As I think back on 2003 and look forward to 2004 to I wanted to take a few moments to thank our customers, to thank you all, for a number of different things. Most people, certainly me included, don't spend enough time giving thanks and saying thanks so I thought I would start the year off with a few thoughts in that regard.
Thank you for choosing to do business with us. This is a competitive market with many choices. The loyalty that you have shown as a group is amazing. At Tucows we have been talking for years about relationships. Even before Tucows was providing domain registration services we talked all the time about our relationships with software developers and ISPs that partnered with us (and still do) around our download libraries. I used to say at employee meetings that we were a company of relationships and relationships are a function of trust and trust is a function of time AND there was no substitute or shortcut for time. We need to work on relationships every day. You guys have responded to that and have made us feel, made me feel, like we have partners in that relationship. Thank you for that.
Thank you for thanking us. I get to attend many conferences and trade shows each year and wherever I go (and I mean wherever) I meet partners of ours. And you always thank Tucows. You thank us for putting you first. You thank us for talking to you and you thank us for listening. You thank us for being able to criticize us. Amazingly, even the few of you who choose to leave often take the time to thank us (and thank us for still being there when you come back). I like to send different people from the company to conferences from time to time simply to allow them to feel the warm feelings we receive from you all. It is great to feel appreciated and you make us, make me, feel appreciated all the time. Thank you for that.
Thank you for providing your customers with great service and for doing well in your businesses. First the big statement. You guys have effectively beaten the telcos and cablecos when it comes to Internet services. The only Internet service where they have any traction is broadband and that is because of infrastructure, legal and regulatory reasons. NOT because of service. NOT because of strategy. We only do well when you do well and you are doing well. You deserve it. You work hard and you work smart. You value your customers relationships like we value yours. You recognize that services are rarely bought on price and when they are it is usually by those not interested in long-term relationships. Many years ago we made a bet, I made a bet, on small and medium-sized service providers. Thanks you for justifying that faith.
I consider myself very lucky on both a personal and professional level. I am lucky to work with and for all of the people who make up Tucows. I am lucky to have the great customer relationships with all of you. Thanks to all of you and I wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2004.
As I use blogware more and more I have become convinced that there is an even larger opportunity in storage and management of digital images than I first imagined. When it comes to a better way to deal with digital images people need it, want it and, most importantly, are more than happy to pay for it.
Some data. An amazing 45% of US Internet households own a digital camera with that number rising to 74% by the end of 2004!
And the money quote (as in money for service providers):
'Michelle Slaughter, director of Digital Photography Trends at InfoTrends, discusses the problems associated with downloading picture images into home computers: “Digital camera users are accumulating large collections of digital photos, but few users are concerned about taking steps to archive their digital photos for the long term.”'
Currently,the primary means of sharing digital photography is overwhelmingly by email. This has numerous problems that I would break into two buckets. Poor use of network resources and difficulty in dealing with the images. Only 19% of U.S. Internet households have used an online photo service.
When digital images are sent using email each recipient has now received each and every full image that the sender has provided. This is a waste of bandwidth. Each and every recipient will now store the images on each and every one of their hard drives. The sender has also probably had to edit the number of pictures she sent in order to comply with mail server rules at either her or one of her recipients mail servers. Only some pictures, all full images, all stored on each recipients machine. Yuck.
Now each recipient is faced with some interesting choices. Do they view all the pictures right away and delete? Do they view all and put them in some folder? Do they skim and file? Most people do a horrible job of using filters and folders for their everyday email. They are now required to either use their email client as an archiving client for digital images or they lose much of the value of those images. This is not trivial. Most pictures I am sent tend to be of some interest to me at some point but almost never at the point that I receive them.
Think of pictures from family or friends. In the middle of the work day they are of little/no interest. Some time later, and that might be a day a week or a month, I am very interested in looking at those images. Perhaps my wife and I are sharing a story about the sender or the subject of the picture. Perhaps we saw someone that reminded us of the sender. When we want to see them we really want to see them and derive great pleasure from them. When we don't they provide none.
People use email to send images for two reasons. First is ease of use. They know how to send email. They know how to address it. They may have grouped addresses to make this even easier. They know how to send attachments. It is well within the skill level of most users.
There is an second important reason that has surprised me as I have talked to more people. They do not want every picture available on the open Internet. When sending by email there is an implicit control mechanism in that they determine who receives the images. If they are simply online, on a website, they can be accessed by anyone and in very random fashion. I am not yet ready to say whether this factor is more form than substance. Is it shyness or modesty or does it represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the Internet? At the end of the day it doesn't really matter (at least in the near-term) because either answer drives the same behavior.
When we built blogware we viewed there as being a couple key bits of unique functionality. For me, this was management of digital images and the ability to establish privileges around content of any kind. I did not fully think about the intersection of the two.
When my wife wanted to share digital images with her family, who live in a few different places around the world, I asked her if she would like me to hang a photo album off of my blog for her. She flatly refused. She did not want these images to be publicly available. When I asked her if she would like me to do it, but to restrict access only to her family (or whoever else she chose) she immediately embraced it. The difference was quite binary and quite powerful. A flat no to an enthusiastic yes.
I have groups for friends, groups for family and groups for work. They are easy to create and easy to manage.
Now there are certainly some free online services that allow for some of this. Ofoto and Text America come to mind. They have three clear downsides. They do not manage permissions, they require your users to deal with advertising and they are not connected in any way to the corpus of a website (if you have one). I think they are better than email, but nowhere near as useful as blogware.
So if you know someone who is receiving a digital camera for the holidays, or has received one but finds it painful to use (“I have all of these images on my hard drive and so what? what do I do now?”) then unlock the value for them. Get them a blogware account. A year, six months, three months, your choice. Better yet, start selling accounts and market them to your users in a January special to unlock the value of those x-mas digital cameras all of your users have received.
While some may view the term “Internet governance” as an oxymoron and my natural reaction is something along the lines of “I hope that they continue to view regulation as too complicated so that we Internet-folk can just keep doing what we are doing” I confess to knowing deep down that we would all be better off with a simple, effective policy framework than with the current anarchic state.
I would put the subject matter that best frames the need for governance into three buckets, privacy issues, enforcement issues (think spam and fraud) and taxation issues (I will refer to these as “PET issues” because no post is complete without a new acronym).
Any talk of Internet governance need start with ICANN . ICANN currently deals only with names and numbers. The DNS and IP addresses. Structurally it is constructed to deal with those problems. The whole “is it a regulator or technical coordinator debate seems to me to be away from the issue (and I say this while understand the implications of the APA), or at least the issue I want to shine a light on here. ICANN is doing a middling job in dealing with names and numbers currently. I am happy with some things and quite upset about others, but structurally I believe it is appropriate to its task. Dealing with names and numbers.
When I hear about developing countries dissatisfied with ICANN as it relates to Internet governance I do not hear “we do not like the way they are dealing with names and numbers”, but instead hear “we do not want ICANN dealing with privacy or taxation or other issues because we do not have enough involvement” and there we agree. However, when these same people try and use the UN or the ITU as the vessels for these issues my blood runs cold.
Different problems require different structures to solve them and ICANN can provide some important structural lessons. The greatest positive in the ICANN structure is that each of policy, technical and business work together in one framework. I would note here that I believe, and my experience has been, that the interests of users are both able to be handled separately and, more effectively, are part of the agenda for each of the other three groups.
The ICANN model needs to be modified to deal with the PET issues. Each country has its own regime for taxation or privacy and certainly for enforcement. The interests and necessary involvement of governments need be much greater in dealing with PET issues. The ICANN model provides, imho, a great starting point. In fact there are interesting similarities (and of course differences) between this and the differences in the way ICANN deals with gTLDs and ccTLDs.
A tripartite structure, including policy, technical and business, should be absolutely central to any attempt to address these issues and the UN or the ITU are simply NOT THAT. I know that the people of the countries in Geneva calling for UN and/or ITU involvement at the WSIS meeting would be better off with an ICANN-like structure. Unfortunately I am not sure that the same holds true for the politicians and bureaucrats who will advocate these positions in Geneva.
Meanwhile, I will be at the Aspen Institute thinking about spam and digital identity. It should be an interesting week, although one where I expect to hear much about the US/EU vs. the developing world and how ICANN is not the right place for these issues (which ironically is a classic straw man in that NO ONE that I have ever heard is advocating that they are). I expect to hear little or nothing that is a constructive look at how global governance of PET issues should be approached.
Basically Rogers Cable (I provide no links for some folks!), Canada's largest Cableco, was complaining about the anti-competitive behaviour that Bell Canada, the largest ILEC, was engaging in. Forget the exceptionally boring regulatory details. I was floored by the irony.
A little backstory. In January of 1996 I met the guys that I went to work for a year later at what was then Internet Direct (and what is now Look Communications). They had this website that they were kind of supporting and running called Tucows which they were more than happy to let me play with and, well, here I am today. Eight years later.
Now for the irony. We met because we both served on a committee of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP). CAIP had successfully lobbied the CRTC for third-party access to the cable plant as Rogers was the first cable company in the world to offer Internet access over their cable plant. We had won! They were now forced by the government to provide us with access! This was a great victory, as in Canada the CRTC makes all of these decisions (think FCC) and they are stocked mostly with ex-Bell/Rogers employees or future Bell/Rogers employees. We would now show them who could really sell access. We had kicked their asses in dialup and now broadband was ours also!
At each meeting the Cable folks would trot out two streams of objections. Business and technical. They would bury us in bullshit (the new Cisco router that will support this will be out in….). We negotiated. We complained. We screamed. Then we finally got it. They had absolutely no intention of ever providing us access. Ever. EVER. AFAIK no one has it today. In Canada broadband is essentially a Telco/Cableco duopoly and the consumer is the loser. As a user I can assure you it sucks.
Me: I am not getting my invoices.
Them: But we are sending them.
Me: To what email account?
Them: To your sympatico account of course.
Me: Oh I see. Well I don't use it. May I give you my email address?
Me: Ummm…..no? What if you want to send me something?
Them: You can use your Sympatico account and pick it up.
Me: Are you sure you don't want my email address?
Me: Ok then.
Now the decline of the telco is well-documented (and best so by Martin Geddes here and make sure you read this. wild) and inexorable. They now only have two overlapping skills, legal and regulatory. It is fun to watch them bash each other over the same old bullshit. In fact the Ken Englehart mentioned in the article is the same guy who danced around us for years in our vain attempts at third-party access. Nice guy. Much smarter than we were. He knew what game he was playing and we didn't.
The good news is we all went off and built successful IP-based businesses. I would link to them, but as I start to play them back in my head there are simply so many. Rogers, and all of the incumbants may be better at the regulatory and legal, but they can't come close to us in actually running an Internet business.
I want to poke at the issue of what is usually called an “ISP Portal”. I am referring to a start page that a service provider gives or directs their customers to use. This marketspace used to be quite robust (if not profitable), but my brief review shows it to now be essentially dead.
First some history. This space really kicked off in the Summer of 1997 with the launch of Snap and Planet Direct (which became MyWay and, like so many other CMGI companies became dead (although they did sell the url)). Does anyone else still have the t-shirt from ISPCon from Fall '97 with “Hello Snap” on the front and “Goodbye AOL” on the back? No? Just me? OK, Check out the third item in this time capsule. I would be remiss if I didn't highlight my favorite paragraph in the piece (although it has little relevance to this post):
“Some would ask, “But what about smaller local ISPs?” Forgive me. [ed. note: you should be asking history to forgive you although the site looks dead since Fall 200 so….] While the predictions that such services would die have not yet come to fruition, I believe the small local services are not long for the world. Once the big guns have infrastructure in place, they'll go after the market in an aggressive way.”
HA. I would also add here that this is about the time I first started talking to Cnet about them, um, “working with” Tucows. My views on the small service provider were always something that Halsey and others there did not share (thanks to all of you for helping me be right). Anyway, back to the story.
This is also the space that Looksmart started out trying to occupy. They, and others, all eventually either abandoned the space or failed or a combination of both. As the above article highlights, NONE of them understood the small service provider (SSP, or what I referred to as competitive service provider or CSP here and yes I should just define a term and stick with it!) market or headspace. I spoke to all of them in the late '90s and they were all varying degrees of clueless in this respect (with Looksmart being the best of the three and Planet Direct the worst).
So why is this important now? Well, I have recently bumped into three separate situations where creators and distributors of media are interested in potentially pushing content through SSPs. There are different reasons in all three cases, but there is some commonality. They all accept that the SSP has a place in the Internet services distribution chain and they all want to avoid, again for different reasons, traditional online distribution channels. Usually folks from big companies, or with big company backgrounds who want to reach SSPs eventually find Tucows because we kinda sorta look like a big company and they have some comfort level dealing with us rather than trying to herd you cats (pun painfully intended).
As I listened to their various plans and schemes I realized three things. One, they were quite smart and perceptive to realize that SSPs could provide them real, significant, distribution (yes that's right, if you agree with me I will call you both smart and perceptive. just ask anyone who works here). Two, that finally, after nearly ten years, some folks recognized that SSPs were not going to shrivel up and die or be bought up and disappear. Three, that if SSPs ever hoped to recognize these opportunities they better have some control of their users clickstream, which means they need a start page of some kind.
So now the idea was rumbling around in my head (where it had lots of room) and luckily I was at the beginning of two ISP-related conferences. This meant I could ask a lot of service providers a lot of questions. The most important bit of learning for me was that the right business model here was “free with rev share” not “fee-per-user”. The second was that most SSPs had given up on the space, but almost all were interested in talking about it.
Now there are are two further little bits that I won't go into here in great detail but I will get them on the table. First, is that there are REALLY cool things one can do with RSS in this regard and as many of you know I am a huge believer in the power of blogs and RSS in the way that they change the web and how it is created and consumed. Unfortunately almost no one uses aggregators so it is merely (very useful) infrastructure in this regard. Second, while ISPs have obvious means of distributing a start page, web hosts do not. There are some ways I can think of for them to do this, but I would love to hear creative suggestions in this regard.
Anyways, I am looking at this space and would really love to have something “cheap and cheerful” to start playing with at some point. Thoughts?