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Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

YouTube

youtube-logo-2005-10-31YouTube (2005- ) is a website with videos: short films of ten minutes or less. It has a vast video library that anyone can add to or watch.

YouTube started in 2005. In 2006 it was the fastest growing website on the Internet, faster than even MySpace. It was a big hit, but it had no way to make money. Despite that Google bought it in November 2005, after trying and failing to build a better video website itself.

YouTube was a hit partly because it came along just when the Internet was becoming fast enough for video. But also because YouTube got some things right that no one else did:

  1. It was easy enough for anyone to use. Even your mother.
  2. It allowed anyone to put up videos on the website. So it grew quickly and soon became the most interesting place on the Internet.
  3. It just worked. You clicked on a video and then you saw it. No need to have a special video player, no waiting for ever for it to start, no strange messages about why it did not work.

The last one was huge. Before YouTube there were three video players: Windows Media Player, Real Player and Flash. You had to have all three on your computer if you wanted to be able to watch any video on the Web. Few had all three. But even if you did, videos still did not work half the time. Video on the Web was broken for the most part.

YouTube uses Flash because it is built into most web browsers, so you do not have to do anything special to watch the videos on YouTube. Because YouTube grew so fast – and because it all worked – Flash is now pretty much the only video player you need.

Now there is plenty of working video on the Web. That is YouTube’s doing. It is as if the Internet has been given eyes and ears.

An example of YouTube’s power came early on.

One night in December 2005 on the NBC television show “Saturday Night Live” the song “Lazy Sunday” appeared. Those who were home watching NBC that night saw it and had a good laugh. Before YouTube that would have been the end of the story. But then someone put the video on YouTube. Now far more people could see it. It was a runaway hit, making both the song and YouTube famous.

NBC, which owns the copyright to the video, made YouTube take it down. NBC put it up on its own website. But when you clicked on it you had to wait and wait. Maybe you would see something – or maybe not. It was just like the bad old days before YouTube.

NBC knew television, but it soon learned that YouTube knew something about Internet video that it did not. Google soon learned the same thing the hard way. It became clear that YouTube is more than just a website with some videos.

– Abagond, 2007.

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email

Email (1966- ) is short for “electronic mail”. It is mail that is sent from one computer to another instead of by post. It is sent through a network, most commonly the Internet. No stamps required.

The first email was sent by 1966. By the 1980s it had spread to American universities. In the 1990s email had spread to the general public. Along with the Web, it helped to spread the Internet throughout America and all over the world.

Better than the post office: it is much cheaper and faster. And you do not have to find a stamp.

Better than the telephone: Even when most people have a mobile phone it is not always easy to get someone. Most telephones do let you to leave a message, known as voicemail, but in practice the message cannot be much more than 20 words. And listening to voicemail can be a pain in the neck when it contains something you have to write down anyway: you have to play the voicemail over and over again to make sure you got it right.

Email allows you longer message. It also allows you to write when it is good for you and for the other person to read it and answer it when it is good for him. This is the huge advantage of email.

But email has drawbacks too.

The first drawback is length. Although you could email a whole book if you wanted, in practice few will read more than 100 words of your email and they will only remember one point you made.

A good email makes one point only and is a paragraph or two long. The subject line and the first sentence has to make that point. Any other words you add beyond that only matter to the degree that they help to make that point.

That makes email more like an advertisement or even the beginning of a newspaper article. People think of it as a short letter. Wrong.

The second drawback is spam: unwanted email from people you do not know trying to sell you something or trick you out of your money. Email almost died in 2003 under the huge wave of spam that appeared then, but now they have computer programs that can learn to tell the difference between spam and ordinary email.

The last drawback of email is that it requires a computer to read and answer it. For most of us that means being at home or at work. You cannot very well stick your computer in your back pocket and read and answer your email just anywhere.

Well, as it turns out, you can: that is part of what a BlackBerry or an iPhone is. In 2007 they still cost too much for most people, but by the 2010s they should be cheap enough. So this disadvantage will pass away.

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Yahoo!

Yahoo! masthead from 1998.

Yahoo! masthead from 1998.

Yahoo! (1994- ), so spelled, is the number two search engine on the Web. In the early days it was the best there was, but now most people use Google. Yahoo! must kick itself daily: in 1998 and again in 2002 it could have taken over Google but thought the price was too high.

By some measures Yahoo! is larger than Google. Its website, for instance, gets more visitors than even Google. Yet it is Google that is making the real money on the Internet, not Yahoo!

Like Google, Yahoo! started out as a student web page at Stanford University. It was Jerry Yang’s web page on akebono.stanford.edu, called “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”, later renamed “Yahoo!”

The name comes from “Gulliver’s Travels”. They added the “!” because plain “Yahoo” was already taken as a trade name.

Yahoo! not only had a search engine, but also the best listing of some of the best sites then on the Web. You could look up sites by field of interest. Of course, it did not have everything, but it was a good place to start.

But in time the Web grew too large for such a listing, no matter how many people Yahoo! had working on it. The geniuses at Google found out how to get a computer to come up with listings almost as good in a split second. Yahoo! has been eating Google’s dust ever since.

Where Google has largely grown from within by applied genius, Yahoo! has grown by gathering bits of the Internet into one company:

  • 1997: RocketMail (web email)
  • 1998: ViaWeb (online stores)
  • 1999: GeoCities (user web pages), Broadcast.com (radio and music)
  • 2002: HotJobs (want ads), Inktomi (search)
  • 2003: Overture (the old GoTo.com – search-based advertising)
  • 2005: del.icio.us, Flickr (online pictures)
  • 2007: MyBlogLog

Those are just a few. The crown jewels are Inktomi, which has a search engine almost as good as Google’s, and Overture, which was making money on search-based advertising long before Google even knew how.

But putting all these pieces together into one, everything-for-everyone website that works well and makes money has been difficult.

Yahoo! has been led by Terry Semel since the dark days of the dot-com bust of 2001. He is a Hollywood deal-maker from Warner Brothers. He knew how to gather the pieces but not how to put them together. (He resigned a month after I wrote this.)

Google avoided doing it this way. For the most part they have built everything for themselves. They even tried to build their own YouTube. Instead of gathering Internet companies, Google has been building a brain trust, perhaps the best the world has seen since the Second World War. So far it has served them well.

Now there is talk of Yahoo! taking on Google by joining forces with Microsoft (third place) or eBay.

To its credit, Yahoo! has not gone the way of curiosities like Lycos, WebCrawler and AltaVista. Remember them? They still exist, you know.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Google

From the Google home page, December 2nd 1998.

From the Google home page, December 2nd 1998.

Google (1998- ) is both an Internet search engine and the American company that created and maintains it. It is now the top search engine in the world.

Like any search engine, Google is a page on the Web that you can go to to find all the web pages that mention the given word or words that you write in.

But the Web has countless pages, even for uncommon words. It seemed that the Web was going to die under its own weight, that it would become too large to find anything useful in it, even with search engines.

A good search engine will list pages from most important to least important. But how do you tell which pages are more important for a given word?

Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Stanford came up with a beautiful idea:

What matters is not whether a page has the word you are looking for, but how many times it is linked to by those that do!

For example, if you put in “New York Times” into Google, it will list the New York Times website first. Not because anyone told Google where the newspaper has its website, but because of all the pages that mentioned “New York Times”, it was linked to the most.

This process is called PageRank.

Brin and Page wrote a computer program that did this and ran it on some computers at Stanford. It worked!

They knew they had the best search engine in the world. But to start a company, they needed some serious money and a way to make money from searches.

First they went to Yahoo!, the top search engine at the time. It had also started at Stanford. Yahoo! said no, search engines were already as good as they were going to get. The real money was what you could add to a search engine. “Portals” was where it was at, they said.

Then they went to Andy Bechtolsheim, a founder of Sun Microsystems, a computer maker. They told him about Google on his front steps. He got it. He understood how great Google was. He got them the money they needed and the rest is history.

Google’s searches are free, so how do they make money? By selling search words. When someone searches on that word, your link appears on that page.

Nothing new in that. But Google did two things that most search engines did not:

  1. They kept your link separate from the search result itself. A Google search should be utterly trustworthy.
  2. You only paid when someone followed your link. This is called pay per click.

Prodigy, an early online service, had the second idea as far back as 1988, but Google was the first to get it to work.

Google has since got into other things, like searching for pictures, news and directions, putting up pictures of the entire Earth on the Web as well as all the old books in libraries.

The Google logo through the years:

1998

1998

2000

2000

2005

2005

2010

2010

2015

2015

– Abagond, 2007.

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Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768- ) is the oldest encyclopedia in English and the one with the greatest authority, even now. It was once the largest, but now the Wikipedia is larger. It first appeared in Edinburgh in 1768. It now comes out of Chicago.

It currently appears in three forms: in print, on computer disc and on the Web. Print makes the most money, but its days as a printed book are numbered.

Britannica has been slow to change with the times and its fortunes are sinking.

What happened? In 1993 came the first blow: Microsoft came out with Encarta — the old Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia put on disc. It was so cheap that many people got it along with their new computer. Then came the Web, then Google and then the Wikipedia. Who looks up anything offline any more?

Britannica was quick to get on the Web – they were there by 1994. But it was shovelware and you had to pay to see it (it was free only for a while). In the past 12 years little has changed. It has improved only around the edges, like putting icing on a hard, dry piece of bread.

What Britannica must do:

It needs to forget about printed encyclopedias. Its future is on the Web or nowhere.

That said, it needs to rework its content for the Web. It will not be easy, but if it does not do it, it will disappear and go the way of the Victrola.

The Britannica has over 55 million words and 120,000 articles. That comes to something less than 500 words an article. A very good size for a web page. But some articles go on for hundreds of pages! That will not work. Not even with outlines.

The content needs to be cut up into short articles of 200-500 words each. Every single one. Even “China”. Even “Europe, History of”. Yes. And each article must stand on its own and be valuable in its own right. For the 500-word articles to work the long-winded prose will have to go.

Of course, “Europe, History of” cannot be completely covered in 500 words or less. But depth must be provided by links not page length. That is important. Page length is what makes the Britannica so hard to use online.

An article should provide different levels of depth:

  1. title
  2. first sentence
  3. first paragraph
  4. highlighted words
  5. the entire article
  6. links for those who want to go deeper

Britannica has outlines: for each of its longer articles and for all of man’s knowledge. It should keep that, make it the structure of the site and fit each of its articles into it.

It needs to keep its content current. There is nothing on the Wikipedia, for example. (They added one at last in 2006 a few months after I wrote this).

It should read its server logs to see what readers are really interested in.

It needs a much much better search engine. Search is everything in an encyclopedia.

The Britannica has reinvented itself in the past. I hope it can do it again.

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shovelware

Shovelware is content moved from one medium and to another with little or no change – as if it were shovelled in. It can be between any two media, but these days it is the Web that is at the receiving end in most cases. The New York Times and the Britannica online are perfect examples. If a web page has a link that says “Next Page”, you can be sure that it is shovelware.

In the early days of television the first shows were moved straight from radio: radio plays, music shows, ball games and news. Some of it worked on television, some of it did not. Most radio plays did not work – television needed something else. And television news at first was read – read! – not shown!

And now it is the Web’s turn. That is why so much of the Web looks like a magazine. But the sites of those like Google or reddit, who know what they are doing, look nothing like this.

The New York Times on the Web is a lot like it is in print – so much so that it even has page numbers! Page numbers are completely unnecessary on the Web and, in fact, only get in the way of print, copy and search – operations that are unthinkable in print, but are common on computers.

The New York Times online is also structured into the same parts as it is in print – world news, city news, science, lifestyle, opinion and all the rest. Again, completely unnecessary on the Web and again it only gets in the way.

Even the links that they have in their stories are a waste compared to what they should be.

The New York Times conceives of the Web as a form of print. So they put up with the disadvantages of print – on the Web! – while missing out on what the Web can do.

They cannot treat the Web as some side thing: if they do not get it right, it will kill them. They seem to sense this, since they are getting help from Microsoft. But the changes they are making will make it even more like it is in print!

The Britannica is even worse. The Web and the encyclopedia are a marriage made in heaven, yet no one in Chicago seems to notice. They break nearly every principle of good web design. The only thing they get right is the spelling.

I love the Britannica dearly, but these days I almost always look up things in the Wikipedia first. It is far easier and almost as good. Only when I want to go in depth do I pull out one of my old Britannicas. But even that will not last.

Writing about inventions in 500 words or less has taught me something that Sony and the New York Times do not seem to understand: an invention has very little to do with what it looks like or how it is made. It has everything to do with what it does. Both companies are wasting a fortune because they do not seem to understand this. It blows my mind.

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The Web

The Web (1989- ) is a set of pages that exist on the Internet. They do not form a book or come in any order. They do not all exist on any one computer but come from all over the world.

And there are millions of them! What makes them different from ordinary pages is that they are connected together by links. When you select a link you go from one page to another. And one page can be linked to any other page on the Web and can have any number of links. This creates not a list of pages in a certain order, like in a book, but a web of pages. Thus the name.

To find your way among all these pages requires a search engine and good word of mouth. But the links themselves work as a kind of word of mouth – a fact that Google takes full advantage of.

The Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, one of the great computer geniuses. It went public in 1992 but was little known till about 1994 when the Internet burst upon the public.

Content: A web page can have words, pictures, sounds, music, video, computer programs and so on. And, of course, links. A link can be anything visible on the page, such as a picture, but in most cases it is a set of words. A good link gives some idea of what is on the other side: “Tyra Banks pictures”, “The latest news”, “The mystery of the ages solved” (yes, I saw a link like that once).

Reading style: Very few will sit and read a page for long. Most read a few words here and there on the page – a hundred or two at most – and then be off going down another link. Only if the page has just what they were looking for or somehow holds their interest (by its humour, wit or something surprising) will they remain.

Structure: Little of it. The Web is not structured like a love story: it is more like a the Sears catalogue with pages mixed up and falling out.

The good and the bad: Unlike the codex, the Web is bad at long, carefully reasoned argument. You know, rational thought. It is not even good for telling stories, like the scroll or the television. But when it comes to finding out about something quickly or about something you know little of, it is unmatched. Where else are you going to find out what goes through the head of a schoolgirl in Singapore?

But what you find may not be true!! Anyone can write anything they want. And, if you are serious about a subject, you will soon find that in most cases the Web does not run deep. You will find yourself reading the same six facts over and over again.

– Abagond, 2006.

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