanisms do little to protect from hard-core pirates and simply cause problems for average users and hobbyists who aren’t trying to pirate but are just exploring their paid-for hardware devices. And they stifle independent game development quite a bit. There are so many edge cases about missing credentials, delays propogating authentication and revocations, that I think it’s simple a very bad idea to try to build always-online, instant authentication into consoles.

So maybe, maybe xBox will require always-online and try to perform real-time piracy prevention. If they do I think that is and will become another Stupid, Stupid xBox! moment for them because users will hit the many horrible edge cases and hate it.

What I think is vastly more likely, which has been misunderstood in these always-on leaks and speculation, is requiring that online checks happen eventually but not instantly. Specifically on-line checks:

  1. initially or within N-hours/-days of a new or used games first being inserted or launched, so that the physical disc can be paired/bonded to your XBL account and to some degree to your console, and sometimes (re)paid for, and
  2. occasional on-line checks to de-authorize discs/content that has been paired to another account or console.

The specific purpose of the on-line authentication checks and pairing of content to the XBL-account/console is to make sure the game studios can take a cut of used-games downstream. Today I can buy a brand new (disc-based) copy of a game, play it out for 72hrs, then resell it for almost full price. Game studios aren’t too keen on this. What they would prefer: I can buy EA’s HotNewGame for $70, play it out, then sell it to my friend, Abe, as a used title or to GameStop for some money, but when Abe or some other user inserts the disc that was paired to my XBL-account, eventually (within some hours or days) he will need to pay up to EA to enable the used copy to continue working. There’s not much difference between a time-limited free-trial and a used game at this point.

Making the used game market less profitable for consumers and more profitable for the game studios has always been the intent of controls and limits on used games, just as a small closed market with tight-DRM and limited indie-developer access is intended to prop up game title prices for studios (and for the console maker, who let’s remember, needs to see a lot of licensing revenue come back to pay for the hardware losses). On-line checks and title pairing to XBL or device would help make the knee-jerk “no used games” decision less a binary and PR-unfriendly on/off for the platform, and let the market find reasonable prices for used games.  If you as a buyer know that a used copy of EA’s HotNewGame bought from another player for $20 then costs another $50 to activate, you’ll just buy a new copy for $70. Or you will negotiate down from $20 for the used copy to a reasonable rate.

If this pairing and non-instantaneous occasional on-line authorization and de-authorization of content is indeed what Microsoft and the game studios are dreaming up for the next generation xBox, I actually don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world. I do think there are a lot of obscure errors about network connectivity and key-server outages revocation lag that can crop up even when you go with deferred authentication, which I would hope they simplify and eliminate and err-towards making gameplay work for the majority of users rather than ensuring tight control 100% of the time.

I also hope that game studios charge a reduced rate based on how long a title has been out and leave a little oxygen and profit in the used-game ecosystem for users – if they don’t, that will cause further PR backlash.

Be Fruitful and Multiply

7 Apr

Multiplication Practice Sheets

(and add and subtract)

Multiplication Practice Sheets for kids

Certain skills require some rote practice; there aren’t any short-cuts to just spending time doing them. I think being fast at basic math facts (single-digit multiplication, double-digit addition/subtraction, and common fractions) are that kind of skill.

Recently I have gotten pretty tired of buying (or Googling and printing) multiplication, addition, subtraction, long-division, and fraction worksheets for my kids. As an author of much younger-kids educational iPhone/iPad apps myself (see iTot Apps), my wife and I first tried several different practice apps for 3-7th graders, but only Sakura Quick Math stood out. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually teach kids well, the handwriting recognition isn’t good enough. We also tried web-sites like IXL and TenMarks – these are both sites I recommend, but to date I have to say that nothing beats pencil-and-paper time, where you are focused on simply the math problems, your memory, speed, and accuracy. Period. Things like jazzy graphics, motivational badges, and the keyboard and mouse actually get in the way of the muscle-memory and visceral eye-hand feedback of writing answers with a pencil onto a paper.

I thought there must be a web-page that would generate printable multiplication (and other) practice sheets for parents. Searching revealed nothing useful within the first few pages of Google and Bing results, so I dutifully started slinging some HTML using the latest and greatest MathML HTML5 web technologies. What a mess – I can display a quadratic equation or a complex integral or matrix in HTML but somehow it’s 2013 and I can’t show stacked 2-digit multiplication (except in Firefox — good for you guys) without drawing it by hand with tables and borders. So, I searched a bit longer and bumped into @drdrang‘s blog post of Math Practice Sheets which has done the layout well already.

Thanks @drdrang – I tweaked your page for multiplication to allow you to set the number of digits for the upper and lower numbers, and to refresh itself dynamically, and to print itself directly.

You can find my page here. We try to have our kids do two of these every day – it’s 5 minutes of work to do in the car or before or after breakfast that just makes sure the brains are working and these basic math facts are down cold.

I’ll add some additional pages based on his fractions, addition, and subtraction down the road.

Stupid, Stupid xBox!!

12 Feb
Fone Bone saying 'stupid, stupid rat creatures!'

Fone Bone attempts to escape his pursuers by jumping on a small branch, thinking they wouldn’t be stupid enough to jump on. Obviously, he is wrong.

I was a founder of the original xBox project at Microsoft and gave it its name. Almost 14 years after the painful, pointless, and idiotic internal cage-match to get it started and funded, the hard selling of a compelling and lucrative living-room product to Bill (and then Steve as he began to take over), a product that consumers would want and love and demand, I am actually still thrilled to see how far it has come, how many installed units it has, how it is crushing its original console competitors, how the brand has grown and endured, and especially how great the games have become.

But the past 5 years, and the last year in particular, have been simply painful to watch. Coasting on past momentum. Failing to innovate and failing to capitalize on innovations like Kinect. Touting strategic and market success when you’re just experiencing your competitor’s stumbling failure (yes, Sony, Nintendo – you are, I’m afraid, stumbling failures). A complete lack of tactical versus strategic understanding of the long game of the living room. It culminated for me in recent coverage1 of interviews with Yusef Mehdi and Nancy Tellem and reports of the goals of a new LA xBox studio to create interactive content.

My gripe, my head-smack, is not that the broader content/entertainment business isn’t where you want to go with a living-room-connected device. It absolutely is. Indeed, this was the point of xBox, that was why it was the Trojan horse for the living room, where we could land and be welcomed by millions of console customers with more hardware and better software and network connectivity than the non-console devices (webtv, cable set-tob-boxes) we had been pursuing. No, more and better content was always the point and the plan. My gripe is that, as usual, Microsoft has jumped its own shark and is out stomping through the weeds planning and talking about far-flung future strategies in interactive television and original programming partnerships with big dying media companies when their core product, their home town is on fire, their soldiers, their developers, are tired and deserting, and their supply-lines are broken.

xBox’s primary critical problem is the lack of a functional and growing platform ecosystem for small developers to sell digitally-/network-distributed (non-disc) content through to the installed base of xBox customers, period. Why can’t I write a game for xBox tomorrow using $100 worth of tools and my existing Windows laptop and test it on my home xBox or at my friends’ houses? Why can’t I then distribute it digitally in a decent online store, give up a 30% cut and strike it rich if it’s a great game, like I can for Android, for iPhone, or for iPad? Oh, wait, I can… sort of. Read some of the fine-print at the xBox registered developer program page (that “membership” would cost you $10,000/year and a ton of paperwork, with Microsoft holding veto power over your game being published), navigate the mess through to learning about XBLA (also costly, paperwork and veto approval) and you may end up learning about a carved off little hard-to-find store with a few thousand stunted games referred to as XBLIG where Microsoft has ceded their veto power (and instead just does nothing to promote your games). This is where indie developers have found they can go in order to not make money on xBox, despite an installed base of 76M devices. Microsoft, you are idiotic to have ceded not just indie game developers but also a generation of loyal kids and teens to making games for other people’s mobile devices.

xBox’s secondary critical problem is that the device OS and almost the entire user experience outside the first two levels of the dashboard are creaky, slow, and full-of-shit. From built-in update and storage features to what they have allowed through negligence to appear in games, here are just a few of my favorite confusing and exhausting screens and messages:

Daddy, what’s a Hard Drive? Why do I keep having to choose Hard Drive when I’m playing Kinectimals? Why does Kinectimals take 10m before I can start playing? Can I use the iPad while it’s updating or whatever it’s doing?

I'm too dumb to update safely. I'm to dumb to know if more updates or restarts may, may, may, may be needed.

Hi, I’m xBox. I’m too dumb to update safely. I’m to dumb to know if more updates or restarts may, may, may, may be needed.

I'm too dumb to know if it's a game or an app. Why should I choose where you put it?

xBox: I’m also too dumb to know if it’s a game or an app. Me: Why should I choose where you put it?

4MB, thanks for that info. Wait, what? What are the consequences of being signed out of Xbox Live if I update?

Me: 4MB. Gee, thanks for that info. Wait, what? What are the consequences of being signed out of Xbox Live if I update?

My all-time favorite: each game dreams up an indicator that it uses while writing your save-game data. Saving securely without needing UI sure doesn't seem like a system-level service Microsoft should provide.

My all-time favorite: each game dreams up an indicator that it uses while writing your save-game data. Saving securely (e.g. atomically) without needing UI sure doesn’t seem like a system-level service Microsoft should have provided for xBox in 2003.

Every time I leave a game, even right after saving in the game, the system presents me with this little scare. Every. Single. Time.

Every time I leave a game, even right after saving in the game, the system presents me with this little scare that I may lose progress. Every. Single. Time.

These messages and many others – impossible Xbox Live sign-in and password recovery, accounting/membership, to name just a few – are made all the worse by the huge amount of time that passes while waiting for content to load. You don’t turn on your xBox to play a game quickly — it takes multiple minutes to load, flow through its splash screens, and then get you playing. It doesn’t surprise me that most people spend more time watching videos or listening to music on xBox, because it takes too long to screw around with discs and wait for games to load.

These are the 2 fronts Microsoft is going to lose on in the living room battle with Android & iOS. It’s not going to be based on whether they have (a more expensive) Netflix, whether they have original TV/video content or interactive kids television shows which integrate with Kinect. They will lose unless these two things are sorted out well and quickly.

Microsoft is living in a naive dream-world. I have heard people still there arguing that the transition of the brand from hardcore gamers to casual users and tv-uses was an intentional and crafted success. It was not. It was an accident of circumstance that Microsoft is neither leveraging nor in control of. xBox was for years the only network-connected HD-ready device already attached to tv’s that had multi-use potential (games, DVD, Netflix) in the household to justify and amortize its high cost of purchase to the family’s bread-winners. The hardcore/soft-tv transition and any lead they feel they have is simply not defensible by licensing other industries’ generic video or music content because those industries will gladly sell and license the same content to all other players. A single custom studio of 150 employees also can not generate enough content to defensibly satisfy 76M+ customers. Only with quality primary software content from thousands of independent developers can you defend the brand and the product. Only by making the user experience simple, quick, and seamless can you defend the brand and the product. The transition they are seeing (87 hours per month of use, more TV/music use than game use) will continue to happen despite their active “strategic” efforts to encourage it and get more Xbox Live subscribers.

Which brings us to…

Apple is already a games competitor broadly, even if Apple-TV isn’t yet a game platform or a console. Mobile generally and iPad specifically have grown the total hours of game play and grown the overall game market. Only in the last 18-24mo has that overall growth turned from a segment-expanding rising tide to a tsunami swamping the console game vendor profit boats hitched to the docks. It is accelerating. Apple, if it chooses to do so, will simply kill Playstation, Wii-U and xBox by introducing an open 30%-cut app/game ecosystem for Apple-TV. I already make a lot of money on iOS – I will be the first to write apps for Apple-TV when I can, and I know I’ll make money. I would for xBox if I could and I knew I would make money.  Maybe a “console-capable” Apple-TV isn’t $99, maybe it’s $199, and add another $79 for a controller. The current numbers already say a lot, even with Apple-TV not already an open console: 5.3M sold units in 2012, 90% year-over-year growth — vs. xBox 360 — about 9M units in 2012, 60% YoY decline.

So, because these two critical issues – user expereince and indie content – are not nearly in order and I see big investments in future interactive content happening, as well as idiotic moves to limit used games or put harder content protection into place than exists in mobile or tablets – i predict massive failure and losses here. And it makes me sad. Because it just doesn’t have to fail, even though it has been punted around poorly for 5 years. xBox just needs somebody with a brain and focus to get the product in order tactically before romping forward to continue the long-term strategic promise of an xBox in every living room, connected to every screen.

1 http://www.engadget.com/2013/02/11/microsoft-xbox-360-premium-content-plans-entertainment/,
among many others.

Why Facebook Would Buy Atlas

6 Dec

Today Venturebeat, AllThingsD, Business InsiderReadWriteWeb and others are covering the story that Facebook might buy the Atlas ad-serving infrastructure from Microsoft’s aQuantive assets.

I may be a simple caveman, thawed from the ice by your scientists, but as somebody who has built ad-based web-sites with millions of daily impressions, talked with advertisers and agencies, and built a mobile ad-targeting/-network company which sold to Facebook in early 2011, I’ll tell you that this deal is not about a build-versus-buy decision around the “complexity” of web-wide-scale ad-serving. This is a really great move for Facebook, probably the smartest move I’ve seen from them in a while, but not at all for the reasons these early stories are saying.

Nope. I’d say it’s all about (a) the ad-entry, campaign-management, and reporting tools, (b) the relationships, and (c) the cookies & data.

First, the ad-entry and campaign-management/reporting-tools which Atlas has are not only familiar to ad agencies, brands, and advertisers around the world, they are in fact often required. When you create ads, resell ads, or are a publisher making space for ads and you go after big accounts, you are required to use either Microsoft/Atlas or Google/DoubleClick. They just don’t want to mess around with any custom reporting formats and they don’t want to have to train account managers, agencies, or anybody in their business about how to use your custom or weird tool. Even if you have a custom or weird tool, or a custom ad-format, or a custom ad network, you are asked to integrate Atlas or DoubleClick tracking into your ad. The account will glance at your custom snazzy reports, but they are verifying their ad buy with you based on the Atlas or Doubleclick dashboard and reports.

Secondly, the Atlas team has a huge number of relationships with agencies and brands. Facebook would get those relationships and contacts.

Finally, and perhaps more important of all, Atlas’ backend database contain browser cookies and a vast quantity of inferred demographic data which Facebook would be buying to blend in with its own demographic data and cookies. This would round out its cookies and demographic data for ad-targeting across the entire internet.

Serving billions of small bits of HTML, tracking their placement, click-through rates, and collecting additional information about who has viewed and interacted with those bits of HTML — that is not a build vs. buy decision for Facebook. They do this better, cheaper, and faster than anybody else on the web — you’ve heard of the “Like” button, right? And the Facebook commenting API? Right, that’s something that Facebook does just fine. (In fact I will argue here at some point that they probably do it at 1/5th the cost of the second-best player, Google).

Facebook’s ad-campaign, campaign-management, demographic-targeting and reporting infrastructure has only recently gotten beyond self-serve quality — only recently at the level of complexity buyers consider baseline coming from Atlas and Doubleclick. Buying this tool-set and team to jigger the back-end ad-serving and tracking to run on Facebook infrastructure  is such a good idea, as is using the key people on that team to enhance Facebook’s tools and agency relationships.

Hopefully by tomorrow there will be more in-depth reporting about what’s actually interesting about this deal, because it is a big deal, and it is a very smart deal. But the reporting you’re reading today is, I think, stupid.

Kids Can Code

5 Dec

I have a 12-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, and like most parents I want them to grow up to be great people, to be great readers, to be great at Math and Science, and to have hobbies that they enjoy.  As a life-long programmer, I also want them to be great at programming and in general great at creating things, at making. I don’t want them to be mindless consumers.

As a techie, I’m often drawn into conversations with parents, teachers, and friends about young kids learning to program and about “screen time.” Here is my current thinking. I may update it with new links and ideas from time to time. I hope it helps you in some small way as your raise your creative little makers.

Screen Time: Creating vs. Consuming

One important idea I like to plant in parents’ heads about using computers is to make sure that when they worry about kids “having too much screen time” that they are making the distinction between when their kids are “creating” and when they are “consuming” using computers, smartphones, tablets, even televisions. A lot of parents are given the advice to limit screen time to “15m per day” or “only on weekends.” I strongly agree with putting limits on consumption — playing games, watching entertainment videos on a TV or on YouTube, playing video games — these should all definitely be limited in a manner that is appropriate to your family. (In my family, we mostly read — we don’t watch TV, we play some xBox+Kinect and iPad games on weekends, and we will often have Friday or Saturday “movie night” with popcorn — we’re not much into screens for consumption. YMMV.) I do think it is worth knowing that video games and television are very much designed to tap into addictive behaviors when you think about your own family rules.

But… putting limits on how much time kids spend creating things using computers is something I strongly discourage. This is like saying to a child that likes to draw that they can only do it 15m per day, and you won’t buy them any pastels or paints. Or telling a child that loves to read and write that they can only do it on weekends. How about a kid who is really into baseball or dance — would you insist that they can’t join the team or company because practice is 3 evenings per week? We don’t do this with art, math, or sports — why would you do it with creative things on computers? There is simply a huge difference between time spent creating or making and time spent consuming. Let your kids learn by creating and making using these incredible tools.

Consider also that most adults in our society spend their entire workday in front of a computer, making things — creating or adding to spreadsheets, writing email, writing memos, analyzing, synthesizing and summarizing content from different sources — using computers as a tool to draw conclusions or to design and build real and virtual things. Working at computers to create new things from old things, to write, to draw, to program and engineer — these are the real-world skills that kids are going to need. So it makes sense to really allow much more open-ended and unlimited “creative” time for kids at computers. Drawing programs, writing programs, quality educational programs masquerading as games (like rosetta stone language learning, or a few good educational games), programming, video-editing, making slideshows with family photos — all of these are great creative things that you should think about in the same way you think about making sure your kids learn to play basketball, soccer, learn piano, enjoy art, singing, etc.

In my house, the open-ended creative tools we let our kids use any time we would also let them draw, read, play with toys, or play music (meaning whenever they don’t have other school work, practice commitments or chores, and have gotten some physical activity into their body) include:

  • making slideshows in iPhoto or movies in iMovie or FinalCut Pro using family photos/videos or photos/videos that they have shot on their own. (giving kids their own inexpensive digital cameras is a great holiday or birthday gift, by the way!)
  • making stop-motion videos using the computer’s webcam and clay or other arts-and-crafts items. We use iStopMotion (http://www.iStopMotion.com) and a few others.
  • painting/drawing programs of all kinds. We use Pixelmator (http://www.pixelmator.com) and various iPad apps.
  • writing programs to write stories or letters
  • creating 3D models and animations using Blender (http://blender.org)
  • Programming tools, see below:

Kids Can Code

There are also absolutely some great tools for kids to use to learn real computer programming. Sadly at this point none of them are a curriculum that takes young kids from introductory concepts up through complex programming in a compelling results-oriented way, so you have to stitch things together yourself until kids get to the age when high-school “computer science” classes or clubs kick in, or until they are so self-motivated that they can draw on the innumerable free resources on the internet. Below is a little list with some details and recommendations. My son who is now 12 1/2 has used most of these and started with Scratch from about the age of 5, and is now building iPhone/iPad applications using StencylWorks and XCode. My daughter who is 9 has tried many of these but programming hasn’t yet piqued her interest (I’m working hard on it!).

Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu/). Scratch is probably the best introductory tool for young kids because it is visual (you drag and drop “blocks” of code around to make your programs work), because it is easy for kids to create graphical things like what they see around the web, and because it has a huge community of kids who share their projects on an associated (kid-safe) web-site. Every Scratch project you find on the site you can download, take apart, and see how it works, change it, etc. This tool has such a big community that it is actually the closest approximation to how real programmers work in the real world — we mostly learn by example and using things other people have built before us. We share code-snippets, we share open-source projects on GitHub and other sites, and we offer advice in forums, IRC, and on StackOverflow.

CargoBot (http://twolivesleft.com/CargoBot/) for iPad, RoboLogic (http://www.digitalsirup.com/apps/app_robologic.html) for iPhone and iPad, and MoveTheTurtle (http://www.movetheturtle.com/) are three “games” which are actually very much about learning how to program and how to think logically to accomplish tasks. Some kids who want to learn how to make their own games don’t really like these, because they are too “simple”. For kids that you want to introduce to programming or give a hint that by playing these they are taking steps to learning programming, these are a great choice and they are also fun to play together with very young kids.

CargoBot was written entirely on an iPad using a tool called Codea (http://twolivesleft.com/Codea). I don’t yet have any first-hand experience with Codea and my kids haven’t used it, so I can’t recommend it, but I might add more detail about it to this list in the future.

CrunchZilla’s CodeMonster and CodeMaven (http://www.crunchzilla.com/). These were written by a local Seattle dad, Greg Linden (https://twitter.com/greglinden), a friend of mine who has kids about my kids’ ages – he has also noticed a lack of learning tools for young kids. These are simpler forms of the tutorials listed below for Khan Academy and Codecademy. I would definitely suggest CodeMonster for young kids. With this and CodeMaven they are actually learning JavaScript, but they are doing so in a very interactive and step-by-step fashion which I find less clunky than Khan and Codecademy..

Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org/cs). Khan has some computer-science tutorials involving a simple programming language called JavaScript (no relation to Java) which focus on drawing and which are the most approachable for young kids. These are pretty fun and introductory. I would recommend these for kids who really like the programming aspects of Scratch (the for…each or while… loops, or the variables, etc). Very few of the kids younger than 9 that I have worked with really understand what they are supposed to do at each step of these these lessons because they are geared towards adults who understand complex page layout and following a complicated set of instructions, but it’s worth trying for any kid who is looking for more than Scratch.

Codecademy (http://www.codecademy.com/). These guys have tutorials about JavaScript as well as several other programming languages. These tutorials are geared more towards adults and they have a lot of user-interface “friction” that young kids without a lot of web browsing experience won’t really understand. Once kids are pretty experienced using computers and have used things like Scratch to download and upload their own projects, they will be more equipped to use Codecademy. Until my sone was about 11 I didn’t think he would find any value in these, but now he is very equipped to use them and finds them useful. He and I both notice that they are just pure lessons — they don’t tend to lead you through learning an entire project like you can do in Scratch or Stencyl, and so the rewards are somewhat weak for kids looking to really do something.

Stencyl (http://www.stencyl.com/). This is a pretty complicated tool that very experienced Scratch users can figure out with the help of an adult. You can use Stencyl to create your own web-site “flash” games and to make games on iPhone/iPad and Android devices, and for this reason it is very compelling for kids who want to create things that they can actually share with their friends. My son recently started actively using Stencyl, and it took him and me a little while to figure out the tool. The tool assumes a great deal of user-interface experience, uses games terminology without much background, and the tutorials are not the right pace or depth. That said, it is the easiest-to-approach tool for kids looking to build iPhone games right now.

A few thoughts on ARM vs x86

7 Nov

I’ve exchanged lots of email about ARM vs. x86 recently, here are two snippets that I’ve used repeatedly which are my perspective, somewhat different from what you might be reading in the press:

On ARM vs Intel ATOM power consumption…

I personally believe that just ARM the processor (the current cores in volume use in e.g. Apple, Samsung, Qualcom which are mostly ARMv7 / Cortex-A* style) is not that far ahead of Intel ATOM in reduced power, and that is a huge change from 18-24 mo ago. Intel has clearly invested deeply, even though perhaps they should have done so much earlier and wouldn’t have lost so much to smartphones and tablets. (At Microsoft we told them to invest in power in 1999 – they told us hitting 3-4W was good enough and dumped StrongARM). ARM continues to be ahead in reduced transistor count and therefore these newest Intel ATOM SoC’s are winning on power due to Intel’s much better manufacturing prowess (vs. Samsung or TMSC, etc) in making smaller more complicated dies, as well as their crazy power-management circuitry. A good read on the sea-change at least at the technical level is http://www.anandtech.com/show/5365/intels-medfield-atom-z2460-arrive-for-smartphones. Note that what the smartphone (and tablet) folks want is not just a low-power CPU, they want a whole SoC that deals with 3G/LTE, GPU, and a host of other things. This is where any advantage purely in the CPU’s power consumption is eliminated, and this is where ARM can continue to have an advantage – these devices are about customizing silicon for the very specific situation, and Intel is not going to be able to create the same level of variety as the many ARM licensees will be able to do. Still, Intel is likely to be able to spot segments that are big, go in and design an “Intel SoC” to fit that market, and sell into it in volume and with the latest process. Also, Intel happens to be able to pick up all the same bits of silicon and munge them together that the ARM guys do, so for example the Medfield ATOM SoC licenses the same PowerVR graphics engine that Apple uses in the A-series – you’ll notice Intel couldn’t possibly use their own integrated graphics because (a) they suck, (b) they are a power-hog.

The catch about Intel & ATOM is i’m not sure where their heart is here — they are in a very tough spot with respect to pricing, because they can’t truly compete with ARM without reducing their prices dramatically. Jean-Louis Gassee’s article (http://www.mondaynote.com/2012/10/21/apple-arm-and-intel/) makes this point really really well with concrete numbers. Though I don’t know any pricing details about Medfield, I suspect pricing will be a challenge, and they will price higher around “x86 compatibility.”

The other catch is that just because you make devices that could run all old x86 software doesn’t mean that you should. Specifically lots of that old software simply doesn’t make sense in the form-factor or with the interface of the new devices. Furthermore the old software probably does a lot of things which suck the life out of batteries. (Personally I think this is one good excuse for Microsoft making surface RT – it will tout that long battery life because only new apps that don’t do battery-dumb things will run on it. The same won’t be true with true Windows8 tablets allowed to run old cr-Apps.)

On Apple shifting to ARM from x86…

I think this is definitely more of a “when” than an “if”, and IMHO it’s less about power consumption (which is what the tech press is fixated on) and more about cost: the Bill-of-Material (BOM) around multi-processing and integrated graphics. Power is a useful side-effect, but improving performance without impacting overall BOM is I think way more important to Apple in terms of keeping up its margins and differentiating.

Consider first that the dual- and quad-core intel chips in the top-of-the-line macs (in the 1.8-2.5 GHz for laptops and in the mid-3GHz for iMacs/mini’s) are likely costing Apple $100-$300, then pull in another $40-50 in (crappy) companion Intel integrated graphics and another $150-200 for an additional nVidia graphics chip for high-end graphics. If you are Apple and you are building all of those things – dual-core CPU at 1.4GHz and 4-core GPU at 2GHz – into iPads and iPad mini’s for $16-$30 per A6x, you have got to be scratching your head about why Intel and nVidia should get so much of your BOM in non-tablets. The app compatibility is simply not an issue this time around – for an additional few $ per-device Apple could dedicate several additional cores just to x86 emulation — that wasn’t something that was possible in the old days when the transition to x86 happened.

The key performance metric/characteristic which Apple can differentiate on in laptops and desktops is cores: offering new laptops and desktops with 8, 16, 32, or 64 cores would be a massive differentiator which Intel would have tremendous trouble offering to the low-end laptop OEMs. And Apple’s software has become multi-core friendly under the hood with the introduction of Grand-Central-Dispatch (GCD) and block-programming.

So the biggest unspoken pressure on Intel will not be power, that is a red herring. It’s their per-core pricing which is going to suffer versus Apple if Apple decides that multi-cores and SoC is how they are going to compete in making better laptops and desktops (which I think they will and are doing). Intel does not know how to deal with radical multi-core in their business model. see http://www.mondaynote.com/2012/10/21/apple-arm-and-intel/ and his perspective on Tick Tock.

The iLike AdSongs Platform

19 Oct

By the end of summer 2007 iLike.com had mostly regained ops stability and a workable hardware installation schedule following the growth of Facebook’s platform launch on May 25 – 4 million new users over the first two weeks alone kept us adding hardware and fixing software continuously for a while, changing the wheels and engine every few days on our car while it raced. Our original standalone social network, iLike.com continued to grow, but our growth on Facebook was vastly outpacing our organice user growth, and in the subsequent months our syndication to other social networks like Hi5, Bebo, Orkut, and MySpace would double and double again our user base and our reach across the web.

On all the social networks and websites where we projected our “widgets” and “app” we used a common visual element, themed to its surroundings, which allowed in-line playback of full songs or 30-second samples (depending on rights). We called it the “Song Expando” internally and the amazing Steve Rider crafted it with tremendous love. It was a tight little piece of javascript & behind-the-scenes Flash that showed animated buffering and playback progress, auto-played to the next song if there were several in a group, and could open up slightly in-page to provide artist and album information, links to videos on YouTube, purchase links through iTunes, and user- and geographically-targeted concert ticket buying and social/sharing information.

In November ’07 after plotting the growth in the number of Expandos we were rendering, how many tracks we were playing and how many MP3 and ticket purchase referrals we were generating, I wrote an internal memo proposing using the Expando more explicitly for revenue by syndicating its use around the web and selling the ad space, making it a Google AdWords-like product available to third parties, generating revenue and sharing it with sites (publishers) and the content owners (artists and labels). I ran some tests where I placed keyword-targeted AdSense ads within Expandos to see what they could support – they achieved CPMs and CTRs so high that our Google contacts thought we were doing illegitimate click-fraud until I explained the circumstances and they examined the placements. Google really liked these units and gave us an exception for their format since they only appeared after the user pushed play and in some cases were within an iframe – normally both forbidden by AdSense. For me, the performance of this ad format crystallized my view on the importance of user attention and the physical placement and interaction with ads in a workflow (the Ad Contrarian said this recently better than I have yet). More on this subject, someday.

The technical work to syndicate Expandos at web-scale given our architecture and existing social-network-scale was trivial. The rights environment and complications around revenue sharing were (and are) hideously more complicated. You see, we were operating in a grey area with the main rights owners. The major US record labels – but especially Universal Music and Sony-BMG which held about 60% of the market – didn’t much like our use of music clips. (Actually, they liked it just fine; they didn’t like the fact that we didn’t pay them directly for their use – we paid Muze and others for clips). Their artists all loved iLike and loved having their tracks available (mostly as 30-second samples) on Facebook and around social networks, because their own contracts placed onerous restrictions on how they could distribute samples and tracks online. iLike was a watershed for many artists and small labels in terms of getting new fans through music discovery and being able to reach out and communicate to fans. At the time, iLike had more active artists and a larger “followers” graph of fans than Twitter by several orders of magnitude, and was on-track to surpass the then-dominant fan graphs on MySpace. From the moment of our launch in October 2006 we had been playing “Clip Chess”1 over the use of 30-second samples on iLike.com and our syndication to social networks, especially Facebook, triggered a huge escalation in the game. Adding revenue generated more directly by the clips into what had become detente would have been a dangerous gambit and an invitation for lawsuits.2

So we held off simply launching AdSongs and instead continued negotiating with labels while opening conversations with Apple,3 Rhapsody,4 Microsoft, and Amazon about whether we could safely use and syndicate their music store samples and get out from under the shadow of the labels. After an extremely painful integration with Rhapsody over the spring and summer of 2008 we shipped a neutered form of AdSongs (lacking revenue sharing and without ads in Expandos on 3rd-party sites) in September ’08. It took the form of both a self-service ad network for concert promoters featuring pay-per-interaction ad-units across our properties and a developer platform for embedding songs and playlists (and playlist builders) into other Facebook apps and onto websites. These tools became fairly popular with developers and promoters, but the horrible technical performance of Rhapsody and the continuing take-down requests from labels (despite RealNetworks’ and Rhapsody’s promised safety umbrella) kept us from investing in AdSongs as a revenue source.

Rhapsody’s cripplingly bad streaming performance and outages, horrible user conversion to subscriptions and the continued user and partner (especially Facebook) feedback that we needed more and better clips internationally as well as full streaming led us to finally take the necessary first step with labels: MP3 sales. Our belief was that 80% of the technical effort – payment processing, fraud-detection, content-ingestion, hosting, and delivery, promotional requirements, per-label volume reporting – would be completed by taking this first, legal-boilerplate 10% effort step of setting up an MP3 store, and that good MP3 sales volumes would help our much more complicated 90% legal and business negotiation effort for US streaming rights. We were correct about the technical effort – it took us only about 6 weeks across a few people and me at about 75%-time5 – but the legal and business development effort was not entirely boilerplate and took a great deal more mental time and effort for Hadi to tee up – almost 9mo of effort and several trips to NYC and LA, shipping in late summer of 2009 while we were already deep in MySpace acquisition talks, where we had hoped to have it live by February.

So in the end, after negotiating and building an MP3 store could we finally have built and shipped an AdSongs product syndicated around the web? Sadly, not really. For starters, a great deal of our extra negotiation time was in fact tied up in the fact that iLike was already syndicated to a set of properties that were not “within our own domain of iLike.com,” and this triggered a visceral negative reaction at the labels who believed that they were due a share of the overall  revenue of any site that supports playback of their music, not just ads associated with the playback of their music, not just ads elsewhere on the pages containing music, either. You can actually understand a great deal about negotiations with record labels and the history of music on the web once you internalize what I just wrote: they believe they are due a share of the overall revenue of any site that plays back their music anywhere.  Our rights were were in the end structured to allow putting clips and buy buttons only within the specific properties we already had and other uses were up for individual review. What their philosophy meant for the concept of AdSongs – that they would share in the ad revenue from the contextual ads served during playback of content as well as the ticket, MP3 purchase, and other sales directly in the Expando, and that so would the site owner and iLike – was that it simply wasn’t something they were open to or ready for. While negotiating the MP3 store, we simply didn’t feel we could bring shared advertising revenue into the business discussion unless we wanted to spend years negotiating.

So, after much ado, here is the AdSongs proposal from November 8, 2007:

AdSongs: Because Content Wants to Be Free but Eyeballs Never Will Be

Billions of web-pages across millions of web-sites large & small contain links to music content which can be played on-line or downloaded by users. Some of these sites & pages (including all iLike content) link to legitimately licensed 30-second samples and full-song clips for free streaming (the majority) or free download (the minority). The problem is that the legitimately licensed content is not pervasive enough; it is difficult for both large sites and small consumers (music bloggers, for instance) to acquire rights to use music content legitimately. A further problem is that the one-time, high-cost, up-front licensing model for samples and full-streams employed to date sets up a frustrating long-term revenue imbalance for the music content owners – the lack of per-listen revenue for technical and other reasons from licensees makes music content owners desire on-line licensing even less. So, not only are many useful promotional opportunities lost (blogging, news articles, email) but the barrier of licensing in time, money, and infrastructure requirements is causing more small-scale and large-scale use of illegitimate content. This unfortunately feeds back on itself to further dissuade legitimate licensing and dissemination of music content. And this is a shame. Because, at no time in history has music been more in-demand. As we have seen at iLike.com with our exponential growth on social networks like iLike.com and Facebook users crave music on web pages. Users want to interact with music. They want to recommend music to one another. They want to read about music, about musicians, about upcoming concerts, about album releases. They want to review music, write about it, comment on individual songs, and create playlists. They want to email music to their friends. And while they are reading, emailing, and creating they love to have a non-interrupting means of listening to the music, sampling new music, and finding out more about that music.

AdSongs: Musical Hyperlinks + Contextual Advertising

What if you could make legitimately licensed music available everywhere on the web in a format where it is easier and more natural to use than illegitimate music? What if users sought out this format of music and preferred it because it gave them the best streaming & sound experience right in their web-pages without interruption, allowed them to easily buy the song or album if they liked it, and allowed them to share their music discoveries with friends? What if web-page authors, from the smallest stay-at-home-dad-blogger to the largest commercial web-site could add this form of music to their pages without having to negotiate a complex license? What if web-page authors were furthermore incented to add this format of the music instead of illegitimate links because it made them money? Finally, what if every time a user on any web page listened to this music the artists and content owners also made money? It’s not impossible. This is just what we’re building at iLike with AdSongs. Think of them as the musical equivalent of the hyperlinks you click on every day as you navigate around the web. You can see the initial form of our AdSongs “musical hyperlinks” on iLike.com, Facebook, and in Ask.com search results (Figures 1 & 2). These existing iLike AdSongs appear in over 300 million pageviews each month by 20 millions unique users. AdSongs already present in-line local concert indicators (a form of contextual advertising) to specific viewers based on their geographic location. In just 6 months AdSongs have grown to become the #1 referrer of music purchases to Apple’s iTunes Music Store and the #3 referrer of ticket purchasing to Ticketmaster. But this is just the beginning for AdSongs.

Figure 1a. The popular songs module on U2’s Artist page on iLike.com (http://www.iLike.com/artist/U2) before the user has chosen to listen to a song.

Figure 1b. The popular song module after the user has chosen to listen to the song Vertigo – the AdSong expands to present purchase information.

Figure 2a. An AdSong (currently “static”) is presented in the right-rail when searching for musicians on Ask.com (http://www.ask.com)

Figure 2b. Static AdSongs like these from Billboard syndicated charts (http://apps.facebook.com/ilike/top_songs) are shown in over 20M pages on Facebook. iLike will be transitioning these to dynamic “expando” AdSongs at the beginning of 2008.

AdSongs offer a unique opportunity for highly contextualized advertising because they are an in-visual-field control surface that draws a user’s eye and invites interaction. Unlike banner and edge-ads, dynamic AdSong expandos appear when and where the user interacts with them, whether they are in a song-list (Figure 3), in-line with text (Figure 4), or in a playlist, chart, or album-view of a song collection. AdSongs expando ads are initially targeted based on the song being played and the geographic location of the user playing them. In Q1’2008 we will add targeting by standard user demographics if the viewer is one of iLike’s 15M members across iLike.com and Facebook as well as targeting based on their specific musical preferences which are unique to iLike’s knowledge of the Artist Fan Graph.

Figure 3. A blog review of a concert containing a grouped playlist of songs from each of the sets played by the concert lineup. Only when the user clicks to play a song and listens to the content do ads show.

Figure 4. A an article reviewing Led Zeppelin II contains multiple AdSongs “music hyperlinks” in-line with the article text. AdSongs expand and play without intruding on the reading experience of the user.

For small-scale bloggers and other web-authors adding just a few songs, AdSongs will be as easy as searching for a song on iLike.com and copying universal HTML content into their pages. For commercial bloggers and larger commercial web-sites, they can sign up for an AdSongs account with iLike and receive an AdSongs-Key so that they share in the revenue from AdSongs appearing on their pages. The very largest-scale sites & music stores may choose the additional step of paying for the placement of their own songs or to have no advertising at all in their AdSongs. In all cases iLike’s AdSong engine takes care of dynamically choosing and delivering ads when songs play, streaming those songs, tracking impressions and click-throughs and distributing the revenue to content owners and publishers.

Revenue Sharing

Web publishers (web-site owners) are used to seeing anywhere from a 50:50 to an 80:20 (their advantage) split of the advertising revenue from ad networks when they relinquish page space for ads. AdSongs are a different types of intentionally placed and integrated content – when the user pushes play, they open and play music content that is owned by a label or artist, content that should be paid for and which contributes significantly to the efficacy of the advertising within the opened space. Therefore in a typical case – specific songs that a blogger places in an article, a selection of specific songs in a custom playlist, for example – we  propose that 40% of the advertising revenue goes to the song content owner, 40% goes to the publisher, and 20% goes to iLike to support and operate the AdSongs infrastructure. The combination of (a) the higher click-through rate on ads within AdSongs which are opened, (b) their ability to highly target advertising to individuals based on the songs they interact with and thereby command higher CPMs, and (c) the fact that they offer in-line display and don’t consumer a publisher’s page space, suggests that AdSongs revenue will be additive for publishers. So we believe this revenue-split is justifiable. We do anticipate that there will be many other AdSong modules for publishers representing more space-consuming elements such as playlists, “top-10” charts, artist-specific ads with playable content, and even label- or artist-promoted results in search-engines which may have different revenue-splits, more advantageous to publishers because they are part of label- or artist-promotional efforts.

1 Clip Chess is complicated and interesting enough that I’m pulling it out into its own post soon.

2 In hindsight I think it would have been better to push the envelope with labels sooner so we could make a go/no-go about clips and full-songs and about the overall business of iLike rather than letting the issue bleed us slowly like a leach. Fail Fast, Fail Cheap, Fail Often is a better plan than Succeed Almost, Limp Like A Zombie.

3 Our almost-acquisition by Apple in February 2008 is a horribly painful story for another day.

4 Or as we liked to call it, Crapsody. Also a story for another day.

5 Granted, among the people working on the store were Eugene Zarakhovsky and Seth Cousins, two of the most gifted and unbelievably productive engineers I have ever had the pleasure of working with.