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Gmail Tasks Are a Good Start. Now Please Integrate with Google Calendar.

The folks over at Google announced a new Labs feature, the Task Manager for Gmail. Typical of Google, the feature is a simple, easy-to-use interface. You can type a task right in the Tasks panel.

As Google says on its blog announcing this feature:

People use Gmail to get stuff done, so we’ve added a lightweight way to keep track of what you need to do, right from within Gmail.

The other cool, but incomplete, thing is that you can add an email to the list of tasks. This is a great idea. I know I get a lot of emails at work in Microsoft Outlook that require some follow-up. But I don’t use Outlook’s Task panel to track them.

Rather I use the Actions > Follow-up > Add Reminder menu. This lets me stay in my email, while scheduling the follow-up day and time. Here’s a shot of that feature in Outlook:

outlook-email-task-manager-with-scheduler

For me, this is a terrific feature of Outlook. The follow-up notifications get my attention. I’ve used the Task panel before to record tasks. You know what happens to them? I never bother returning to look at my list. Email is where I go for my notifications.

Gmail Tasks do support associating a date to a task. That’s not bad, and it’s an improvement over my current follow-up methodology…starring the email. But what’s missing are:

  • Ability to set a time
  • Integration with my Google Calendar

My concern is that without the Calendar integration, Gmail Tasks will end up like Outlook Tasks for me. A place where written notes go to die.

I tweeted this idea about Calendar integration:

Added the Gmail ‘Add to Tasks’ feature (http://bit.ly/MVO). Would be great if that integrated with Google Calendar for scheduling.

And as is typical, a good discussion ensued. Stupid Blogger (aka Tina) noted that without Calendar integration, the Tasks feature is essentially useless for her.

She then added this thought:

Not just that, Hutch, but if it integrated somehow with the calendar then it would show up on my G1 as a notification. This would be BRILLIANT.

That’s right. Turn those task into reminders that come through on your T-Mobile G1 Google Android phone.

It’s a Labs feature, so certainly it’s a work-in-progress. Let’s hope they get Calendar integration out of the Lab soon.

*****

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Microsoft Is Getting Much More from Its Investment in Facebook

When Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook at a $15 billion valuation, the general reaction was one of disbelief. The valuation is too high to justify. But some people at the time felt like the dollar amount was well within the comfort zone of a giant like Microsoft. Here’s how commenter Prashant put it on TechCrunch:

I don’t think that MSFT expects to make money on the $250MM at a $15B valuation. Internally for them it is a $250MM investment to get an exclusive advertisement deal over the next 4 years. The 2% stake is only icing on the cake. Had they announced that they have given $250MM to Facebook for a 4 year exclusive ad deal, no one would have flinched, this is cheaper than the Google/MySpace deal.

Over the past few days, I’ve read a couple other blog posts that make me think Microsoft may be getting much more from its investment. Here’s a quick list of what what Microsoft seems to be getting:

  1. Exclusivity on a huge number of page views, and experience with social context advertising
  2. Insight into an emerging competitor to its operating system and productivity apps hegemony
  3. Model for bringing social networking into the enterprise

Let’s look at #2 and #3.

Operating System and Productivity Apps

Dan Kimerling wrote a great piece on TechCrunch about how Generation Y looks to the new wave of social media apps for functionality previously provided by Microsoft’s desktop and web offerings. As Dan notes:

Facebook succeeds because it is the killer web application for communications and personal information management

These are in-the-flow tools. Facebook users don’t leave Facebook, open email and send a separate message. They do it all, right there. The level of functionality is just right for their usage.

The original Microsoft email and productivity apps were pretty simple, but they did just what people needed, and with skillful marketing tie-ups, Microsoft became the standard for millions of us. Over time, Microsoft has added new features to each release, because that’s how they grew their revenues. You had to get the latest. But what happened was we got to feature bloat.

Via Kathy Sierra, Creating Passionate Users Blog, 2005

Via Kathy Sierra, Creating Passionate Users Blog, 2005

I think Kathy Sierra’s graphic is spot-on for general mainstream users. Personally, I probably use only 5% of the functionality available with the applications.

I’ve talked previously about the Innovator’s Dilemma here. As market incumbents grow, they tend to move up-market in terms of functionality in their offerings. What this does is open the door for competitors with new functions that are simpler to use. These new competitors target a niche, and grow slowly upward from there.

Facebook’s niche is still heavily Gen Y. But they’re gaining a foothold. Microsoft’s investment gives them a ringside seat for what’s happening there.

Social Networking Inside the Enterprise

I was reading a blog post by Doug Cornelius where he reported out notes from a session at the Real World SharePoint Experiences conference. A Microsoft Solution Specialist was describing the roadmap for SharePoint. If you don’t know, SharePoint is Microsoft’s enterprise collaboration software, where teams can build out individual sites to shhare and work on documents and to communicate. Each employee has a MySite, which includes their corporate directory information as well as the the list of groups and documents that are theirs.

Here’s a quote from Doug’s post:

Social networking. Mysite will be the hub of the social network. There will likely be Knowledge Network integration. They are looking to take some lessons from their investment in Facebook.

The Enterprise 2.0 space is hot, and social networking is a big focus for companies and vendors. Through its investment in Facebook, Microsoft can learn a lot of what drives interactions, how people connect and watch the mistakes the young company makes. As Dave Ferguson put it:

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. The corollary is that the bad judgment doesn’t have to be yours.

Microsoft continues to evolve its SharePoint offering, and I look forward to SuperPoking my colleagues one day.

Wrapping Up

At first, the only purpose for the Facebook investment appeared to be advertising related. I’m sure that’s still primary, because of the huge dollars involved.

But Microsoft is also gaining an information advantage for the new wave of social computing that is finding its way into both consumer and business experiences. Given the vast reach of the company’s product lines, that’s pretty valuable as well.

*****

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How Are Enterprise 2.0 Vendors Pitching Web 2.0? Using Wordle to Find Out

Recently, a website called Wordle debuted. What is Wordle? You can think of it as similar to a tag cloud, except Wordle analyzes words, not tags. You can see people’s blog Wordles on FriendFeed. Wordles are only graphics – you can’t use them for navigation.

A nice use of Wordles is that you can quickly pick up the pulse of a website. Higher word counts show up as larger fonts, the way tag clouds do.

I wondered what enterprise 2.0 vendors are talking about now. We’re a couple years into the introduction of the term “enterprise 2.0“, made popular by Harvard professor Andrew McAfee. The market is still young, but a decent number of companies have entered the space. Given that they’re selling to corporate customers every day, I was curious as to how their message has evolved.

So I “Wordled” the websites of the following ten enterprise 2.0 vendors:

  1. Jive Software
  2. SocialText
  3. Connectbeam (my company)
  4. Atlassian Confluence
  5. Six Apart Movable Type
  6. Newsgator
  7. Traction Software
  8. Near-Time
  9. SpikeSource SuiteTwo
  10. Worklight

I focused on these pages for the vendors: home page, product pages, “about” page. Let’s see what’s going on out there.

Ten Enterprise 2.0 Vendors’ Wordle

For the Wordle, I removed company and product names to keep it focused on themes.

So looking at this Wordle, what do we see?

Content and information get a lot of play, while knowledge shows up less often in the messaging. That seems about right, doesn’t it? Knowledge is information that you’ve internalized. Well, enterprise 2.0 should help people with that task. Still, it does seem that the focus is on the inputs (content, information), not the outcome (knowledge).

Search shows up a lot. If you’re familiar with the enterprise 2.0 philosophy, creating and finding the good stuff that is locked up in workers’ heads is a key value proposition. Search as a basis for let workers’ connect with one another makes sense. As Nemertes Research notes:

Enterprise search is catching on with enterprises.

If search is the leading use case, what’s the next one? Collaboration. Very much in keeping with the web 2.0 ethos. After that, we see learn and networking as important use cases.

Note that RSS is only slightly bigger than email. A good acknowledgment of what the leading application in the enterprise continues to be.

Social as a top word is no surprise. Isn’t that the premise? Community falls in a similar vein.

Two other words I found interesting: can and new. Can is very much in keeping with the spirit of enterprise 2.0. Companies continue along the adoption curve, but there’s lot of opportunity out there. So emphasizing what you can do is in keeping with the state of the market. New has a similar vibe. The sector is continually iterating and innovating. Web 2.0 moves fast, and vendors have to be nimble to keep up.

Finally, note that Microsoft and SharePoint show up in the Wordle, but not Oracle, SAP or IBM. In terms of incumbent corporate software, Microsoft is the most pervasive and has enterprise 2.0 aspects with the collaborative features of its SharePoint application. As InformationWeek notes:

SharePoint dominates collaboration.

Companies’ use of SharePoint and the importance of Microsoft to the enterprise ecosystem is seen in the Wordle.

There are probably other interesting things to be gleaned from this Wordle. What do you see?

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

 

Hey Yahoo! Forget MSFT, GOOG. Change the Search Rules.

These I wish I knew the moment I was turned off on Yahoo and what the root cause may be, but I no longer use anything Yahoo (except my Flickr account if you want to count that).

Vince DeGeorge, on FriendFeed

I was doing the same thing until I started using delicious as a search tool. Finally realized how powerful it was, and have been using it since.

Shaun McLane, on FriendFeed

I have previously written that Delicious search is one of the best ways of searching for things when a standard search doesn’t pull up what you are looking for. After Google, it is my favorite “search engine.”

Michael Arrington, TechCrunch, Delicious Integrated Into Yahoo Search Results

The latest news is that Microsoft is reaching out to Yahoo again. In fact, a couple reports (here, here) say that Microsoft wants to buy Yahoo’s search business.

Before any such transaction occurs, it seems worthwhile to think about what Yahoo could do with its existing assets. The three comments above are insightful. Yahoo is slowly losing share of mind, although it’s existing base of users will be around for a while. At the same time, there are nuggets in the Yahoo empire.

Search via del.icio.us ranks as one of those nuggets. Another nugget? Yahoo! Buzz. According to ReadWriteWeb, Yahoo! Buzz has surpassed Digg in terms of traffic, and its demographics better reflect web users.

Yet, Yahoo struggles against Google in the highly lucrative search market. Google increased to 67.9% of searches in April 2008, compared to Yahoo’s decline to 20.3% of searches.

What should Yahoo do? Stop playing Google’s game. Rewrite the search rules by embracing the social web fully, leveraging the social media assets it has.

And in doing so, demonstrate an aggressive path to make Yahoo a social media titan.

A Proposal for “Socializing” Yahoo Search

In January 2008, TechCrunch ran a post with a preview of del.icio.us integrated with regular Yahoo search results. Included in the search result links would be stats that tell a user:

  • Number of del.icio.us users who bookmarked the page
  • The top tags they used on the page

Both of those stats appear to be clickable. By clicking on the number of users stat, I assume a user would be taken to the del.icio.us page showing the users who bookmarked the page. If one clicked a tag, you’d land on the del.icio.us page for all web pages with that tag.

That’s a good start. But Yahoo can do better. Below is a diagram that shows how Yahoo can use its existing assets, combined with a good dose of the new social media experience, to radically change search:

Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on with the proposal.

Search Rankings

From what I’ve read, Yahoo has pretty much caught up to Google in terms of search performance. That means the use of links and clicks to rank websites is pretty common across the two search engines. However, Google does have the advantage of three times the traffic, which makes its insight into what’s relevant better than Yahoo.

But Yahoo has its own in-house advantages: del.icio.us and Yahoo! Buzz. Both address shortcomings in the links and clicks rankings for search engines:

  • Links require a media site or blogger to take the time to link. These links are insightful, but lack the broader reach of what Web users find relevant.
  • Clicks occur before a searcher knows whether the landing site is valuable. They don’t describe its usefulness after someone has clicked onto the site.

With del.icio.us and Yahoo! Buzz, Yahoo can tap into users sentiments about websites in a way that Google cannot. These insights can be used to influence the ranking of search results.

Search Results – Your Friends or Everyone

Here’s where it can really interesting. Notice I keep the general search results outside the influence of what your friends think. I think that’s important. A person should see results outside their own social circle. Otherwise, it will be hard to find new content.

But there is real power in seeing what your friends find valuable (e.g. see FriendFeed). So Yahoo should let you easily subscribe to other people for content discovery. Yahoo already has a head start on letting you set up your subscriptions:

  • Yahoo Mail
  • Yahoo Instant Messenger

In addition to that, you should be able to easily subscribe to anyone who publicly shares content they find interesting. Both del.icio.us and Yahoo! Buzz have public-facing lists for every user of what they bookmark or ‘buzz’. After viewing those lists, I should be able to easily subscribe to these users.

Once your network is developed, it becomes a powerful basis for improving information discovery.

Search Results – Associated Tags

Whenever tags are available from del.icio.us, they should be visible for each web site shown in the search results. This is what TechCrunch previewed. What do tags tell a user?

  • A way to discover other sites that might be relevant
  • Context for the web site
  • That someone thought enough of the web page to actually tag it

Tags should come in two flavors: everyone and your network. Clicking on a tag should display the top 10 associated sites right on the search results page. For more sites associated to the tag, the user is taken to del.icio.us.

Keeping the top sites on the search results page is important to make people use the functionality. Leaving the search results page just to see the sites associated to a tag will cause adoption to drop signficantly.

Search Results – Associated People

Each web page in the search results will show the number of people who have (i) bookmarked the site; or (ii) Yahoo! Buzzed the site. These numbers give a direct indication of how many people, not websites, found the web page valuable.

Clicking these numbers displays a list of the people, along with their most recent activity. This gives users a sense of whether they want to subscribe to a given user or not.

Search Agent

Once users perform a search, they will be able to subscribe to new content matching their search results. These subscriptions can be based on different criteria:

  • Any new content matching the search term (Google does this via Google Alerts) or a tag
  • Any new content matching the search term/tag and bookmarked by someone to whom the user subscribes
  • Any new content matching the search term/tag and Yahoo! Buzzed by someone to whom the user subscribes
  • Any new bookmarks or Yahoo! Buzzes by someone to whom the user subscribes

New content notifications occur via email or RSS. RSS can be anywhere, including on the user’s My Yahoo page. Again, FriendFeed has shown the power of these content streams.

Final Thoughts

My little post here isn’t the only idea someone could float. But it does at least address taking Yahoo much more deeply into the social media world, where users drive the value.

Yahoo revealed details of a proposed del.icio.us integration back in mid-January. And then nothing. Yahoo previewed Yahoo Mash, a new social network in September 2007. And then…nothing. The last post on the Yahoo Mash blog was January 11, 2008.

Yahoo has so many amazing assets. Search, email, portal home page. Several beloved social media apps (Flickr, del.icio.us, Upcoming). Yet they have not put them together into a cohesive strategy and experience.

And now, talk of selling the search business? C’mon Yahoo. You’ve got too much going on to give up yet. Stop playing by others’ rules. Make your own rules with the amazing assets you have.

*****

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Stick-To-It-Ness Pays: Rapt To Be Acquired by Microsoft

Rapt Inc. is being acquired by Microsoft, as reported over at TechCrunch by Erick Schonfeld. Rapt is an online ad optimization application, which fits Microsoft’s continued push into more and better advertising solutions. Rapt is also a great case of stick-to-it-ness. By that, I mean keep working at figuring what will make your business successful, and survive long enough to get there.

But let’s back up for a second. To greatly simplify things, one can say there are three types of outcomes for venture capital funded companies:

  • Supernova: legendary companies (Google, Microsoft, Amazon.com)
  • Moderate: cash flow positive (Rapt, SquareTrade, ebates)
  • Flameouts: bust (Pets.com, Webvan, Pay By Touch)

There’s plenty of press for supernovas and flameouts. But not so much for the moderate successes. The moderate successes represent a fairly broad range of outcomes. But they are an interesting study in starting a company, getting to profitability, and having the option what to do next. The three companies above – Rapt, SquareTrade, ebates – are each Web 1.0 holdovers who continue to be successes in today’s Web 2.0 world.

Rapt Inc.

Founded in 1998, Rapt started out life as some sort of procurement optimization provider for manufacturing companies. Here’s how their product Rapt Buy was described in 2001: Rapt Buy is a web-based application that gives companies real-time intelligence to optimize the procurement of strategic goods.

So the company was in the optimization game, but pretty far away from applying that to online advertising. But read what the company described itself as in that same 2001 press release: Rapt Inc. is a leading provider of software and services for enabling real-time, risk-optimized buying and selling decisions in complex business environments, and internet marketplaces.

Somewhere in there is the kernel of Rapt’s transformation from procurement of strategic goods to online ad optimization solution. I don’t know the success of Rapt’s original model, but they stuck with things and found a good market to apply their strengths. They came out with a series of products that enabled web media companies to optimize ad inventories. A March 2005 press release talks about Rapt being used by MSN to improve pricing for online ads. Subsequent client wins included iVillage, Yahoo, Tacoda, CNET and others.

Rapt did raise $55mm, so it needed a lot of capital to get where it is today. But by persevering through different markets and products, Rapt won many marquee clients and an acquisition offer from Microsoft.

SquareTrade

SquareTrade was started in 1999. Its original purpose was to be a mediator for disputes among buyers and sellers on eBay. The company received $9 million in VC funding back in 2000, and it hasn’t taken anymore since then.

The mediation services clearly paid the bills early on. SquareTrade also offers an eBay Seal, which tells potential buyers that a merchant has been reviewed and approved according to SquareTrade’s standards. Again, a nice little money maker for SquareTrade.

The absence of any new VC funding since 2000 tells you that the company is cash flow positive. Which is a nice place to be for SquareTrade. The company could live off the success of its model and dividend out the excess cash to investors and other shareholders. That’s something a lot of traditional, offline companies have done for years.

But you could view that cash flow in a different way. Your own source of “VC money”. Figure out new business lines, and self-fund their rollout. Forget the VCs. What a great option to have.

And that’s exactly what SquareTrade is doing. They’re trying to establish themselves as the largest independent warrany provider. Basically, sell the SquareTrade brand for warranties. I don’t know how they’ll do, but their established cash flow is going to give them the chance to stick-it-out and make a run of it.

ebates

ebates was established in 1998 by San Mateo County prosecutors. Huh? Well, what they created has lasted for quite a while. ebates gives consumers cash back on their purchases with 800+ online retailers. Basically, you just launch your shopping trip via ebates.com, and your purchase info will automatically be captured and your rebate calculated.

It was cool idea in 1998, and this is essentially the same thing ebates does today. Something like 1 million consumers are active on the ebates site. The company raised a $25 million round in 2000, and nothing else since then.

ebates is in a similar position to SquareTrade. Cash flow positive, and able to try new things. So far, ebates seems to be sticking with its 1998 model. More execution around its core model: more retailers, more consumers. Perhaps there’s something big brewing over there. But maybe not – they just enjoy the cash.

In Conclusion

The tech superstars garner the most press and certainly have the largest influence on the tech and business landscape. But the next level down, the cash flow positive moderate successes, do have some interesting things going on. Some keep hustling to position themselves for the next big thing, others enjoy the fruits of past labors.

Keep an eye on them, their cash flow gives them options.

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