Technology: August 2007 Archives

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.

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.