Cuil: Why I'm trying to get off of the PR bandwagon…

Sarah Lacy, tech journalist for Business Week, has a post that demonstrates well why I am really trying to get off of the PR bandwagon.

See, on Sunday night a ton of blog posts all went up. Most of which were pretty congratulatory and hopeful that there was a “Google competitor.” Tech journalists desperately want there to be a competitor to Google. Why? Monopolies are boring to cover. The best tool a story teller has is when there’s conflict. I like to tell people this world is just like high school. Think back to high school.

In your high school, did anyone talk about the geeky kid who stayed after school to build a science fair project? In my school, which had lots of geeky kids, no, not usually. But if there was a fight in the quad would everyone talk about the fight for days afterward? Yes.

Journalists thrive off of conflict. That’s why we want a competitor to Google so badly and why we play up every startup that comes along that even attempts to compete with Google.

The problem is that competiting head on with Google is not something that a startup can do.

Let’s say someone really comes out with a breakthrough idea in search (which would be a feat all on its own, since Microsoft and Yahoo are spending tons of engineering time trying to find something breakthrough too). If they got all the hype that Cuil did (NPR and CNN played it up, not just tech bloggers) and people really liked it, they would spread it around like wild fire.

Do you have any clue about the infrastructure that Google has in place to handle the kind of scale that it sees? Try half a million servers. Half a million!!!

Think about that. How much money does that take to build out? Hint: a lot more than $30 million that was invested in Cuil.

So, Cuil set itself up for a bad PR result in the end. Either it wouldn’t meet the expections (which is what happened after people started testing it) or it would fall over and fail whale like Twitter has been for the past few months (because it wasn’t built to handle the scale).

Notice that other search companies don’t build up their PR like that. Mahalo never says it’s going to be a Google Killer, just that it’s going to do some number of searches better. In fact, Mahalo uses Google on its own pages.

Why PR works and why I want off

Note that Lacy said she wasn’t pre-briefed on Cuil (Techcrunch says that the company briefed every tech blogger and kept them from trying the service before release). That’s not true: I wasn’t briefed, either. But now, go back and look at the TechMeme rankings. Were either my post (which was harsh, but fair, but published several hours after the original wave of PR-briefed bloggers and journalists) or Lacy’s on there? No.

See, if you want to earn links and attention in this world you’ve got to be first, or at least among the first articles to go out. I’ve seen this time and time again. I call it the Techmeme game.

But it affects Digg and Reddit and FriendFeed, too. The stories that got discussed the most on those were usually among the first crowd.

I guess what I’m really saying is that I’m going back to what makes me passionate. I don’t get passionate when reading a press release, or listening ot some executive on a conference call (I was dragged onto one of those the other day and I stopped it mid-stream, saying, “can I come and see you face-to-face?”)

I also find that I’m getting back to reading my Google Reader feeds, looking for other people who are truly passionate about technology or business and who are looking for innovative approaches to either.

There’s a TON of interesting blogs there that never will get to Digg or Techmeme. Same thing over on FriendFeed. Lots of interesting stuff being discussed on the Internet that never will get the “Cuil” treatment, but is worth your checking out.

For instance, I’m just over the top about Evernote. How did I miss that for so long? Funny that a PR team brought me that, too. So, sometimes this game DOES work out, but note that I didn’t try to be first to get Evernote, I just kept seeing it getting praise from the bloggers I read.

Anyway, help us all get off the PR bandwagon. What are you passionate about? If you could go anywhere in the world and meet with any geek, executive, or company, who would it be?

What are you finding is bringing real value to your life? Hey, even go outside the tech industry. Is there something we should all be checking out and giving as much attention to as we’re giving to Cuil?

You are an idiot if…

…you believe Microsoft is actually going to have a completely rewritten Operating System before Bill Gates dies (which might be 20 to 40 more years).

Unfortunately journalists, like this one in Software Development Times, love to make it seem that Microsoft is working hard on a new, completely rewritten, operating system that will solve all the world’s problems.

Let me assure you they are not. At least not one that’ll be productized before my 10-month-old son sees his 10th birthday.

So, what is the Midori team doing?

Well, THAT is an interesting question that I’d love to ask Eric Rudder.

Here’s my theory: it’s a forcing function on the .NET team.

See, Bill Gates wants to make it possible to use a LOT more .NET in operating systems. That’s really what went wrong with Longhorn, er, Vista. Gates tried to make too much of the operating system dependent on .NET and .NET just wasn’t ready for an operating-system-level deployment/use case yet.

It was like trying to build a 100-story building, getting to level 50, and noticing that the thing is starting to lean. They had to tear it all the way down, put a new foundation in, and rebuild. That’s what happened to the Longhorn team. The fact that Vista got done at all is a pretty amazing engineering feat that software engineering schools should be studying for years.

Anyway, how would it be a forcing function? Well, by building an OS completely in .NET they can discover where .NET is deficient. They can use it to bug the .NET team to improve that system until they get it good enough to use it underneath a new operating system.

Let’s say it takes them 10 years to iterate through all the things that .NET needs to do to become a real operating-system-level platform/language. Imagine then that Microsoft could roll that stuff into a version of Windows. Wow, wouldn’t that be useful to have rafts of the OS all built on .NET and hosting a new kind of .NET app?

Imagine writing drivers in .NET code. Or networking infrastructure. Or other things deep down inside the OS.

Now we’re getting someplace.

One other reason a total rewrite wouldn’t be done? Bill Gates believes strongly that you shouldn’t break old apps. Lotus 123 still runs on Vista. As long as Bill is around they won’t break those old apps. A total rewrite would break all sorts of apps.

Anyway, what do you think Microsoft is up to?

The power of a good demo

People have been talking about Microsoft’s “Mojave Experiment” all day. What did they do? They demoed a “future operating system” to end users, got their feedback, usually positive, and then told them it was actually Windows Vista.

This is the first marketing in some time that made me think Microsoft’s marketing department had a clue about how to deal with its perception problem. Amazing to me that it took so long.

But when I see other Microsoft advertising, why isn’t it aspirational? Why doesn’t it just SHOW something cool you can do with Vista? Or with any of its other products?

Oh, by the way, I’m using Windows Vista to type this to you. My wife and I have been having this argument about Windows. I’ve been having her use a Lenovo X300 laptop that’s really sexy. But she keeps asking for her Mac back. Why? She says it feels better and is nicer to use (when we left Podtech she had to return her Mac). My son isn’t helping, either. He makes fun of us for using non-Mac machines. He even was arguing with HP’s head of marketing last week about how much better Apple’s machines are.

What I’d love to see is a head-to-head competition. Take both home for a week. Which one do you return?

Anyway, all this reminds me of is the power of a good demo. Actually, this is what I have loved about Apple’s stores whenever I go in: they are usually demoing what their machines can do. Walk in and they show you how to do all sorts of stuff from podcasting to digital photography. At the San Francisco store you can sit there and take tons of classes for free and they are usually pretty good and aimed at non-passionate users who are trying to do something specific with their machines.

Question: have you seen a Microsoft advertisment lately where Microsoft talks about what their machines can do? Have you seen an advertisment that shows you their WorldWide Telescope, for instance (that is still my favorite demo of 2008)? Or Microsoft’s Deep Zoom? Or Microsoft’s Surface? Or Microsoft Photosynth (my favorite demo of 2006)?

These are all wonderful technologies that demo very well, but if Microsoft is able to find so many people who’ve just heard that Vista is crappy, but who haven’t actually seen it for themselves (that’s what the Mojave Project was really all about), imagine how many people who think that Microsoft isn’t an innovative company who haven’t seen any of Microsoft’s very real innovations?

Personally, whoever buys and makes Microsoft’s advertising should be, well, let’s just say “Starbucked” since they laid off about 900 people today. It’s amazingly bad and it doesn’t have to be.

Hopefully that’s what they are really learning by doing these little “gotcha” experiments.

Getting things done over at FastCompanyTV

If you haven’t checked into FastCompanyTV lately, we’ve been posting up a storm of innovative people.

David Allen, best-selling author of Getting Things Done, tells us how to get more done.
Buzz Bruggeman, CEO of ActiveWords, shows me how to use Mind Mapping software and tons of other tools to become more productive.
Philip J. Kuekes, computer architect on the quantum science research team at HP Labs shows me how they are finding new ways to make processors and memory a lot smaller and power efficient. Does he make you feel like you are a few brain cells down on him? I always get inspired and wish I studied more math and science in school when I meet guys like Philip.
Senator Tom Coburn tells me why he likes bloggers, among other things. This was part of our whirl-wind tour of Washington DC.
Microsoft Senior Vice President, Chris Capossela, tells me how they are going to keep all office workers from going to Zoho or Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Seriously, he laid out what Microsoft Office team is trying to do to bring collaborative features into the most-used of Office suites.
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein talks to me about a variety of issues, including child protection, which is what he’s most passionate about.
Congressman Tim Ryan talks to me about Twittering from the House of Representatives. Among other things. Heck, did you catch that a Democrat is now proposing that we build nuclear power plants and get people to buy electronic cars? We wouldn’t have had THAT conversation a decade ago.

Whew, and there’s more smart people to listen to over on FastCompanyTV too.

The passionates vs. the non passionates

Every morning now I start out by reading FriendFeed. This morning there was a post by Steve Spalding called “the Web’s dirty little secret” which is about how small the audiences are here in the tech blogging world.

Back in May Dare Obasanjo wrote a post about early adopters and how software developers should discount them.

I’ve been doing a bunch of thinking about both of these things. How can entrepreneurs reach both passionate and non-passionate audiences? Do both matter? When? (Clearly crossing the chasm requires going from the passionates to the non-passionates, or the early adopters to the late ones, if you would rather use that lingo).

So, what’s this talk about passionates vs. non-passionates?

Well, one thing I’ve learned over and over is that you can build an interesting business if you have 100,000 people passionate about something. Anything. I used to be an associate editor at a magazine about Visual Basic back in the 1990s. We had millions of dollars in revenue and our distribution was 110,000 copies. That launched conferences and all sorts of things that made money and brought in revenue. Life was good for a while.

On the other hand, if you pick a business model that requires huge numbers of people, like Facebook advertising that might only pay $.25 per 1,000 views, then you gotta go big or go home. How do you do that, though? I wish I knew, cause most companies who try doing that go under before they can acquire enough customers. Passionate users are easier to get than non-passionate ones. It’s why Amazon and Google don’t do much advertising. Reaching the non-passionates is very hard and they’ve decided to just invest in making a better product, reaching through the passionates to the larger audience. Other companies, though, feel they can convince the non-passionates and advertise heavily. Lifelock is a good example of that. Lifelock isn’t something I ever see bloggers or Twitterers talking about, but the company is constantly advertising that product and, from what I hear, raking in big revenues.

Same happens on the Web. People who can build audiences of the 100,000 size can build decent businesses on the Web. Just talk to Gary Vaynerchuk, who does He has audiences of 60,000 to 100,000 watching each show.

Getting to 100,000 engaged users is reasonably easy to do pretty quickly. But the VCs are needing companies that have 10s of millions. iLike, in Seattle, for instance, is touted by Facebook as one of their favorite applications, which got to 30 million users in a very short time. I remember meeting founder Hadi Partovi shortly after they started right around the time I left Microsoft and they didn’t have a single user. How did they get so big so fast? They had a great app that was out on the first day of Facebook’s new app platform launch (took many sleepless nights to develop that app and then keep it up as it got to six million users in the first few weeks after launch).

Even with iLike, though, I bet that most of its users are passionate about music. 30 million users is a drop in the bucket compared to people who listen to music around the world. Convincing non-passionate users to try something is really difficult.

Some things that I’ve noticed about late adopters (er, non-passionates) and how they use computers they really are much different than the passionates who I usually hang out with. They really don’t care about 99% of the things I care about. FriendFeed? Yeah, right, they haven’t even heard of it, and if I try telling them about it, they say “why would I do that?” See, most people just want to work their 9 to 5 jobs, go home, pop open a beer, sit on the couch, watch some movies, play with their kids, etc.

Stay up all night talking to strangers? No way, no how. Most of the non-passionates I know are just barely trying out Facebook (90 million users). Twitter? Yeah, right. (Two million).

Heck, these people don’t even know how to use an address bar in a browser. Think I’m kidding? I’ve watched how normal people (er, non-passionates) use computers. You go to a search box, and type “Yahoo” even if you are already on Yahoo. Think I’m kidding? Ask the engineers over at Yahoo how many times a day people search for Yahoo on Yahoo’s own search engine. Same over at Google.

When I travel, I look at what people use — thanks to being on planes a lot in the past few months I get to see what people use. Most are using technology I used back in 2000. That’s eight years ago, or 100 in Internet years. I look at them the same way you’d look at them if they told you they just started using a telephone.

The exception? Blackberry. But show me a Blackberry user that knows how to look up Google Maps or uses the Web more than once a week? I’ll show you a passionate. I’ve talked to hundreds of people in airports and I haven’t found a Web-using Blackberry user yet that’s not a passionate (meaning, someone who is really passionate about technology).

And let’s not forget the fact that of the six to seven billion people in the world only about a billion even have a computer in the first place. So, that means that five to six billion people really don’t care about Windows or OSX or all that.

We can be so arrogant sometimes to forget that there are more people who are NOT like us, than who are like us in the technology world.

That said, is Dare Obasanjo correct? Should new companies ignore early adopters?

No, and no.

If Bill Gates had done that Dare would not be working at Microsoft today. Microsoft TOTALLY served the passionates for the first decade of life. Heck, its first product was a compiler!

Early adopters are the ones who will adopt your product or service without you spending hundreds of dollars to get them to try it.

A Kraft food executive once told me they spend about $40 just to get a new customer. Think about that. For FOOD!!! Something that we all need to survive!!!

So, if you want to build a profitable business with very few resources you MUST forget about the non-passionates. They won’t adopt your product unless you are lucky enough to be something like iLike. And even then your chances are pretty slim. I remember when Buzz Bruggeman, CEO of ActiveWords, had a great review in USA Today and only got 40 downloads of his product. You think their ads are going to work any better? No, and no and no. Give it up, the non-passionates will probably never adopt your product and if you get them, it’s probably through some very good luck (iLike couldn’t happen if it were launched today, they needed the Facebook paradigm shift to happen for them to be successful).

So, where do we go from here? I don’t know, I’m doing a lot of work to find out how the tech industry can reach more of the non-passionates. There aren’t a lot of easy answers.

Some tips for getting seen by more people, passionate OR non-passionate.

  1. Believe it or not, Valleywag has a great one. Make your page load faster! It’s amazing to me when I find a blog that doesn’t load fast.
  2. Make it work great on mobile phones. So many blogs load slow on even my new 3G iPhone. Mashable, I’m looking at you.
  3. Get more celebrities that the non-passionates care about to use our technology. I remember when one of MySpace’s founders told me that’s how they got to be the biggest social network in the world. They got musicians and others in Los Angeles to use their service. That led to the non-passionates joining up (my brother’s bar is on MySpace and he’s definitely a non-passionate).’s CEO tells me that getting 50 Cent to use his product was a sizeable breakthrough.
  4. Make your blog easier to find by Google. Normal, non-passionate users use search engines (mostly Google, according to my friends who study such things). Here, do a search for “blog commenting systems.” Why does Disqus come up first? Why isn’t JS-Kit or Intense Debate even on the home page? (Other than in a TechCrunch article?) If we want to grow our audiences we’ve got to be better about appearing in Google.
  5. Write more well-thought-out posts. My traffic has been going up in the past few weeks because I started writing longer posts, again, and getting off of the PR treadmill of trying to just cover every PR story out there. Louis Gray is seeing the same trends, because he’s been doing longer “thought pieces” instead of just writing about the latest shiny object.
  6. Get the advice of other people who have large audiences. This was Tim Ferriss’ advice after our cameras were off when he was on WorkFast.TV recently — he wrote the Four Hour Workweek. He said to look at last year’s hit book author and call them up (if they are hot right now they probably won’t have time to talk with you in depth, he said).
  7. Carry a video camera everywhere to get those cool little stories. Why? Check out this story from the Knoxville News Sentinel.
  8. Register your blog on FriendFeed. Many bloggers are noticing they are getting pretty sizeable traffic from FriendFeed. Why? Because that’s where a lot of passionates are now spending their time and they are the ones who are likely toclick on links, try things out, talk about them with other people, etc.

What am I doing? Well, I’m trying to point my camera at people outside of the tech world, but who are influencers in their own circles. Like today’s video of Tim Ryan, congressman, who also Twitters. As everyday people hear more stories about how the new technology is being used by innovators, they are much more likely to try it out themselves.

So, how are you getting non-passionates to try your stuff out? What is working out there? Do you even care? Or do you care more about reaching passionates? And, if so, what’s working for you?

A new search engine appears: will you use it?

Tonight a new search engine showed up. Techcrunch has the details. So do tons of other blogs. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan has a great post about the new engine, Cuil, (pronounced “cool”). I wasn’t pre-briefed or anything. Like I said last week I’m trying to get out of the PR game and try to get back to what made me like blogging: sharing information with other users.

So, has anyone figured out a good way to quickly test search engines? I haven’t. Everyone has their own search terms that they use to judge whether or not an engine is interesting.

I remember when I was trying to convince my dad to move from Alta Vista to Google he had a bunch of very specific scientific searches he’d do. He used to love showing me that Alta Vista had more and better results. I kept at it. After about two years he switched to Google too.

Today isn’t like back in the Alta Vista days. Back then there was porn and spam that was showing up in my result sets. Google doesn’t have those problems and usually works for almost anything I search for. When it doesn’t work, I try some of the other engines, or just refactor my search and it almost always works. I can’t remember the last time I was totally stymied by Google.

But, what’s great about the blogosphere is that everyone gets to participate. Look at TechCrunch’s early searches and the comments that are coming in. I, too, think that Cuil is going to face an uphill battle based on my early searches.

On the other hand, let’s give Cuil the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say it actually was a better search engine. I still doubt many people would switch. Why?



Well, my Firefox browser has Google built into it. Most people have no idea how to switch it. Most people, on our tests, really don’t understand much of anything except that that little box probably now goes to Google. The Google.

It’s so pervasive of an expectation at this point that many people type URLs into that box. Or, type the word “Yahoo” into that box so they can get to their email and other Yahoo services.

Is Cuil going to be able to get into this game?

No way, no how.

On mobile phones it’s worse. My iPhone has Google built in. No way that Cuil is going to be able to rip out Google and replace that with its own engine.

So, why is Cuil here?

I think it’s a play for Microsoft money. Microsoft needs to get back into the search game, so will continue buying companies to try to get back into the search game. Yahoo, if run by management that’s rational, will probably start doing the same thing.

Look at Powerset. They cashed out early to Microsoft. Cuil probably will do the same thing if it brings enough to the table.

Just for fun, though, and to get back to being a user, let’s try one search:

Barack Obama’s technology policy

I put that into all the search engines without any quotes, just to see which one does the best job. Here’s the result set:

Cuil (gave an error, couldn’t find any results)
Google. (best of the three)
Yahoo. (close to Google, but not quite there)
Microsoft. (by far the worst of the big three, didn’t bring the technology policy up as the first result).

Anyway, I did a bunch of other searches on Cuil and they are trying to be different, that’s for sure, but I didn’t see enough of a need to try it out further.

How about you?