Google Wave May Be Coming To Kill Email — But What Is It Exactly?

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Today, Google plans to start changing the internet — again. Their mysterious project, which launched in beta mode early this morning, was announced via YouTube in May and got “the entire web buzzing,” according to tech blog Mashable, and yet many remain in the dark about this particular “game-changer.” Here’s the skinny: at some point on September 30th, 100,000 invites were emailed to potential users who will become the first to try Google Wave, a “new tool for communication and collaboration on the web,” according to the internet giant. But what does this mean and what can Wave do?

The Official Google Blog warned that Wave “isn’t quite ready for prime time. Not yet, anyway,” but notes that those receiving invites include:

We’ll ask some of these early users to nominate people they know also to receive early invitations — Google Wave is a lot more useful if your friends, family and colleagues have it too. This, of course, will just be the beginning. If all goes well we will soon be inviting many more to try out Google Wave.

And Mashable’s summary of Wave continues where Google gets vague:

The communication tool incorporates real-time updates, wiki-style functionality, extensions, playback, and many more features in an attempt to redefine how we communicate. Some call it an email killer, others think it’s too ambitious for its own good.

Screenshots of the platform and Google’s preview video (both embedded below) fill in some gaps as well, but for those without the time or patience to sit through a full-length presentation, there are bite-sized nuggets to takeaway. Mashable’s description is detailed and serviceable, but still dense for anyone other than bona-fide tech nerds. The thing about Wave is that it incorporates such a sprawling combination of features that internet users may be familiar with in other contexts and funnels them into an all-inclusive hub from which to run your social life online. It’s difficult to boil down, but consider this an attempt:

Think of it as a giant, tricked-out chat room — an upgraded Gmail. The system features Wikipedia-like user edits where messages can be constantly tweaked and updated, as opposed to the permanence of emails, which are really just an outdated electronic copy of your standard letter — once sent, they’re unchangeable. You can also drag and drop files to share with your friends with more ease than the standard “attach file, send message, download file, open file” process of email today. It’s all in real-time, like Gchat or AOL Instant Messenger, and includes Facebook event-like methods to plan get-togethers featuring a guest list of any length. Then, there are the add-ons, which are similar to Facebook applications and can be used for anything from playing online checkers to getting directions. Best of all, Wave is an open-source tool — meaning anyone can tweak and customize it — allowing for constant optimization.

Complicated, sure, but it sounds cool, right? We’ll find out soon. The wait is over — now you just have to score an invite. Brag in the comments if you snagged one.

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Time Warner’s $4.2 Billion AOL Fire Sale

tim_armstrong_lgWhen AOL CEO Tim Armstrong isn’t busy hiring former Google (GOOG) executives, he’s preparing for his company’s spin-off from the Time Warner (TWX) mothership, which is is supposed to happen by the end of the year. So when it does, how much will the Internet company be worth? Try $4.2 billion, says JP Morgan analyst Imran Khan.

Khan’s estimate is the first one I’ve seen floated in public so far. The analyst has proven to have a pretty good grip on AOL’s business to date, so I’m taking it seriously.

But for the record, note that not only is the $4 billion number a pittance of the company’ value during the original Web boom (remember those days?), it’s markdown from the $5.5 billion Google assigned to the company when it wrote down its 5% stake earlier this year. Which was, of course, a markdown from the $20 billion value Google had given it in 2005.

Here’s how Khan got to his number (click chart to enlarge).

aol valuation

AOL’s Google Reunion Grows Yet Again: Former YouTube Ad Guy Shashi Seth Joins Up

sethOf course, Time Warner’s (TWX) AOL has hired yet another Google (GOOG) veteran. That’s what the company does under the Tim Armstrong regime.

Today’s example: Shashi Seth, the one-time “monetization” boss at YouTube, who was most recently running sales at Cooliris, the video Web wall start-up. His new job: Senior vice president of global advertising products, reporting to Armstrong’s lieutenant (and Google vet, natch), Jeff Levick.

I thought Seth’s job title sounded a whole lot like that of Senior Vice President of Global Sales Development Erin Clift, whom AOL brought out to meet with reporters last week. But AOL folks tell me Clift is still there and has a much different role: She’s the “agency and market guru” and he’s a product guy.

Seth will be working out of AOL’s Silicon Valley outpost with new hire Brad Garlinghouse, who comes to AOL not from Google but via Yahoo (YHOO).

Here’s the release.

NEW YORK, NY – September 29, 2009 – AOL announced that Shashi Seth has joined the company as Senior Vice President of Global Advertising Products, responsible for building and scaling AOL’s advertising platform and developing industry-leading products. Seth comes to AOL from Cooliris, where he served as Chief Revenue Officer. Prior to that he was with Google, where he served most recently as head of monetization for YouTube.

“Shashi is unmatched in the industry as an innovator with an outstanding track record of developing new and better ways to serve advertisers on the Web,” said Jeff Levick, President of Global Advertising and Strategy at AOL. “As we move forward on our strategy of becoming the world’s largest provider of display advertising, Shashi will play a critical role in creating the best products in the business for our advertising partners.”

“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to come to AOL as it moves toward becoming an independent company,” said Seth. “The company already has an incredible combination of scale and a suite of great advertising products and technology, and I’m looking forward to working with AOL’s talented team to build on this strong foundation.”

Seth will report directly to Levick from AOL’s expanding Mountain View offices, joining Brad Garlinghouse, who was recently appointed to lead AOL’s Communications efforts and lead the company’s West Coast AOL Ventures efforts.

Prior to coming to AOL, Seth was with Cooliris, where he was responsible for revenue generation and business development. At Google, Seth was responsible for building advertising products, exploring all monetization opportunities, and defining business models for YouTube. Before that, Seth was the Product Lead for Web Search at Google. Prior to Google, Seth was with eBay, where he was responsible for building and managing eBay’s successful APIs & Platform. He has also worked for the Gap, where he launched their online stores, and co-founded two startups. Seth started his career at NASA Langley Research Center, where he built flight simulators and avionics equipment. Seth holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Kanpur, India, a Masters in Computer Applications from the University of Pune, India, and a M.S. in Computer Science from the University of Miami.

This Just In: YouTube Is Ginormous!

kingkonglivesYou already know this, but it’s always good to be reminded: In online video, there’s YouTube, and then there’s everybody else. Today’s data point: Comscore’s (SCOR) August video report, which shows Google’s video site generating 10 billion views and owning 39.6% of the market.

That’s 10 billion views, and that’s just counting Web surfers from the U.S. Factor in international visitors, and… it would be a lot bigger.

The rest of the rankings look about the same as they as they always do — puny compared to Google’s (GOOG) status. That is, if you add the next 9 biggest sites up together they won’t come close to matching YouTube’s share. But for the record, Hulu gained share but lost a position to its corporate cousin Fox Interactive Media/MySpace, its corporate cousin from News Corp (NWS). And Time Warner’s AOL (TWX) replaced Disney’s ABC (DIS) at the bottom of the rankings. Click chart to enlarge:
comscore chart

Yet another reason it’s amazing that it took Warner Music Group nine months to hammer out a deal to get its video back on YouTube — and bear in mind that they’re not there yet. If you’re in the music video business, and you pull your videos off the world’s biggest video site, you better have a very good reason to do so.

In other shocking news: This movie is 12 years old. That’s older than Google!

How the YouTube-Warner Music Deal Got Done: Meet Vevo Jr.

green_day_Warner Music and YouTube, co-owners of the one of the Web’s nastiest spats, are about to patch things up. How’d they do it? By cutting a deal that looks a lot like the one YouTube has already made with Universal Music Group.

Last December, talks between Warner and YouTube to renew a licensing deal broke down, and Warner’s videos disappeared from the world’s largest video site. Now, as Advertising Age has reported, an agreement is in the works that will bring Green Day, Madonna and their label-mates back to the site.

What hasn’t been reported, so far: The deal terms themselves. Neither company is talking, but sources familiar with the negotiations tell me the new pact will be similar to the one Google’s (GOOG) video unit struck earlier this year with Universal Music Group.

That deal created Vevo, a sort of “Hulu for music videos,” owned by Universal and Sony (SNE). So think of Warner’s deal as a “son of Vevo.”

The big idea is the same: Try to create more value for videos by limiting their distribution and creating a more ad-friendly atmosphere around them, and share ad revenue between YouTube and the videos’ owner. The big points:

  • Unlike Vevo, Warner and YouTube won’t be creating a separate site for Warner videos, and Warner won’t be creating a separate company dedicated to its videos. Instead, YouTube will help Warner create a “premium advertising platform” for its videos within YouTube.
  • Warner will take primary responsibility for selling its videos, and YouTube will receive a cut of the revenue.
  • Warner will no longer receive a licensing fee each time one of its videos is played.

I gather that a lot of this is still being hashed out, and some of this will evolve even after the deal is inked. For instance, Warner needs to figure out how it’s going to sell advertising for its clips, since it doesn’t have its own sales force. Timing is also up in the air: Even after the two sides formally announce the pact, users shouldn’t expect to see Warner videos instantly reappearing on YouTube; it may be that they only get rolled out as the new ad platform is built.

Then there’s the ad platform itself: I haven’t been able to get a concrete definition of what this is supposed to look like, but for now, I’m imagining something like the “channels” YouTube has made for partners like ESPN, except they’d be made on an artist-by-artist basis.

All in all, this sounds like a fair deal. Warner loses a guaranteed revenue stream, but if its contention about the value of its videos is correct, it will make even more than it did under the old arrangement. Meanwhile, YouTube gets to hang onto “premium” inventory without being locked into the kind of  pay-per-play arrangement that helped drive the site’s expenses sky-high.

The potential downside for YouTube: If this works–or if the Vevo deal works–it will have to create similar packages/portals/platforms to retain or attract other “premium” content suppliers, like, say Hollywood studios. But given that the site has had limited success getting those guys on board so far, that’s not the worst fate in the world.

In the meantime, even though Green Day is Warner act, you can still find plenty of its clips on YouTube–it’s just that most of them are odds and ends like this grainy concert video:

Early Twitter Backer Union Square Sits This One Out

Twitter CEO Evan Williams thanked a long list of investors in his blog post today formally announcing his newest funding round. Not included: New York’s Union Square Ventures, which has been one of the messaging service’s most prominent backers, but which didn’t reinvest in the company this time.

Union Square was the lead investor in Twitter’s first funding round in in July 2007, and participated in subsequent rounds in May 2008 and February of this year. In that last round, Union Square said it was re-upping “to maintain our ownership position”.

What happened this round?

Union Square partner Fred Wilson, who is a Twitter board member and a tireless Twitter advocate (and Twitterer) declined to comment. So I’ll hazard an Occam’s Razor guess: The $1 billion valuation that Twitter achieved in this round priced out Wilson’s fund.

If that’s the case, it’s a high class problem to have. Union Square is a relatively small venture player (the two funds it manages have a total commitment of $281 million). It specializes in early round investing, where the bets are comparatively low stakes — a few million dollars here and there. If things go well, those bets are enough to get the company to an exit — in the old days, that meant an IPO, these days, a sale to Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo (YHOO) or Google (GOOG).

But as the valuations increase, so do the amounts a startup’s investors need to pay in order to keep their ownership stake, which is why angels and other early investors usually drop away. A player Union Square’s size can play up to a point, but then has to step aside, or it would end up with most of its portfolio invested in a single company.

In order to re-up at this level, Union Square would have needed to make a much larger bet than it is used to making, and perhaps more than it is able to make. The new round, which raised $100 million, is nearly twice as much as the $55 million Twitter had raised to date. Which means Union Square’s bet would likely have to double as well.

Sidewiki: What Google should do

I spent yesterday marking the dangers around Sidewiki. Today, I’ll say what I think Google should do with it: close the toolbar app, open it up to the entire conversation, and turn it purely into an API. And probably buy Technorati.

I read a great deal of the discussion about Sidewiki yesterday: much of it in the comments on my blog post, much found through search in Technorati and Google News, much through trackbacks, much on Twitter, much through links on sites I read, and a tiny bit on Sidewiki itself (sorry, can’t find a URL to link to that).

Some of the comments said the conversation is already fractured and my trail would seem to prove the point. That was the common word – fractured. But I’d quibble with the choice and argue that the conversation isn’t broken; that it is occurring just where it should be: in the cloud, where it is controlled by no one.

I did complain about bifurcating the conversation on my own site and that’s because Google presents a second opportunity to comment from a site with comments and I do not see how that adds value there; it separates people. We should be doing the opposite.

I also complained about losing control of the comments and some folks, not surprisingly, thought they had me in a gotcha moment: “Hey, Jarvis, you tell newspapers to get over it and give up control but when it comes to you … heh, heh, heh.” OK. I, too, chose the wrong word. I should have complained instead that Sidewiki robs sites of the responsibility for comments. Many of the people who joined in my crusade yesterday said they work hard on the conversations on their sites to make sure they retain civility and quality – as good sites do – but now they can’t exercise that responsibility with Sidwiki comments that will appear essentially on their sites. Google promises an algorithm. Algorithms may be good at killing spam – albeit with syncopated delays – but they will not be good at policing the subtleties of trolls, prejudice, unfair competition, grudges, pettiness, and hate; those are human sins and it takes humans (and perhaps God) to see them.

The Guardian spends a great deal of resource on Comment is Free doing just that and when the conversation is about the Mideast, it knows from sour experience that it has to add extra precautions. There were no open comments on its Blogging the Koran. But now, with Sidewiki, there will be. Let’s say the Guardian gets too restrictive. Then there’s always the cloud. You can go to one of its competitors or create your own site and complain about what’s said on CiF and no one – except your hosts there – can stop you. That’s the essence of free speech on the internet.

It’s perhaps inconvenient that the conversation is distributed but wherever there’s such a problem, the wise see opportunities. Technorati saw that years ago and tried to bring the conversation together not by creating the ultimate conversation site but by adding organization and thus value to the conversation across the blogosphere. That was very Googley.

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it accessible – not take it over and centralize it. That’s what so many fear about Google book search: that is it not just linking to books but serving and thus controlling them (I still believe the settlement can cope with that). That is what I fear about Sidewiki: that it is not adding value to the conversation by organizing it but instead trying to hijack it. I’m surprised how tonedead [a happy typo I'm holding onto] Google is in this case. David Sleight called Sidewiki “a failure of empathy.” Or as a father says to a little kid: “What were you thinking?” One more metaphor: Google thinks its Snuffleupagus – big but cuddly and good – and just doesn’t realize that some people see it as a potential bully and so it has to act accordingly. With size comes responsibility.

So I think Google saw a problem where there wasn’t one: The conversation is not broken and doesn’t need fixing. It saw an opportunity to enable people to comment on sites that do not have comments – and to gain more beloved metadata from us about those sites – but it bigfooted the entire conversation trying to solve that; it went for a fly but put its fist through the wall. It wasn’t Googley.

Now I suggest that Google stand back and have that don’t-be-evil conversation about its mission and how it can add value to the conversation and to out collected knowledge about sites and companies without trying to take it over. Start by following Dave Winer into the cloud.

Google could try to organize – but not hijack – the entire conversation; no one has really done that yet. It analyze comments on sites and understand them better and perhaps even try to find quality in them and their authors. It could use Friend Connect and Facebook’s APIs, as it has started to do, to enable those authors to establish and collect – on their own, via APIs – and burnish their identities across the web. It could bring together conversation about sites, whether those are blogs or companies’, as Technorati has done with blogs (that’s why I think buying it and putting it out of its strategic and technology misery would be the neighborly thing to do). It could then release an API (as it has done for Sidewiki) that doesn’t draw the conversation into one place but enables anyone to put up the conversation.

So I could finally put the broader conversation about the ideas in Buzzmachine on Buzzmachine, adding functionality that let my readers follow links and authors. So I could create a consumer site tracking what people are saying, good and bad, about, say, computer makers. So I could use apps to track conversations about topics that mattered to me. So I could track authors and what they comment about across the web.

Google would add value to the conversation – as I firmly believe it adds value to news – without competing with news creators. That is what I argue to those news creators: that Google doesn’t want to become one of them but instead wants to succeed by helping them succeed. It’s a great argument, so long as it stays true. Books bring the same opportunity and challenge for Google.

In a sense, Google thought too big, bigfooting the conversation everywhere. But in a sense, it thought way too small, creating a new conversation instead of trying to organize the conversation that is the internet itself. That would have been so much Googlier, don’t you think?