Category Archives: Essays

Culture of Distraction

From the Hacker News discussion of my Silicon-Valley-is-destroying-the-world remark I came across a Joe Kraus talk on We’re Creating a Culture of Distraction. (I’m a huge fan of Joe and excited to see he’s on WordPress now.)

It’s also important to read Paul Graham’s Acceleration of Addictiveness where he compares addictive technology to alcohol and cigarettes, society developed “antibodies” to the danger of cigarettes, but it took about a hundred years, and technology is changing much faster than that now.

The most prescient here is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, originally published in 1985. It’s long, but I’m going to quote the foreword in its entirety because it’s worth reading a few times over:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Oh, and we just launched new comment push notifications for iPhone and iPad. It’s one of those days. ;)

On the Evolution of Investing

Today Y Combinator announced they are adding two new partners, Garry Tan and Aaron Iba. This announcement is unique because it does not list their academic credentials, their previous investments, the boards of companies or non-profits they have sat on, how many years of experience they have, or any of the usual badges of honor investors parade in their biographies and Crunchbase profiles.

Instead we get accolades of “rare individuals who can both design and program” and “best hackers among the YC alumni.” Take note of this moment.

I was part of a dinner conversation the other night that included institutional and angel investors, entrepreneurs, and someone who was part of the YC program. The group circled with alarming intent on grilling the YC entrepreneur: “How much time did you actually get with PG?” “It’s a cult of personality.” “The average quality of the companies has really dropped as they’ve broadened.” “I can’t wait for this bubble to pop.” I believe it was mostly in jest — few topics were spared that night — but there was some truth in the defensive undertone.

The hackers and engineers of Y Combinator are doing what hackers and engineers do to any industry, they’re efficiently and ruthlessly disrupting the traditional model of venture capital and are going to destroy far more more wealth for their contemporaries than they create for themselves, as broadband did to entertainment, Craigslist did to newspapers, and Amazon did to traditional retailers. This is what outsiders, by definition, do.

The dark humor in this is that the same people who delight and celebrate investing in disrupting other industries are blind or in denial about it happening to their own.

The question then becomes if you’re an investor with a traditional LP model (and expectations), or a more financial background than an operational one, or an operational background more in management than in design or coding, what should you do to stay relevant through this shift?

What’s Next for Apple

I have no inside information or insight, but historically Apple’s product improvements have strongly broadcasted where they’re going in the future. Here are six things I think are inevitable for Apple to do over the next decade, from most to least obvious: maps, iCloud, payments, TVs, search, and cars.

1. Maps

When the iPhone was first released Steve Jobs called Maps on iPhone the best version of Google Maps on the planet, with emphasis on what Apple’s designers had brought to Google’s raw technology (can’t find that link). Four years later, you can’t imagine such a core piece of the mobile experience reliant on their largest competitor. Hopefully this will also give Apple a chance to fill usability gaps in the maps experience today, like that you can’t click from the “where” field in a calendar appointment straight to maps. (Drives me crazy.) Note that the only “Google” branding in maps today is in the bottom left, they know they’re getting replaced and have done an admirable job on the Safari version of maps on iPhone and iPad.

Google Maps + Navigation on Android is my favorite mobile app of the past 3 years (haven’t used Siri yet) — it’s what Garmin should have built $8 billion in revenue and R&D ago. (Remember the Garmin Nüvifone?) Apple was smart to partner in the beginning, but they can, and should, raise the bar.

2. iCloud

The abstraction of documents, photos, videos, their equivalents in “bought” media (iBooks, music, movies, and TV shows from the iTunes store), the deemphasis of the filesystem with every iteration of OS X, and the rough ideas of things like MobileMe’s dock syncing, points to the combination of services that will ultimately disrupt the “magic folder” providers like Dropbox. I love Dropbox, but it’ll be impossible for them to do the deep OS integration needed to match the direction Apple is heading — never thinking about what is where, ever again, just having everything you’ve ever created or used available in the same place on all your devices.

They know this is best for consumers. My friend Rene told me how when his hard drive crashed last year he contacted Apple support and they gave him a link to re-download the past 4 years of music he’d purchased on iTunes. That’s obviously the right thing to do, even if labels have had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward it. By this time tomorrow it’ll just be part of the experience when he signs into iTunes on a new computer. Update: Apple released iTunes 10.5 a day early with this feature.

3. Payments

Your phone becomes your credit card. Apple doesn’t replace Visa or Mastercard, but they do replace all of those scammy rewards and branded cards that prey on unsophisticated consumers. Google will probably do this first, but it’ll be like Microsoft Surface, brilliant but two sandwiches short of a picnic.

4. TVs

I recently got one of the new Thunderbolt displays and man, a super-sized version of this would be killer in my living room. (The speakers are surprisingly good.) TVs are just so bad, not so much in the hardware which can be beautiful like Samsung’s C9000 but in the mediocre software, un-features like Auto Motion (which makes beautiful films look like they were shot by a Jersey Shore cameraman with a beer in his other hand), and interfaces that just don’t do anything you would expect. Hello — you can detect when a cable is plugged in, don’t make me switch between 15 sources when only one is connected. My TV takes 5-10 seconds longer to turn on than my iPad. “Smart TVs” look like “smart phones” did in 2005 — completely lacking in imagination or joy.

But to really imagine the strategic importance of this you need to think beyond a super-sized Thunderbolt display and imagine what replaces iMac, one of Apple’s most beautiful creations. People’s need for a desktop is seriously declining for the first time since pundits started predicted the decline of the PC a decade ago. The post-PC ecosystem is in place now — touch, battery life, mobile-first applications, ubiquity of internet access, flash memory. (In Steve Jobs introduction of the first iPod, two things stand out to me: that terrible font, and the fact one of the main features is 20 minutes of skip protection.) Mobile works and is getting better, and you won’t have what we call a desktop 10 years from now.

Now imagine Apple has a shining 55″ monolith smack dab in the middle of your house. How big of a wifi antenna could they put in there? Could they crush all that lame Cisco teleconference stuff with TV FaceTime? Is there room for a few disk drives that don’t need to worry about skipping plus a SSD to make it fast? If you look at the direction Apple has been heading with Time Capsule locally caching software updates it’s not hard for something similar to work in the other direction, a digital hub that’s your media server for the house, a large-format display, a time capsule, and an Airplay target all in one. Imagine just one power cable coming out of it, and everything else wireless, just like the iMac, and a few killer apps we can’t even imagine yet.

Finally, home theatre needs disruption — this is a land of $200 Monster HDMI cables and similar gouging that functions like a state lottery, an intelligence tax. When I walk through Best Buy, which I try to do once every few months, it feels like it’s technology at its worst, the magic of progress used as smoke and mirrors to confuse and dupe consumers rather than make their lives better. The Apple TV is just another form factor for the unified experience Apple wants to create every time you touch an electronic device.

5. Search

There are hints of this in maps, but just like Craigslist is being killed not by a Craigslist-like clone but rather by a thousand highly focused replacements, so too Google will face its existential crisis not from another webpage with a centered white box, but from the interface and context of search changing completely. Many of Google’s searches aren’t that valuable, and a huge percentage of the ones that are aren’t going to happen at the desktop anymore .The context of your location (which your phone already knows) the “results page” of a fantastic map application and the input of a next-generation search interface, like Siri, completely changes the rules of engagement. Google’s not investing in mobile because they wanted a better phone.

6. Cars

This is the most far-out, but I think most certain. Voice-controlled search through Siri and Apple Maps provide the hands-free framework for a rich interactive experience while driving. Walk down the car stereo aisle in Best Buy and see what $800 gets you, or a $300 GPS from Garmin, vs an iPad or iPhone. The screens feel like a TI-92 calculator. The typography makes my eyes bleed. I find it morally reprehensible how bad these products are because it’s one of the areas of technology where a bad interface is most directly tied to injuries and deaths. Car folks are making their iPhone/iPod integrations better and better, which may be a glass of ice water in hell, but they’ll never make the jump to providing a beautiful marriage of media, search, and navigation that a great in-car experience needs. Right now you can spend 110k on a Tesla Roadster, a car of the future, and for an additional $4,500 (9 iPads!) get this Alpine head unit. (Watch that video and try not to laugh at how bad the interface is.) Retail it only sets you back 1.4 iPads. That’s just sad.

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” — Alan Kay, 1982. People who make hardware should get their software act together before Apple does for them.

Discussion on Hacker News.

Why Your Company Should Have a Creed

Does your company have a creed? Twice a year, True Ventures (one of Automattic’s investors) organizes an event called Founders’ Camp, a one-day conference for the founders and CEOs of companies in their portfolio. The latest was held in the Automattic Lounge at Pier 38 in San Francisco (it could be the last).

There was an interesting conversation led by Ethan Diamond, Alex Bard, Howard Lindzon, and Narendra Rocherolle on the importance of culture in an organization and how it gets formed. Despite its importance, “culture” is one of those fuzzy things that’s difficult for many founders, especially men, to discuss earnestly.  Even though I have extremely strong opinions about company culture, I find it feels “corny” to talk about it directly. Nevertheless, as part of the discussion, I shared the following practical example from Automattic about something we did to codify and share our values.

It started innocently enough — someone copied me when they emailed their paperwork to accept a job offer. For the first time in a while I looked at the offer letter and realized that it read like a bad generic legal template: no branding; terrible typography; the most important information (start date, salary, stock options) buried under a sea of text; and, worst of all, it was being sent out in .docx format (especially embarrassing for a company whose foundation is Open Source). The offer didn’t reflect who we were, how we worked, and certainly not how we thought about design and user experience.

Nick and MT of the Janitorial team at Automattic designed new documents and worked out a clever way to have a web form on our intranet generate the pages as HTML. It has some extra goodies like vector signatures. Anybody sending a contract or offer can create a PDF out of that web page, and email the document out to the recipient. Everything is logged and tracked. (As a bonus our legal templates for employees and contractors are now tracked in SVN along with the rest of our code.)

Finally, as a hack to introduce new folks to our culture, we put a beta “Automattic Creed”, basically a statement of things important to us, written in the first person. We put it after the legal gobbledygook and before the signature area; if you chose to accept the offer, you’d sign your name next to the values before starting work. This seemed like a powerful statement and might affect people’s perceptions in the same way that putting signatures at the top of forms increases honesty.

That was around the beginning of May last year, and everyone who has joined since then (about half the company) has gotten the creed in their offer letter. The feedback from the beta was excellent and later that same month we added the creed to the home page of our Automattic Field Guide (our internal reference site), where it still lives today with a link to a recent discussion about what the creed means in practice.

Adding the creed before the signature block ended up being an easy change that had a big impact on the company.

A fair number of founders at the event have asked what the creed is. If you’re curious here it is (as of September 19th, 2011):

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

I’m sure that it will evolve in the future, just as Automattic and WordPress will. If you’re building a startup or any sort of organization, take a few moments to reflect on the qualities that the people you most enjoy working with embody and the user experience of new people joining your organization, from the offer letter to their first day.

Of course if you’d like to see the above in an offer letter, consider applying for Automattic.

If you write a creed for your company or non-profit after reading this, please leave it in the comments!

1.0 Is the Loneliest Number

Many entrepreneurs idolize Steve Jobs. He’s such a perfectionist, they say. Nothing leaves the doors of 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino without a polish and finish that makes geeks everywhere drool. No compromise!

I like Apple for the opposite reason: they’re not afraid of getting a rudimentary 1.0 out into the world.

“No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” — cmdrtaco, Slashdot.org, 2001, reviewing the first iPod

I remember my first 1G iPhone. Like a meal you have to wait for, or a line outside a club, the fact that I stood in line for hours made the first time I swiped to unlock the phone that much sweeter. It felt like I was on Star Trek and this was my magical tricorder… a tricorder that constantly dropped calls on AT&T’s network, had a headphone adapter that didn’t fit any of the hundreds of dollars of headphones I owned, ran no applications, had no copy and paste, and was as slow as molasses.

Now, the crazy thing about that release is when the original iPhone went public, flaws and all, you know that in a secret room somewhere on Apple’s campus they had a working prototype of the 3GS with a faster processor, better battery life, normal headphone jack… a perfect everything. Steve Jobs was probably already carrying around one in his pocket. How painful it must have been to have everyone criticizing them for all the flaws they had already fixed but couldn’t release yet because they were waiting for component prices to come down or for some bugs to be worked out of the app store.

“$400 for an Mp3 Player! I’d call it the Cube 2.0 as it wont sell, and be killed off in a short time… and it’s not really functional. Uuhh Steve, can I have a PDA now?” — elitemacor, macrumors.com, 2001, responding to the original iPod announcement

Or, I wonder, are they really quite zen about the whole thing? There is a dark time in WordPress development history, a lost year. Version 2.0 was released on December 31st, 2005, and version 2.1 came out on January 22nd, 2007. Now just from the dates, you might imagine that perhaps we had some sort of rift in the open source community, that all the volunteers left or that perhaps WordPress just slowed down. In fact it was just the opposite, 2006 was a breakthrough year for WP in many ways: WP was downloaded 1.5 million times that year, and we were starting to get some high-profile blogs switching over. The growing prominence had attracted scores of new developers to the project and we were committing new functionality and fixes faster than we ever had before.

What killed us was “one more thing.” We could have easily done three major releases that year if we had drawn a line in the sand, said “finished,” and shipped the darn thing. The problem is that the longer it’s been since your last release the more pressure and anticipation there is, so you’re more likely to try to slip in just one more thing or a fix that will make a feature really shine. For some projects, this literally goes on forever.

“hey – heres an idea Apple – rather than enter the world of gimmicks and toys, why dont you spend a little more time sorting out your pathetically expensive and crap server line up? or are you really aiming to become a glorified consumer gimmicks firm?” — Pants, macrumors.com, 2001

I imagine prior to the launch of the iPod, or the iPhone, there were teams saying the same thing: the copy + paste guys are *so close* to being ready and we know Walt Mossberg is going to ding us for this so let’s just not ship to the manufacturers in China for just a few more weeks… The Apple teams were probably embarrassed. But if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version you waited too long.

A beautiful thing about Apple is how quickly they obsolete their own products. I imagine this also makes the discipline of getting things out there easier. Like I mentioned before, the longer it’s been since the last release the more pressure there is, but if you know that if your bit of code doesn’t make this version but there’s the +0.1 coming out in 6 weeks, then it’s not that bad. It’s like flights from San Francisco to LA, if you miss one you know there’s another one an hour later so it’s not a big deal. Amazon has done a fantastic job of this with the Kindle as well, with a new model every year.

Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world. It’s even worse because development doesn’t happen in a vacuum — if you have a halfway decent idea, you can be sure that there are two or three teams somewhere in the world that independently came up with it and are working on the same thing, or something you haven’t even imagined that disrupts the market you’re working in. (Think of all the podcasting companies — including Ev Williams’ Odeo — before iTunes built podcasting functionality in.)

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.

You think your business is different, that you’re only going to have one shot at press and everything needs to be perfect for when Techcrunch brings the world to your door. But if you only have one shot at getting an audience, you’re doing it wrong.

After the debacle of the 2.0 -> 2.1 lost year of 2006 the WordPress community adopted a fairly aggressive schedule of putting a major release out 3 times a year, and we stuck to it fairly well although in 2009-2010 we’ve slacked a bit, falling into the “one more thing” mentality again. But more fundamentally it’s still shrink-wrap software, which means that updates burden its users in some way so we have to spread them out.

That’s why I love working on web services and pretty much everything Automattic focuses on is a service. On WordPress.com we deploy code to production twenty or thirty times a day and anyone in the company can do it. We measure the deploy time to hundreds of servers and if it gets too slow (more than 30-60 seconds) we figure out a new way to optimize it. In that short rapid iteration environment the most important thing isn’t necessarily how perfect code is when you send it out, but how quickly you can revert if you need to so the cost of a mistake is really low, under a minute of brokenness. Someone can go from idea to working code to production and more importantly real users in just a few minutes and I can’t imagine any better form of testing.

“Real artists ship.” — Steve Jobs, 1983

A version 1.0 of this essay appeared in the book Do More Faster. I should also note that Automattic is always hiring.

Say: Six Apart + VideoEgg

The story has completely broken now (TechCrunch, GigaOM, NY Times) that Six Apart is being is being acquired by VideoEgg, and the combined entities are going to be called Say Media and focus on advertising. This is bittersweet news as Six Apart, with their platforms, has always been Automattic’s and WordPress’s most direct competitor, with Movable Type equivalent to WordPress.org, Typepad (and Livejournal and Vox) to WordPress.com, Typepad anti-spam to Akismet, Typepad Connect to IntenseDebate. I’ve always thought of them like our big brother — they created the marketplace and introduced the concept of blogs to countless people, and still to this day employ 2-3x the number of people at Automattic. (And, it follows, probably do more revenue than us.) I remember many aspects of Six Apart’s history vividly: Anil joining Six Apart in 2003. The 3.0 licensing change and Mark Pilgrim’s Freedom 0 essay, a few weeks later when I first met Ben and Mena on my first trip to San Francisco, visiting Six Apart’s old old digs in an office park somewhere. They had clocks on their walls where their different employees were and I thought that was the coolest thing. Jay Allen joining MT. Typekey launch! The Salon feature. The acquisition of Livejournal. Yadis née OpenID. Their big series B. Mena’s TED Talk. Project Comet which launched as Vox and frankly had me freak out. Acquisition of Rojo (with Chris Alden later becomeing 6A’s CEO). Typepad introducing Pages. Livejournal sold to SUP. The tift we got into around WordPress 2.5. On stage with Steve Jobs at launch of app storeBuying Pownce. (Some of this is out of order.) About a year ago something changed and the Typepad (and Blogger) team really started to hit a groove and seemed to be launching significant, well thought out, and social features on a near-weekly basis. On a feature-for-feature basis the Big Three are closer than they’ve ever been. The tech press is fickle and these launches get almost no coverage, but for each platform’s respective users they’ve been really meaningful. The new company is not getting out of the platform business. Their position is incredibly strong in Japan and I get the sense that’s where the center of gravity for Movable Type development has been for a while. But their primary focus (and revenue) is shifting, and I think that is great for the market as a whole. I would be really sad if Adsense continues to be the best best the world can come up with with regards to advertising on blogs, and now in Say you have the quiet execution monster of Videoegg combined with some of the folks who understand blogging better than anyone else in the world, and my hope is that Automattic’s work with dovetail with Say’s more than ever. VideoEgg, for now, is actually a great example of a site using WordPress as a CMS. (View its source.)

A New Home for the WordPress Trademark

As I write this, I’m on my way to Seaside, Florida to see 60+ Automatticians at our yearly meetup. More than sixty… that number astounds me! Automattic has grown so far beyond what I originally imagined and every day I’m amazed by my colleagues and the things they create. Today we’re growing in another way: Automattic has transferred the WordPress trademark to the WordPress Foundation, the non-profit dedicated to promoting and ensuring access to WordPress and related open source projects in perpetuity. This means that the most central piece of WordPress’s identity, its name, is now fully independent from any company.

This is a really big deal.

I want to recognize and applaud the courage and foresight of Automattic’s board, investors, and legal counsel who made this possible: Mike Hirshland, Phil Black, Tony Conrad, Toni Schneider, Gunderson Dettmer. I’d also like to thank Matt Bartus of Dorsey & Whitney for their counsel on the Foundation side. The WordPress brand has grown immeasurably in the past 5 years and it’s not often you see a for-profit company donate one of their most valuable core assets and give up control. However, I know in my heart that this is the right thing for the entire WordPress community, and they followed me on that. It wasn’t easy, but things worth doing seldom are.

When Automattic registered the WordPress trademark back in 2006, we were a small startup of a few people: a business founded largely to enable us to work on WordPress full-time instead of hacking around our day jobs. A lot has changed since then — somehow along the way we ended up with an audience of a quarter billion people — but a lot has stayed the same. We’re still a group of people in love with WordPress and free/open source software and we’re lucky to have figured out a way to contribute to the world and flourish as a business while doing it.

Automattic might not always be under my influence, so from the beginning I envisioned a structure where for-profit, non-profit, and not-just-for-profit could coexist and balance each other out. It’s important for me to know that WordPress will be protected and that the brand will continue to be a beacon of open source freedom regardless of whether any company is as benevolent as Automattic has been thus far. It’s important to me to know that we’ve done the right thing. Hopefully, it’s important to you, too, and you’ll continue your support of WordPress, the WordPress Foundation, and Automattic’s products and services. We couldn’t do it without you!