Forget GPS. All you need is WiFi. AOL (which, like my employer Business 2.0, is owned by Time Warner) just launched a plug-in to AOL Instant Messenger called AIM Location. Powered by a startup caleld Skyhook Wireless, it uses the nearest WiFi routers to triangulate the location of you and everyone on your buddy list, and then shows where they are on a map.
Skyhook also offers a browser plug-in called Loki that gives you local search results. There are only 200,000 people who have downloaded the Loki toolbar so far. It is safe to predict that number will soon be dwarfed by the number of AIM Location users. Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan is also working on a plug-in for another major IM system that he hopes to roll out in a month or so. Say Morgan:
While adding this feature to instant messaging can enhance the idea of presence, ultimately the business reason is to use it for local search and local advertising.
While location systems based on cell towers are lucky to pinpoint an individual to within a kilometer, Morgan claims his WiFi-based system is usually accurate to within 30 meters. That's because he has 200 people driving around the country, literally mapping WiFi signals. His drivers have covered one million miles so far, with 16 million hotspots, covering about 75 percent of the U.S. population. Even GPS-chip maker Sirf Technologies is licensing Skyhook's software for use in future cell phones and other devices. Explains Morgan:
GPS does not work in places where people spend a lot of time. Now you can add location without having to change the hardware or do a massive build out.
If this takes off, it will give rise to some interesting social behavior. When you IM someone they won't just be out there somewhere in the digital ether. You will be able to see exactly where they are in the real world, and that might influence what you choose to tell them (or not to tell them).
Of course, once the advertising starts, everyone will be quick to shut the location-finder feature off. Unless it is more helpful than it is intrusive. But I think a lot of people over 30 will have trouble getting over the Big Brother factor.
Tomorrow will be another milestone for Web video: Lonelygirl15, the popular YouTube video series done on the cheap by a cast of aspiring Hollywood actors, is about to feature its first product placement.
Producer Greg Goodfried tells me that in the show which will be posted tomorrow (March 20) on the Loneygirl15 site, the three main characters are riding in a car when Lonelygirl Bree (who I guess is not so lonely anymore), takes out a pack of Ice Breakers Sours Gum. Some dialog ensues where the two boys in the car with her want some of the gum, but she only has three pieces left. So she stuffs them all in her mouth before anyone else can grab them.
At least Hershey's, the sponsor, will be eating that scene up. Goodfried says that Loneygirl15 gets 1.5 million views per week, or 300,000 to 400,000 per episode. While he wouldn't say exactly how much Hershey's is dishing out for the product placement, he confirmed that it was in the same range as what Diggnation gets from its sponsors (which is as much at $10,000 per show per sponsor). Says Goodfried:
It won’t make us rich by any means, but it helps cover the production costs. It's cool for us because major brands are treating our show as a major media entertainment property.
Maybe he should rephrase that: they are treating Lonelygirl15 as a major Web entertainment property. Regular TV spots and product placements are still more expensive. But then, WebTv is also a lot cheaper to make. Loneygirl15's operating costs are about $40,000 a month, says Goodfried, which covers 10 employees (including the actors). Goodfried says he is in talks with more advertisers for future product placements and straight-up sponsorships.
In the last installment of videos from the Next Net Roundtable, Spot Runner founder David Waxman, ViTrue CEO Reggie Bradford, and Slide CEO Max Levchin discuss the rise of advertising by the masses. Spot Runner, for instance, democratizes the creation and distribution of TV commercials, while ViTrue helps brands recruit consumers to create their own ads. And Levchin points out that, like it or not, there is going to be a lot more consumer-created content on the Web than professionally-produced content and brands are going to have to figure out how to advertise against it.
Not wanting to miss out on the Web 2.0 party, Cisco (CSCO) ponied up $3.2 billion to buy WebEx, the popular provider of online meeting and collaboration software. Not bad for a company with $380 million in revenues, and $49 million in profits. Cisco's chief development officer Charlie Giancarlo says the acquisition was a way for Cisco to get in on Web 2.0:
Web 2.0 technologies allow users to collaborate directly over the open platform of the Internet …collaborating with video, voice and information 24 hours a day, 24 time zones around the world. Web 2.0 is perhaps most evident in the consumer marketplace with social networking sites, mash-ups and video sharing services. This is the “play” part of Web 2.0. But this collaborative technology will make huge advances in the business effectiveness with online collaborative tools like WebEx’s.
So it's really an Enterprise 2.0 move. WebEx is a communications tool more than anything else, a Web service that lets people collaborate online. It is most often used when someone wants to take you through a Powerpoint application while they are talking to you over the phone. But Cisco will no doubt build many more collaboration tools on top of it.
Cisco is moving into business software, and Microsoft (MSFT) better watch out. (No wonder Microsoft's stock took a slight dip today).
The line of companies who want to become the TV Guide of the Web—Google Video, Yahoo Video, AOL Video, Blinkx, Dabble, Channels.com—is growing every day. Now you can add to that list TV Guide itself. While its Website already lets you search through regular TV listings, TV Guide is about to launch a search engine for video on the Web.
The project is codenamed Stingray, and I got a preview of it the other day at News Corp (NWS) headquarters in New York (News Corp. owns part of TV Guide). The video search engine will be available only as a private beta site starting on March 21, and then open up to a more public beta on April 16. It will be known, somewhat redundantly, as the "TV Guide Online Video Guide." Paul Greenberg, general manager of TV Guide Online, told me:
It makes sense that we should do this, given who we are. Online video is the area we believe needs the most guidance.
Given who TV Guide is, it should come as no surprise that its Web video search engine will be focused primarily on professionally-produced Web video. TV Guide has indexed about 50 sites, ranging from ABC.com and NBC.com to iFilm and iTunes, and will add about 15 more by the end of the month. "It's all about professional entertainment," says Greenberg, although he does plan to eventually include the top videos from YouTube and other video-sharing sites. For the most part, though, TV Guide wants to be the video search engine people go to who are looking for clips from the major TV networks and other mainstream fare. Google Video (GOOG), in contrast, only searches videos uploaded to either its servers or YouTube's, not videos available elsewhere on the Web.
Since all the results link back to the original media sites where the clips originate from, it is the kind of video search engine that big media companies will love. While Viacom is suing YouTube for $1 billion, links to video clips from Comedy Central, MTV, and other Viacom properties can easily be found on TV Guide's Web-video search engine. Having one place where you can find all the clips from official TV will certainly be helpful. But will it be enough?
One company could eventually control all access to information on the Web! Controlling your mind would only be a step away!
TheFunded. It sounds like a horror movie—for venture capitalists. Now entrepreneurs can rate VCs on this new site. It's a private club (you need to be invited to join), but the ratings on TheFunded are public.
There is a rating site for everything else, including doctors and contractors. It was only a matter of time before one popped up for VCs. If the site can keep the sour grapes from rejected startup CEOs down to a minimum, it could become a helpful resource for entrepreneurs looking to raise money.
VCs are not going to like this.
Today, Microsoft announced it plans to acquire voice-recognition company TellMe Networks. Although terms were not disclosed, the number being batted around is $800 million. Microsoft (MSFT) can use TellMe's technology to add voice commands to all of its software. During a conference call, Microsoft Business Division president Jeff Raikes said, " We see speech as a very important interface" that will help "to open up the potential of computing."
TellMe is already a big player in voice recognition for companies like ETrade and American Airlines, who use the technology for automated customer service. Last year, for instance, people spoke to TellMe's software 10 billion times.
But the big play here is for mobile search. Raikes called it a "key" consideration, and added, "TellMe does more mobile search than Yahoo and Google combined." Add to that the fact that Microsoft's Windows Mobile is gaining traction as a preferred operating system for data-centric mobile phones. Surfing the Web or searching for information on a mobile phone is still very much an unnatural act. With TellMe, though, you can basically just tell your phone what you want to do—"Call Mom," Find the nearest Starbucks"—and it can offer back a map, a phone number, or a list of search results.
Speaking is something every consumer already knows how to do, so the idea that voice can become the ultimate mobile interface holds a lot of promise. The problem with voice as an interface, though, is that it can be too open-ended. Often there is no menu of choices, so people sometimes feel paralyzed or unsure of what exactly to say to the machine. This, of course, can be remedied with voice prompts, but then that gets you into voice-prompt hell where it would have been faster to use your thumbs and the keypad.
(Gigaom has more details here).
Update: The big question here is if TellMe's technology is so great, why did they sell to Microsoft instead of try to IPO. One industry insider I asked puts it this way: "There is such 'enterprise' revenue at TellMe, that it is a poison pill for everyone but people that have enterprise organizations." Other potential buyers would have been AT&T and Nuance, which has been rolling up the voice-recognition software space. Given the rich rumored price of $800 million, it is likely there was a bidding war.
As for why TellMe decided to go the M&A route, this industry exec speculates that TellMe's board probably forced its hand. The company had been around for seven years, raised $240 million, was facing IP lawsuits (from Nuance, for one), and had no exit strategy. It's hopes for an IPO certainly were on the back burner. "TellMe was in a no win situation," says the rival exec, "so they had to sell."
Here's the third installment of videos from the Next Net Roundtable I hosted two weeks ago. This one captures some of the discussion at the event around where the Web is going. John Battelle talks about the focus of this year's Web 2.0 conference (the edge where the Net has not yet had much impact). Mobio CEO Ramneek Bhasin predicts that mobile 2.0 is about to take off. Slide CEO Max Levchin thinks that search won't cut it anymore—discovery is where it's at. Dabble founder Mary Hodder counters that people are still smarter than machines. Bebo founder Michael Birch thinks it's still all about social networks. And Google VP of engineering Jeff Huber discusses the future of online apps.
More videos from the Next Net Roundtable: