Category: Web/Tech

Microsoft is selling Slate

Not only are they paying dividends, but they are seeking to unload the beloved Slate.com as well:

Microsoft Corp. is in talks with five or six potential buyers for its online magazine Slate, an executive said Friday.

Scott Moore, general manager of MSN Network Experience, which handles content for Microsoft’s MSN division, said the company is in early discussions with several media companies over a potential sale.

Moore declined to identify the companies, and cautioned that the deals might not come to fruition. “We’re at the beginning of the process,” he said.

Moore said Microsoft has been approached before about a possible sale of Slate, but this is the first time it is taking the offers seriously. He said Microsoft is especially interested in a deal that might allow it to create a partnership with another media company, which could potentially help increase advertising revenue on the MSN site.

The paper version of this article mentions The New York Times and Washington Post as possible buyers.

Here is the full story.

The bottom line: Slate will get worse. Current revenue is $6 million a year, the site breaks even, and visitor numbers are falling. Microsoft can treat it as a kind of vanity project, but trying to squeeze regular profit out of it is unlikely to succeed.

Could the iPod fail?

Above and beyond the ephemeral value of superior style, what is the source of Apple’s long-term competitive advantage? True, they have more artists signed up, but this is likely a short-term phenomenon. And there is a more serious problem as well:

MP3s downloaded from Sony’s Connect service can only be played on Sony’s MP3 Walkman, and not on the more popular iPod (and vice versa).

Behind the scenes, the battle waging for commercial dominance is reminiscent of the early 1980s cut-throat competition to establish video standards between VHS and Betamax. And lest we forget, VHS won despite being technically inferior.

Although Apple has been the pioneer in the MP3 market, with Sony/BMG controlling 25 per cent of the music market it will be interesting to see whose digital distribution platforms will survive. Will all those expensive iPods we have been rushing out to buy wind up piled high in car-boot sales alongside Betamax video players and 8-track cassette machines?

Here is the full account.

Going out on a limb: I’ve never been convinced that the “iPod as we know it” could make money, especially once the market becomes more competitive for hardware. Right now the songs are being used as a loss leader for the gadget. And dare I cite Apple’s history of being a leader with ideas but failing to lock up the market? But hey, I’m the same guy who said the Dow was overvalued at 7000 and the single European currency would never happen.

Addendum: Andrew McGuinness recommends this reading on the topic, especially the excellent section five.

Watch what you write me

According to research from Forrester Consulting, 44 per cent of large corporations in the United States now pay someone to monitor and snoop on what’s in the company’s outgoing mail, with 48 per cent actually regularly auditing e-mail content.

The Proofpoint-sponsored study found the motivation for the mail paranoia was mostly due to fears that employees were leaking confidential memos and other sensitive information, such as intellectual property or trade secrets, with 76 per cent of IT decision makers concerned about the former and 71 per cent concerned about the latter.

Here is the full story, from the ever-excellent www.geekpress.com.

How do political blogs matter?

Blogging is politically important in large part because it affects mainstream media, and helps set the terms of political debate (in political science jargon, it creates ‘focal points’ and ‘frames’). Note that we don’t provide an exhaustive account of blogs and politics – some aspects of blogging (fundraising for parties, effects on political values in the general public), we don’t have more than anecdotal data on.

So writes Henry of CrookedTimber, concerning his recent paper with the ever-prolific Daniel Drezner.

I would phrase my view as follows. Blogging creates “common knowledge,” even if only among a few at first. Will an idea fly or not? You find out quickly by sending it out into the blogosphere and seeing the reaction. The verdict will be swift and often ruthless, but more often than not fair. And once this common knowledge leaks out to broader and more general communities, the effect is powerful. People will abandon an indefensible idea before it gets started. Or they will jump on the bandwagon right away. They already know how the fight will turn out. In short, the blogosphere is like simulating the larger debate with very swift intellectual mini-armies.

Under this account what matters about the blogosphere is the quick back and forth and the ability to construct rapid-fire dialogues through links. It also means that a better than average debator can influence the broader world by swaying the earlier mini-debate through sheer force of intellect. Of course as the blogosphere gets larger this will become harder to do. The argument will be “thicker,” and arguably less conclusive as well. After all, what if everyone wrote a blog? The debate would not be simulated any more.

What else does it mean for ideas to be evaluated more quickly? Many new ideas will have better chances than before. Throw it out there and see if it sticks; the blogosphere is relatively egalitarian with regard to traditional credentials. Debate-defensible ideas will do better, on average. I hold a number of views that I believe are true, but find difficult to defend in debate on blogs. Either the supporting data are not on the web or the ideas may sound politically incorrect. Ideas that take time to mature, and reveal their full wisdom, may suffer as well.

Print out and read the whole paper; at the very least it is likely to become a mini-classic, maybe more.

Teaching with blogs

That’s right, make your students write a blog. I suggested this idea some time ago, now David Tufte has tried it. Here is the result. Keep in mind they are undergraduates. Here is one cynical but not totally inaccurate post about “bad economists.”

The advantages of this teaching method? People tend to remember and care about what they write. And getting students to write regular short bits is probably better than giving them a procrastination-inducing longer paper.

The disadvantages? There are not enough constraints on blather and fallacious reasoning. And perhaps the students decide that whatever they wrote is in fact true, a kind of lock-in bias. [Not that we professional bloggers ever have this problem…]

Here is Tufte’s own blog, and he directs my attention to this post. It is reported that only ten percent of published Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking papers can be replicated by outside parties.

Is economics a science? Yes, but let’s keep in mind that being a science, taken alone, doesn’t get you very far.

Missing markets: wireless assistance

The Scandinavian countries all have wireless directory assistance, but the U.S. does not, largely because of privacy concerns and fear of telemarketers. Here is a summary of recent debates.

This week’s Fortune magazine (June 28, p.47) writes:

…directory assistance could be much more than just a repository for phone numbers. She argues that the phone companies, with some new software and employee training, could begin offering new services, such as a system that allows an operator to forward, for a fee, a text message to the unlisted customer you’re trying to reach. And why stop at wireless numbers? Directory assistance could list e-mail addresses, work numbers, website addresses — or any other info-nugget a customer might desire.

What I want: Large numbers of well-educated Indians, standing by a phone in Bangalore, who can use Google for me and answer my queries when I am on the road. Some of these Indians would be conversant with macroeconomic time series data, others would be experts in the use of MapQuest.com.

The economics of storage

Data storage is becoming cheaper at rapid rates. This is one reason why I don’t ever expect a totally converged information superhighway, supplying our television, computer, music listening, etc., all in one service. Why obsess over your piping when you can have milk delivered cheaply at your doorstep? Netflix and Google’s Gmail, rather than Verizon, may represent our cultural future. Data storage and delivery also tend to be less regulated than centralized piping, plus they limit natural monopoly problems. Under this alternative model, I might receive “cultural disks” in the mail, every month or week, and decide what on those disks I am willing to pay for. Yes there will be hackers but we will be rich, the discs will be cheap and convenient, and they will offer ancillary services of organization and presentation. I can hardly wait, except now I remember I don’t even have time for the current menu of cultural offerings.

Addendum: One reader sent me this data set on the falling price storage on hard drives.

Spam revenge

Are you tired of hearing from deposed, desperate Nigerians seeking a bank account in which to deposit their funds? Some people are striking back:

…an ad hoc militia of self-styled counterscammers on several continents is taking the fight directly to the thieves. Aiming to outwit the swindlers, they invent elaborate and often outrageous identities (Venus de Milo, Lord Vader) under which they engage the con men, trying to humiliate them and, more important, waste the grifters’ time and resources.

The possibilities are endless:

…a fraud baiter posing as one Pierpont Emanuel Weaver, a wealthy businessman, appeared to persuade a con man in Ghana in 2002 to send almost $100 worth of gold to Indiana – for “testing purposes as my chemist requires” – after being asked to put up $1.8 million for a share in a gold fortune. In other cases, swindlers are tricked into posing for pictures holding self-mocking signs, pictures then posted online. Or they are led to travel hundreds of miles to pick up a payment, only to come up empty-handed.

A 47-year-old manufacturing executive in Lincoln, Neb., said he had been engaged in such pranks for almost three years. “I’ve had many, many good laughs at their expense, and have spent nothing but time,” he said. “They have spent countless hours creating fake documents, obtaining photos of themselves holding funny signs, running to the Western Union miles away from where they live to obtain money which I never actually sent, and printing out counterfeit checks to send me.” As for his motivation, he said, “Hopefully, along the way, I’ve diverted enough of their time and resources to keep them from successfully scamming at least one hapless (albeit, most likely, greedy) victim.”

Here is the full story (NYTimes). Here is a website detailing Internet scams, and how they have been stopped. Here is one con man-vigilante exchange, which becomes increasingly humorous. By the end you will see why the scammer is labeled the “world’s rudest investment advisor.”

One question I have: Far be it for me to challenge the voluntary and welfare-enhancing provision of a public good. Nonetheless I cannot help but ask what are the motives of these vigilantes? Is this their idea of fun? Would they be equally keen to aid the vaccination of African children? Part of me is happy that both sides are kept busy with these shenanigans.