August 2007 Archives

Tom Coates doesn't like getting press releases. I can't blame him. Reading you get the feeling that he isn't suddenly going to put a link in for GlobalCorp the world leader in global corping and it's latest corping solution.

PRs have for the most part taken a step back and thought "you know, sending press releases to people who don't want them isn't a great idea". But, for Drew Benvie, there was that niggling little point: "Maybe bloggers need to realise that if they publish and they have an audience, they are vehicles conveying messages, and companies will always look to sign them up. A lot of the time the wrong way, but they will try".

Coates looks at it a bit differently: "They're no better than spammers".

Actually, they are spammers. It all happened pretty quietly, but UK wrote into law an EU directive meant to curb spam in 2003. It did nothing of the sort but, for people like Coates, it almost certainly does put the releases he is receiving into the spam category. If agencies are sending him press releases without asking first and without an opt-out clause (I can only think of one company that puts an opt-out link on an email release), that's unsolicited commercial email and could, if they keep doing it, attract a fine up to £5000. Frankly, I'd love to stick that one on Zebra Computers, but they've been using a business email address for me.

Here's the relevant bit:

(1) This regulation applies to the transmission of unsolicited communications by means of electronic mail to individual subscribers.

(2) Except in the circumstances referred to in paragraph (3), a person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, unsolicited communications for the purposes of direct marketing by means of electronic mail unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents for the time being to such communications being sent by, or at the instigation of, the sender.

As far I can tell, he is blogging in his personal capacity. A lawyer might want to argue that Plasticbag is a business but without ads on it and the blog being a personal view on the world, it would have to be a good lawyer.

PRs are unlikely to have encountered this legal nugget before because journalists would almost certainly be treated by the law as 'legal persons' - operating in a business rather than in a personal capacity. Also, releases are something of an occupational hazard. Most are junk, but sod's law rules. So, the day you ask to get taken off a list is the day before that company discovers the true recipe for cold fusion. But sending unwanted releases to personal bloggers is spam - nothing more, nothing less - whether PRs like it or not.

Stuart Bruce noted that Plasticbag is in media databases. The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 is that it provides stronger rights for individuals to decide if they wish to be listed in subscriber directories. However, I'm not clear yet on whether this part of the Act extends to things like media databases. However, if I were Cision and the like, I'd be taking a look at whether they should find out from bloggers whether they want to be listed and maybe move the blogs for those that don't to a section that says: "don't send releases to these people" with no other contact information than the blog's URL.

However, bloggers could come off the high horse once in a while when it comes to PR. People get sold to all the time; the ones that get called out tend to be at the more stupid end of the spectrum. The trouble is that the holier-than-thou attitude interspersed with falling for a bit of flattery gets a bit tedious after a while. Speaking of which, the ugliest part of this episode is that it made me feel that Stowe Boyd might have a point. I don't like that feeling and I'd like it to stop.

Java palaver

24 August 2007

It's hard to argue with Fake Steve Jobs' characterisation of Sun Microsystems' decision to change its stock-ticker symbol from SUNW to JAVA. Reading Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz's post, you could believe that FSJ had hacked into Sun Central and written it for him: "JAVA is a technology whose value is near infinite to the internet." Some things are beyond parody.

People haven't held back from attacking the Sun board's decision and a number of them seem to be Sun insiders. For example, this comment from Numpty appears early on:

"What a TERRIBLE idea! When we used 'Java' in the name of all our software products a few years ago, customers were confused and frankly just laughed at us-- Java Desktop System was the prime offender, as it mostly uses no Java technology whatsoever. We're still licking our wounds and only just beginning to change the name of JDS now in OpenSolaris. So why use it for a company where most of the staff and products aren't Java-related either?"

Why do it at all? Schwartz's argument is that more people know about Java than about Sun. "If you're in the industry, just do the CPM calculus - the Java launch experience is one of the most pervasively viewed exposures on earth," he gushed. I think what he means is that tedious startup sequence that occasionally craps out completely exposes a lot of people to the name Java.

So, having been wowed by the user experience does he then expect them to get on the phone to their broker and shout: "Get me some o'that Java! I wanna ride that pony all the way to the top"? Will the scales fall from the eyes of the financial analysts, who suddenly realise that this is the Java company? Forget EPS estimates, stock picking's all about which computer language you wrote.

Schwartz even goes on about the numerological significance of the logo: eight strokes, that's good in Chinese. He casually forgets that Java has four letters. Four, the number that, in Cantonese and Mandarin as well as Japanese sounds like the word for death. Not an auspicious or lucky number than one. I'm surprised that Schwartz's feng shui adviser didn't tell him to change the name of Java to something with a few more letters while he was at it.

I can't think of a more pointless manoeuvre than thinking up a new stock ticker to push a brand. It will be invisible to almost anyone who actually buys Sun's stuff. The finance community will continue to use the metrics they always have to analyse Sun's performance. Individual investors might think, if that is the best move Schwartz can make, maybe their money is better off in another computer maker. And a bunch of brokers will wonder about that new coffee company that seems to have popped up on the board.

Every time I think PRs have got out of the habit of sending out European versions of press releases days late (and re-dating them), one clutters up the inbox. Today's offender is Text 100 with a release about Cadence Design Systems buying Clear Shape. It was a purchase that has been rumbling on since before the Design Automation Conference (DAC) in June, something that John Cooley at Deepchip picked up on weeks ago.

Cadence declared that it had done the deal on the 15th: the US release went out the next day. What should turn up this morning, dated the 21st, but the Europeanised version of the release. Which, by the way, hasn't actually been translated into UK English - analog is still analog, for example. All that has changed is that the slug now reads "Bracknell, UK" rather than "San Jose, CA".

In what I assume is an extension of his continuing campaign against people who ask Apple about its non-involvement in the Intel Inside programme - eight days and counting - John Gruber goes to the world of political punditry to pick up this piece of advice for publishers:

"A reporter should not be assigned to cover subject X unless he has as good an understanding of X as a baseball writer is expected to have of baseball."

The line, quoted by economics professor Brad DeLong, came from a comment on a piece about the state of US political reporting. The responses were predictable. To summarise: "Haven't you seen the state of baseball writing?"

TechCrunch has been running a deadpool of sorts for some time. And site owner Mike Arrington has been giving some unwell operations that are practically synonymous with the 'user revolution' a good kicking as he adds them to the pool. It sounded like Arrington thought Christmas had come early, in a ghost-of-Christmas-future sense, in one post. CEOs had left two of the more famous sites - Podtech and Technorati.

For someone whose entire business rests on keeping the bandwagon rolling, Arrington's ill-disguised glee at the fates of John Furrier and David Sifry, whatever he thinks of them personally, seems a bit odd. You can accuse them of being poorly run and poorly supported. But these are sites that have been around for some time - others that run on a few ads and fresh air are not showing the same signs of ill health simply because they have not been doing it long enough. The prospect of well-known Web 2.0 sites going to the wall is not going to do much for the corporate beauty contests that operations like TechCrunch and O'Reilly run.

If Podtech disappears, I can't see that many people mourning its loss. And I certainly won't. I remain mystified by the site: a weird mishmash of long, long, won't the misery ever stop corporate windbaggery intermixed with self-indulgent quasi-artistic windbaggery. Not to mention the woeful Bad Sinatra, which is only remarkable for way that it manages to be as consistently incoherent as director Steve Gillmor's blog posts.

Technorati is a bit different. It is one of the few sites that I have used reasonably consistently since I started this blog in 2005. Yet, what it provides is almost completely disposable, and that is the tragedy of Technorati. It is, in that respect, a proxy for much of Web 2.0. It does something, but would you miss it if it went away?

Technorati does one thing quite well - tracks inward links from other blogs. I, like many bloggers, it seems, use it to gauge whether posts attracted links. It does a bunch of other stuff: top 100 blogs; stuff that's popular right now, for whatever reason. And that's about it. It's not a bad collection of services although people moan about the poor reliability of Technorati's servers and the unpredictability of its behaviour, due in large part to frequent updates to limit the effects of spam.

It is easy to see Technorati's problem. None of it is a must-have. It's current tagline, "zillions of photos, videos, blogs and more", doesn't exactly scream essential. The top 100 was fun, but for the last couple of years all it has demonstrated is that blogs have found it difficult to climb out of their tech and politics ghettos. When you have TechCrunch, a blog aimed at the people putting social software together, at number four, with little change at the top, you have to wonder about the reach of blogs overall.

Then you have the various ways of tracking hot topics on Technorati. If you take the ghetto effect into account, Techmeme and its sister sites provide viable alternatives and, to my mind, a better view for the vanity-conscious blogger.

The vanity search used by bloggers has problems. One is that the blog search is largely used by bloggers which is a much smaller and less valuable audience than the one that many broadline advertisers want. This does not make advertising easy to sell, which restricts Technorati's revenues. At the same time, it is not a must-have service for bloggers. There is no real need for bloggers to use the vanity search either - webstats software can provide the same service, and shows which of those links are useful, although you do need to watch out for referral spam. The ranking facility in Technorati was interesting, but the use of inbound links to denote popularity is wearing thin especially as it soon became clear only a few hundred thousand blogs got much more than one link each. The other 50 million were consigned to the outer darkness. In reality, traffic was the metric people ignored but remained the vital statistic.

If there is no compelling reason even for the relatively limited audience of bloggers to use it getting money into a site like Technorati is not going to get any easier. It is a collection of nice but non-essential web tools - with some of them able to drive quite high traffic numbers. Taken together, they don't represent a potentially profitable business. Over the next six months, maybe not even that long, we're going to find a lot of sites have the same problem.

VC Fred Wilson takes a more optimistic view of the situation - that the cream will rise to the top. When I look at the collection of widgets on Wilson's site, I think his optimism is misplaced. Many of these operations have been suckered into believing an advertising model will save them or even that having a business model early on is a bad thing. Ironically, Arrington accused 37signals of attracting entrepreneurs into its 'cult' of paid-for software. At least with the paid-for model you find out quickly whether the idea is likely to form a business or not, rather than a lump of software that people will cheerfully use just as long as they don't have to pay for it.

Wow, what it must be like to be telepathic. To reach into another's mind and pull out the answers you want without having to ask them first. This marvellous gift gives the owner the ability to declare people jackasses for asking questions, such as poor old Bob Keefe of Cox Newspapers who wanted to know why Apple has not gone in for Intel's cashback scheme: the market-development programme better known as the Intel Inside campaign.

Keefe explained how Apple PR told him his best chance of getting the question answered was to use the Q&A at the most recent press launch. That meant, he could conceivably get an answer from Steve Jobs rather than some non-answer from the PR department. This, apparently, was a sin. To ask the mighty Jobs such an inane question when everybody, simply everybody just knows the answer.

As Charles Arthur and Bobbie Johnson have already pointed out: there is no such thing as a daft question in a press conference. Anything goes. That is because, as Johnson explains, all that matters is the answer. In fact, repeated answers to repeated questions are good: because those answers can change and a compare and contrast can often provide a way of getting to the real answer. Furthermore, Keefe had a story on the go about the Intel Inside programme and its declining popularity among computer makers. Apple was the highest-profile holdout against a programme that provides those hardware makers with a way of improving their margins.