The Podiyan

Friday, October 30, 2009

Will Twitter Lists Kill Follow Friday?

Twitter's recently rolled out Lists feature may spell the end of a micro-blogging tradition.

Follow Friday is one of the longest lasting and most beloved traditions on the micro-blogging site. But thanks to the new Twitter Lists feature, its days may be numbered.

As I type this, Follow Friday is topping Twitter's Trending Topics list. No surprise there. Apart from natural disaster or celebrity death, few things in this world have been able to knock the popular alliterative tradition off the list each and every Friday. Each week, like clockwork, countless Twitter users cull together a list people them deem worthy of a follow. All things considered, Follow Friday has had a pretty good run, especially given the fickleness that dominates the social media space. But as anyone following enough Tweeters can tell you, Follow Friday has started to wear out its welcome. Unless you're new to Twitter, weeding through the countless lists of names can be cumbersome. Enter Twitter Lists.
Like most things that Twitter does, Lists are elegant in their simplicity. Users essentially round up a select group of fellow tweeters and put them on their own landing page (complete with a vanity URL). The content of Lists is entirely up to the creator—there's no opt-in function. When I woke up yesterday, I found myself on a number of lists with names like Entertainment, Funny, Social Media, PCMag, and, I think, most pertinently, Permanent Follow Friday. (There were also a few more with slightly more baffling titles, such as Tracy Gold and Eye Candy for Your Butt).

The landing pages are easily accessible from the outside: The URL is Users can jazz up the page as they would their own Twitter homepages, with a background and so on. Once the list is created, it is accessible from the homepages of all of those on it. (Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an easy way to opt out at present; so if you find your way onto, say, a list called "The World's Biggest Douchebags," anyone who follows the link from your site will know.) If you like a list, just click Follow This List at the top of the page. For more on how Lists works, check out this AppScout post.

Lists are a good way to follow people without having to weed through a million tweets on your homepage. They're also an easy way to let other people know which users are worth following—in other words, now every day is Follow Friday. And the Lists feature is far less ethereal than sending out a bunch of names in a tweet. Best of all, unless you choose to repeatedly alert others about to existence of your list, the feature is less intrusive than Follow Friday.

But before we start morning the inevitable death of Follow Friday, let's instead celebrate its legacy. One of Twitter's greatest strengths as a company is its ability to learn from its user base, a fact well demonstrated by Twitter Lists; the new feature is built around needs that were addressed by Follow Friday and also by third-party user directories such as Kevin Rose's WeFollow (itself recently purchased by Rose's flagship project, Digg). If anything, Twitter Lists are the logical in-house conclusions of such initiative. Follow Friday may soon be gone, but it won't be forgotten.


Hands On with Apple TV 3.0

Apple on Thursday introduced version 3.0 of its Apple TV software, an upgrade that includes a revamped user interface, as well as access to iTunes LP, iTunes extras, Genius mixes, and Internet radio.

The new software is available now at no charge for existing Apple TV owners.

"The new software for Apple TV features a simpler and faster interface that gives you instant access to your favorite content," Eddy Cue, Apple's vice president of Internet Services, said in a statement. "HD movies and HD TV shows from iTunes have been a huge hit with Apple TV customers, and with Apple TV 3.0 they get great new features including iTunes Extras, Genius Mixes and Internet radio."

Apple introduced iTunes LP and iTunes extras during a September launch event for iTunes 9, the iPod nano with video camera and FM tuner, and lower iPod prices.

With iTunes LP, users get a host of additional music information, like lyrics, photos, writing, memorabilia, liner notes, chronology, credits, videos, and more, while iTunes extras function much like DVD extras, with a few more interactive features. With the software upgrade, users can access this content for full-screen viewing.

The home screen provides access to movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, photos, Internet, and settings. Hover over a selection like movies and a drop-down menu will present options like my movies, top movies, genres, all HD, search, and trailers.

On the music front, users can access Genius Mixes currently available on iTunes. Like you would on your iPod, select a song, press play, and then hold down the play button until the Genius option pops up. Apple will then configure a playlist of songs similar to the selected song. Version 3.0 can support up to 12 endless mixes, Apple said.

The Internet radio option provides access to thousands of Internet radio stations, Apple said. Tag a favorite station and listen later.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Google's GPS Sneak Attack

Google Maps Navigation for Android 2.0 nearly stole the show from Verizon's Droid—and now it threatens every GPS company out there.

Who knew that the Motorola Droid phone and Android 2.0 would be a Trojan horse for Google's latest tech salvo: turn-by-turn GPS navigation? Not me. Not most of my co-workers. Here we were gearing up for one of the most eagerly anticipated handsets of the last 12 months—the Verizon Droid—only to watch Google steal a good deal of thunder from a new phone with Google Maps Navigation for Android 2.0.

To be clear, the free app only works with Android 2.0, and for the time being, there is only one Android 2.0 phone: Verizon's Droid. It's a nice phone, by the way. Mobile Managing Editor Sascha Segan gave me a few minutes with it, and I was impressed with the design and the highly responsive, high-resolution screen (the slide-out keyboard, however, seemed kind of meh). There are so many big touch screen phones on the market today, however, that even a new one for the industry-leading Verizon network may not be a game changer. Google Maps Navigation is another story.

I'm certain that the execs at TomTom, Garmin, and Magellan all sat up and took notice of the little e-bomb Google just dropped this morning. According to the Google blog, the free app (still in beta, by the way), has constantly updated maps, voice-driven commands and search, free traffic details, search for points of interest along route, 3D views, turn-by-turn direction—well, you get the idea. It has a lot of what you'll find in the best stand-alone GPS devices. Plus it's coupled with a big touch screen and something most GPS devices do not have: a keyboard.

The Droid and Google Maps Navigation aren't perfect. Though large, the Droid's screen is not as big as, for example, my Magellan 1470. That has a 4.7 inch screen and is designed from the ground up for GPS. Also, the Droid doesn't come with a car-mounting system; you'll have to buy that separately. Current GPS devices ship everything you need in one package. I envision more than a few early adopters putting the Droid on the passenger seat next to them (at least Google Maps Navigation does offer a simple "Car Mode" interface). Even so, I think Google's latest beta mobile app will spark industry changes.

This should force cell phone service provider competitors like AT&T to rethink their strategies. If I want to, for example, enable AT&T Navigator on my Blackberry Bold 9000, I have to pay a monthly fee. Even Verizon may want to take another look at its own VZ Navigator. It wants $9.99 a month for that. I get that some Verizon phones don't support Google Maps (and likely won't support Google Maps Navigation). Still, consumers don't always get these nuances, and Verizon customers may wonder why they, too can't sample the free GPS turn-by-turn navigation goodness available on Verizon's Droid phone.

I haven't tried the Google Maps Navigation, but I have to assume that it's deeply integrated with Google's search platform. Local search is, as always, a critical part of any search provider's business, and Google does it well, even without GPS navigation. Now put Google's local search capabilities together with a powerful GPS device, and you have the biggest and, potentially, best POI database on the market.

I hesitate to call GPS a killer phone app, but I wouldn't want to downplay its importance, either. It was a big deal when TomTom released their turn-by-turn navigation for the iPhone earlier this year. Plus, for pure utility, always-there GPS-based navigation is tough to beat. A couple of weeks ago I was walking in downtown New York City—in an area I'm not all that familiar with-- when a hapless woman asked me for directions (when all else fails, people treat other people like their own personal GPS devices). She asked about a street, and while it sounded familiar, I'm 85 percent certain I sent her in the wrong direction. I considered taking out my phone to try and help her, but then remembered that I had not activated AT&T Navigator. If the woman had a phone with always-there, turn-by-turn GPS—well it's unlikely she would have stopped and asked for directions.

Google's sneak attack aside, the more salient question is whether or not they can win in this space. Or maybe it isn't. Google doesn't always arrive with the intention of winning. Sure, it wants to make a mark, but I think Google will be happy to win the war of attrition. It's now introduced a product that will make Verizon's Droid that much more desirable. Which means Google wins on at least three counts: people want Google Navigator (it's Google, it's free, it's cool), and they also now want an Android phone. If they get it, they'll be pounding more than ever on the Google search engine looking for good hotels or breakfast nooks as they drive from Poughkeepsie to Florida--which means more eyeballs to all those merchants hooked into the Google AdSense program, which, in turn, translates into more ad dollars for Google.

In the end, the arrival of Google Maps Navigation deals a major blow to dedicated GPS device manufacturers and one of the biggest, craftiest wins of Google's decade-long existence.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009 Hacked Again

Some things never change.

We're reported in the past on hacks of the President's campaign web site, still used for political campaigning: This one on January 26, 2009 served malware to users and this one from April 21, 2008 redirected users to the Hillary Clinton campaign site (note: Friends of Hillary is still taking contributions).

The latest attack uses SQL injection to gain full access to the databases on the server. They use Microsoft Access databases, including the one in the graphic (click it for a full-size image): It's the database of administrators and their passwords, all in plain text. By adding themselves to the database they get to log in as administrator and do whatever they want.

It's not clear who's responsible for this attack and, truth be told, it's just as assertion of an attack. They haven't actually defaced the site or done anything else that would prove that they have the access they claim to have. But the site's history gives credence to the claims. Web sites like this, especially those with discussion forums that allow users to add content, are notorious for vulnerabilities such as these, especially SQL injection. All, or almost all such sites have vulnerabilities. is just a bigger target than most.


Google Music: iTunes Killer or Bing Breaker?

Google Music: iTunes Killer or Bing Breaker?

It's been quite the rollercoaster ride for Google Music. The service hasn't yet launched—or even been officially or unofficially announced—yet it's already been hyped, lauded, downgraded, debunked, and thoroughly mocked by the technology press. Whether or not the service is anything but wishful thinking is subject to debate. One thing seems certain, however: the possibility has reignited something that's been long dormant amongst industry pundits—the desire to see a respectable challenger to iTunes' unflappable dominance, finally.

If anyone is in a position to challenge Apple in this space, surely it's Google (Microsoft has already made several unsuccessful attempts of its own). The company certainly has the resources and creativity to launch a music property successfully. It seems that the company has been on somewhat less-than-friendly terms with Cupertino as of late, ever since CEO Eric Schmidt stepped down from Apple's board amidst an FTC probe. The relationship between the two companies has seemingly become all the more strained as number of recently announced Android handsets have emerged as some of the strongest candidates for the long sought after iPhone killer.

Is taking down iTunes really a part of Google's master plan, however? Sure, relations between the two companies have been a bit more strained since the company entered into the mobile OS space, but a play at the music market may well be rooted in attacking Google's perennial white whale: Microsoft. After all, recent rumors position the potential Google Music service as a function of search, rather than a store unto itself. Such a move might be more harmful to a feature-packed search engine like Bing, rather than a devoted music store like iTunes.

At present, we don't know a lot about Google Music. The prospective service first came to light in a big way last week via a post by Michael Arrington titled "New Google Music Service Launch Imminent". In the post, the service was referred to as Google Audio, though a number of names (including Google Music and One Box) have since emerged as candidates. What little information we were hearing about the site was coming from sources at major labels that were, reportedly, in the process of striking content deals with Google.

Wired later floated the idea that the service was more search than music store. A number of existing music services, including Lala and iLike, were named as potential content providers. Essentially, the service would provide a search box (hence that name One Box) where users could search for music streams from the aforementioned sites. Google, reportedly, is hosting an event this week to introduce the feature.

If Wired's description is to be believed, Google Music sounds like a mainstream version of GrooveShark, Skreemr, or The Pirate Bay. Those sites have long maintained that they should not be prosecuted for offering copyrighted material, as they are simply providing a Google-like function (i.e., they don't host content, rather they simply let users search for it). Of course, Google's service would be more on the up and up were it tied to sites like Lala and iLike, which are in good standing with the music labels.

This concept of a search-integrated service makes a lot more sense than a from-scratch iTunes competitor. Search, let's not forget, is still Google's bread and butter (along with ad sales). It's also what Google does best. Applying the company's existing search expertise to music discovery is almost a no-brainer. In fact, a number of third-party sites already implement Google search for more legally questionable music discovery.

Bolstered by Google's name and seemingly bottomless resources, the introduction of such a service would prove a boon to Lala, the MySpace-owned iLike, and any other site that might partner with the company, at the expense of existing streaming sites like Rhapsody and Napster. No doubt, it would also have the blessing of the major record labels that would be happy to have an amplified version of the revenue streams they currently enjoy. The service would likely not prove much of a threat to the iTunes downloading model, however. (That challenge, it seems, will fall on Spotify, when the well-loved music service eventually lands in the U.S.) iTunes has never been a great engine for music discovery: it's a destination primarily for those who know what they're looking for, which is part of the reason the app does so well with top-40 radio singles.

In that respect, even with Google's firepower, Google Music may well remain a minor player. The company may be content to have such a site exist more as a conduit for music discovery, rather than a destination unto itself. The primary benefit of such a site would be a means by which Google can ramp up its search—Google music would ultimately be yet another cool feature integrated into users' search results. Do a search for your favorite band, and your search results will include sites, videos (courtesy of YouTube), pictures (courtesy of Google Image Search), and now music (courtesy, apparently, of iLike and Lala).

For the first time in a long time, Google is feeling a bit of competition in the search market, thanks to Microsoft's Bing, a site intent on shoving as many verticals onto a page as possible. Google may rightfully see music as the next logical step in the current search wars, which, as of late, have been dominated by the race to index Twitter. A fair amount of song indexing is already done by proposed partner sites. Google's primary job would be to aggregate these results and position them in a centralized, high-trafficked location.

Google Music wouldn't revolutionize the struggling music industry. However, it might help to stave some of the seemingly perpetual fragmentation, offering a centralized location for music lovers outside of iTunes, who are more interested in discover new music, rather than download the songs they hear on the radio and Gossip Girl. Most importantly to Google, however, it would remind everyone that search is still the company's main priority.