Presdo API contest

Presdo logo

Presdo, the online scheduling start-up, has is running a mashup competition around their API. Build something cool with it, win an iPhone 3G.

Sounds pretty good to me, so I was delighted to accept Presdo founder Eric Ly’s request to be a judge for the competition. Yes, that sadly means I can’t win one of those little boxes of Apple 3G goodness :(

If you have a cool idea for a calendaring-meets-your-favorite-web-app/API/social site/whatever application then you’ve got until July 18 2008. Good luck!

[via VentureBeat]

Apture: elegantly adding context to your site

“Wow, that’s really really slick!”

That was my reaction when Tristan first showed me a demo of Apture (which just opened for signups, if you want to add it to your blog or website).

We’d met a few times previously and he’d been teasing with hints about the product he was working on – but refused to show me anything, or even give me any detail about what he and his fellow co-founders were really up to.

All I knew was that we shared a common interest in both grassroots and mainstream media, and importance of innovation given the nature of the content often being communicated. We’d spent several meetings discussing all sorts of interest stuff – from the way the media is often the last resort to keep governments and business in check, the need for informed society, through to the power of building products with a platform-orientated architecture.

Very much a meeting of minds – and so when I finally got to experience Apture, I was delighted that it too was at the intersection of so many of my favorite topics. I’m also proud to say that I am a member of Apture’s advisory board.

Welcome to Apture

For me, Apture is about bringing light-touch context and background to topics within the page you are looking at. In essence, it provides a simple framework to attach background context and ancillary content to subjects mentioned in your page – all without interrupting the flow of your reading and crucially, without leaving the page you looking at. In fact, you have already experienced Apture! (unless you are reading this in a feed reader, in which case check out the page on my blog)

When I saw the first demo of the product, what excited me the most was the implementation – which I think is slick and impressive. The thoughtful UI makes the product simple and intuitive to use, backed up by some pretty tight code that makes the seamless experience possible.

Elegantly handling off-site links and embeddable media

From my days working at the BBC News Website, I’ve seen first hand the importance of providing background information on the subjects discussed in a news story. Not everyone follows the news agenda as deeply as others, and providing a bit of context can really make the difference and ensure the reader is able to engage with the latest developments being written about.

I’d also seen examples of how the BBC had got some of it’s interface and style guidelines wrong – like not using hyperlinks inside body content and completely missing the early emergence of embeddable media (arguably pioneered by YouTube). I have to hold my hands up to these as much as anyone else at the Beeb as I was there at the time these things took off.

On both counts Apture solves these problems in an elegant way.

The concern around marking up body content with hyperlinks is about usability. When the user clicks on them she is taken to a new destination page mid-flow of her reading. Apture solves this concern by providing the essence of the page you want to link to in an easily manipulated floating window that the user can quickly digest and either get back to the copy or potentially elect to click through to a fuller page of content. The point is that the reader makes an informed decision whether to jump to a new page or continue reading. Apture also lets the reader position the window around the content so that they can interact with it later on when they are ready.

Another key part of this is the selection of the media you use to provide that background to your post. Apture helps you there too – by recommending relevant content from across numerous repositories on the internet – including Wikipedia, Flickr and IMDB. Finally, it reformats these pages so that the pertinent information is displayed clearly inside the Apture window that is associated with your subject.

Apture also provides a unique way to embed media, and can even handle certain types of media asset just by it noticing you are linking out to a photograph or a video in your piece.

Open for business

Having been in closed beta for some months, this week Apture was released to the public. Getting Apture on your site is really simple (just a line of javascript or the installation of a WordPress Plugin) and of course it is totally free.

You can also take a tour of the product and see more demos of it in action.

Puppets, theatre and the conflation of ‘successful’ with ‘popular’

UPDATE 03/17/09: This post is the center of my core conversation of the same name at SxSW 2009. If you are visiting this page following on from my talk and would like to subscribe to my blog please check out the RSS feed! Thanks!

Loren Feldman may be hanging up the Shel Israel puppet but sadly we’re still a long way away from bringing the curtain down on the banal theater that’s consuming what the rest of us once proudly referred to as “our industry”.

And ‘theater’ is exactly what it is. With set pieces, stooges, rehearsals (backchannels) and whole troops of merry men.

The trouble with theater is that it’s fake; the lines spoken by the actors are chosen for effect and for entertainment – often exaggerated and rarely based on any real fact or merit.

Sadly the theater on display in “our industry” is often to intertwined with the ‘expert’ analysis we précis (tech blogs), the peer communication we read (twitter, friendfeed) and even from the pioneers of the products we love and use (ego CEO’s).

This is now occurring to an extent that is beyond avoidable. Not only that, but the farce is becoming ever more ridiculous, as the ante is upped and the perceived need to placate the gallery increased.

Not only do I personally find it frustrating and irritating, but it gets in the way of the business so many of us have sacrificed so much to participate in… To ship great product, to change the world and perhaps to earn a little coin to make our lives a happier place.

The ace or the joker?

The problem with “our industry” is that so many have conflated the term “successful” with the term “popular”.

One way of being popular is to put one’s self center-stage. One way of being successful is to put one’s head down and graft.

In related matters, Sofia and I enjoyed a delightful drive down to Palo Alto today in our recently purchased sports car. I can’t tell you how proud I am, at the age of 26, to have been able to pay for this piece of highly tuned German engineering upfront in cash. No loan, no hire. We found what we wanted and I wrote the check.

I’d be just as proud to tell you what I’ve produced and achieved during the relatively small number of consulting days I had to work to pay for it, such is the standing I’ve been (fairly quietly) able to achieve in my practice. Fortunately, for me at least, some sense of humility kicks in. I am not about to join the performance and begin a rendition.

In fact I now feel guilty even using it to illustrate the point. I certainly am not going to use it to puff an already inflated ego in a series of twitters or cerment a semi-faux persona I’ve carved out for myself that I must now live up to or otherwise feel inferior.

Here to make me laugh, too?

And so back to our old friend Loren Feldman, perhaps the only person in all of this who I must let off the hook without charge. As Loren so eloquently writes in his final tirade to the beleaguered Shel…

…Mike [Arrington] is busy taking on AP and the NY Times. Jason [Calacanis] is taking on Google. I’m taking on TV, do you think anyone of us have the time or even give a shit enough about you…[Shel Israel]

(emphasis mine)

Yes, for much of what you see from Loren is self-labeled, self-described entertainment. I just wish everyone else could decide too whether they’re striving to change the world, or simply striving for shits and giggles.

MySpace joins DataPortability, announces first implementation

As you will know, I’ve been working with MySpace for a number of months on a number of initiatives to help them evolve into a far more open platform.

Following on from the launch of the developer platform and REST APIs, I’m really excited to announce that MySpace has joined the DataPortability Initiative. In addition MySpace has also announced it’s first implementation in this area, which will making it’s profile data available for those to consume on other websites. From the press release:

“MySpace … will be allowing users to dynamically share the content and data of their choosing including: (1) Publicly available basic profile information, (2) MySpace photos, (3) MySpaceTV videos, and (4) friend networks. Integration of the Data Availability project will roll to MySpace users and participating Websites in the coming weeks.”

MySpace’s full press release is on Alley Insider. DataPortability’s press release is here.

Whilst a number of high-profile launch partners have been announced (Yahoo!, eBay and Twitter), it’s worth point out that access to this project will be available to everyone who agrees to the T’s & C’s.

(UPDATE: A number of people are speculating that this is a biz-dev thing only for agreed partners and that it may not be using agreed standards, etc(eg here). I just want to be really clear: this is NOT A BIZ DEV DEAL, this is open to everyone. The launch partners are simple there to demonstrate the complete value at both ends and help MySpace test the implementation. And as mentioned in the press release, this is all using oAuth for authentication and will be working with DataPortability on standards.)

As a co-founder of the DataPortability Initiative I’m thrilled to be a part of this project and able to help guide it from the inside.

Caroline McCarthy of News.com has described this as “a huge deal” and of course I agree. In the media call she asked MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe whether Facebook would be able to participated and he responded:

“This project is open to any site out there that wants to work with us so we’re happy to work with Facebook if they want to join up with us on this project.”

This is not the same MySpace I took on as a client 6 months ago. Significant and exciting things are happening at MySpace and it’s great to be a part of it.

If you have comments or ideas and suggestions for things you want to see at MySpace, please let me know: bmetcalfe {at} myspace {dot} com

Data Portability LA Meetup tomorrow

If you’re in LA cos you reside here, or down for the TechCrunch/PopSugar party tonight, you should definitely come out for the first Data Portability Meetup in LA:

Data Portability LA Meetup

April 11, 2008 7pm10pm

Blank Spaces,
5405 Wilshire Blvd,
Los Angeles,
California 90036

Upcoming.orgGoogle Map

Both myself and Chris Saad (founding members of the Data Portability Initiative) will be there, and we’re hoping representatives from a couple of major LA-based vendors will be in attendance too. Not to mention the grassroots tech scene as well.

Thanks to Crystal Williams, Michael Lambie and everyone else who have helped bring this together – you guys rock!

Please do add yourself to the Upcoming.org listing if you can make it!

Apps are live on MySpace!

Just a quick note to say that the MySpace Developer Platform, which went live to developers last month, is now live to ‘regular’ users too.

That means anyone can add an app to their MySpace profile or homepage.

Congrats to everyone in the team who’ve worked some looooooong hours to get this up. Well done everyone!

Marshall Kirkpatrick has a great overview of today’s announcement and the platform:

A few key points of differentiation between MySpace, other OpenSocial “containers” and Facebook are as follows:

  • Apps on the Home page.
    I believe that one of the biggest reasons Facebook apps have such low user engagement numbers is because they can’t enter the key space of the user admin page. That’s where users live, not on their own public facing profile pages. MySpace is hoping to go so far as to create an “everyperson’s Netvibes/PageFlakes/MyYahoo” experience.
  • Custom namespaces
    MySpace has a long list of custom namespaces that aren’t available in OpenSocial’s most basic structure. That’s the case with almost all OpenSocial implementations, we hear, and it will be interesting to see how real the promise of interoperability is.
  • Synchronous communication
    It may not be XMPP but the MySpace app namespace ONLINE_FRIENDS appears to let app developers access the sub-list of a user’s friends who are actively online. Many social activities are best done in real time (like asking for money via Lending Club? maybe not) and we’ll be interested to see what apps make use of this option.
  • OAuth support
    MySpace users are going to be happy to share their contacts and info from other applications off-site with apps on the MySpace platform because they’ll be able to do so securely. MySpace is about to become the biggest use-case of the oAuth authentication protocol, something many sites are scrambling to implement. Will app developers put this to use? We’ll see.

More on Read/WriteWeb.com and also on Mashable.

(Disclosure: I work with the MySpace Developer Platform team)

LearnHub.com – a social network for learning

While I’m writing about new site launches, I also want to mention LearnHub, which went live to the public last week.

Last year, our good friends John and Malgosia Green returned from San Francisco to their native Toronto, Canada to realize their dream of establishing a social learning network.

What’s that, you might ask? Well, LearnHub describes itself as being “…for people who love learning and sharing knowledge with others”. So the social network element is about connecting people with mutual interests who want to shre knowledge and experience.

They already have a lot of experience in this area, having previously founded a learning management system site called Nuvvo (now defunct).

The site looks aesthetically stunning. The concept is great. I think they’re going to be very successful. Best of luck, guys!

ClickPass launches, brings OpenID to everyday people

Congratulations to Peter Nixey and Immad Akhund – two friends and fellow Brits – who’ve just publicly launched their Y-Combinator backed startup ClickPass (TechCrunch coverage here).

Sofia and I have been following their progress for some month, including sneak peeks and early uses of the product. And I have to say it really brings the benefits of OpenID to the mainstream – opening up all sorts of new possibilities.

Click pass is essentially made up of two constituent parts.

Firstly, the company offers a simple-yet-slick design patten for the federated authentication of the user. What I like about the design is that not only do ClickPass help their users login to a given site with OpenID, but they have also baked in simple support for a number of other popular OpenID providers too – such as AOL, WordPress and LiveJournal (where it all began).

Rather than having to remember their full OpenID URL at either ClickPass or any of these other providers, the user simply has to enter their username and the ClickPass login widget automatically constructs the correct login url and sends the user on their way to authenticate at their chosen provider’s authentication home page.

Great stuff.

As a proponent of OpenID I really want to give props to Peter and Immad for taking the opportunity to make it easy for everyone regardless of whether they use ClickPass to authenticate or not.

The second aspect of the service is a dashboard style interface that reflects the various sites the user holds an OpenID relationship with. This creates an ideal home page opportunity as it’s so easy to dive straight into the sites you use.

There’s also a great monetization opportunity of using the interface to take advertising on this page to the next level. Rather than simply promoting the front page of their site, with the permission of the user an advertiser could create an account for their site upon the initial click through from the advert – using the OpenID credentials already authenticated on ClickPass.

This allows the site to immediately offer full utility to the user rather than having to encourage them to ‘cross the chasm’ and create an account (having already had to encourage them just to click on the advert).

I may be a little biased, as Peter and Immad are friends, but I really do think this is the best implementation of OpenID out there right now for ‘regular users’. I do think they need to bake in more anti-phishing mechanisms – such as displaying photos, key phrases or some other ‘secret’ upon authentication. But these are easily done and I’m sure this is something they are both looking at.

Well done boys, good work!

Some thoughts on Lawrence Lessig and a possible Pirate Party USA

During last week’s ETech Conference, I attended Lawrence Lessig’s talk on his new project ‘Change Congress‘. TorrentFreak picked up a key point Lessig made during the Q&A that proceeded the presentation.

“At a preview of his new Change Congress project at the ETech conference, the Creative Commons founder responded to a question about the US Pirate Party, saying “I’m skeptical of the utility of something like the Pirate Party in the United States.” He went on to comment about the naming, referring to the ‘honest business fighting illegitimate thieves’ battle that Hollywood portrays with “Call your party the Pirate Party, and you’ll reinforce that. The branding is not one that I would embrace here in the United States.”

Naturally, the Pirate Party of the US disagrees. “As a professor, he should know better than to advocate judging a book by it’s cover” says Andrew Norton, head of the US Pirate Party. “It’s also unusual that the man that fought Hollywood’s increase of copyright, should find fault with a party that only seeks to represent the general public, and what better title than the name that Hollywood is using for all citizens.” referring to a recent study, which suggested that everyone violates copyright, and are thus pirates, every day.”

I agree with Lessig in his point.

Both Sofia and I follow the endeavors of the Piratpartiet (Pirate Party) in Sofia’s native Sweden. It’s the first credible political movement that has started a serious conversation about copyright reform in a significant nation such as Sweden.

Lessig’s point that such as party would need to campaign under a different name are are valid for two reasons – the need for mainstream presentation in the US and the ability for smaller parties to win seats in parliament in countries which have proportional representation, such as Sweden.

Presentation and facade

Firstly, the US uses a singe-winner first-past-the-post electoral system, which is so two-party centric that minority parties have little involvement or impact upon the political system. You have to aim to go mainstream – at which point appearance and marketing become very important.

As geeks we often fail to see the importance of branding and packaging in modern life – especially amongst more ‘normal’ strands of society. If the Democrat party was called the “Big Banana Party” it would be unlikely to win much interest in the political scene.

In fact, just to use a less-crazy example, even with the same political manifesto I doubt the Democrat Party would see much success if it was called the “American Socialist Party” – because Americans don’t generally respond well to the word ‘socialism’ in their politics.

To argue against that is frankly to demonstrate a lack of understanding of marketing and branding, or an ignorance to the importance of facade in US politics. Why do you think it’s only now, in 2008, that we finally have a female and a black man as candidates? Because presentation is important and even the left wing of America wasn’t ready to vote for each a candidate 10 years ago.

Its all about proportional representation

In Sweden the name “Piratpartiet” (Pirate Party) works not only because society is far more liberal but also because the country uses a multi-winnner proportional representation system. This means that even the parties with minority voting get to sit proportionally in parliament.

In the case of the Piratpartiet, it only needs one or two seats in order to achieve voting rights on legislative matters and have the opportunity to air it’s views in the parliament under such an unorthodox banner.

Why it won’t work in America

The American first-past-the-post system is certainly top-focused, with tertiary parties not only getting little room to maneuver but also scuppering similarly aligned parties when the population split their vote (such as a slight majority of the voting population voting for either the Democrats and the Greens – with neither party gaining majority and handing the Republicans the win).

The two main parties also remain highly corporate focused – and so for all these reasons I don’t believe such a political debate about copyright reform will ever take place in the US until significant momentum has occurred elsewhere in the world.

Not only do I agree with Lawrence Lessig that ‘The Pirate Party USA’ would be a poor choice of name for such a movement in North America, but I would go further and suggest that under the current American electoral system, any single-issue party has little chance of affecting change.

MySpace devJams – San Francisco and Seattle

(disclosure: I work with MySpace on their platform)

Having just launched the MySpace Developer Platform, including support for OpenSocial, MySpace are holding the first of their MySpace devJam events next week: Saturday March 1st at MySpace San Francisco (upcoming).

MySpace logo

devJams are MySpace’s take on popular events such as Yahoo!’s Hackday series and Google’s Hackathons. The day will kick-off with some tutorials and code walk-throughs led by the lead architects of the MySpace Developer Platform. Then after lunch it’s striaght down to good-old hacking, coding and devJammin’.

As you would expect they’ll be an opportunity at the end of the day to demo your app and perhaps even win some cool prizes.

But if you don’t get your app finished that day, MySpace will be holding a series of regular “Show-n-Tell Evenings” at MySpace San Francisco for you to come back to and ask questions of the MySpace Development Team and demo your app.

If you can’t make it to San Francisco on the 1st March, fear not as MySpace will be doing them all over the country world over the coming months. The next one is in Seattle, WA on the 15th March (Upcoming).

In the meantime, tell MySpace where you want the next devJams to be held!

MySpace devJam: San Francisco, March 1st

MySpace devJam: Seattle, March 15th

[Blog post on MySpace Developer Platform blog]