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I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

The White House, in particular, has effectively surrendered in the war of ideas; it no longer even tries to make the case against sharp spending cuts in the face of high unemployment.

Paul Krugman. This statement could have ended at the semicolon. On what major issues have the Obama White House or congressional Democrats led the discourse?

Regular readers of my blog know that the goal of my writing is to be interesting and nothing else. I’m not trying to change anyone’s opinion, largely because I don’t believe humans can be influenced by exposure to better arguments, even if I had some. But I do think people benefit by exposure to ideas that are different from whatever they are hearing, even when the ideas are worse.

Scott Adams

Time bombs

Fred Wilson today updated and reiterated his suggestion to develop on Android first:

Roughly six months ago, I put up a blog post suggesting Android was going to be the dominant mobile phone operating system and that developers interested in the largest user bases ought to start developing for it in preference to iOS.

As you might expect, I got a lot of heat from Apple fanboys for that post and one of the strongest points they made was that we had not yet seen the effect of the Verizon iPhone on market share numbers.

Well now we have.

I don’t think so. The Verizon iPhone has only been out for two months, and it has shown steady daily sales, comparable to the GSM model in the U.S., but without a massive bump up front. My theory is that most people willing to jump carriers (and break contracts if necessary) for the iPhone already did so sometime in the last three years (onto AT&T), and the remaining mainstream Verizon customers interested in the iPhone are far more likely to wait for their contracts to expire before switching.

So it’s far more accurate to judge the Verizon iPhone’s significance after this segment of the market is likely to have made their next buying decision: over the next 18 or so months.

There’s more in the post, but the approximate conclusion is:

I believe the mobile OS market will play out very similarly to Windows and Macintosh, with Android in the role of Windows. And so if you want to be in front of the largest number of users, you need to be on Android.

I disagree, which shouldn’t surprise Fred since he probably thinks I’m an Apple “fanboy”. (I can’t believe he used that word, and I hope he doesn’t really think of Apple’s customers like that.) There are a lot of reasons why I don’t think the desktop-OS battle is relevant to this market today, but that’s another discussion well-covered by others.

With Fred’s argument, there’s a problem with numbers: if being in front of the largest number of users was of the utmost importance, Fred should be urging startups to develop BlackBerry apps before iPhone apps. But that’s obviously a bad idea, because BlackBerry’s marketshare is (slowly) tanking, development economics1 are hindered by severe fragmentation and poor payment integration, and it’s not generally used by most of the influential people needed to spread the word on new services.

But, I digress. We’re talking about Android… which has terrible development economics hindered by severe fragmentation and poor payment integration, and is not generally used by most of the influential people needed to spread the word on new services.

So marketshare isn’t everything. But, I digress again. Let’s talk about Android’s marketshare, which is currently impressive.

There are a number of potential time bombs that would be irresponsible for someone making a long-term bet to ignore.

First, those mainstream, non-geek, smartphone-interested, carrier-prioritizing Verizon customers — the buyers that will be slow to move to the iPhone because they’re waiting out their contracts — are a very large portion of Android’s U.S. marketshare.2

It’s important to consider why they bought Android phones in the first place. Was it because they tried their friend’s Droid and had to have one because it was so good? Or was it because they went into the Verizon store for their next contract renewal, they wanted an iPhone but knew it wasn’t available on Verizon, the sales guys told them this was just as good as the iPhone, it looked a bit like an iPhone, and it had a buy-one-get-one-free sale?

We don’t really know, of course. But it’s worth considering. Were they choosing to buy an Android phone, or were they choosing to buy the most iPhone-like option in the Verizon store? If the latter, what are they likely to choose next time?

If Android phones were delighting their customers and building loyalty after the purchase, it would be reasonable to conclude that a lot of their existing customers are likely to continue buying Android phones in the future. So how is that after-purchase experience? How much do mainstream buyers like their Android phones?

From the ways I hear such people casually talking about them, this is a pretty weak area for Android. Satisfaction surveys consistently show a big gap between Apple and its competitors.

So while Android’s currently doing well, investing heavily in it for anything with long-term costs and obligations should be carefully considered. If you’re not in a rush to make such predictions, I’d wait and see what the market looks like 18 months from now.

(I limited this post’s scope to phones, not tablets, because Android tablets might as well not exist today. And we probably shouldn’t ignore the “I got an iPad so now I want a real iPhone instead of this Droid-whatever” factor. Another day.)


  1. In Fred’s context as a VC, presumably speaking to other companies who are either following the VC model or hoping to, he probably doesn’t care that BlackBerry and Android users don’t pay money for apps nearly as much as iOS customers do. But it’s highly relevant for anyone who wants to set an app price of more than free. 

  2. It’s important to distinguish Android’s U.S. marketshare because it sells a lot more here than internationally. When compared to countries in which the iPhone and Android devices have always been sold side-by-side from the same carriers — or simply by looking at how well it sells on AT&T — Android doesn’t do nearly as well, which further supports most of my arguments. 

But beyond the technology (and possibly more important than the technology), there’s another factor here that’s driving my decision. It’s that SB Nation believes in real, independent journalism and the potential for new media to serve as an answer and antidote to big publishing houses and SEO spam — a point we couldn’t be more aligned on. … This isn’t tabloid page grabbing or content farming — it’s news and insight by and for a passionate and informed group of people. And that’s exactly where I want to be.

Joshua Topolsky, former editor of the AOL-owned Engadget, announcing his next project, which sounds like a reinvention of what he wanted Engadget to be. (Many Engadget writers have recently quit as well, and it sounds like at least some of them will be joining Topolsky’s new venture.)

Sounds like a great move. I imagine anyone fighting for these standards at an AOL-owned property knew it was a losing battle.

AOL is not in the business of making good content — they buy valuable sites to clear-cut their property and replant it as endless content farms.

You can either see founding a company as something you’re doing because you want to produce good software, or you can see it as something you do so you can sell your stock and make a killing and move on.

Wil Shipley: Success, and Farming vs. Mining

Replacing the “Save” icon

David Friedman suggests that we replace the common floppy-disk “Save” toolbar icon with a new visual metaphor:

Not only don’t people use floppy disks anymore, but the options for saving are even more varied now than simple disk format. You might save to your own computer, or a drive on a server somewhere off in the cloud. You might even be using a program that autosaves in certain intervals without you needing to think about it. Even with a program like that, it would still be nice to know how long its been since the last save.

So then the question is, What do we use instead?

I’d argue — and I think, with iOS and Lion, Apple has shown that they agree — that rather than rethinking the icon, we should abandon the concept of explicitly saving files.

Modern computers have more than enough disk space and RAM to implement per-file versioning and aggressive autosaving for almost all common document types. (And it looks like Lion implements that.)

With the sophistication we have in modern hardware and software, there’s no reason anyone should ever lose any work to crashes or power outages because they forgot to hit Save for a while.

Let us pay for this service so it won’t go down

MG Siegler laments Gmail’s recent issues:

Google, please set a price — any price — that you determine is necessary to keep anyone’s account running smoothly at all times. I’ll gladly pay it. I don’t care if it’s $100 a year or $1,000 a year. It would be worth it.

People often talk about the desire to pay for Twitter either for better uptime or for more features, but the situation with Gmail is much more serious. Unlike Twitter, I conduct basically all my business through Gmail. I simply need it to work for me at all times. And I’m happy to pay for that to be the case.

I’ve seen many similar pleas recently whenever any popular, free web service has problems: “Please, let us pay you so there won’t be any problems!”

But it’s an impossible dream. If a web service is popular enough that you hear about it when it has downtime or major issues, it’s probably a large, very complex system. 100% uptime is effectively impossible. There are far too many moving parts that fail, resources that run out, boundaries that get crossed, and bugs that make themselves known at inconvenient times.

The operators of such services jump through hoops behind the scenes to make sure that bugs don’t get shipped, failures are routed around, and expansions happen behind the scenes without bothering the users. But nobody’s perfect, nobody has infinite resources, and nobody can predict every problem before it happens.

That said, there’s never any guarantee that a service that has been good in the past will always be good in the future. Siegler’s (and TechCrunch’s) problem isn’t that Gmail has been unreliable (which really isn’t new), but that there’s no good alternative once you’ve invested heavily in it — either by giving out a @gmail.com email address, depending on features that other providers don’t support, or growing accustomed to (and dependent on) the Gmail web interface.

For something as important as email, I’ve never trusted everything to a proprietary provider. My email address has never ended in someone else’s domain name, and has never been hosted in any way that would preclude me from easily switching to another provider.

Since 2007, I’ve used FastMail, a paid IMAP host, for my @marco.org email addresses (with the $40/year “Enhanced” personal plan). Rather than using its (unsophisticated) web interface, I use Apple’s Mail app.

FastMail’s uptime has been incredibly good — I don’t remember the last time I saw any downtime, but I’m sure that the total downtime I’ve ever seen from them has been less than an hour. But if it ever starts to suck, it’s just IMAP, and I own the domain, so I can switch to any other IMAP host easily (or self-host it, which I don’t recommend, but it’s always an option).1

All of my messages are downloaded by Mail and stored as files locally, so if a data-loss disaster were to happen at FastMail (which can happen to any service, even Google’s), I can recover my email from my personal backups.

You must own any data that’s irreplaceable to you.

By relying on a hosted service with no direct alternatives or difficult outbound migrations, you’re giving up a level of control that you shouldn’t for something as important as your business email.


  1. Gmail does have IMAP, but it’s extremely unreliable and buggy. After years of fighting with it, we recently moved my wife’s email from Gmail to her own domain and FastMail, and we’ll never look back. 

Google: Software patents are bad, so we’re accumulating lots of them

Google is trying to fight legal battles in the press by arguing that they’re on the sensible side of software patents (the side that thinks they suck, effectively).

But they have a lot of their own software patents, of course, and they’ve placed a bid to buy Nortel’s:

But as things stand today, one of a company’s best defenses against [predatory patent] litigation is (ironically) to have a formidable patent portfolio, as this helps maintain your freedom to develop new products and services.

This is true: the best defense against a patent infringement suit is to find some way that the plaintiff is infringing on your patents and counter-sue, with the expectation that it’ll be settled relatively painlessly and cheaply.

This game, of course, is only winnable by a handful of very large companies. If Microsoft sues Google, Google can probably find a countersuit in their portfolio and force Microsoft to back down. But if Google or Microsoft sue Twitter, DropBox, Panic, or any other smaller software company that we all love, the small company will lose every time. In the patent wars, like most litigation, the one with the most money (and the most patents) almost always wins. In most cases, it’s not even worth trying to put up a defense.

Google is using this blog post to pre-spin their attempt to get a much larger patent portfolio so we don’t all accuse them of trying to accumulate too many patents, since that’s “evil”:

So after a lot of thought, we’ve decided to bid for Nortel’s patent portfolio in the company’s bankruptcy auction. … If successful, we hope this portfolio will not only create a disincentive for others to sue Google, but also help us, our partners and the open source community—which is integrally involved in projects like Android and Chrome—continue to innovate. In the absence of meaningful reform, we believe it’s the best long-term solution for Google, our users and our partners.

Sure. It’s in everyone’s best interest. Unless Google wants to sue you, or the vendor of a product you use, for patent infringement.

They won’t, because they Do No Evil™, right? But, as the industry sees (and collectively ignores) on a regular basis, Google’s “morals” — as much as a massive corporation with thousands of employees can embody behavioral standards — can be flexible when there’s a good business case.

Google’s not looking out for the public good, or “innovation”. Google’s looking out for Google. They have to.

Any other purchaser of these patents would probably be just as potentially problematic in the future. The U.S. patent system, especially for software, is truly dysfunctional and stifles far more innovation than it protects. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that they’re going to be “good” with their patents forever.

Review: Mobee Magic Charger

I love Apple’s Magic Mouse, but replacing the batteries every few weeks is slightly inconvenient. To minimize waste, I use low-self-discharge NiMH rechargeable batteries and a bulky Sony charger (functionally identical to Apple’s rechargeable kit, but big and ugly). But I thought it would be nice to just charge the mouse directly when I’m not using it, like the old Logitech wireless mice that I loved so much a decade ago.

The Mobee Magic Charger elegantly tries to do this:


(Update: I’ve now learned that the base is upside-down. Oops. I removed the comment about diagonal charging. The rest stands.)

…but fails, for two main reasons.

First, despite having a small, low-profile design that conveniently charges over USB (and therefore has no power brick and can plug into pretty much anything), it doesn’t work very well.

To use it, you need to replace the battery door and batteries (right) with Mobee’s all-in-one induction-rechargeable unit (left):

So there’s a minor annoyance: you need to keep the original battery door somewhere in case you ever want to stop using the Mobee.

A bigger problem, as you can see, is that they only had space for AAA-sized cells instead of the usual pair of AAs. The total runtime between charges, therefore, is far lower than using normal batteries. You can probably get a couple of solid days of use out of it, but you really need to remember to charge it very often.

The OS’ battery-level reporting isn’t accurate with it: the fully-charged Mobee pack reports as 46%, and it dies sometime between 18% and 29% (often, therefore, without warning).

Charging is slow. If it dies, you better just put it in the charger and go to bed. You’re done for the night. (I’ve had to swap my original door and batteries back into it a few times to continue working, defeating its purpose.)

There are also build-quality issues: most notably, it doesn’t quite fit properly. During use, it will regularly get dislodged for a second and disconnect from the computer.

But the other major flaw is that even if this worked perfectly, I don’t think I’d want to keep using it. Easily replaceable (and rechargeable) AA batteries are just more practical, even though I thought otherwise before buying the Mobee:

So, in practice, the Mobee isn’t more convenient, and because of its quality issues, I can’t recommend it.

To me, The Daily is a near perfect realization of exactly the idea that occurs to print editors every single time they get their hands on digital media for the first time, regardless of what the underlying technology might be: ‘Let’s make it just like what we know so well in print.’ As a result I found it sadly lifeless and lacking in urgency.

Khoi Vinh

Missing the point

The new Acer Touchbook is comical. You really have to see it (watch the video, especially):

Think of the Iconia Touchbook as a Windows PC for the iPad generation, for whom having to type on glass is a feature and not a flaw.

(via John Gruber)

It’s exactly what you’d expect from an unimaginative PC hardware company that completely misses the point of why people like the iPad: someone at Acer thought that this device would not only be usable (already a stretch), but that it would sell well enough to turn a profit.

Presumably, Acer’s management actually thought that, like the quote above from the review, iPad owners type on glass because we like the feeling or something.

When people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.

Austin Kleon

Facebook’s Open Compute Project

Facebook just released Open Compute Project, their now-public datacenter and server design, optimized for situations in which hundreds or thousands of servers are needed such as the biggest websites and web-hosting companies.

The hardware is somewhat similar to what Google revealed in 2009, but with a different approach to battery backups, and the complete release of the formal design documents so that anyone else could, theoretically, copy Facebook’s design and potentially improve it.

Nothing about Facebook’s design is particularly revolutionary to casual industry observers (except the impressive PSU efficiency). The much more interesting question is why they released this. It’s only going to be useful to a very small number of firms for the foreseeable future, and even then, it’s not as if anyone who wants these server or rack designs can just place an order — they’re just designs.

So why release it?

On a large scale like this — not a small open-source project by good-willed individuals — “opening” something is almost always an effort to commoditize it, leveling the playing field as much as possible and marginalizing competitive advantages that others might have had.

It’s usually in a business’ best interests to commoditize its complements. Microsoft commoditized PC hardware because its software needed a home. Companies that contribute heavily to open-source, such as modern-day IBM, commoditize software because they sell consulting and support services. Google commoditizes applications, platforms, and web technologies because it needs places to put its ads and people to see them. (Google also tries to commoditize anything required to get online: web browsers, DNS, and in some cases, even internet connectivity.) Apple commoditizes apps to make iPhones and iPads more attractive (and exclusive).

Nobody “opens” the parts of their business that make them money, maintain barriers to competitive entry, or otherwise provide significant competitive advantages. That’s why Android’s basic infrastructure is “open”, but all of Google’s important applications and services for it aren’t — Google doesn’t care about the platform and doesn’t want it to matter. Google’s effectively asserting that the basic parts of a modern OS — the parts that are open in Android — are all good enough, relatively similar, and no longer competitively meaningful. Nobody’s going to steal marketshare from Google by making a better kernel or windowing API on their competing smartphone platform, regardless of whether they borrowed any of Android’s “open” components or ideas derived from them. But Google’s applications and services are locked down, because those are vulnerable to competition, do provide competitive advantages, and are nowhere near being commoditized.

We can reasonably conclude from the Open Compute Project that Facebook isn’t trying to maintain a top-secret competitive advantage in hardware and datacenter design, and they’re not expecting anyone else to gain a meaningful, exclusive advantage by copying ideas from theirs and keeping the results secret.

But the benefits of commoditization in this area to Facebook are very small. They probably won’t get many meaningful improvement suggestions. Almost nobody is operating at this scale,1 but even if a bunch of other companies adopted their model, it doesn’t help Facebook much.

My best guess is that this is primarily for recruiting engineering talent. There’s no shortage of engineers, but there’s always a shortage of great ones, especially in Silicon Valley. Google has been a talent vacuum for a long time since it’s so appealing for most engineers to work there.2

With this move, I think Facebook is telling the geek world that they’re just as big and serious of a tech company as Google, and if you want to work on large-scale, interesting engineering challenges that affect hundreds of millions of people, you should work at Facebook.


  1. A nearby subject that could be very relevant to a lot more people is the software that Facebook is running. They’ve made many significant contributions to open-source server software, but recently, these contributions have slowed and they’ve seemingly been keeping a lot more of their efforts to themselves. 

  2. The cream-of-the-crop college graduates, highly fought over by the major tech employers, usually like sound of Google’s campus-like, all-inclusive, never-have-to-leave environment. I think I’d be miserable there, but that appeals to a lot of very smart people. 

People—myself included—frequently part with their money on the web, but only when it’s easy. If iTunes has taught us anything, it’s that easy beats free.

Mandy Brown: On the news

fan•boy |ˈfanˌboi|

noun

  1. informal derogatory: a term used to describe people who bought a product that competes with the one you bought, which is probably more popular than your choice, for reasons that you wish to discredit or diminish because you’re secretly afraid or upset that you made the wrong choice.

ORIGIN from fan + boy.

[RSS subscribers] Sorry for the duplicates

RSS subscribers may see the last bunch of items as “new” when they really aren’t. Sorry about that. It should be a one-time thing.

The Huffington Post lawsuit, explained

(The internet, circa 2008.)

Huffington Post: “Write for us, and we’ll give you ‘exposure’ on our popular site!”

Writers: “How much will you pay us?

HuffPo: “Nothing, but we’ll put your name on your posts, so you can become famous and make money from someone else someday!”

Most Writers: “Bye.”

The Other Writers: “Sounds great! We want to break into the industry!”

(Some time later…)

AOL: “We have more money than relevance! Here, HuffPo, take a bunch of the former and try to give us more of the latter.”

HuffPo: “Gladly!” (rolls in a pile of money)

The Other Writers: “We did all of that writing for free, and now that you made a bunch of money, we’re entitled to some of it!”

AOLHuffPo: “LOL!”

BlackBerry PlayBook review roundup

The reviews are in, and they’re surprisingly good.

Engadget:

Right now, the BlackBerry PlayBook is a tablet that will come close to satisfying those users who gravitate toward the first word in its name: BlackBerry.

Joshua Topolsky:

The PlayBook is a really solid device with a handsome and clean industrial design, a hefty set of specs, and a new operating system that shows tons of promise. […]

The worst part, however, is that I can’t think of a single reason to recommend this tablet over the iPad 2, or for that matter… the Xoom. And that’s what it really boils down to here; what is the compelling feature that will make buyers choose the PlayBook over something else?

David Pogue:

The PlayBook, then, is convenient, fast and coherently designed. But in its current half-baked form, it seems almost silly to try to assess it, let alone buy it.

Remember, the primary competition is an iPad — the same price, but much thinner, much bigger screen and a library of 300,000 apps. In that light, does it make sense to buy a fledgling tablet with no built-in e-mail or calendar, no cellular connection, no videochat, no Skype, no Notes app, no GPS app, no videochat, no Pandora radio and no Angry Birds?

MG Siegler:

Is the PlayBook comparable to the iPad? No. Between the (lack of) app support and the wonky web browsing, there’s just no way around that fact. But RIM was smart to make the PlayBook a completely different form factor and give it BlackBerry Bridge to appeal to corporate users. So in that regard, there could be significant interest in this device.

They all agree on the major points: very good hardware overall, awful power button, good battery life, rushed and unfinished software, horrible third-party apps, inexplicable requirement of having a BlackBerry smartphone to use email and calendar, but lots of promise for future improvements.

The appeal to corporate IT buyers is interesting. It’s certainly using RIM’s best market advantages: IT departments love being able to configure and lock down fleets of BlackBerries exactly as they want and deploy them to their Business People (the people you see putting their BlackBerry into their belt clips so they can take out the iPod Touches).

But the “tablet” market — which, so far, means the iPad market — seems to be more about getting away from the horrible computing environments that most people are forced to endure at work.

I commend RIM for making what looks like a pretty good first effort. (I admit that my expectations were set very low.) But the reason people buy iPads is because they see someone else’s, they try it, and it’s so fun and delightful that they stop thinking about the price, go to the nearest Apple store, and buy one.

So, for one thing, I don’t see a lot of corporate IT departments justifying the purchase of PlayBooks for their employees.

But there’s a bigger question that RIM, HP, and Android-tablet manufacturers all need to be asking themselves: What are they doing to make their tablets fun and delightful?

Why is it so hard to be a good domain registrar?

I recently moved all of my domains away from GoDaddy, because they’re terrible.1

After soliciting registrar recommendations on Twitter, it seemed like the most-liked registrars were Namecheap, Hover, and Gandi, in descending order.

Whenever you solicit product or service recommendations, you need to put the results in context: most people are going to recommend what they use, so choices with a lot of recommendations might just be the most popular, not necessarily the best. It’s more significant when a responder has actually used multiple choices and recommends one over the others.

But most people haven’t used more than one or two domain registrars, because of the answer this question by David Bressler:

Why do you think it’s so hard to be a good registrar?

Because there’s very little incentive to be.

The reason GoDaddy is so successful is because they’re usually the cheapest. And for geeks like us who host elsewhere and don’t need a lot of support, domain registrars don’t need to do very much — it’s a commodity business, so for most of us, we’ll go wherever’s cheapest.

After that initial sale, we’re strongly locked in:

So even if you aren’t crazy about your registrar, the lock-in effects are so strong that you’re very unlikely to ever switch away: it’s just easier to keep letting your domains auto-renew every year. This creates very little incentive for registrars to provide great service or invest much in their control panels and other after-purchase costs.

Since most buyers choose whatever’s cheapest and rarely reconsider their choice, GoDaddy wins most of the time, and they have no reason to treat their customers any better.

The biggest question I get asked when I mention that I’ve left GoDaddy is: For who?

From the recommendations for Namecheap, Hover, and Gandi, I chose Gandi because I wanted everything under one roof, and they were the only one of the three who could register my one .FM domain and also sold SSL certificates.

The transfers were fine… except I had a huge DNS outage on Marco.org because its DNS was hosted by GoDaddy, and Gandi wouldn’t prepopulate its DNS servers with its info before it arrived. Their support staff took two days to answer that question. And I broke my “all under one roof” requirement the other day by buying Instapaper’s SSL certificate from RapidSSL because my Gandi SSL certificate — which was supposed to be free with the transfer, but wasn’t, and I got tired of waiting and just paid for a standalone order — still hasn’t been issued after 6 days. (I emailed them this morning and asked them to just cancel the order at this point. No response yet.) And their web control panel, despite being a lot better than GoDaddy’s, isn’t great — it’s simply adequate, with common operations still requiring too many clicks and still showing a lot of little bugs and update lag. (I don’t know yet if any registrar has a great control panel.)

Over the years, with my own domains and various consulting clients’, I’ve used Register, GoDaddy, PairNIC, and Gandi. I wouldn’t really recommend any of them, but Gandi seems the least bad among them.

But next time I buy a new domain name, I’m buying it at Hover. And if it goes well, I’ll probably move all of my domains there. Someday.


  1. The elephant wasn’t the reason I moved away, but it was the final push that inspired me to leave them after years of wanting to.

    Oh, and you can’t delete a GoDaddy account. (Really makes you want to sign up, right?) But you can cancel all of your purchased products in it, remove all of your payment information, and change all required contact fields (email, mailing address, phone, etc.) to fake values. 

Speculation on an Amazon iPad competitor

I’d bet on Amazon releasing a true tablet, competing more directly with the iPad than the Kindle currently does, in the possibly-near future. Andy Ihnatko nailed it last month:

I don’t know that they’re doing this. But I do know that Amazon has all of the required pieces in place and that they — not Google, not Motorola, not HP, RIM, Samsung, or any other tech company who’s shoved their CEO in front of a press audience in the past year with a shaky tablet prototype and an even shakier list of things he’s allowed to say about it — are clearly in the best position to challenge Apple and the iPad.

I don’t know why it has taken most of us this long to figure this out, but it makes a lot of sense.

Add this week’s ad-subsidized Kindle, and there’s another dot to connect. Think of it not as a strange way to achieve a $25 price cut, but as a prototype to test and develop what’s intended to be a much larger ad-subsidy system.

Picture this:

It would certainly make things interesting.

And it would explain why Amazon’s seemingly ignoring the in-app-purchase requirement for the iOS Kindle app. I bet they’re in a real or implied game of chicken with Apple:

Apple: “Bend over for our IAP rules in the Kindle app.”
Amazon: “No. Pull it from the Store, we dare you.”

A lot of people use the Kindle iOS app. Imagine if Apple pulls it from the App Store, and Amazon inconveniently launches a $199 iPad alternative that includes it and more.

In the long run, it would probably be great for Apple: iBooks would become the only widely used commercial-ebook reader on the platform, and iOS devices have such a massive installed base that being the exclusive vendor would give Apple a huge advantage when negotiating with publishers to be in the iBookstore. Amazon knows this.

But it would cause a pretty big short-term headache for Apple that, if there’s a new and very inexpensive tablet alternative from Amazon, could pose a credible (although almost certainly not fatal) threat to the iPad’s marketshare. And Apple knows this.

I suspect the Kindle app will continue being mysteriously and indefinitely exempted from the in-app-purchase rules.

Update: I don’t mean to say that Amazon is artificially delaying or holding back a tablet release to keep Apple from booting Kindle.app — rather, I think the Amazon tablet, if it exists, is coming out on its own schedule regardless. But its presumed near-future existence makes the near term a bad time for Apple to give owners of a lot of Kindle e-books a reason to look around for iPad alternatives. The most likely outcome, therefore, is that the Kindle app will continue to be permitted on iOS, regardless of its compliance with IAP rules, even if an Amazon tablet launches in the future.

The often-rumored Apple HDTV

Rumors and reports are, once again, circulating about Apple releasing an HDTV:

Analyst Brian White with Ticonderoga Securities has been at a China electronics trade show this week, and said in a note to investors that he picked up “data points” that point toward a “Smart TV” launch by Apple, possibly by the end of the year.

“Our research suggests this Smart TV would go well beyond the miniature $99 second-generation Apple TV that the company released last fall and provide a full-blown TV product for consumers,” White said.

He went on to say that although Apple has long been projected by company watchers to enter the HDTV market, the Mac maker now appears to be “moving down this path at a faster pace than the market expected.”

I’m wrong a lot whenever I speak in absolutes about Apple’s future plans, but I don’t think they’ll ever release a TV.

One reason is that TVs are an extremely competitive, commoditized market with very slim margins and most purchasing decisions going to whoever has the most features. You can draw some parallels to markets that Apple’s doing well in, like smartphones and computers, but Apple has chosen only to serve the high end of those markets. How big is the high end of the TV market? How many people are willing to spend a significant premium over the competition for a TV?

It causes practical problems, too: TVs usually require large warehouses and very large retail display areas, which Apple’s retail stores aren’t ideal for. And large TVs usually require in-home service, which Apple doesn’t offer for any other products.

They could get over those problems. They’re inconvenient and limiting, but not fatal.

A bigger problem is that Apple prefers to offer fully integrated products, but a modern TV is just one component in a mess of electronics and service providers, most of which suck. Apple doesn’t want their beautiful, it-just-works TV to need to interact with Onkyo’s 7.1 HDMI-switching receiver, Sony’s 3D Blu-ray player, Microsoft’s game system, Comcast’s awful Scientific Atlanta HD DVR, Canon’s newest camcorder, the photos on your point-and-shoot’s SDHC card, and your Logitech universal remote. (The need for TVs to have a more complex remote than the Apple TV might be fatal alone.)

The Apple TV, as a single-featured set-top box with one take-it-or-leave-it output, avoids all of those complexities and delivers one Apple integrated experience — iTunes — to your TV. That’s it. Single-purpose, done well.

But the biggest problem that I suspect will keep Apple out of the TV business forever is much more basic:

How often do people buy new TVs?

Apple’s primary business is selling computing devices and related hardware, with healthy margins and tightly integrated experiences, to customers who generally replace them with the newest models every 1-3 years.

There’s no place for them in the TV market, and they’re content (and smart) to stay out of it.

Explaining your job

When you tell people what you do for a living, do you use the same language that they would use if they were describing it to someone else?

Discrepancies usually arise if your title is too specific or technical for most people to know or remember what it is, and you haven’t given a simple enough version for people outside of your field to understand. But often, it’s because your job title is a euphemism.

Sometimes, this is because the job isn’t very desirable, even if it’s a respectable and honest job. “Waste manager” and “sanitation engineer” sound better than “garbage man”.

But it could also be that your job is less important, less respected, or less ethical than you’d like to think. For instance, someone might say they’re in “direct marketing”, but most people would explain that as “junk mail” or “telemarketing”.

When people ask me what I do, I say, “I make an iPhone app.” They understand immediately, and explain it to others as, “He makes an iPhone app.” I never forget how fortunate I am that I can be proud of what I do.

If you had to explain your job the way other people do, would you be ashamed of what you do, or would you be proud?

If you can’t be proud of your real job title, maybe it’s time for a change.

My favorite portable headphones

Last year, I happily switched my portable headphones of choice1 to the Sennheiser PX 200-II, which I liked in every way except for the big, heavy volume-control module permanently attached in the middle of the cord:

The volume-control module is just heavy enough to make the cord dangle and swing around uncomfortably while walking unless it’s clipped down, and it’s not quite far enough from the top for me to be able to clip it to the rim of a pants pocket, so I need to clip it awkwardly to the bottom of my shirt instead.

For headphones intended for use while walking, among other activities, this is a major oversight. It’s almost annoying enough to make me return the PX 200-II and look for a better model, but I don’t think I’d find one. I wish Sennheiser just offered these with a normal cable sans volume control.

I never stopped being annoyed by that volume-control module. And when the clip snapped off, making it completely unusable, I didn’t even seek a replacement pair from Sennheiser — I didn’t want one.

Soon afterward, after my brief failed fling with the B&W P5, Sennheiser made the perfect portable headphones for me: the PX 200-IIi. (The “i” on the end is the important part.)

It’s just like the 200-II, but Sennheiser replaced the bulky volume-control blob with a tiny, weightless iPhone-clicker module. (It’s just like the clicker on the iPhone earbuds: volume-up/down buttons, play/pause/next/previous center button, microphone for calls.)


(Images from HeadRoom. Note the different volume-control blobs in the cords.)

I’ve been using these everywhere I walk for a few months, and they’ve held up perfectly. They sound better than almost all other headphones in this size class, and they fold up nicely to fit into most jacket pockets and small bags.

And they’re the first headphones I like that have the iPhone-clicker module, so for the first time ever, I’m able to use it. (It’s great. I know, welcome to 2007.)

Highly recommended. Buy the PX 200-IIi on Amazon and I’ll get a small commission.

(And for not-very-portable use, like playing music in an open office so you can work and block out background noise, I still recommend my favorite headphones: the Sennheiser 280 Pro. My original pair from 2005 is still going strong despite being worn for many hours a day on average.)


  1. I wish I could comfortably wear earbuds or canalphones. I’ve tried. I’m just not compatible with them. So all of my headphones are the traditional type: supra- and circum-aural. 

News.me and its close relatives

The New York Times and Betaworks announced News.me today.1

Its iPad app appears to resemble Flipboard and Zite, but with a different approach to sourcing the content:

News.me costs $1/week or $35/year with an in-app-purchase subscription, like The Daily.

It also has a paying-publishers mechanism similar to Readability’s, but it only pays2 a whitelisted set of publishers (presumably with whom deals are in place), and only content from those publishers is “reformatted” (using Readability?) in the app. From the FAQ:

While the News.me browser can provide access to just about any web site, the product provides the best reading experience with content from publishers who have licensed News.me to reformat their content for the iPad. News.me pays those publishers for the use of their content, and it recoups those payments through the subscription fee.

It’s an interesting service, especially given its big-name backers. More than anything, I’m curious to see if it will succeed.

If it’s seen primarily as a competitor to Flipboard — which is free — it will be difficult to convince a large number of people to pay for it. News.me will need to be a lot better, or significantly different in everyday usage. (I haven’t used it yet, so I don’t know how different it is.)

And Flipboard is well-equipped for competition, with $50 million in new funding, 32 employees (and growing), a large and devoted userbase, and none of the legacy political or bureaucratic baggage that the major publishers involved with News.me need to bear. (Although I bet we won’t be seeing a New York Times section in Flipboard.)

The best part, to me — except the Instapaper integration in all of these, of course — is that this is a brand new market, created entirely by the iPad, that significantly benefits everyone involved: readers can easily find more content from a wider variety of publishers, publishers get more readers and a potential alternative to advertising revenue, and the market is so large that there’s plenty of space for many services to successfully connect them.


  1. The iPad app isn’t expected to appear on the App Store until tomorrow. This announcement was probably poorly timed: when I saw the headline, I immediately searched for it on the App Store and found nothing. 

  2. There’s no mention of how much of the subscription price is going to the publishers. Readability pays out 70%. News.me’s payout is presumably lower, since Apple takes 30% up front before News.me has covered any of their own costs. 

Amazon EC2 suffers major downtime

A large portion of Amazon’s EC2 cloud-computing service is having big problems today, causing downtime for a lot of popular websites that rely on it. As of now, it’s been intermittent or down for almost 7 hours. (Status.)

It might be easy to say, “Don’t host on EC2 because things like this happen.” But there’s no such thing as perfect uptime.

Rather than dwelling on specific failures, which all hosts and platforms will have, you should ensure that you have a viable contingency plan should you need to change hosts.

If you’re hosting your service (or a nontrivial portion of it) on EC2 or other managed cloud services, how easy is it to move elsewhere? How orthogonal is your host to your service? If your cloud service suddenly shut down and you could no longer use it, how much downtime or data loss would you suffer before restoring full service?

Super Stickman Golf for iPad

The iPad really shines as a casual gaming platform, and I’m a sucker for 2D games and Scorched-Earth-style (Worms-style, for the younger crowd, or Angry-Birds-style, for normal people) artillery games.

So it’s not a huge surprise that I love Super Stickman Golf, which is essentially simple 2D golf on Worms-style terrain. (It’s universal for iPhone and iPad, but I’ve only played it on iPad so far.)


“I’ll go to sleep in a minute. Let me just finish one more stick-golf course.”

There are a lot of courses, and I haven’t yet hit a point where the difficulty progressed too quickly and became frustrating. It’s perfectly ramped to keep me wanting to play more.


This hole is a dick.

Everyone who has seen me play this game so far has immediately bought it for themselves.


“Shit.”

I’ve been playing for days, but I’ve only played about half of the courses so far. And I haven’t even tried the multiplayer yet. It’s a lot of game for a dollar.

Recommended.

Privacy and incentives

The reason everyone’s up in arms about the iPhone’s location database, I think, isn’t that the data is particularly incriminating or embarrassing for most people. Rather, we’ve simply been reminded quite how much of our lives these convenient pocket computers are privy to.

People would be similarly freaked out, if not more so, if they saw how much Facebook and Google know about them. But there are two major differences.

Most of what your iPhone knows about you is stored on your iPhone — a device in your physical possession that you can quickly wipe locally or remotely at any time — and, as far as we know, is not transmitted to Apple or anyone else. To access your private data, a snoop or government would need physical access to your phone.

Web services store the data themselves, outside of your control, and can keep it forever. They can access your “private” data whenever they want, and they can aggregate everyone else’s data to deduce even more about you (and everyone else) than what you thought they knew. A security breach — or a lucrative business deal — can expose the private data of thousands or millions of people at once, and law enforcement agencies can usually get whatever information they want extremely easily because it’s not worth most services’ time or money to argue with them.

The other major difference is incentive. Apple makes money selling people devices. With the exception of iAd, which seems like a very minor part of their business (that isn’t doing very well), they can’t gain much by collecting, storing, or selling your data.

Google, Facebook, and most other web services make money overwhelmingly from advertising. Advertising can be far more lucrative when it’s targeted well, so there’s a huge incentive for these services to collect as much data about you as possible, store it forever, and indirectly sell it to advertisers by selling targeted services and “eyeballs” to them.

Apple needs to keep making devices that people want to buy, and they have historically shown great respect for their customers’ privacy.

Advertising-backed web services must get large numbers of users and collect as much data about them as possible to add value for their customers, the advertisers.

So it’s easy for me to believe the likely explanation that this location database is simply a cache that’s never culled due to an oversight or bug, and it’s frustrating that so few people put nearly this much scrutiny on the web services that they’re using every day.

The iOS weather-app market

I’ve never loved a weather app on my iPhone or iPad. I like my favorite one, My-Cast Weather Radar, but only slightly more than Apple’s built-in Weather app. And it’s iPhone-only — I’ve never found an iPad weather app that I liked.

Ben Brooks just reviewed a bunch of iPhone weather apps, liked My-Cast the most, and concluded:

The main problem with weather apps is that there are too many and 99% of them suck. That means finding the gems, the useable ones, is incredibly difficult and often expensive. […] Most apps try to add too much eye candy, instead of thinking about what the users of the app really need and want to see.

I’ve thought about the weather market a lot because it’s one of the few iOS-app markets that I’ve strongly considered entering. Over a year ago, Craig Hockenberry and I discussed a collaboration to make exactly the sort of weather app we wanted, but then the iPad happened and we both became too busy. Since then, we decided to abandon the project because it’s just too difficult of a market to succeed in.

The potential market is huge: almost everyone checks the weather occasionally. It’s even bigger on iPad, since Apple doesn’t provide a built-in weather app. But it’s also extremely competitive, with established TV networks and big-name services taking most of it, and a lot of smaller developers fighting over the rest. But none of them offered the app that we wanted.

Most apps are targeted at either of two extremes: extremely simplistic, lacking the information we sometimes want, or too information-dense, full of numbers and measurements that weather geeks want but casual people like us don’t care about.

We wanted, essentially, a “plus” version of Apple’s Weather app, with Apple’s aesthetic style and minimal presentation but with slightly more information available whenever it’s relevant. For instance, a radar map is nice, but only when precipitation is imminent. Approximate chance-of-rain estimates are helpful when they’re non-zero, but they don’t need to be precise (especially since they’re predictions that often end up being wrong) — a graphic would do instead of a percentage. It’s relevant whether the precipitation is expected early or late in the day, but we don’t need hourly forecasts (since, again, they’re often wrong). I’d like to know if it’s going to be noticeably humid or dry, but only if that humidity level is unusual for the season and region. I care if it’s windy, but I don’t care which direction it’s coming from or how fast it’s blowing. And, since I’m not an airplane pilot, I only care about fog and low visibility if it’s going to be noticeable when driving a car.

The problem here is similar to any other general app category with a lot of potential for customer dissatisfaction, like to-do lists and notepads: the features that I care about aren’t going to perfectly match the features that you, or anyone else, will care about. I could make my perfect weather app, but very few others would be satisfied with it. (I bet even Craig and I would have disagreed on many of the details.)

I’d still love for someone else to make our perfect Apple-Weather-Plus app, but I don’t think it will ever be exactly what I want. But there’s not enough time in life to make exactly what I want in every category, so I’ll probably yield this one to a tentative joint victory between Apple and My-Cast, with neither of them being such a great fit that I could delete the other one.

Why Instapaper Free is taking an extended vacation

Last fall, I conducted an experiment: I quietly removed Instapaper Free from the App Store1 for three days, leaving only the full, $4.99 Instapaper app. Not only did sales increase incrementally, but nobody seemed to notice.

On March 12, knowing I was heading into very strong sales from the iPad 2’s launch, I pulled Free again, this time for a month. Again, nobody noticed, and sales increased (although it’s hard to say which portion of the increase, if any, is attributable to Free’s absence, since most of it is from the iPad 2’s launch).

This break went so well that I pushed the return date back by another month. I may keep it out indefinitely, effectively discontinuing Instapaper Free.

Here’s why:

Background

Bad economics

Maintaining a second configuration of the app incurs direct, significant costs in development and support. Furthermore, the Instapaper web service that powers the app costs a good amount of money and time to operate every month. So Free users have a direct cost to me.

On the website, this cost is defrayed by ads from The Deck, but people using the iOS app might never visit the website. So Instapaper Free has an ad from The Deck in its list screen. It’s unintrusive, its advertisers are respectable, and it pays well. It’s the best ad unit I could ask for.

But it still makes far less than paid-app sales — the increase in app sales with Free’s absence exceeds this many times over. The math to explain this is simple: most Free users won’t give me anywhere near $3.50 worth of ad impressions.3

Undesirable customers

Instapaper Free always had worse reviews in iTunes than the paid app. Part of this is that the paid app was better, of course, but a lot of the Free reviews were completely unreasonable.

Only people who buy the paid app — and therefore have no problem paying $5 for an app — can post reviews for it. That filters out a lot of the sorts of customers who will leave unreasonable, incomprehensible, or inflammatory reviews. (It also filters out many people likely to need a lot of support.)

I don’t need every customer. I’m primarily in the business of selling a product for money. How much effort do I really want to devote to satisfying people who are unable or extremely unlikely to pay for anything?

(This is also a major reason why I have no plans to enter the Android market.)

Low conversions

This is difficult to measure accurately, but from what I can infer from the server-side data and support emails, very few people ever upgraded from Free to the paid app. Nearly all paid-app customers went straight to it without stopping at Free along the way.

The most common reasoning I heard when I asked Free users why they hadn’t bought the paid app: Free was “good enough” for them. Some were “planning to upgrade” someday. (In practice, that day rarely comes.)

If I don’t have a free app for a long time, I’m certainly going to miss out on some potential long-term conversions. But how many, really, and what would it cost to chase them?

Image and product-design problems

If you have a free version of your app, that will be the only version many people will ever see. So, for the Free users, that app — that extremely limited app that lacks almost all of Instapaper’s best features — is what they think Instapaper is.

I was giving them a choice: Stick with this limited app, or upgrade to the paid version with all of these great features. But since they had never used those features, they didn’t know how much they wanted them.

So most Free users rationalized away the need because they didn’t want to spend the money: “I can put up with ads. I can only keep 10 articles. I don’t think I’ll need any of those other features.”

And choosing which features to put into Free has always been very difficult. If I give it too much, I risk wrecking sales of the paid app. If I give it too little, I further harm Instapaper’s image among all of these people.

I don’t think it’s a net positive for my mediocre free app to show up next to my great $4.99 app whenever anyone searches for Instapaper in the App Store.

Minimal demand

It’s important to reiterate how few people have noticed the Free app’s absence in the nearly two months that it’s been off the App Store. And almost nobody ever asked me for a free version on iPad, even though that’s half of my business.

When there’s no free option, and the only way to try an appealing app is to pay a small amount of money, people do. Not everyone will, but enough will.

I’m asking people who bought a $200-829 device (many of whom also pay monthly for data service) to take a $5 risk. People risk that much for a side-dish of mashed potatoes that might suck at a restaurant, or a tremendous milkshake at Starbucks that they’ll finish in 30 minutes, without much consideration. iPad and iPhone owners often risk $30-70 on a case that they might break, lose, or get bored with after a few months.

In an Apple store, it’s nearly impossible to spend less than $30 on anything. Apple’s stance is clear: “This is how much our stuff costs. If you don’t like our prices, that’s fine. We don’t need everyone to buy our stuff.”

That’s roughly the stance I’ve chosen to take. My app costs $5. I understand that not everyone will like my price, and that’s fine. I don’t need every iOS-device owner to buy my app — I’d do quite well even if only 1% of them did.4

Disclaimer (“That’s fine for Merlin…”)

If you’re a developer, you’re probably talking yourself out of making a move like this because you think Instapaper is a special case.

Every app is a special case.

Maybe you think I can only do this because Instapaper is already popular. But it built its popularity while charging “a lot” for an iPhone app from the start.

Maybe you think I can only do this because my blog is moderately popular among geeks like me. If so, I assure you that my blog’s audience is smaller than you think,5 and is extremely insignificant relative to the size of the iOS app market.

Maybe you think there aren’t enough people willing to pay $5 for an app with no free version. I used to think that, too. But I was wrong.

I’ve made a lot of assumptions in the app market over the last three years that turned out to be wrong. Most frequently, I underestimate demand, both for my product and for others.

I don’t know if I’ll remove Instapaper Free forever, and I don’t know if it’s going to be a good long-term idea, and I don’t know if you can apply any of this to your product.

The only way to figure any of this out is to experiment, and the best way to benefit the community is to share the results of such experiments. So that’s what I’m doing, and if you do anything similar, I’d love to read about it.


  1. Developers: You can pull an app from the store for any period of time you want and have it seamlessly return. Set its Availability Date to sometime in the future. Within hours, it will disappear from the Store, and it will reappear on the date you set. 

  2. I priced Instapaper at the highest level I thought could sell in reasonable volume in the App Store. When the App Store launched, that level was $9.99, but it quickly collapsed. I stayed firm, but it became clear to me by the next year that even I wouldn’t risk $9.99 on many apps, so I dropped it to what I guessed to be the most money I could charge for a lot of people to still impulse-buy it instead of “plan to maybe buy it someday”: $4.99. That worked, and that’s where I’ve held the price since then. 

  3. $3.50 is my cut of the $4.99 price after Apple takes its 30%. Even if the ad would yield a remarkable $5 CPM, it would take 700 views — launching the app nearly every day for two years — to match that. I’m sure some people would launch the Free app that frequently, but certainly nowhere near the majority. 

  4. If “only” 1% of current iOS-device owners bought Instapaper, I’d make about $5 million. I’d love to have 1% of the market. 

  5. Currently, I have about 19,000 RSS subscribers, and I’ve had an unusually good 370,000 pageviews in the last 30 days. That’s a lot compared to zero, but relative to other popular sites, it’s not much. 

What Safari’s “Reading List” in Lion means for Instapaper

Mac Rumors reports on a new Safari feature in Lion called Reading List:

Reading List lets you collect webpages and links for you to read later. To add the current page to your Reading List, click Add Page. You can also Shift-click a link to quickly add it to the list. To hide and show Reading List, click the Reading List icon (eyeglasses) in the bookmarks bar.

I’ve known about this for a little while (I’m not privy to the Lion betas since I only have the iOS developer membership, but friends have told me), and I’m not worried about it. It might even be a huge boost to my business if I’m doing my job well.

I talked a lot about the Reading List’s potential impact to Instapaper in last week’s podcast, from timestamp 21:48 to 30:37. But I know nobody listens to podcasts (or at least, nobody pays attention to podcasts) while browsing the web at a computer, so I’ll explain my thoughts here, too.

What’s an Instapaper competitor?

I’ve always considered Instapaper’s core appeal to be the combination of three pillar features:

  1. Saving articles to read later — timeshifting — like a DVR for the web.
  2. Synchronizing the reading list between computers and mobile devices.
  3. Presenting the articles in a stripped-down text format on those mobile devices for optimal reading on their screens.

If another product doesn’t implement all three, it’s not really an Instapaper competitor.

The first version: not a competitor

Assuming Reading List is activated in 10.7.0, which seems likely, I suspect that it won’t have much more than what we already know about: a “read later” reading list (pillar 1) and optionally viewing these links in the “Reader” text-optimized view that we already know from Safari 5 (the desktop version of pillar 3).

So far, it’s much more of a Readability competitor. (Safari Reader is based on Readability’s open-source code.) Without the mobile and sync components, it’s not really an alternative for most Instapaper customers.

The next version: maybe a competitor

It’s easy to assume that Apple will extend the Reading List feature and Reader text view to Mobile Safari in iOS, syncing it all via MobileMe or iCloud (whatever that turns out to be).

I wouldn’t necessarily assume that this is in the near future. Mobile Safari’s interface is packed full, especially on iPhone, and Apple adds to it very conservatively. They haven’t even added Reader to it, despite being nearly a year old, even though it would be far more useful on iOS than in desktop-Safari.

And Apple’s not known for liberally adding syncing features, or building web services particularly well. (That might change in the future. For many other reasons, I hope it does. But, as of today, it hasn’t.)

But it would be irresponsible for me to ignore the possibility that they will eventually implement these features in Mobile Safari and sync your reading list between your devices (pillar 2), maybe even as soon as iOS 5.

Likely long-term limitations

Assuming they do all three pillar features:

The RSS features in Safari and Mail are great examples: they’re so basic that they probably haven’t reduced the overall demand for RSS readers. (Although Google Reader has, but that’s a different article.)

And granted, “power users” aren’t the majority of the market. But as I said, I don’t need the majority of the market — it’s so huge that even 1% is enough to make a fortune.

The Starbucks effect

Starbucks practices extremely predatory site selection for their stores: they’ll intentionally move in right across the street from or immediately next door to independent coffee shops, in an unnecessarily aggressive effort to drive them all out of business.

It puts the bad ones out of business, but it actually helps the good ones:

“[Starbucks] just flat-out said, ‘If you don’t sell out to us, we’re going to surround your stores.’ And lo and behold, that’s what happened—and it was the best thing that ever happened to us.”

[…]

Soon after declining Starbucks’s buyout offer, Hyman received the expected news that the company was opening up next to one of his stores. But instead of panicking, he decided to call his friend Jim Stewart, founder of the Seattle’s Best Coffee chain, to find out what really happens when a Starbucks opens nearby. “You’re going to love it,” Stewart reported. “They’ll do all of your marketing for you, and your sales will soar.” The prediction came true: Each new Starbucks store created a local buzz, drawing new converts to the latte-drinking fold. When the lines at Starbucks grew beyond the point of reason, these converts started venturing out—and, Look! There was another coffeehouse right next-door! Hyman’s new neighbor boosted his sales so much that he decided to turn the tactic around and start targeting Starbucks. “We bought a Chinese restaurant right next to one of their stores and converted it, and by God, it was doing $1 million a year right away,” he said.

My biggest challenge isn’t winning over converts from my competitors: it’s explaining what Instapaper does and convincing people that they actually need it. Once they “get it”, they love it, but explaining its value in one quick, easy-to-understand, general-audience sentence is more difficult than you might imagine.

If Apple gets a bunch of Safari users — the browser that works best with Instapaper — to get into a “read later” workflow and see the value in such features, those users are prime potential Instapaper customers. And it gives me an easier way to explain it to them: “It’s like Safari’s Reading List, but better, in these ways.”

How much the Reading List affects Instapaper is up to Apple. If they give it as much attention as they’ve given Safari Reader so far — fairly little — it’s not going to have much of an effect at all. And if they build a large enough feature-set and backing service to make it a true competitor, they’re likely to create a lot of potential Instapaper demand.

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