…on life, the universe, and everything

Blocking Content Blocking

I can’t help but chuckle about all the hand-wringing over content blockers in iOS 9. Ad blockers have existed for some time. Not many people use them (as a percentage of overall web users). Plus, native advertising is mostly immune to content blocking anyway, and that’s where a lot (most?) of the money was going to end up anyway.

That’s old news. My favorite part is: it’s really not that hard to make nearly unblockable ads. If the publishers and ad networks worked together they could mostly nullify the effects of ad blockers in lots of ways.

  1. They could insert the ads server-side in a way indistinguishable from content. Then load the ad network’s javascript purely to mark the ads as “sponsored content” and handle tracking. This would make it so that people using ad-blockers would have more trouble telling where the ads are, but everyone would see the ads.

  2. Ad networks could build CDN-like infrastructure and insert their ads in pre-specified parts of the page (like how Vagrant builds pages). This approach lets everything come down from one domain but takes care of publisher accountability (publishers can’t screw the ad network).

    Alternatively, an actual CDN (like CloudFront) could provide hooks for publishers and Ad networks (again, like Vagrant) to insert ads into pages within the same domain, and do impression/click tracking on the same domain as well. This variant solves some of the incentive issues (publishers don’t have to trust the ad networks either) by moving trust on a third-party (the CDN). I prefer this variant in terms of incentives, but it requires more coordination, so it might be harder for a CDN to succeed in the marketplace with this approach.

  3. Ads can be sold on an average-traffic or pay-per-click basis (i.e. the Deck), but without any 3rd party javascript. The markup inserted by publishers is just a clickable hot linked image, and the ad is rotated by just changing the image served at that url, and changing the destination of the link’s redirect. Publishers would just have to insert a unix timestamp in the querystring of the image and link to invalidate caches, deal with fast ad rotations, and all sorts of other issues. This method is relatively blockable, but easily pairs with a CDN-like approach.

    What I like about this is the simplicity, and the fact that it represents a line in the sand. You can easily say, ads served as third-party images are OK, but not ads served as 3rd party javascript or 3rd party iframes.

Anyway, there are lots of details around all these approaches that would have to be worked out. And plenty of pros and cons of each one as well (for all parties involved, consumers, advertisers, publishers, and ad networks. And CDNs should they choose to get in the middle of all this.)

The Shortest Apple Watch Review

If you’re into two or more of these (or really into one), you should check out the Apple Watch:

  1. Personal fitness
  2. Watches
  3. Apple products

That’s it. Review complete.

It’s an interesting product - I still need time to form a more nuanced opinion.

One thing I will say though: the Sport is nice. It’s as nice and well built as the iPhone 6.

Don’t feel like you need to buy the Steel version unless the look and feel of the steel itself is what you’re interested in. Especially if fitness tracking is an attractor for you; the Ion-X glass on the Sport is more resilient to impact than the Sapphire screen of the Steel and Gold versions (the glass scratches more easily, but who cares about scratches if you shatter the sapphire screen playing sports).

Social Skills Education

In my post, “Why we got 140 characters instead of flying cars,” I made a throwaway comment about how enterprising individuals should focus on communication skills instead of delivery. My podcast cohost Mik, was disappointed that I was writing about economics and not communication. So today I’ll talk about the economics of education instead =P

I’ll cut to the chase. Teaching communication skills is not a very good idea for a startup.

This isn’t news. I said it in the last post too. Communication skills are valuable, but capturing that value is difficult. Education startups aren’t debuting to multi-billion dollar IPOs. Not Learn-to-code startups. Not Learn-to-write startups. Not learn-a-new-language startups. Not even learn-to-make-friends or learn-to-influence-people startups.

People just don’t value education in that way. Universities have managed to jack up the price, but even they focus on prestige, job prospects, facilities, and connections.

Conspicuously absent: the stuff you will know when you graduate.

In fact, those parts seem to be losing prominence as a larger trend in education. The focus is on opportunity, not knowledge.

And selling knowledge is getting harder. The Internet is socializing us to believe information should be free.

So… where does that leave you, the social entrepreneur?

Delivering communications – no matter how inane the content – at least has a business model: insert extra communications (ads) into your pipe in exchange for cash.

I hate that business model, but c’est la vie.

Some education startups have innovated in the business model department. Duolingo teaches you a language, and when their students become advanced they translate documents for practice. They sell translation services.

At first blush, you’d expect a high-value skill like computer programming to be something where you can sell education for a high price. If a professional programmer can earn $100k/year for the next 10 years – that’s a million bucks! – surely you can charge $5k to teach someone that skill. After all, that’s only half a percent of the earnings.

But that math only works if you assume that you’ll only want/need to learn one career skill. That you’ll like the first one you learn. That the skills will remain valuable for a long time. That’s not how people work.

If you’ve never tried computer programming, you really have no idea what it’s like to be a programmer (take it from me). Would you simultaneously choose a career you know nothing about AND hand over $5k to someone whose expertise you are completely unable to evaluate? I wouldn’t. Even without the risk of some asshole running off with my five grand.

Could a learn-to-communicate startup work (be profitable)? Maybe. First they’d have to settle on an approach. Will they teach people to write? to speak? to unravel the mind of their audience?

So far these sound like classical academic topics – literature, theater, psychology – and not exactly a bunch that are associated with high-paying careers either.

Much like technology, these things can be tremendously valuable when used in conjunction with another skill. It almost doesn’t matter what that other skill is. But that makes the value proposition even harder than the computer programmer one. “Want to learn a skill which will make you marginally more successful in whatever other career path you choose? I’ll teach you, that’ll be five grand.”

Now add the fact that people generally don’t think of themselves as poor communicators, and generally underestimate the benefits of good communication skills. How are you going to sell that?

Back to the drawing board. Each education startup will have to find a purpose-made way to capture value (a la duolingo).

And if they can’t? Screw it. Slap an ad on top and IPO.

Hard problems and Sex appeal

My Biz vs Dev cohost, Mik Pozin,

Yes, the problems that aren’t 140 characters are the really hard ones. But we now have to make that be the sexy thing. We have to make solving hard problems sexy.

Hard problems are sexy. Solving hard problems makes you a god damn super hero. My nascent interest in writing software was kickstarted by an intense curiosity to understand, “What is this sorcery and how does it work?”

Google Search is sexy. The iPhone is Sexy. SpaceX Rockets are sexy.

I want us to get there too, I think we’re in complete agreement on that. But saying that everyone is working on meaningless crap instead of solving real problems just isn’t true. There are a few people working on things like twitter, and a small cult of wannabe entrepreneurs following what looks like easy money.

But it’s not easy money. You can count the number of truely successful social networks on one hand. Social networks are an intensely hard problem themselves, but the hard part is the business model.

Innovating on business models is an underappreciated art. Business models are the difference between Android and iOS. Farmville and Minecraft. Gillette and Harrys.

Nobody is going to Mars until there’s a business model. And it’ll need to be a new one; I don’t think indentured servitude is going to cut it this time.

Mailbox for Mac

I tried Mailbox for mac recently.

It’s nice. Excellent design.

I was surprised to find that I had a slight, subconscious distrust of dropbox. When I found out the app was made by dropbox I briefly reconsidered whether to even try it. I’m glad I did. I owe Peter Crysdale for the beta invite (and for coming on my podcast!)

I’ve been a long-time user of Gmail + Mail.app, which… aren’t the best integrated pair of apps. In fact, I’ve tried a lot of different email setups. Juno, AOL, vanilla POP3 and IMAP with Outlook, Thunderbird, then back to Outlook, then terrible web-based email (squirrel I think) provided with web hosting. Finally ending up with 2 Gmail accounts and iCloud account.

Being able to send email using the appropriate address is important, it’s not super professional to have people emailing my business address and getting a reply from my personal Gmail account. Doing everything through the Gmail web interface is a bit of a non-starter. I’m not going to switch between 2 Gmail accounts all day. It’s a pain, and it means I don’t see new stuff for a lot longer if I forget to check each one. Every time.

I also just don’t like the new Gmail interface. Leaving me with one option: a third-party mail client.

Mail.app served me well for a long time, but it’s never been a great companion to Gmail. The way Gmail does email simply doesn’t fit the IMAP mold very well. That impedance mismatch has been the cause of much unpleasantness. Mail I meant to archive ended up in the trash (and was deleted). Searching my archive has really only ever worked from the Gmail web interface. I’m still not sure what happens when I flag something as spam in Mail.app – does Gmail get the memo, or not?

Don’t get me started about filters and rules - that all has to live on the Gmail server, and I have a set of rules for each Gmail account. And the iCloud account? Well I’ve just stopped giving out that address due to useless search, lack of filters, and having to use an “@icloud.com” address. Luckily I don’t get much email that way.

Enter Mailbox

Mailbox for Mac

  • Hooks into all three email accounts (supports Gmail and iCloud)
  • Clear, understandable interface (and bonus: beautiful)
  • Supports keyboard-only workflows
  • First-class support for archive/delete/mark-as-spam
  • Free download for Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android
  • Lists that are actually useful
  • “Snooze”

Now, I haven’t had an empty inbox in years. Those last 2 are a much bigger deal than you’d first think.

Gmail “tags” are weird. Many of them are hidden in the web UI, and using tags as an organizational tool is clunky. So I’ve more or less settled on starring everything important and leaving anything that still requires action in my inbox.

Now I have 5 main lists where I put things I would have starred:

  • “Photos” (family pictures, etc)
  • “Tax” (liberally - anything related to finances really)
  • “receipts”
  • “travel” (itineraries, reservations, tickets, etc)
  • [Work] - Ok I cheated this last one is actually one additional list for each work project where I put business related email chains I may need to reference in the future.

Now I keep my inbox nearly empty. The [Work] lists are my todo list. Anything I want to spend more time on, but not right now gets “snoozed.”

Snooze works just like your alarm clock. Makes the message go away for a little while, then return to the top of your inbox. How long can be “later” (3 hours), “tonight” (6 pm), tomorrow, this weekend, next week, among other options. Almost all of them are configurable. Snooze is simple. Snooze is great. Snooze is why my inbox is now empty.

I’m was surprised that Mailbox is a Dropbox product. I’m concerned about their motivation; how do they make money on this? They’ve made versions for iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Android, which is an impressive level of dedication. But is automatic dropbox integration for attachments enough to keep this going?

Still, I think I’ll keep it. For now.