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Mapping Session results: Next-generation user interface November 20, 2012

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At the GigaOM RoadMap conference, GigaOM Research hosted a Mapping Session on “Next-generation UIs: What comes after Siri?” We wanted to take the pulse of conference attendees on what they thought were the market forces driving user interface innovation, and whether post-Jobs Apple would remain at the forefront.

GigaOM Research analysts David Coleman and Lynn Langit started the session with some slides that showed examples highlighting some of the themes of the discussion. (Those slides are posted on Slideshare; the link is at the end of this post.)

  • Even when thinking of UIs for enterprise applications, it’s useful to look to what can be learned from the gaming industry, which tends to set the standard for information and feedback, as well as deliver an experience that trains users in the application itself.
  • Heads-up displays aren’t just for the military or Google science projects, but commercially available goggles don’t integrate much in the way of input or user control.
  • Gesture-based input is mainstream already, but motion-based controls are just starting starting to emerge beyond gaming.
  • Visualization of data requires more than a little art – and a lot of science.
  • Audio can be used for immersive experiences as well as alerts and aural cueing.

Why does Siri disappoint?

The feed-based UIs common in social media applications like Facebook and Twitter have already made their mark on enterprise computing, Pinterest-style image maps are showing up everywhere,  and the latest “new new thing” is Apple’s Siri. Siri has been something of a bust – Apple overset expectations for a mobile personal concierge. The panelists concluded Siri was over-ambitious in its attempt to deliver a universal conversational UI. Siri is far more than voice input. It adds voice output, context-based search of multiple sources, and applications command.

Attempting to deliver a user experience that depended on solving multiple technology “grand challenge” problems (speech recognition, speech generation, contextual search) was just too much to ask, even for Apple. GigaOM analyst George Gilbert observed that trying to force that combination into handling all the various tasks Apple was promising, rather than taking a more pragmatic, structured approach (like Google’s info cards or IBM’s single-function models), is the main reason we haven’t seen a Siri API for third-party application integration yet.

Disruption Vectors driving user interface evolution

We often use Mapping Sessions to lay the groundwork for deeper analysis on emerging markets where we apply our Sector RoadMap approach. We’ve done Sector RoadMap reports on categories like the Platform as a Service market and work media tools. Sector RoadMaps are collaborative research efforts that match up competitors’ abilities to align with what we call Disruption Vectors, i.e., the key technology or market forces that drive emerging markets. Smart vendors can ride Disruption Vectors to gains in revenue or market share.

Siri’s failure to deliver on its promise led the Mapping Session participants towards the conclusion that we’ll be seeing UI innovation on an app by app, or task by task basis. We probably won’t see a single technology, approach, or metaphor apply broadly in different contexts such as enterprise applications, in-vehicle command and control systems, or home entertainment. That doesn’t bode well for Microsoft’s efforts to apply Windows 8 conventions across phone, desktop, tablet, and console. Similarly, the graphic above illustrates the consensus of the session participants as to the relative importance of Disruption Vectors in user interface innovation. Three different market forces seem to have equal weight, instead of a single dominating source.

  • Input technologies include voice and motion – and neural connections – but also draw from the proliferation of sensors and the Internet of Things. They’ll bring valuable context to applications to feed the algorithmic analysis behind feedback and suggestions.
  • Output. Besides the visual display of information, whether in augmented reality or decision support dashboards, UI innovation will come from companies that exploit suggestions and recommendations in a contextually appropriate manner to cut through clutter and accommodate small displays.
  • Big Data technologies lie behind both of the above. Cloud-based data storage and access, along with APIs for apps to get at it, will dramatically reduce the effort of working across data silos, even as sensors and social media produce ever greater volumes of unstructured data. Cleaning and structuring that data is a huge opportunity for third party providers.

Panelists and participants suggested other forces as potential UI Disruption Vectors, but none of them drove as much discussion. Automobiles aren’t the only place where passive participation while multitasking is a key factor in UI design. The file-and-folder metaphor is aging, and inappropriate for many entertainment or collaboration tasks, yet participants didn’t see timelines or other schemes as obvious successors. Session participants agreed that new devices and twin- or multi-screen applications are driving UI development, if not completely disrupting the space. And while there’s a tension between designing for business versus consumer functions, consumerized IT trends are already in play, and collaborative interfaces might be the bigger trend.

Feedback

We welcome your feedback on these trends, and on what might accelerate the development of user interface technologies. Have we missed or mis-emphasized anything that you believe will be key to driving the sector over the next 12 to 24 months? Continue the discussion by leaving a comment below.

Mapping Session panelists

  • David Coleman – Founder and Managing Director, Collaborative Strategies and Analyst, GigaOM Research
  • Larry Cornett – Founder, Brilliant Forge and Analyst, GigaOM Research
  • George Gilbert – Principal, TechAlpha Partners and Analyst, GigaOM Research
  • Lynn Langit – Founder and Consultant, Lynn Langit and Analyst, GigaOM Research
  • David Card – Vice President, GigaOM Research
The slide deck we used to drive the conversation can be seen below, and it is available for download through SlideShare.
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Aol’s Alto shows some UI innovation October 22, 2012

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Last week, Aol started showing off Alto, a new spin on email that’s all about design in the service of ease of use. Back in the day, Aol introduced millions of consumers to email and to the web, but Alto looks very modern in a Pinterest-y, tablet-friendly way. Alto is more than just a pretty face, though, and it’s worth evaluating the user interface techniques that it employs. Good developers copy; great ones steal, regardless of source.

Although early previewers call it an app, Alto is a cloud-based service that acts as a front end for a user’s existing consumer IMAP email accounts. Aol positions Alto against Gmail in particular. Alto’s primary differentiation is a very visual, uncluttered UI that auto-sorts email in real time into “stacks” based on predefined categories like retailers, photos, attachments, daily deals, and social notifications. Users can create their own stacks pretty easily, but as Google Circles have shown us, even simple drag-and-drop group creation is too much work for most consumers.

Tradeoffs in power versus ease

From the descriptions I’ve read of Alto, it seems that once messages are assigned to stacks – defined by topic, sender, and Alto’s interpretations – it stays in that stack and only in that stack, and similar messages will go there, too. Aol’s objective was to simplify and unclutter an inbox; it says its analysis shows that most users don’t bother with folders and routing rules. I’m sure that’s true. While I admire the ability to apply more than one label to a message in Gmail – something that’s hard to do with folders – I expect I’m a more obsessive user than most.

Innovating in UI is a tricky balance of introducing the new without alienating the old, especially when working with existing applications and user behavior. And many user interfaces can’t bridge the gap between easy-to-learn and practical-to-use. Alto looks like it’s done a fair job on this balancing and bridging. Alto is also on-trend in its use of metadata and visual cueing to add context. And although it doesn’t look like Twitter, Facebook, or Yammer, it’s essentially delivering a real-time feed.

Missing out on unified communications

While it can pull in and present multiple email accounts at once, Alto falls short as a unified communications hub. Aol’s traditional email integrates instant messaging – something that’s a future feature for Alto – and Alto only makes the slightest nod to social media by sorting social update email messages. It doesn’t seem to offer anything in the way of persona or identity management.

Alto seems to have achieved its design objectives of favoring ease of use over power for general users. But it’s hard to imagine it being a serious contender in unified communications. This version of Alto doesn’t have any apparent business model: Aol execs hint at ads near the retail stack or premium services, but Alto doesn’t even feature portal content aggregation to drive user traffic. Smart developers should study Alto and evaluate their own tradeoffs between function and design. Aol has made some nice compromises in Alto, though it’s hardly a new paradigm.

The GigaOM RoadMap event is all about design, UI, and connectivity. It’s scheduled for November 5 in San Francisco, and I’ll be moderating a breakout Mapping Session on next-generation user interfaces. I hope to see you there.

Rating Google glasses for UI innovation April 9, 2012

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Last week, when Google released a concept video on how augmented reality glasses might work, it caused reactions ranging from skepticism to premature predictions of market mayhem. And parodies; lots of parodies. Should the industry take “Project Glass” seriously? Does Google have a truly disruptive user interface technology in its labs?

Certainly Google must overcome major technology and design barriers before bringing even a prototype to market. If any products show up this year – and Google’s not even hinting at how they might roll out – they’ll probably resemble location-based overlays of info snippets and alerts related to phone-based messaging. Think heads-up display of caller ID, text messages and, possibly, targeted local offers, rather than the voice-activated virtual agent of the vision video.

But implementation aside, does the video show that Google is thinking about a UI that could truly drive innovation, or is it just impractical science fiction? I’d say it is the former, based on key factors present in the groundbreaking UIs of MacOS, iOS, Nintendo consoles and Microsoft Kinect:

  • Input and output. Siri isn’t just speech-recognition. Besides the fact that it is doing lots of semantic analysis behind the scenes to figure out which sources to search and which apps to launch, Siri offers audible answers and follow-up requests for further detail. It’s that two-way give and take that makes it a potential game-changer versus voice-to text input mechanisms on other phones.
  • Contextual optimization. Early desktop GUIs were well suited for their device (keyboard, big screen, mouse) and their function (general purpose application and file management, personal productivity). Some day on-screen TV navigation will be optimized for genre and visual browsing based on personal preferences via remote as well as iOS is for laptop tablet browsing and light communications.
  • Easy-to-learn. Innovative UIs can gain fast adoption via the use of metaphor the way desktop GUIs mimicked documents, files and folders. Or they can teach users how to use new techniques the way videogames present training missions or simple tasks to gain familiarity.
  • Practical-to-use. There can be a big difference between easy-to-learn and easy-to-use, or rather effective-to-use. The UIs that gain the most widespread use can gracefully move from one to the other. Keyboard shortcuts and macros may be powerful, but they’re too hard to learn for the masses.

How does Project Glass stack up?

Go back and re-watch the video. Google shows glasses that blend the heads-up display of contextually relevant information and application options with voice-command based input. The applications it features are optimized for on-the-go activities like mapping and communications rather than, for instance, gaming or Google Docs. The augmented reality approach, where presumably camera, image-mapping and GPS are combining to identify relevant apps and information does all the work for the user, minimizing the need for training or, for that matter, proactive input. Google’s ideas seem aligned with all the necessary factors for innovative UIs.

But what of Google’s track record in user interface design? Android, Chrome and Gmail are competent implementations of principals invented elsewhere. Google’s UI leadership example comes from search. There’s no question that Google taught the world how to navigate the web through hyperlinks resulting from typing in one or two words. Google has de-emphasized approaches such as Q&A (Ask, Quora), faceted results from multiple filters (Best Buy), or visual cueing (Search-cube, Grokker) in favor of “guessing right” in the fastest manner possible. That explains Google’s ham-handed attempt to integrate its user and social media data to personalize search results.

So Project Glass aligns with the critical UI factors and it plays to Google’s strengths in user interface and its data, mapping and communications expertise. Apple’s own concept video for the “Knowledge Navigator” debuted in 1987, but it was set in September 2011. The company showed the iOS 5 iPhone with deep Siri integration in November 2011. I don’t think it will take Google 24 years to show results from Project Glass.

Question of the week

Will Google be able to do anything with its glasses?

Building a better feed August 15, 2011

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Last week, Twitter retooled its site to offer two Facebook-like activity feed channels aimed at increasing and broadening user participation. Facebook itself did some tweaking to its feed and is reportedly evaluating a bigger overhaul, and Digg updated its news feed. Real-time feed-based user interfaces (UIs) are becoming one of the most important ways of presenting information online, and they are critical areas of competition in social networking and search.

Different companies using feeds reveal UI implementation strategies that tend to focus either on active (user “control panels”) or passive (algorithms) techniques. The winning approach will probably be a blend that leans toward passivity. Consider the following:

  • Twitter’s new tabs show activity around the user (mentions, favorites, retweets) and the user’s followed friends. Twitter wants to boost usage by mainstream users and encourage favorite-ing as a simple way to engage users who aren’t necessarily in the mood to post or reply.
  • Facebook countered Google’s new social gaming thrust by fine-tuning how players and games communicate (a ticker and less throttling of messages in the feed). Earlier it introduced a new feed “story” type that groups actions based on natural language analysis of related topics.
  • Like other enterprise social networking from SocialText, Jive Software, Salesforce.com’s Chatter and SocialCast, Yammer drives user communications via an activity stream. Its feed emphasizes “ambient consumption” of info that’s surfaced to users based on an algorithm that evaluates topic and relationship data for relevance. Platform VP David Stewart told me that tools to embed that stream in other enterprise applications that were announced in May will be available in beta later this month.
  • Venerable link-sharing site Digg introduced “Newswire” that enables users to filter and sort links appearing in real time based on things like recency, topic, format and who posted or voted on them.

The best approach: Balance user control with algorithms

Mathew Ingram doubts that Digg’s new features will be enough to help it regain the audience it lost to Reddit and others when it did a poorly received redesign last summer. He’s probably right, but Digg’s latest moves illustrate that adding controls and filters to a feed is mostly for power users. Making mainstream users take active control of information presentation is extremely challenging, usually resulting in adoption in the 5 percent (Facebook Lists) to 20 percent (Yahoo customization) range.

It’s “easier” — from an adoption if not technology perspective — to rely on passive personalization via algorithms that analyze feed content and promote it by guessing it will be relevant to users. That’s what Facebook does with its social graph–powered EdgeRank, and that’s what Yammer is doing, although Yammer doesn’t do any natural language interpretation. Rather, Yammer incorporates user curation by encouraging topic tagging. If Twitter gets users to choose favorite tweets more often, it will have more curated data to power potential feed sorting and prioritizing schemes it might develop.

Meanwhile, advertisers and app developers seek to reach audiences within the feed, where most user attention is directed. Sites that accommodate that desire gracefully aren’t merely caving in to marketing pressure; they’re enabling social media communications that many users will find valuable. But they have to enforce relevance by monitoring user reactions and weighting their algorithms appropriately to avoid crossing the line into spam.

Companies using feed-based interfaces need to strive for a balance between algorithms — which can produce odd results — and user controls that may require too much work from the masses, like lots of tagging or advanced search pages. Simple actions like a Like or +1 button will likely be more popular and are the easy entrée into curation. And the data they produce can, in turn, be funneled back into a relevance algorithm.

Question of the week

How else can competitors differentiate their feeds?

Why Browsers Don’t Matter Anymore November 15, 2010

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You might have heard, a company called RockMelt announced a browser last week, even calling it a “social browser.” Thanks in part to Marc Andreessen’s VC firm funding it (even though the funder should never be the story), the product got a lot of media attention.

Big deal. Browsers don’t matter anymore, and here’s why not.

Once They Coulda Been Contenders

Browsers used to matter a lot. Microsoft invested a ton of effort to kill off Netscape Navigator because it represented the first legitimate threat to Windows. (Remember, that was before Google, the iPhone and Facebook.) Microsoft built a great browser with Internet Explorer, integrated it tightly with Windows, and bundled the two for as long as that was legally allowed.

Just as important as its profitable revenues, Windows ruled as the desktop platform. That is, it delivered core technologies that created a successful ecosystem for both Microsoft and its developers, which, in turn, delivered the rich environment of applications and competitive hardware for users. The magic of Windows was that it delivered Microsoft’s APIs — which let it “control” developers — housed in a UI that effectively locked in users. This combination, along with Microsoft’s distribution through OEMs, developer support and programming tools, created a network effect that increased the overall value of the ecosystem, with winner-take-all marketshare for Microsoft.

Popular browsers offered the promise of a similar platform: an application that, with the rise of web apps and media, could act as a user’s primary UI. Browsers deployed core distributed computing technologies and APIs and acted as a distribution channel or launchpad for portals and search engines.

Today’s Platform Delivery Vehicles

But today’s platform is the web itself; key platform technology suppliers don’t depend on browsers to make or break their APIs and user interfaces:

  • Google has a browser, but Chrome isn’t necessary to feeding search, Gmail, Google Apps and distributed computing technologies. Google’s Android mobile OS appears to be the platform for tablets rather than Chrome running on some other OS. Google does its most important UI innovation in search.
  • Facebook hasn’t built a browser, nor an operating system for that matter. It uses its web site and mobile apps to establish and distribute its APIs and UI. Developers can tap into Facebook APIs like Facebook Connect across the web in a browser-independent fashion.
  • Apple too has a browser, but it relies on its desktop and mobile operating systems for API and UI implementation.

Other companies that deliver mass-market APIs for consumer apps, like eBay/PayPal, Amazon and Yahoo, don’t depend on specific browsers. Neither do enterprise suppliers like IBM, Oracle, SAP and Salesforce.com. Even Microsoft, which despite a lack of buzz still dominates browser market share, can’t depend on Internet Explorer to establish its standards or businesses. Silverlight and Bing underscore that fact. All that’s to say that the excitement about RockMelt arises from the potential of establishing a new browser, but it feels like that potential is based on an outdated model.

Where a New Browser Might Matter

OK, you may argue that I’m confusing cause and effect, i.e., because a couple of the platform companies’ browsers have lousy marketshare, they’ve had to rely on other means to spread their APIs. I can concede that, and admit that a browser can still be a platform hub, just not on a web desktop. A new browser could use that powerful API/UI combination on new devices:

  • Mobile. Conceivably, a browser could relieve some of the OS fragmentation across mobile phones. The mobile platforms of Microsoft, Google, and Apple are OS-based, while Facebook is building its mobile platform without either a browser or a mobile OS.
  • TV. Similarly, next-generation TV and gaming devices suffer from an OS fragmentation that’s slowing app development and deployment. This one feels like an OS war to me, as most of the middleware players are names that are unfamiliar to web or game developers. Google TV is built out of a combination of Android and Chrome.

Question of the week

What would it take to make a differentiated browser?

How to Make MySpace Relevant (Again) November 1, 2010

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In the realm of might-have-beens, MySpace had even more promise than Friendster. But unlike Friendster, MySpace remains salvageable. Though it shouldn’t try to challenge Facebook for social network leadership, it can still be a valuable consumer media business, if not a technology driver. Here’s how — and why.

When MySpace supplanted Friendster as the leading social network, it did so by delivering an entertainment and communication combination, along with an early embrace of social media plug-ins and mash-ups. It became the de facto home of music artists and had an early lead on Facebook in ad targeting. But while MySpace stagnated under News Corp. and a Google ad deal that guaranteed revenues without encouraging advertising innovation, Facebook built a real platform of NewNet technologies. MySpace must return to its roots, and its recent relaunch hints that it might just do that.

What’s Good About the Relaunch

MySpace’s relaunch is smart in its focus. It’s trying to rebrand itself as an entertainment hub with a lot of social elements, rather than as general-purpose social network; it aims to complement rather than compete with Facebook.

MySpace has accommodated Facebook and Twitter updates, but it’s questionable whether much of its audience will use such features to aggregate social communications. That said, MySpace has adapted feed-based user interfaces in what appears to be a unique fashion: Users can toggle between magazine- and TV-like modes as well as a conventional stream. This mix of active and passive entertainment discovery — users already get update streams from friended bands, studios, entertainment personalities, etc. — could prove a useful launch pad for MySpace fans to spread comments and recommendations outside of as well as within the network.

What’s Still Needed

MySpace still has a large — if declining — U.S. audience that is younger and more geographically diverse than the web average. Various traffic data companies show it reaching 40 to 60 million people monthly (though that’s almost half the size of Facebook or Yahoo). To keep that audience entertained, MySpace must innovate on the following:

  • New ad vehicles. Two years ago, MySpace attracted attention with a campaign for luxury brand Cartier that integrated musicians like Lou Reed and Marion Cotillard. Today, MySpace gets rich homepage campaigns (with trailer, showtimes, behind-the-scenes info) for movie openings — Lionsgate’s “Saw 3D” for Halloween, of course — and big banners on its channel homepages from the likes of Samsung, Sprint and Fox Television. But it needs to create unique social sponsorship opportunities involving games, contests, interaction with stars and re-distribution outside the network.
  • Social commerce. MySpace delivers full-track music streaming that enables affiliate purchases on Amazon. But it needs to build out a marketplace for artist merchandise, and should consider adopting gimmicks such as Groupon-like daily deals and group purchasing. Easy-to-build storefronts from Payvment make sense. It should also be a leader in cross-category virtual currency for games and downloads.
  • Outbound syndication. MySpace wisely acquired viral music service iLike. But it needs more ways to spread content outside of its own site. It should copy, partner with or acquire GetGlue, a startup that offers Foursquare-like check-ins and badges for web entertainment content.

Who Should Care

With its young audience of entertainment consumers, the potential rebirth of MySpace is important to the following types of companies:

  • Entertainment marketers. This includes artists and managers, movie studios and theater chains, and TV networks. This is a base MySpace can hold onto.
  • Youth marketers. With proper sponsorship innovation and entertainment tie-ins, marketers like Coke, Pepsi, Aeropostale, Nike, etc. could open their advertising pocketbooks.
  • Ad networks. It’s not clear whether News Corp. will include MySpace ad inventory with the Fox online ad network it’s selling to optimizer The Rubicon Project.
  • Competitors. Facebook should have no worries; in fact, MySpace should adopt much of Facebook’s platform, and tie in tighter to its social graph. MySpace will compete with Yahoo, MSN and AOL for youth audiences.

Question of the week

What steps should MySpace take to make a comeback?

Real-Time Advertising: How to Get in Early October 18, 2010

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Even if you don’t believe real-time feeds will become the dominant content consumption paradigm, it’s clear they’re a growing force. Consumer-paid access to real-time feeds is largely constrained to paid mobile apps today, so advertising would appear to be the immediate payoff. With that in mind, let’s look at how social media companies can best cash in.

I haven’t come across a forecast for real-time advertising spending, but it’s a nascent market that’s fairly concentrated: Facebook and Twitter represent the largest audiences. Market researcher eMarketer projects Facebook will collect $1.3 billion in ad revenues globally in 2010; presumably, most of that will be spent on Facebook’s news feed. Twitter is only just beginning to embrace advertising. But clearly, we’re talking about a business that will be measured in billions rather than millions of dollars.

The current audience concentration — and the resulting ad dollars — could diffuse. Already, a lot of tweets get viewed on third-party Twitter clients, as well as on Facebook. Somewhat similarly, Facebook is syndicating its content through initiatives like Facebook Connect and Instant Personalization, as well as arrangements that allow companies like Skype to show Facebook users’ updates and presence within its own application. So it might not be just Facebook and Twitter who can cash in on those audiences.

Could Real-Time Ad Networks Jump-Start Spending?

Advertisers demand a certain scale of audience before they start spending big money. As with other media — social or otherwise — ad networks can alleviate audience fragmentation, giving advertisers access to eyeballs across a number of sites or apps. The big ad networks from AOL, Google, Microsoft or Yahoo aren’t doing anything in the real-time space. Meanwhile, a handful of startups have emerged. That includes 140 Proof and OneRiot, who sell inventory on Twitter clients and apps, as well as Tweetup, which also makes its own destination site. Ad.ly will construct celebrity-sponsored updates and insert them in Twitter and Facebook streams.

I spent some time with OneRiot this week; its experiences are good indicators of the state of the real-time ad marketplace:

  • Tapping test budgets. OneRiot’s business is divided evenly between publishers (New York Times, ESPN, Guardian) who are promoting its stories or marketing their apps in feeds and more traditional marketers like Zappos and Stella Artois. OneRiot is getting part of the test budget of bigger campaigns, so advertisers are only spending tens of thousands of dollars with it. The company can charge 12 to 25 cents for click-throughs, or $2 to $3 CPMs.
  • Relatively simple targeting. OneRiot usually sells an audience type rather than target by demographic or content context. Its analysis shows that Twitter client users are a highly engaged audience; when they click through to a story or site, they’re likely to hang around twice as long, generating 7 or 8 pageviews.
  • Ad format experiments. OneRiot serves up text ads that look like search engine marketing, but its architecture can handle banners and richer formats. It says some advertisers have experimented with dynamic content that is contextually related and inserted into the text creative.

Ad Network Realities

Right now, the ad networks in real-time are ahead of most of the feed sites in sophistication, and could help move the market forward. But in most media markets, it’s the company with the eyeballs that commands the vast majority of ad spending. Not long ago, observers who probably over-interpreted Google’s success thought online ad networks could reverse this. But that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

Publishers and other content companies like to hold onto the best ad inventory and sell it directly to their best advertisers and ad agency clients. That leaves low-priced remnant inventory for the networks. NBC dropped Google’s TV ad network recently; Microsoft is shutting down its in-game ad network because its biggest customer, Electronic Arts, pulled the business in-house.

As with other media, the real-time ad network ecosystem will have to deliver targeting and measurement to capture advertiser spending. Companies like Klout and Gravity may help marketers identify influencer audiences. Kantar Media, a unit of ad agency holding company WPP, tracks offers competitive intelligence on ad networks, but hasn’t aimed at the real-time space yet.

Related Research: Social Media in the Enterprise

Question of the week

Could ad networks accelerate real-time advertising?

Could a Social Strategy Save Yahoo? October 4, 2010

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The turmoil at Yahoo may be reaching crisis proportions. Stagnant sales growth was one thing, a lack of strategic clarity another. And now, senior executives are leaving in droves and there are calls for drastic action that include merging with AOL immediately.

But could a healthy dose of social networking be the cure to what ails Yahoo?

Possibly. The search giant appears to be missing out on social and mobile, the current twin drivers of consumer tech. I’ll leave mobile for another analyst, but here’s how Yahoo could gain some momentum in social media.

Recognizing Yahoo’s Assets

A prime reason for Yahoo’s social sluggishness was its inability to integrate its existing assets with a social flavor: Flickr, Delicious, Answers and its communications products like Mail and Messenger. These properties could still be put to use, but what are truly Yahoo’s powerful assets?

  • A large, loyal audience. According to Compete, Yahoo’s still in the top three in terms of online audience reach and user time on its sites. And as recently as a year ago, it was still consumers’ second-favorite online brand, behind Google.
  • Leading content and communication properties. Yahoo has leadership positions in important, ad-friendly online content categories like news, sports, women’s content and entertainment, as well as those communications services, according to Compete data.
  • Advertising expertise. Yahoo is a leader in online display advertising and has a large, experienced ad sales force with solid relationships at agencies and advertisers. Yahoo is especially good — for an online media company, at least — at brand advertising.

Building Out the Feed

Just about every company online should add some social spice to its site, but in Yahoo’s case, an aggressive dose could help the company maintain its huge audience and advertising leadership position. It’s too late for Yahoo to build a new social network from scratch. Rather, Yahoo should try to regain the momentum of its original portal role as the entry point or start page for the Internet by playing an aggressive role in the emerging age of feed-based user interfaces.

  • Integrated interface. Yahoo should continue and accelerate its feed and update aggregation strategy, but move it beyond just surfacing connections on the homepage or near content and email. Once upon a time, along with AOL, Yahoo taught mainstream users how to use directories and search for web navigation. Now it must more aggressively offer a feed to its audience — one that may be more familiar with traditional, search-heavy ways of  content discovery. Facebook is mainstream, but Twitter is not. Yahoo could help move mainstream audiences back and forth across search, browse, and stream consumption styles. A medium-size acquisition, say, TweetDeck or Seesmic, could help.
  • Ads around feeds. Yahoo should then apply its content, relationships and targeting capabilities atop or near the resulting UIs and experiences to create unique “advertorial” around that aggregation. Yahoo’s content farm acquisition, Associated Content, can work here, too, in addition to creating SEO bait. Yahoo has long worked with creating customized content experiences for brand advertisers and promoting marketing case studies and benchmarks.
  • Social ad network. Yahoo’s already in the ad network business (although there is concern about its publisher efforts) and it should rent out its resulting social ad platform to other sites. Most social media startups can barely spell “advertising” and might welcome the assistance. True, Facebook is already building out an ad platform with social targeting and a home for advertiser content. But it doesn’t have the richer store of seasonal and evergreen professional content that Yahoo has, nor its trusted content brand. And Facebook says it’s not building an ad network. At least not yet.

Related Research: Four Lessons From Yahoo’s Slow Demise

Question of the week

How could Yahoo use social media to get its mojo back?

The Age of the Feed-Based User Interface September 13, 2010

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Last week, Google dramatically changed its core search user-interface with Google Instant. Instant search results look like a news feed and change dynamically as the searcher types. In moving toward a more feed-like UI, Google is following the trend established by Facebook and Twitter. Other feed-style UIs, meanwhile, appear on a broad range of applications and services, including Apple’s new Ping music social network, Box.net’s cloud-based content management system and Salesforce.com’s Chatter enterprise collaboration platform.

With the trend of feed-like UIs continuing to gain momentum, it’s worth taking a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages, as well as how businesses can implement and add value to them.

Pros and Cons of Feeds as UI

In contrast to a “seek, search, consume” model of content discovery and consumption, a feed presents a more passive approach for a user to gather information. Some feed UIs, like Facebook’s news feed, contain algorithms that fine-tune what could otherwise be an overwhelming flow of information. In contrast, without such customization, Twitter’s bare-bones approach defaults to a real-time stream from everyone you follow. That only works for Twitter users with relatively few followers.

Not all information, however, benefits from being optimized for passivity or immediacy. For instance, most online shoppers aren’t just passively browsing, at least not until they put some parameters like product, price and color in place. Most news consumption benefits from categorization and importance, whether judged by professionals or by popularity. And although Google Instant feels like a mobile app, network bandwidth and latency currently prevent it from being implemented for phones.

Who Benefits?

So what kind of applications or services might next adopt feed-like interfaces?

  • Television. Years ago, I saw a Canal+ demo of a carousel of picture-in-picture images of what was playing on other channels. I’ve seen similar items from TV middleware companies.
  • Shopping. How about a stream of product thumbnails? Seesmic has a Zappos plug-in.
  • News. I’d welcome an editorial hand to feed me prioritized news stories with graphical cues, though I’m not sold on social curation as the only organizing principal.

Adding Value

When properly enhanced, feed-based UIs can deliver great user experiences. They feel “modern” to web and mobile audiences, in contrast to static blocks of content. Many — if not all — information streams do benefit from being current. And there’s a natural tendency for a user to re-visit them frequently, and to engage with them in a social fashion.

Feeds can be implemented as an RSS stream or API, making them open to mash-ups and plug-ins. Companies that offer information or communications services and are looking to implement feeds as UIs should offer the following directly to users, or as behind-the-scenes optimization tools:

  • Aggregation. This isn’t new, but Twitter clients like TweetDeck and Seesmic allow users to pull in multiple feeds from micro-blogging tools or status updates, and to post to multiple destinations. Box sucks in information from Salesforce.com and NetSuite into its feed. Seesmic just re-implemented its desktop client to accommodate plug-ins for other feeds or functions, e.g., local information from Foursquare. There’s opportunity in promoting and pre-packaging collections of feeds to give users different views of information.
  • Filtering. Facebook prioritizes the default view of its news feed via the user’s prior behavior and the network activity around items, among other things in its algorithmic secret sauce. Trending topics is a popular device for exposing users to information that might come from outside their network. But ceding active control of filtering, sorting and searching to the user is also powerful: That’s what made TweetDeck the choice of Twitter power users.
  • Other utilities. In the spirit of Tufte, I’d suggest there is opportunity in offering features that better present quantitative and qualitative information atop of feeds. Color-coding or boldfacing feed items based on popularity or importance would be simple, but there’s probably something like TheBrain that would illustrate relationships between items better than a threaded conversation does.

Related Research: Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

Question of the week

Where’s the best place to add value to real-time feeds?