Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

PlaceBook is now TripTrace

Posted: August 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

Sometimes you just can’t fight the 800lb gorilla. Anyway, it’s not our style.

And so: PlaceBook is now TripTrace. Officially. Which means, we’re shutting down this blog and hauling everyone over to blog.triptrace.com.

Over there you’ll see what we’re up to, hear musings on start-ups, user interface, and get the latest release notes and discussion. More than you could ever dream of!

(And as for this space? Maybe we’ll leave this here as the fanpage for PlacéBoök (plah-kay-buuk))

Can you say our new name?

Posted: August 10, 2010 in Uncategorized

This is how we roll…

Posted: July 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

People ask me all the time: “What’s it like at a start-up?”

I’ve only been in a few, so my experience is limited, but they are always idiosyncratic: each pretty unique. At Sonic Solutions there were four of us in a little apartment in the Sunset District in San Francisco. Thick cables ran down the hallway past the kitchen, connecting the workstation we set up (we had only one) to the Sun server in the first bedroom. I remember that the freezer was packed full of frozen burritos and we had day shifts and night shifts to keep the workstation running all the time. It was 1987.

It’s nicer today. Look at us all, each with a supercomputer on our laps… The days are unusually long, but it never quite feels like it because its so not-officish, it’s so homey… My dog Bodhi joined the team (advisor, mostly) which was a nice comic element to throw in the mix. And there we are, working away in the heat of the day. It wasn’t a meeting – but it was beautiful outside and we all found ourselves hanging out for awhile. We did notice that even sitting around each other working, we still Skyped back and forth; it was silent out there, except for the clicking of keys, but you could hear everyone’s voices in your head while typing. It reminded me of a Star Trek episode (the original seasons) where a race of telepathic beings were doing stuff to Kirk, et al. We were like those telepathic beings. Bodhi was Kirk.

It’s impossible to deny the tug of something new and hot. A few will resist simply because they don’t want to be lemmings; but usually folks like discovering something new and, particularly when it’s truly fun, news and adoption spread quickly. New is fun.

When I was raising money for Petroglyph Ceramic Lounge – kicking off the “paint your own ceramics” craze in the early ‘90s – we had a handful of profitable studios and we were looking for capital to expand. The venture community couldn’t argue with the obvious popularity and rapid growth of our retail locations, but they wanted to be convinced that painting ceramics wasn’t a FAD. In 1992 there were perhaps 2 places in the nation you could do this kind of activity; by 1995 there were a dozen and 1996 a hundred… but there was nothing I could say to convince them that in five years anyone would care. I couldn’t know.

Well, hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and today it’s clear that Petroglyph wasn’t just a fad, but was kicking off a TREND. There are thousands of PYOP (paint your own pottery) studios in the world, and sales today – almost 20 years later — are steady.

Games are very faddish activities. Remember Trivial Pursuit in Time Magazine in 1983? – a hot new import from Canada. Within a year it exploded. Years later, we see that the game was a fad, but it still was a game changer – and it not only galvanized a new industry of board games (in general) and trivia games (in particular), but it still sells today, even if not the “hot thing.” Same story for other gaming “game changers” – Myst (a global phenom, and catalyzing CD ROM games), You Don’t Know Jack, and so on and on. With little exception, games –like rock stars — are faddish. Do they ever have staying power? Sure–D&D, WoW… or they spawn great franchises like SimCity… but these are unusual exceptions in the game kingdom, no?

Which brings me to GPS-enabled location games. What can I say?  They’re games. They’re fun. They woke us up to the power of pervasive GPS and I’m certain they herald a new era, a new TREND, in consumer location-powered tools. But the games themselves? Foursquare? Gowalla? MyTown? and the new ones? I hate to be a wet blanket but I would tend to be cautious to claim victory here. Games get big fast. Frequent reports of their viral growth are important, but also the wrong hook to hang your hat on. These games might never break out of certain demographic sectors (people who are game players) and sooner or later the fans will almost certainly begin looking for the next fun thing. They simply may not have staying power any more than any great game. The leader in the pack may find ways to move the millions of players to their next fun game – but for most players in the field, I believe audiences will be fickle. Is there money to be made? Probably. Not that anyone is asking me, but if I were Booyah and the others, I would be trying to evolve a slate of location-based games and toys, and not put all my eggs in one game-basket as if users will play it indefinitely.

And as for PlaceBook, all I can say is that we’ll be launching soon, and frankly I’d be thrilled to have Foursquare’s 2 million users…

But I’ve watched fads and trends for decades… from the trends of nonlinear editing,  ceramic painting, mobile computing; to the wonderful fads of PacMan, Miatas and Lady Gaga.  I am aiming PlaceBook to anticipate the TREND and not chase the FAD. I can’t wait to see what happens…

Frenetic Activity: Part 1

Posted: June 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

Shhh…I’m typing this while I should be working; everyone is heads-down all around me. June has brought the hum of activity upon HQ with a full house of engineering, UX, biz dev, and all that good start-up stuff — debates in the kitchen, frenetic ideation on the whiteboards, and yes, splash fights in the pool (Okay – i made this last one up; we have a pool but so far no one has stopped working long enough to float around. But we can dream). In less than 5 weeks we got ourselves moved and set up in Silicon Valley, pulled together a killer team from ex-eBay, ex-Netflix, ex-Local Matters), and began coding.

What i’m procrastinating is my preparation for next week’s Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in San Jose. I’m on a panel *(Thurs 1:30pm) along with luminaries in the field, and i’m both honored and intimidated to be among them:

  • Dorothy Attwood, Senior Vice President, Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer, AT&T
  • Mitchell Baker, CEO, Mozilla Foundation
  • Deborah Estrin, Professor of Computer Science, UCLA, and Director, Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS)
  • Monica Lam, Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University
  • Ginger McCall, Staff Counsel, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)

I believe i’m the posterchild for small businesses who want to utilize private location information, and i’m keeping an eye out for pitchforks and torches. We’re doing everything we can to establish a really secure, really appropriate system that manages lots of personal location information – and in our seeking guidance from experts and consumer advocates, I have found myself on this panel. I believe my naive optimism was refreshing.

Next week we announce more about what we’re building and allow interested parties to sign up for the private beta. We’ll select from the applicants and roll it out slowly as we build new features. You can sign up here, but otherwise, if you’re at the conference, please say hi.

It’s almost impossible to open a newsfeed today without someone else realizing that Facebook privacy is lacking, or that Facebook itself is taking another stab at getting it right. [e.g. New York Times, PC World, WSJournal…] I’m confident these efforts will be futile.

It’s not due to lack of caring on the part of Facebook; I’m sure they care about individual privacy (Zuckerberg’s passion for openness notwithstanding). And it’s not for some sort of technical incompetence – those guys are smart and savvy. So why the ongoing nightmares?

There are two forces at play that I propose are mutually exclusive and cannot effectively be resolved. First, and foremost, Facebook is a social tool. It is THE social graph. Everything about its structure – from concept to engineering – is designed to make social connections natural and simple. Social connection is a powerful (and valuable) force and Facebook handles it all with ease. Anything that is NOT supposed to be social and shared is going to run directly into a basic disconnect. Yes, we can hide the things we don’t want to share, and we can take efforts to select who sees some things and who does not. But sharing is simple, and hiding is a little harder.

The more sensitive the information we post into the Facebook “system” – the more nervous we are that it might be getting shared in some way we cannot fathom. I would suggest most people aren’t entirely clear about what is being shared and with whom. Confidence and control over Facebook privacy is not going to be simple no matter how technically sophisticated the user, and with 400+ million users, most are not “sophisticated.”

The second force is about user experience design, and most of my background here comes from Netflix. Even with only 12 million users – a mere fraction of Facebook — it was a continual challenge to simplify the Netflix website enough that a large audience would find it clear and useable. We learned that people don’t read much on the screen, they don’t spend a ton of time figuring out features, they don’t understand things that might seem “obvious” and so on. Small increases in the number of options/functions available at any given moment, and usability suffers. We used to have in-house opinions like “take all the cool sophisticated tools and put them under a drop down menu called “advanced features”…. And then don’t build them.” It’s not that advanced features aren’t good and cool, it’s only that very very few people will ever discover them let alone use them, and simple always wins over sophisticated. We tested these principles and we knew them to be true.

And so we return to Facebook: most the privacy controls fall into the domain of “advanced features” – they’re the exception to a social tool; they’re complicated no matter how hard you try or how smart you are. With an audience the size of Facebook’s, users will predominantly never be able to grok them and thus will screw up privacy– and blame Facebook.

Facebook may never truly be able to deliver appropriate privacy because at their core, they are all about social and sharing. Uber privacy will never and cannot ever be their strength. Nor should we demand it be. Facebook isn’t where we should manage our medical history or genetic code. It isn’t where we write our diary. We should probably stop blaming Facebook for failing in a domain where they shouldn’t be expert, or asking them to effectively solve for every privacy concern. Instead we should use Facebook for what it is – a social graph. At some level, Facebook and strong simple privacy are mutually exclusive, and, when we accept that, we will all be much happier.

I’m going to admit something here. I often take the road more traveled, and I don’t like that about myself. I seek the path of least resistance; it feels like giving in, but I cannot fight it. I have a short attention span; and like any handicapped individual, I do the best I can to compensate with other strengths.

We are supposed to teach our kids to be hardworking and focused, but I am easily distracted and desirous of down time. I think about things a lot.

My career is in building things for people like me. I’m passionate about having computers make my life easier. As my friend, industrial designer Lisa Krohn once taught me, the computer is a prosthetic device — it makes me from a poor speller, slow writer, bad drawer, lazy designer, marginal film editor — into something quite different, and apparently capable. I want to help people like me. I don’t make games. I’m more of a toolmaker: tools to make work easier. I like easy.

Easy is hard to do. It takes work — it’s sculpture as much as data. When I edited movies I was apprenticed for a time to the great filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and his film editor Gabriella Cristiani. They shot maybe forty hours of film to make The Sheltering Sky. After many months of work they elegantly demonstrated to me that editing a movie isn’t about throwing out the bad material. It’s about throwing out the good material to make the remaining material better. This is the essence of product design.

Netflix has millions of customers from which they can analyze data to improve their website. It’s consumer science. Even with numbers it’s still hard to do well, and few do it as well as they do. A start-up, my start-up, however, doesn’t have enough users yet to allow anyone to make statistically relevant decisions about product features. So over the next few months, my work is to systematically cut and shape the product into its essence, some kind of delightful simplicity and clear function. Today it is still 40 hours of film, a block of marble, chopped ingredients on the counter. Next comes the fun part.