Aug 28

Why Geolocation Isn’t Quite “There Yet”

Hurricane Irene Captured August 26, 2011This weekend, we cowered to think that major cities on the American east coast would be pummeled by Hurricane Irene. We watched CNN and Twitter to see how things were going.

Geolocation tools like Foursquare could have been amazing during a natural disaster like Irene. Imagine if any check-in tagged with #Irene were pulled onto a map, and then you could see what sort of damage was done to millions of places in real time? How useful would something like that be?

Geolocation picked up as a meme in early 2010 and then slowed down significantly for the following reasons:

1.) Let’s face it: geolocation can be creepy. OK, so let me get this straight. You are going to give me rewards for letting the entire world know where I hang out on a regular basis? I see the benefits, but I’m not sure they outweigh the risks. This is especially true for public accounts.

2.) Many geolocation networks got numbers, but failed to capture critical mass…anywhere. I won’t get into naming names, but I’ve seen social networks with gobs of features fail. Why? Features do help you sell a social network. However, unless our friends are using it, we don’t care. Facebook had a lot of features from the beginning. What really helped it take off was the fact that they targeted schools hard and heavy before expanding. They didn’t rush to get 10 million users all over the world. They got 30,000 of heavily concentrated users, and then got 30,000 more concentrated users. It became so popular at the “it” places (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.), everyone wanted an account.

It’s not just important that people sign up for your site. It’s important that they use it. To Foursquare’s credit, it helped them tremendously to lock down New York City and San Francisco.

3.) Geolocation desperately needs context that can be defined through APIs. The Hurricane Irene example above is a fantastic example of a useful app that could be built quickly on geolocation APIs. What if someone wanted to build organicfoodfinder.com, which would allow users to check into and find spots that served organic meals? What if we wanted to call out restaurants who had bad service by checking in and leaving comments, or crowd source bike routes by checking in to spots along the way? It’s hard to add functionality to geolocation applications that will make everyone happy, but it’s relatively easy through services like Apigee or Mashery to build robust APIs that support any kind of functionality through third party applications.

If an application like Foursquare can provide the current data and basic functionality a geolocation service would want to use, they could theoretically be the Facebook of the real world. Instead of sharing links, we would share places. We could play games in the real world the same way people play Facebook games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars. Foursquare has some action around their API and could grow significantly towards this vision in the near future.

I’ve said this before and will say it again: the money in a social network is often in the lurkers. Make something valuable for them and things will get interesting in geolocation again very quickly.

Aug 24

How Can We Clone Steve Jobs?

Tim O’Reilly’s Google+ stream tipped me off to a very interesting post on Forbes about how outsourcing both helps and hurts us. You really should read it yourself, but the long and the short of it is this:
1.) We have to outsource where it makes sense, to keep pricing competitive, but
2.) As soon as we do it, whomever we outsource to will most certainly approach our competitor with the same proposition, so
3.) We end up back where we started.

The key to solving the equation? Outsource where it makes sense, but always add innovation.

Say what you will about Steve Jobs as a person. As a figurehead of Apple, his vision, passion and perfectionism as CEO of Apple are unmatched. Apple products are copied mercilessly and are the source of tech lust all over the world. It is why despite Michael Dell stating Apple should close shop and give money back to its shareholders, Apple is now worth more than Dell. Oh and Microsoft and Intel combined.

Whether we tax high and offer decent public services, or tax low and allow the business sector to cover the weight, it doesn’t matter. If we don’t innovate, we will cease to be relevant.

So I’m asking you, America: quit arguing. Just figure out how we can make more Steve Jobs(es?).

Let’s look at what helped make Steve Jobs successful:
1.) Republicans like Rich Perry seem to be strangling education for the sake of keeping taxes low. Steve Jobs went to a public high school in Cupertino, California. So did Larry Page and Marissa Mayer from Google. Yet today, we are cutting teachers and school funding is as low in some areas as it was in the Depression era. That doesn’t seem conducive to being competitive in a global market.

That being said, we really need to address teachers’ unions ability to protect bad teachers from being fired. Mr. Jobs is not a fan of this policy, and he doesn’t like teaching kids to take tests either.

2.) Apple is in Cupertino, which is in a hotbed of technology. Apple talent could come from Berkeley, Stanford, CalTech, and a host of other technical schools. So while Jobs himself got his education at Hewlett Packard with Woz, he was empowered by an educated base.

Right now, college tuition is increasing, but college kids are not learning about technology at the rate the private sector is producing it. Ask any tech company how difficult it is to hire developers and you’ll see.

3.) Reform patent law. I’m not a lawyer or an inventor, so I can’t confess I have a solution here. I just can’t imagine inventing anything with as many patent trolls as we see now.

4.) Reward innovation and people who think out of the box. Foster change makers. And for God’s sake, quit watching those ridiculous mindless television shows.

The G.I. Bill produced more engineers among the “Greatest Generation” than any other generation before or since. It helped foster engineers that put a man on the moon. Can our nation create an entire generation of Steve Jobs(es?) that innovate us out of this recession, or are we destined to care more about “Dancing with the Stars” than the X Prize?