Monthly Archives: December, 2012

What’s the Matter with Facebook?

The recent Snapchat vs Facebook Poke snafu is one of the great under the radar tech stories of the year. After witnessing an entire generation of teenagers sext text each other via Snapchat, without in turn having to sign over any information or data to the folks at Menlo Park, Facebook responded by proudly boasting of its carbon-copying of the app, which took only twelve days and featured some very hands on (and mouth on, apparently) contributions from Mark Zuckerberg himself. The app’s name even made reference to “poking,” the hipsterest, old schoolest, most useless feature of the platform.

Yet after only a few days, Poke has plummeted. Like the company’s similarly panic-induced Facebook Camera app (that panic having been induced by eventual Facebook subsidiary Instagram), its initial popularity seems to have worn off as users realized that it did not deviate much from the app(s) it copied and is basically just leveraging the massive Facebook user base. There obviously is nothing wrong with copying a competitor’s features. On one end of the spectrum, there’s early-80s Apple xeroxing the plans for a mouse-driven interface from…Xerox, and there’s Canonical forking the Debian Linux distribution to make the massively popular and intuitive Ubuntu. On the other end, there’s Microsoft trying to paper over the fatal flaws of Windows Vista by imitating the translucency of early OS X, and there’s Facebook trying to protect its turf from its rival social networks.

Social networks are odd. A successful social network often succeeds due to being an early mover or having a critical mass of users, not because it has the best software or coolest features. Myspace, an unsightly and self-described cesspool, bewilderingly overtook Google as the most visited webpage in 2006, and the similarly sloppy Friendster actually pioneered the entire craze. Facebook itself, with its seemingly unchanging blue/white interface, me-too ads, and buggy pre-Googlesque search engine, feels like a relic of the desktop computing era. Its Android app only recently got an influx of native code that brought its performance up to a reasonable speed, and its iPad app was only released this year. No one uses Facebook because of its zippy performance, clean UI, or beauty – they use it because everyone else uses it. If aesthetics and/or innovation mattered, for example, Google+ would be the epicenter of the Internet (although it is worth noting that well-designed networks like Path and Instagram have succeeded in part due to their aesthetics).

Accordingly, Facebook has never had much to fear from the likes of G+ et al unveiling a single killer new feature or design that would allegedly make Facebook seem instantly dated (it already is dated, and no one seems to care). For example, Facebook even copied the nifty way that G+ displays photos and likely burnished its popularity in the process. Rather, the real threat would be creating a new platform, no matter how inane or poorly designed, which could draw (young) users’ eyes away from their News Feed and in turn make Facebook feel in comparison to this new app like a desktop now feels in comparison to an iPad or a Chromebook. Early Instagram did this and now Snapchat has done it, too, by creating a new walled garden that doesn’t play well with Facebook. It should have been disconcerting to Facebook investors when Facebook’s only real response to the Instagram surge was to simply buy out the company, a maneuver which it unsuccessfully tried to repeat with Snapchat.

Facebook has sometimes been likened to the next Google, an assessment which never seemed to make much sense, even if one leaves aside the massive disparity in revenue at similiar stages of company maturity. Google succeeded in large part because it opened up the Web to discovery and then transformed that success into imaginative reinventions of email, cloud storage, and mobile software. By contrast, Facebook has succeeded by combating the open Web, by luring you into a highly regulated, controlled site in which it makes the rules. The advent of the App Store, with its sandboxed discrete apps, aided Facebook’s ascent, too, by cultivating its analogous walled garden approach. But walled gardens have their risks, risks not shared by the creation of something open-ended like Google Search or Linux-based Android. Chief among them is the obvious possibility of another walled garden stealing your users – and when it comes to social networks, user acquisition really is a zero-sum game most of the time (I’m excepting Twitter, which, by virtue of its sheer brevity, is really a different bird, one that doesn’t really compete with any other), with every photo, message and status update migrating from one platform to another. Friendster gave way to Myspace, Myspace to Facebook, and Facebook to nothing, at least not yet.

So is Snapchat the network that finally begins Facebook’s decline? It’s unlikely. Snapchat is not a broad social experience and is more akin to flirting at a bar or mixer. But the waves it has created in the social network community should remove any doubt that social networking is a fickle, volatile sector driven less by software ingenuity than by the whims of young users. It should also be worrying that Facebook, despite its massive cash reserves and abundance of engineering talent, cannot find time to do anything more exciting that clone a sexting app, when the likes of Apple and Google (companies often mentioned in the same breath as Facebook) are pushing us into new computing paradigms. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg has something else up his sleeve. For the sake of high-profile tech innovation, I hope he does.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Samsung Chromebook

For a few weeks now, I have been using an ARM Samsung Chromebook as my primary PC. Initially, I was skeptical that it could fulfill all of my needs. After all, it’s a $250 machine made of plastic and equipped with Google’s minimalist Chrome OS. But its overall capability has surprised me, and it has given me what I feel like is a glimpse of a truly futuristic casual computing experience.

Chrome OS is exactly what it sounds like – an operating system based on Google’s popular Chrome browser. Technically, it’s a Linux distribution that features only one native app, the titular browser which is integrated with a file manager and a media players. All of its “apps,” downloaded from the Chrome Web Store, run in the browser as Web applications.

Google has guided its OEM partners in the design of Chromebook and Chromebox devices, but until this year both parties struggled to create a cohesive software/hardware experience. Older Chromebooks were either test-grade machines or Intel-based power hogs whose old school internals seemed ill-fitted to their quirky software. This new Samsung device hits a sweet spot, however. It’s too bad that the term “Zenbook” is used to market an Asus ultrabook, since this Chromebook is the most Zen laptop I have ever used. It runs on a low-power ARM chip related to the Exynos line of processors that power the Galaxy Note II and the Nexus 10. It runs completely silently, emits no heat, has no fan (Apple III-era Steve Jobs would be proud) and barely has a hard drive in the form of its modest 16GB SSD. But it does one thing extremely well – access the Internet.

Samsung obviously made a huge number of compromises so that they could ship such a cheap PC. They made the right ones, by ditching Intel, massive hard drives, glossy/touch screens and metal (the chassis is plastic). At the same time, the Chromebook makes the most of its shoestring budget. The plastic chassis is painted to look like aluminum, an imitation that it pulls off nicely, especially from a distance. The redeemable offer for two years of free extra Google Drive storage (100 GB) similarly makes up for its slight onboard storage. The mobile ARM chip (which at one point confused Yahoo! into thinking I was accessing the site from a phone) doesn’t scream like an Ivy Bridge processor, but it keeps the whole package completely silent and cool.

Most importantly, this sleek Chromebook highlights something that many users feel but perhaps do not mention aloud: that their laptops are increasingly just doorstops whenever they aren’t connected to the Internet. The latest release of OS X is so iCloud-intensive so as to discourage almost any offline work – even its iWork suite boasts, as its killer feature, its ability to keep documents in iCloud. Similarly, Windows 8 provides Metro/Modern UI-optimized apps thru its new app store only. Rather than keep on with the illusion of a somewhat-usable offline device that nevertheless should be connected to the Internet, Chrome OS simply surrenders to the Internet, running all of its functionality thru the browser.  It’s simple, honest, fast and surprisingly robust, and it will change your life.

Word is that Google itself is working on a touchscreen Chromebook, which would further integrate mobile sensibilities into the laptop PC space. This convergence has long seemed inevitable, and we’ve seen steps in that direction, even if some of them have seemed odd, such as Apple’s introduction of skeuomorphic iOS mainstays like Notes and Game Center to the Mac. Google’s seemingly niche, hobbylike Chromebook project may never be a smash success, but I think it achieves an important end. Specifically, it succeeds in radically reinventing the laptop even after 30 years of iterative change, and it demonstrates that, with a few tweaks, “mobile” devices can operate much like vastly improved and simplified versions of the productivity devices we’ve been using for decades.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Company Culture: It Can’t Be Faked

The end of the year, and the nebulous “holiday” season, is a dependable catalyst for a number of potentially socially awkward formalities – company parties, “fun” activities and gift exchanges, most notably. Mileage for these events may vary wildly depending on the given company’s culture. Now, “culture” is an unusual word, and one of the hardest to define in English, but I think Raymond Williams was right in saying that culture is ordinary.

Culture is what is done every day. For a company, this can mean as little as the shared attitude that employees bring to solving problems that affect all of them, or the cooperative spirit that almost imperceptibly guides their work. Culture isn’t even about being the same location. It definitely isn’t about having certain props in your offices or scheduling formalities (outings, parties, brainstorming meetings) out of a sense of obligation. Of course, colocation and events planning aren’t necessarily bad – in fact, they’re excellent outlets for companies that have already built a strong culture, but they aren’t necessarily the best catalysts for creating that type of culture. Having a joyful party won’t turn a moribund operation into a “fun” company that gets work done efficiently and even casually. That transformation – or even just “formation,” since it can be hard to wrest a company off of its current path without drastic changes in personnel – has to start somewhere else.

In fact, attempts to form company culture via outlets that really have nothing to do with real operations or works can have awkward results. They can make employees feel, initially, like the company is actually one that values a relaxed yet professional atmosphere, yet then shatter their illusions and expectations when next Monday’s trip into the office is a reversion to the same meetings-heavy, distraction-fraught processes. A company that has never truly had fun in solving a tough problem or seeing great employees push out great products (these really should be the goals from day one) may, for example, have some odd ideas about how to instill a “fun” culture after the fact. That company may think that aimless office-to-office interruptions and visitations – seemingly indicative of a casual atmosphere – are a way of creating “fun.” I’ve seen it done, and what it actually does is decrease productivity, since interruptions are anathema to getting work finished.

In these cases, culture isn’t being improved because the actual processes of work are either not being addressed or are being changed in an adverse way. Instead, the best ways to improve culture (if you’re in a situation in which it feels like a change is merited) are:

1. Observe your employees. Walk around the office or talk to them one on one. Don’t think of them as subordinates or someone “in a different division,” i.e. someone who doesn’t affect you. It’s easy to look at, for example, the support staff as employees who have no bearing on what “really” gets done, but nothing could be less true – it’s important for product managers and executives to know what is happening on the front lines. See how they speak on behalf on the company and what they think the company stands for – it may surprise you, and in turn give you inroads to make the company stand for something different and better.

2. Be truly democratic. In small organizations, there exists a golden opportunity to let each employee approach her work in her own optimal way. This is real democracy: each employee in your startup (given that they are good employees who have been carefully hired, of course) voting to help the whole company by contributing in the best way she knows possible. There’s opportunity for coaching, dialogue and counsel, too, but this individualistic spirit is at the heart of all startups, really – if it weren’t, no one would have been crazy enough to start it. By contrast, “fake” democracy is democracy done via overlong/overlarge meetings, in which no one can focus after the first seven minutes, thoughtful criticism is suppressed and weak (albeit outspoken) feedback elevated above all else. Keep your meetings short, if you have them, and trust your employees when you can.

3. Aim for the right kind of culture. This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. Aim for a productive culture above all else, a culture in which projects move forward, updates are timely and employees feel valued. A culture of fun will, in many cases, arise naturally from a culture of productivity. After all, fun isn’t about boredom or stagnation – it’s about activity and conversation, both instigators and byproducts of productive work. You don’t have to aim for fun at the outset, in other words; fun will take care of itself, if you have a vision that makes sense and a team that is willing to chip in and make it happen.

-The ScreenGrab Team