Jan 12

What’s bothering me about the SOPA “discussion”

There are 3 things that have really been bothering me about how the SOPA/PIPA discussion has been going so far.

  1. it’s not a discussion at all — it’s people calling each other names.
  2. it’s highly likely to have a result that is unhelpful at best, and insanely destructive at worst
  3. we’re building a completely worthless/bad roadmap for how to deal with technology policy going forward, and it’s going to get worse

Let me be very clear: SOPA is a terrible law that should not be enacted under any circumstances. It’s broken technically and misguided from a policy point of view. It not only won’t accomplish what advocates want it to accomplish, but it also will create backbreaking burdens and barriers to entry for some of our most promising technology companies and cultural movements of the coming decade.

But also: content creators & owners have a legitimate beef with how their content can be appropriated and distributed so easily by rogue actors.

Here’s the conversation we should be having: content & technology should be very aligned. Hollywood and Silicon Valley (broadly speaking — I’m talking metaphorically here) both want the same things ultimately: easier and bigger ways to share and enjoy awesome content from all sources, in a way that’s economic for everyone involved.

What we should be talking about is how to get better alignment, how to build systems and content that is better for, you know, actual human beings to use and enjoy.

But that isn’t the conversation that’s happening (and I use the term “conversation” here very loosely, since it has characteristics more like a bunch of schoolyard name calling). The conversation that’s happening is going more like this:

– content: “you people are stealing our stuff. you’re thieves”

– techies: “we’re not stealing it. we’re just building great apps for users.”

– content: “you’re ignoring the problem and helping the thieves. you’re effectively pirates, so we’re going to shut everyone down.”

– techies: “you’re acting like jackbooted fascists, embracing censorship and your’e going to end everything that’s good about culture today.”

– content: “we’re trying to protect our content — you guys are pretending like there’s no problem, then getting rich off platforms that pillage our content.”

– techies: “you don’t understand how the Internet works — how do you even live life in the 21st century? dinosaurs.”

So that’s awesome. Then you throw Congress into the mix and hilarity ensues. Because if you’re looking for folks who really do not act like they want to understand the Internet, Capitol Hill is a pretty good place to start. And then this is all devolving into a fight of pirates versus creators. Of protectors-of-democracy versus fascists. Or whatever.

What we need to be talking about is where the actual infringement problem is happening (I’ve heard from folks that the vast majority of the problem is on the order of a few dozen syndicates overseas). And how we need to be thinking about copyright law — in an age where copies are the natural order of things, as opposed to previously, when it was harder to make copies. And what sorts of law enforcement resources we need to bring to bear to shut down the activity of these real malicious actors overseas. (At root, I’m persuaded that the current issues are really law enforcement issues – we need to figure out how to enforce the laws that are already on the books to protect IP, not create new ones.)

Acting like there’s no problem isn’t the answer — there is a legitimate IP issue here. But pressuring a behind-the-times and contributions-captive legislative body to enact overly intrusive and abusable laws is even worse, both economically and civically.

What’s extremely discouraging to me right now is that I don’t really see how we can have a nuanced, technically-informed, respectful discussion/debate/conversation/working relationship. I’m not convinced that Congress is at all the right body to be taking up these issues, and am 100% convinced that they don’t currently have the technical wherewithal to make informed decisions, in any event.

So what we’re left with is one group pushing their captive legislators for new, over-reaching laws and calling technologists names. And a group reacting to that by calling names back.

I think the best that we can hope for in this scenario is that the current bill will grind to a halt and nothing will change. But I think that can’t be where we aim for the future.

Because technology policy issues are going to come up again and again and again as time goes on. (Next up, undoubtedly, is another round of privacy legislation, and I would predict the name calling will be even more intense and even less productive.)

We’re mediating more of our lives than ever through new technologies that we barely understand as technologists, let alone consumers or civic leaders. We need to figure out ways to have meaningful discussions, to try out policies that may or may not work at first and iterate quickly on them, like we do with products themselves.

I don’t have any answers here, but wanted to write down what’s been bugging me, as I think we all need to think more about what we want our lives to look like in the future.

Sep 11

Mike Shaver: Thanks!

Mike Shaver has done as much as anyone on the planet over the last ten years to make and keep the Web open, free, and awesome. That’s no joke, not a typo, not an exaggeration. The guy has done a lot, and I’m incredibly thankful for his contributions — they’ve just been astonishingly broad, durable & meaningful.

He announced today that he’s leaving Mozilla after working there the past 6 years in a variety of roles (and he’s been involved even longer, since before Mozilla.org even existed). His absence will be felt acutely by everyone, I think, but his fingerprints are all over the place, and all over the project, and they will be forever – the way Mike thinks is pretty well part of the DNA of the company and project.

On a personal level, I really liked working with Mike – he’s smart and humble (sometimes!) and thoughtful – he routinely challenged (and continues to challenge) the way that I thought about problems both on a micro level and more importantly at web scale. He’s been involved in too many technology strategy decisions to count, always working for the betterment of the open web, even when it was inconvenient for him and Mozilla. (or maybe especially then!)

And he affected my framing of the problem deeply – I remember one day a couple of years back when we were talking about some market share point, thinking about how incredibly, insanely competitive the browser technology landscape was – and he said to me: “Look, this is the world we wanted. And this is the world we made.” Wow. Exactly right. He taught me so much about how enormous an impact a group of dedicated people can make.

I quote him a lot when I talk with entrepreneurs of all stripes. I say this: “Figure out the world you want, and go make it that way.” That’s the essence of entrepreneurship, and I think it’s the essence of Mike.

For my money, that’s the best advice anyone can give anyone else, and the best lesson I really, deeply learned from Mike.

Mozilla has been incredibly lucky to have amazing engineering management leadership over the past few years, from Schrep to Shaver and now Damon – just incredible leaders, and the loss of Mike will be obvious, although he’ll undoubtedly stay involved in the larger project.

But for myself, I just wanted to give Mike a very public thank you, and to say that I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Aug 11

Google & Motorola

Very very interesting news about Google buying Motorola Mobility this morning. It’s got so many implications it’s tough to take in all at once, so wanted to capture a few thoughts quickly.

First thing worth pointing out, though, is this: we don’t actually know the shape of the whole deal at this point. Will Google keep the MOTO hardware business? Keep the patents and sell the hardware side? Keep both? It’s hard to know how their internal evaluation went, and what they’ll do from here, so a lot of this is really hard to speculate about.

Having said that, a few thoughts:

– it’s another instance in a long history of software (and now Internet) business devouring the previous generation’s hardware businesses. Internet business are inherently more leveraged: distribution power trumps almost everything else, especially in a phase where the technology portion is maturing.

– along those lines, it’s interesting to think about what happens next for Samsung, RIM, HTC, Nokia, but I’m way more interested in what the software players do. All eyes in that regard are on Microsoft, but I think the more interesting long term questions are for Facebook and Amazon.

– 2 things it’s clear that Google didn’t buy MOTO for: its margins or its ~20k employees.

– seems like Google definitely wanted the IP portfolio.

– and it seems to me that, assuming they keep the hardware business, that they want Motorola because it gives Google full control over the hardware and software stack, which is the only way that they’ll ever be able to even approach the excellent UX fit & finish of the Apple offerings. I feel like that’s one of the top drivers, and maybe the most important one over the long term.

– One other thing that this merger is decidedly not about is distribution — if anything, Google’s distribution power with respect to Android is somewhat weakened, at least in the short-to-medium term, as they’re undoubtedly going to cause some grief with partners Samsung and HTC. Feels like Google has calculated that control over getting the experience right trumps any distribution help they might get from their handset partners.

All of this lines up pretty well with my post about Screens, Storage & Networks last week — the last 60 days have seen Google push hard to get in the top tier on Screens (MOTO) and Networks (Google+).

My most esoteric point I’ve left for last, though: one of the unfortunate consequences of this development is that I think it will move perceptions of big corporations building open software (and in this particular instance, I’m specifically talking about open source software) at least a few more notches towards the cynical. The question that everyone will ask anytime a company tries an open experiment like Android in the future, the inevitable line of questioning will be: “Sure it’s open now, but for how long?” Whether premeditated or not, the path of Android has been from wide open to asserting more and more control — and this is another data point on that path. I’m not criticizing or indicting anyone for this — I think it’s essentially just a natural evolution and response to market conditions that require tighter integration. I think in a lot of ways it’s inevitable in technology networks for this to happen. (And I’ve written about it a bit before.) My only real sadness here is that it’ll move cynicism on corporate open source efforts up one more notch, and that’s not good.

Overall, though, fascinating day, fascinating time. Big moves!

Aug 11

Design like you’re right…

It’s impossible not to think a lot about data these days. We’re generating it all the time, constantly. On our phones, on our televisions, on our laptops, in public spaces. And increasingly the best startups and Internet giants are using data to make better and better product decisions and designs.

Today at Greylock we announced that DJ Patil is joining us as Data Scientist in Residence, as far as I know the first time any VC has had a position quite like that. It’s a huge addition for us, and the expression of a bunch of deeply held beliefs about the state of the art in designing great products.

But as I talk about using data for design, I find that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it — some people have the sense that it somehow makes designers less powerful, that you’re basing decisions based purely on mechanical measures rather than designer intuition and genius.

In my view, however, data is what makes designers not only strong, but primary. It’s what turns designers from artists into the most important decision makers in a company, because it’s understanding the data that lets you understand what your users are doing, how they’re using (or not using) your products, and what you can be doing better.

It made me think back a bit to my own training as a UX designer (we called it HCI then) at Stanford in the mid-nineties, when the field was just starting to develop. We would spent a lot of time on ethnography, need finding, doing paper prototypes and then doing basic mockups and user testing. And we’d get 80% of the way there then go and build it.

Nowadays, the state of the art is to still do need finding and some mockups early, but to get to a working prototype as quickly as you can, that’s instrumented so that you can tell what’s happening and figure out whether you’re on the right track or not.

I think that’s generally the right approach, but it’s worth noting: instrumented prototypes can really only get you to local maxima — they can help you find ways to tweak and optimize the basic design you’ve got, but they can never help you find a radically different and better solution.

So when I talk about using data — and I talk about it a LOT — what I’m talking about is a mixture of the artisan/designer-led designs along with using data to figure out what’s best.

Thinking about it the other day, I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings that I learned from Bob Sutton: “Fight like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.” Bob’s an organizational theorist, and what he means is really a paraphrase of something that I think Andy Grove said, which is that he wanted all his people to have strong beliefs, loosely held. In other words, he always wanted people to come in with a point of view — a design, as it were — but to be willing to moved off of that point of view in the face of data.

So the modern, design oriented framing is this:

“Design like you’re right. Read the data like you’re wrong.”

In other words, you should always design the product you think/believe/know is what people want — there’s a genius in that activity that no instrumentation, no data report, no analysis will ever replace.  But at the same time you should be relentless in looking at the data on how people actually use what you’ve built, and you should be looking for things that show which assumptions you’ve made are wrong, because those are the clues to what can be made better. We all like to see all the up-and-to-the-right happy MBA charts, and those are important. But they don’t help you get any better than you already are.

I wish we taught more of this blend, because all of the products we use would get better.

So: design like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong.

Jan 10

iPhone & Android

I’ve had a Nexus One for a couple of weeks now, and think that with Android 2.1, it’s a good advance. Right at the moment, I’m having issues with the battery — can’t hold a charge for more than about 5 minutes, even after multiple varieties of soft & hard resets. But setting that aside, I think it’s a good device with a good operating system.

A few thoughts on the comparisons — I think I’m not adding much here that hasn’t already been written:

  • The fit & finish of the hardware I like on the Nexus One a little better than on my iPhone — but you should take that with a grain of salt, since my iPhone is more than a year old.
  • Nexus One is much faster than my 3G iPhone, which is getting slower and slower with higher latency all the time.
  • The web is a much more legitimate first class citizen on Android than on the iPhone — should be no surprise. It’s just more integrated in dozens of ways. Not as totally web native as Palm, but still really good.
  • Notifications on Android, and background processes that can fetch data and fire notifications, are much, much better than anything on iPhone. (Except for the inability to have app badges — seems like they should add those soon.)
  • And I really like that there are indicator lights — the trackball and the charging light — on the Nexus One to tell you things without needing to unlock the phone.
  • The virtual keyboard on Android has some good advances, but ultimately doesn’t enable the quick accuracy of the iPhone — I think the iPhone is messing with hit targets as you type, depending on the likelihood for each letter — and it helps tremendously.
  • I’m no longer really worried about the lack of applications on Android — it seems very clear that everyone will start writing apps for both iPhone and Android as first tier platforms — but I am a little concerned about the quality of the app experience on Android — the apps just don’t feel like they’re put together nearly as well. It seems like they can access more of the operating system than iPhone apps can, so they should ultimately be more compelling, but the user experience just is very inconsistent at best, and really awful at worst. This is clearly due to the SDK for each OS — Apple’s SDK just seems to allow developers to put together applications that feel better overall. This is just one area where the battle feels a lot like we’re repeating history with an Apple platform versus a more open platform.
  • Google Voice on the Nexus one is a fantastic experience. It’s very clear that traditional telephony is walking dead.

At the end of the day, though, my iPhone experience is just more intimate than my Android experience — it feels more like it has my life on it, while the Android just feels like a very good phone and mobile web device. It’s just easier to get more of what I care about — my pictures, my music, my movies, games I like, and all my books (via the Kindle app) on my iPhone. So it feels more like an integrated part of my life than the Android. As frustrated as I am with my current iPhone 3G because of battery life & sluggishness & general physical-falling-apart, I still feel better when I have it than an Android.

So I’m encouraged by the advances of Android & the Nexus One — and fully expect that the huge array of players in the ecosystem will push things forward more quickly now — ultimately, we as consumers really need a platform for our mobile lives that’s an alternative to Cupertino — not because of what Apple is per se, but because multiple choices means that everyone has to get better.