Alibaba’s Global ambitions make the Yahoo! acquisition a no-brainer

There's enough analysis on why (http://techcrunch.com/2011/09/30…) it makes (or does not make) financial sense for Alibaba.com to buy Yahoo! There's also enough thought being put to why this might, or might not transpire (http://www.marketwatch.com/story…).

But there's a very simple, intuitive and emotional reason why I tweeted many months back in July (http://twitter.com/#!/akumar/sta…) that either Baidu or Alibaba will acquire Yahoo – it is the right logical move for a China-based Web giant to expand out to the World; with a brand that's already pretty well-established, and well-respected globally.


All over the world, Yahoo! has done a fabulous job staying relevant locally. Abha and I have travelled extensively, and we can report that from Costa Rica, to Egypt and Israel, to India and Japan – people might know Yahoo! is a US-based company, but they still feel it understands them like a local.

This isn't a coincidence – the Yahoo! organization has traditionally been very supportive of locally-driven product development, content generation and strategic partnerships. When I was at Yahoo!, this was sometimes maddening, sometimes infuriating – but what it did mean was that the local Yahoo! sites were able to react quicker to market dynamics, and build a relationship with their audience that was closer, than if the central US team was managing everything top-down.

Meanwhile, after conquering local markets, Chinese Web companies are ready to take on the world. While companies like Huawei haven't been afraid to go direct to the West; they have had their work cut out in establishing brand awareness. What if you could own a brand that's already well-recognized, has great market share, and not have to worry about emerging local cultural sensitivities? It'd be a no-brainer!

In short, whatever the financials look like for a Yahoo!/Alibaba tie-up, it makes a whole lot of strategic sense for a company with Global ambitions.

Amit

Post on Quora

Google’s “Plusify” feels like Yahoo!’s Searchify initiatives (what can we learn?)

Google is heavily promoting Google+ through all distribution channels it has – from promoting it on its homepage, to integrating it into every product it has – whether it makes sense, or not.

There is a well-known recent precedent for this strategy. Just like Google finds itself outflanked by a company that has a fundamentally different product, so did Yahoo! when faced with the unrelenting rise of Google. The response was similar – unleash the entire network of owned-and-operated sites, and standalone products, to prop up the competing service – Web Search in the case of Yahoo!, Google+ for Google.

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How eCommerce gets done in India – some anecdotes

I recently spent a few weeks in India, and this time stayed there long enough to experience first-hand how desi ecommerce gets done. Here are some anecdotes.

FlipKart – Cash-on-Delivery and Courier Networks

The largest eCommerce companies in India don’t work like Amazon, where you pay for products upfront – in many cases, the model is ‘Cash-on-Delivery’. You order a product online, the courier company deliver the product to your door – and you get to decide then if you’d like to pay for the product. You are perfectly within your rights to refuse delivery, and if you do accept, you can pay cash, instead of whipping out your credit card.

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Steve Jobs and me – a shared birthday and then some.

This isn’t a unique distinction – roughly 0.25% of the world’s population shares a birthday with Steve Jobs – but one of them is me.

RIP SPJ

Where I grew up in India, no Apple products were to be found – at all. And yet, I was an avid reader of MacWorld. The heroes of the industry were IBM and Microsoft – and yet, I was an Apple fanatic. Or a NeXT fanatic – frankly, whatever Steve was backing at any given time.

It’s hard to believe that the first time I touched a real Apple computer was in 1998, when I came to USC to study for my Masters. It was the feeling you get when you discover the love you knew existed, you just hadn’t met them yet. So it was for me with Apple, and with Abha, both relationships I developed while at USC.

I still remember going to the Palo Alto Apple Store in 2001 to check out the Titanium PowerBook G4 that had been released then. I asked how I could upgrade the memory – and the Geniuses just lifted the tabs on the keyboard to expose the SDRAM slots. I opened up a Terminal and tried out a few Unix commands – and it was like I was hacking on the Linux box at home. What a fantastic marriage of technology and design! I left that day with my first Apple product under my arms.

2001 was still early days for the new breed of the Mac faithful. I had one of the only two Apple laptops at Inktomi, in a sea of thousands of Windows machines. It’s hard to believe that today – when it seems in Silicon Valley, only people from other parts of the world carry Windows laptops.

In fact, when I was returning from India recently, with stopovers at multiple airports, I could estimate how far I was from the Silicon Valley by measuring the density of Apple laptops at the airports.

The nearest I came to Steve was in 2005, when I was at the Apple campus, on the floor where all the executives sat. I was being interviewed by Bertrand Serlet for a position managing the Mac OS X productivity apps, but I chose to join Yahoo! instead. I have often wondered if I made the right decision – today more than ever.

Like many others, Steve Jobs has inspired my professional journey. It’s only now settling in that I will never, ever be in the same room as my childhood hero.

On the personal front, my mother passed away a few weeks back – she was 57. My brother wrote a touching eulogy for her – better than I could ever have. Now Steve – my professional inspiration, has also moved on at the age of 56. These events put one’s life in perspective – I could have fewer years left on the planet then I’ve lived so far – it’s time to make them count.

Amit

(image credit)

Prediction for the Apple iPhone event on October 4: an iPhone 5 on Sprint

The technorati is abuzz with the (lowered) expectation that there will not be an iPhone 5 released tomorrow – and only an iPhone 4S will be released.

This is hogwash. Every release cycle, without fail, Apple resets the expectations to be lower than what they’ll announce, and the press eats it up readily. In fact, that’s so well-established these days, that the mere fact that the press seems to be lowering expectations makes me even more confident that we’ll see an iPhone 5 tomorrow.

Given the way T-Mobile and Sprint are behaving, it’s also clear that Sprint is getting this new model.

Can’t wait!

Amit

Facebook vs Google+: How incumbent companies are fighting a battle of vision

Anything that’s a something of something isn’t anything of anything. – Lisa Simpson

Teaching a young puppy new tricks.

It’s remarkable that Facebook recognizes that it’s responsible for defining the Vision for social networking – and understands in a very deep way that the product it ships is merely a manifestation of this vision. This remarkable self-realization will be the core issue Google+ will have to grapple with.

Products are merely manifestations of Company Visions

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The User Experience of the upcoming Apple iCloudBook

Technology and trends are falling in place for Apple’s upcoming iCloudBook – a revolutionary laptop where the primary data storage is all on the iCloud – i.e. in the iCloudDrive, with the local Hard Drive just being a ‘working copy’.

In a previous post, I described new technologies that Apple has introduced in Mac OS X Lion, that portend the Apple Cloud Laptop – or what Om dubbed the iCloud Laptop.

In this post, I’d like to describe what the user experience for what I now call the iCloudBook might look like.

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Microsoft is missing the memo on Browser-based Office (hint: it’s about collaboration)

It’s not about having the Office suite running in the browser. Or it being HTML5 compliant. Or it working cross-browser.

It’s really all about seamless collaboration with others. If all the collaboration tools Microsoft put into its Office suite 10 years ago had worked well, browser-based or not, Google wouldn’t have been able to eat their lunch.

Sadly, having talked to people on the Microsoft Office team, it doesn’t seem like they are treating collaboration as anything more than a checkbox feature.

At Lexity, at any given time, there are at least 2 or 3 documents with 5 or 6 different Lexiteers editing at the same time. We can’t do this with Zoho, we can’t do this with Microsoft, and we’re not going anywhere where we can’t all work together.

Google, you got our number!

Amit

Why is SMS so much more common in India vs the US?

Two main reasons.

First, one random decision made by the Indian telecom regulatory agencies that has really helped: mobile phone numbers are clearly distinguishable from land-line phone numbers. This makes SMS very predictable in India; you instantly know if the receiving number is ‘SMS-capable’ or not. In US, for example, there is no apriori way of knowing if a given phone number is mobile, so there is obvious hesitance in sending SMS’ that might or might not reach the recipient.

Second, SMS is very cheap in India. As is well-known, sending SMS literally costs the telecom operators nothing – the SMS data payload simply gets added to the ‘ping’ that every cellphone sends to the nearest cell tower periodically. For this reason, in India and other countries, thanks to cut-throat competition, the telcos either charge nothing, or very little, for SMS messages. In US, mostly because of implicit collusion, the telcos charge and arm and leg for this highly lucrative pure-profit center.

As a result, even if you know that the phone number you’re calling is mobile, and even if you opted for an SMS plan, you still can’t assume that the other party has an SMS plan. Of course, if you did send the SMS, it would definitely reach the other party; they’d just have to pay for that message on their end. Why bother?

(Of course, I’m talking about the normal citizenry here, most of these are non-issues for the illuminati and the glitterati)

So, an obtuse decision by a governmental agency, combined with private sector greed, has made US much less Text-capable than India.

Amit

The Blueprint for the Apple Cloud Laptop (aka @siracusa is smarter than you)

So you think John Siracusa is brilliant. You read him assiduously (well, at least once every 18 months anyway). You don’t know the half of it! In his brilliant Ars Technica review of Lion, in one little throwaway link labeled ‘hmmm’ (here), John masterfully hinted on a Apple Cloud Laptop in the offing.

I think he’s on the money. Lion has introduced a set of OS-level technologies and changes, that can finally make the ‘Apple Cloud Drive’ a reality – and with that, the Apple Cloud Laptop.

Here’s my analysis of his analysis. Let’s go.

It starts with File Revisioning

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Yet another post on the ‘mobilization’ of India

Did you know – you can’t even get on the WiFi network at the Mumbai airport if you don’t have a mobile phone that works internationally?

Apparently, it’s inconceivable to Indians nowadays that you’d get off the plane without a functioning, internationally roaming mobile phone. What, are you crazy??

India is well on its way to becoming mobile-first for everything. In fact, the Indian government issued a memo that the age of ‘e-governance’ is passe – get prepared for ‘m-governance’!

I saw this in action firsthand. A high ranking official in Mumbai was seen SMSing with his counterpart in a nearby state, coordinating flood relief operations, possibly flouting a rule or two and debating finer points of public policy in 160 chars or less.

All this while sipping some tea and biting into some samosas.

This is the new mobilized India, folks!

Amit

Free WiFi at foreign airports is a mixed blessing (sometimes a curse)

At a recent flight from SFO to BOM, I had an hour long stop-over at the Hong Kong airport. Like all enlightened airports, HKG offers free WiFi for its travelers – excellent idea! Right?

Well, kinda. Because it’s free, everybody and their favorite smartphone, their kids with their iPads, and all businessmen with their chunky laptops – all of them were connected, and I’m sure half of them were streaming something or the other.

And, of course, people like me, who had some very serious business to attend to (for real) couldn’t get through. No emails downloaded, no websites accessed; in fact, I couldn’t even get on their WiFi – even when I was getting a full signal (according to my MacBook anyway).

This definitely made me yearn for the days when one had to pay to get WiFi. I’d think even a nominal charge would weed out people whose devices are merely syncing email because they happen to be connected, and those that can afford a buck or two (no more, please!) would be able to get to whatever they need to.

Amit

The almost-Braille cellphone

The taxi driver on my drive from the Mumbai airport to the hotel had a cellphone I had to borrow – and I found to my amusement that the language for the cellphone was set to French.

No, the driver wasn’t French, wasn’t learning French, didn’t care for French much. He probably just changed the interface language at some point by mistake, and didn’t know anyone who could fix this.

And yet, he was pretty adept at using the phone, sending/receiving SMSes and navigating the alarm system. In fact, if the phone could speak out the SMS messages, I suspect he wouldn’t even need a screen on the darn thing!

Amit

DSPs are a lie. (should be dSPs)

I don’t get it. DSPs are demand-side platforms… but only demand of the Display kind. And only the Display of the non-Facebook kind. And the non-guaranteed kind. And only the remnant that’s allowed to flow through to the networks by the SSPs…

Are you a DSP? Really?

So it’s basically DSPs for small values of D?

In reality, it’s kind of silly for a fledgling industry like ours to have such fragmentation of terminology already.

Who’s building a DSP for real? That is, a platform that aggregates and optimizes demand of different kinds of media, and optimizes across all of them?

(Lexity is, but only for small businesses – who’s doing it for the big guys?)

Amit

It’s time for the iOS of Advertising

The inimitable Terence Kawaja tweeted many months back – ‘We need an Operating System for Advertising‘. I believe this is true – but we need to go further – what we need is an iOS of Advertising.

This post isn't really about iAd.

But first, let’s talk about the OS. From a capability perspective, the various media channels have started opening APIs methodically. Old ones have added APIs, and new ones are starting off building APIs even before they’ve built UIs (see: Twitter), and this is a good sign indeed.

A platform layer could be built that takes these APIs, as well as APIs from other components of the ecosystem (like the data providers), and provide a generalized, unifying platform, an Operating System, if you will, on which Ad Applications can be written.

The Geek in me loves this! It would be so awesome.

Typically, when the Geek in me loves something greatly, it’s a sure sign that the Non-Geek in me will not. Greatly.

I believe we should not be solving the problem of bringing disparate marketing channels, data providers and ecosystems into one seamless whole for someone to optimize over.

Instead, we should start from scratch, and sit down with our clients – the marketers. Read the classic Advertising tomes. What are they trying to achieve? How do they go about analyzing their market segments, their potential customers, to get insights on how to sell to them? What have their instincts taught them in the years of working with end-customers and businesses?

In other words, we need to insert a little bit of iOS into our thinking. What’s the marketing problem we’re trying to solve? Is it important that it require Hadoop? Or Machine Learning? Does it really matter that the bidding is Real-Time? Or that APIs need to exist?

Or what we really need is drastically simpler, user-friendly tools for marketers to think in human terms, manage marketing in non-technical ways, get insights that are human-readable and actionable by humans.

Steve Jobs’ magic is in making technology Human. The iPad works because it’s Human, not because it’s High-Tech.

The (still-fledgling) Ad Tech industry hasn’t yet learned this lesson, I’m afraid.

I’m wishing for an iOS for Ad Tech, not the OS.

Amit

iPad + Bluetooth Keyword = Best computing rig for Economy Class

I’m on a flight to India, typing this on my iPad, using an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard in my lap. The iPad is mounted on top of the seat in front of me – putting the iPad right at eye level.

iPad + Bluetooth Keyboard = Bliss

Ergonomically, this is a hard setup to beat. ‘Lap height’ is usually the best height for keyboards, and eye-level when sitting upright is best for viewing screens. With this setup, I’m not balancing laptops on clumsy trays, and I’m not bending my neck way down to read small text on a laptop for 10 hour stretches.

As a bonus, I don’t have to constantly worry and adjust laptop angles when the dude in front leans back.

The incredibly long-lasting iPad battery helps a lot, as do the nice Shure in-ear headphones. Perfect companions to really long flights like this one!

Of course, this is also a great setup to watch movies on the iPad, play games, etc – maybe I’ll do that next time.

Amit

Facebook Web Search – 1% of the cost for 80% the quality

If Facebook launched a ‘limited’ Web Search, that showed search results only from the web pages shared on Facebook, instead of the entire web – I suspect it would be able to answer up to 80% of thePost image for Facebook increases the odds of a fist fight with Google queries Google gets, at 1% of the cost.

People who’ve worked on Web Search (as I did at Yahoo!) know how capital intensive this business is. Just to play and compete with Google, you have to be prepared to crawl and index the entire web – not once, but constantly.

And you can’t cheat – since if you opt out of crawling a subset of documents on the web, what’s to say that the results for the most important query for tomorrow (‘qadaffi in iran’) aren’t hiding in these documents?

Also, by competing with Google on their terms, you are forced to be as encyclopaedic as they are. You can’t say – hey – we’re only answer half the queries we get from the customers, but we’ll have damn fine answers to those queries.

Facebook, the soon to be evil-empire (just you wait) has no such hang-ups. It doesn’t need to play Google’s game. Let Google be the Library of All Knowledge. All Facebook needs is a Web Search, that serves most of it’s users’ queries – the rest of the queries it can send over to Bing just like it does now. Except that by signing up to answer the first 80% of queries, it would own the intelligence around the searches and interactions, around the URLs that were shared within Facebook in the first place. This is incredibly useful information, of course, since it now tells Facebook not only what people are sharing, but also what they’re searching for.

And, since it only has to crawl, index and rank documents that were fed to it by the customers in the first place, the capital intensive nature of Web Search does not matter so much; it can go do it on the cheap. What do you think?

Amit

(Lovely pic from blog post by Square Pear Design)

The Customer Acquisition Gap in Small Business eCommerce

Image representing eBay as depicted in CrunchBase

We work with a lot of merchants that set up shop on the many excellent store platforms – Shopify, eBay ProStores, Yahoo! Stores, BigCommerce, Magento and many more.

A very familiar pattern we see is that merchants will set up their shop on the platform, and expect traffic to somehow materialize suddenly and automatically.

In some sense, we, the Internet Guys, are to blame for this. Somehow, somewhere, we missed building the right connections between eCommerce Platforms and Marketing Platforms.

As a result, there is a clear and present Catch-22 for small businesses. In order for them to market their products, they have to first set their products up on an eCommerce platform; which don’t integrate marketing tightly within their systems, if at all.

On the other hand, in order for merchants to set up their products within a platform, they have to first figure out what kind of marketing would make sense for them in the future – so they can choose the right eCommerce platform to begin with!

What a conundrum! Perhaps we need a standardized set of marketing tools and services that are universally available, or compatible with, all eCommerce platforms. Or, perhaps we need an eCommerce platform that can hook up to marketing vendors seamlessly.

Is eBay X.commerce going to be that platform?

Amit

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Retargeting companies should go out of business (but won’t)

Last year, I predicted the sudden and precipitous collapse of retargeting vendors like FetchBack, Retargeter and AdRoll. Given they’re all still around and doing well, it does seem like I was wrong. Fortunately, I never claimed this in print, so no one can make fun of me for the outrageously wrong prediction.

Oh wait… oops!

My reasoning was simple – Google launched a Retargeting solution 18 months ago. Of course, they don’t call it Retargeting; they call it Remarketing: because the Product Naming Committee needs to justify their paychecks, even at Google. It could be that they didn’t like the word ‘targeting’, preferring the more innocuous-sounding word ‘marketing’ – but the fact remains, Google has made the dark art of retargeting accessible to all advertisers – no intermediaries required.

What’s more, Google’s solution offers you all the flexibility you could ever need. Just follow their instructions, and you can show retargeting ads to the only 200 visitors that saw Product A, and did not see Product B, but did not put Product C into the shopping cart, and did not end up buy anything. In fact, you can even choose to show a different ad to the 20 of these 200 people if they happen to be visiting a sports blog, but a different one to the 50 that specifically went to a specific sports blog, say ESPN Sports Center blog.

I’m not even kidding!

Of course, it took our engineering team, who knows this sh** inside out, a couple of months to finally get the system to work. Now that we’ve figured it out, it works beautifully! But we don’t believe there are too many other people who could figure this one out, and make it work, without a lot of expert help.

And so, retargeting companies, you’ll survive. Until Google really decides it needs to simplify their UI, processes, documentation, and fix the many bugs in the system.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

Or, hold your breath at least until Vurve decides to come after you! (Kidding, kidding, we’re only helping small businesses right now!)

Amit

eCommerce Advertising is in the dark ages (but you knew that)

Both eCommerce and Advertising have grown fairly rapidly in the last 15 years – that’s the good news. The bad news is that they’ve grown somewhat independently.

Only the larger eCommerce merchants have had the wherewithals to stay on top of both of these trends. And so it goes:

   The rain falls the same/on the rich and the poor fella
   But the rich man’s got the poor man’s umbrella.

Small eCommerce businesses are getting clobbered, but the tools for their survival are all hiding in plain sight! The problem – these tools were built by engineers, for engineers. You need a formidable engineering team just to do the most basic of marketing!

Here’s a quick example from Vurve. It would take 45 minutes to set up a small business with accounts on Google Adwords, Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Central and Google Merchant Center. If you know exactly what you’re doing. And if you make zero mistakes. And if none of the Google services is down.

Why would you need to do this? Because all of this setup is required to enable Google Product Extensions. Which is supposed to be a great ‘free’ feature for all users – except only the biggest eCommerce retailers seem to be using it.

Now multiply this for every feature the big eCommerce merchants use, across the many ad platforms – Google, Bing, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, to name a few – and you realize why no small business ecommerce merchant will ever be able to compete in a fair fight with Wal*Mart, say, that can drop $500 million just to hire some engineers!

Well, not without a little help from Vurve, anyway 🙂

Amit