Is Facebook having a MySpace moment?

Facebook goes public in May, simultaneous with the founder’s glitzy wedding. The stock hits an immediate high – and steadily declines since. Conspiracy theorists suggest that Zuckerberg timed everything to perfection – getting “other people’s money” in as the popularity wave peaked.  And making a heap of cash for himself, naturally. Other pundits take the view that Facebook’s statistics alone ensure that the company will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Taking a more middle road, Kathryn Cave, editor at IDG Connect, posted recently asking: “Is Facebook the New Britney Spears?” 

Personally, I would have gone for the headline:  “Is Facebook  ‘following’ Lindsay Lohan (into rehab)?”; or:  “Is Facebook ‘LIke’ Paris Hilton?”

Sure, the stats look awesome: more than 50% of Americans have Facebook profiles, and market penetration elsewhere has been equally impressive.  But there’s the crux.

Is Facebook just famous for being famous?  What is Facebook’s market?  The question I and lots of others asked way back still remains unanswered: how will Facebook effectively monetize the service it offers?   How will it cope with user backlash?  And how will it protect itself from competitors? What’s to stop some new, brash crowd from doing to Facebook what it did to MySpace?  

Maybe ‘cause I come from a manufacturing, and then a software engineering background, I want to see “real” products and services, and intellectual assets.

What unique intellectual property does Facebook have?  What real products and services does it offer? Zip Zilch.  It had an idea, but, unlike Microsoft, Apple and Google, it never created something “saleable”, or that can be protected with patents.  In fact, I reckon Facebook is extremely vulnerable, in all areas, and this is behind the 67% (to date) decline in its worth (a whopping $40 billion plus pile of cash that went walk-about)

So – why are investors bailing out?  Well, here are what I see as some of the reasons:

Facebook is free. Which in part accounts for its meteoric rise.  For millions of people, Facebook is a pretty central part of their online social activities.  But, human nature being what it is – all those millions of Facebook addicts are getting very peeved over the “advertising” issues, and how it’s becoming more invasive, and, some would say, downright misleading.  (Ever had “Likes” mysteriously appear on your profile, and you’re totally sure you had nothing to do with it?)  “Free” equates to “no commitment”, easy come, easy go.  Addiction craves change. When something new comes along . . .

And, in simple speak, how does “like” turn into actual sales?  To hell with “like” – I’d LOVE to drive a Ferrari (and, kind donor, red is not an absolute must, here); and so the list of likes goes on. But all the folk I chat with about this are totally oblivious to most of this commercial “liking” being exchanged between profiles.  Let’s prove it.  If you “Like” a photo that a Facebook friend has posted, often you get a comment back, and there’s a bit of social exchange thankfully slightly more meaningful than just clicking the blessed “Like” button. But have you EVER had or seen any meaningful response related to “Liking” a commercial product? Eventually it just has the W.T.F. syndrome. In other words – it’s blah. Yada yada. There’s no “coolness” to be gained by simply “liking” something. In fact, it’s uncool.  Possession is 10/10ths of the Law, in today’s materialistic society. Trying to build a business model around getting people to “like” things becomes like unrequited love. Sad and slightly pathetic for all concerned. 

Mr Zuckerberg evidently never thought or heard of the swinging 60s, when every sentence was saturated with the word “like” until, like, you could have entire conversations, like, just using the word like. 

Second reason: There’s no loyalty factor. Ditching MySpace was no train smash. It wasn’t painful, or even uncomfortable. We just did it. And once the flow started, there was no stopping it.

Perhaps Facebook’s situation is best illustrated by putting it up against three other I.T. giants. Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

Google made its debut with an awesome search engine. The word “Google” is now part of global language. And then Google created GMail: a free cloud based service, built “on top” we could say, of Google’s search algorithms.  And people abandoned Hotmail (and all the other look-alikes) in droves – and stayed away. Like most company executives, I’m very suspicious of cloud-based services – but GMail works for me.  I wouldn’t be without it. And it goes on innovating, and introducing services I like, and want to use. Most tellingly – it has managed to integrate advertising without peeving me off. (Which is a compliment to the Google boys, and a dig at Facebook).

Microsoft:  whoa – you say, how can we compare Facebook with Microsoft. And that’s just the point, but maybe not for the reasons that flashed through your mind. Like Microsoft, Facebook is in the software game – but Facebook has nothing to fall back on. If Windows 8 fails – life at Redmond continues. The feeling I get from the Facebook boys is nervousness – the house of cards syndrome.  Microsoft has over the years totally peeved millions of users, but, generally, its products work, and we need (and pay for) them. If this need, and connection, didn’t exist, we would all have moved to Linux and Open Office, and a life of open source nirvana. Come on, it’s true. Or, is someone going to suggest that we like paying heaps of hard earned cash into the Redmond goldmine? 

Apple: here the comparison really starts to hurt Facebook. I have NEVER had a “wow, that’s cool” moment using Facebook. In fact, the total opposite. Unlike Apple, Facebook “software” is klutzy, cumbersome, non-intuitive, ugly and a general pain in the ass. Mention Facebook and the usual response is: “Oh, Facebook just wastes too much time. I don’t go there much anymore”.  By comparison, think about Apple. A company with its roots in the I.T. industry. An innovator, often visionary. A company that delivers beautifully designed “cool” products that work, and keep their customers coming back for more. (And even have Microsoft eating their hearts out with envy)

Unfair comparisons?  Not at all. This is the real business world, a brutally tough, competitive place. Essentially it’s all about software.  Google software, Microsoft software, Apple software – and how Facebook’s software compares.  To be totally honest, speaking as a developer, I would hate to work at Facebook. Their software give me the feeling, all the time, that it’s “cobbled” together, that there’s no real vision.  Betcha the actual code would be classified under one of these two categories:  “Spagetti Junction” or “Object Hell”. (Non programmers, please excuse the techno-jargon. But you might like to Google those two phrases. Either way, I reckon it just adds to Facebook’s list of problems. 

So – are those “user” statistics all they’re cracked up to be?  Millions of people have opened Facebook profiles – but how many of them actually are daily users?  No-one is saying.  Is Facebook like a bank, where millions of people opened accounts, but never deposit any money?  Time will tell. But I don’t think the market is just acting on a whim. The insiders are in the know, and the tide is running.

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Fighting With Cruddy Software – Why Users Have Luddite Moments

My neighbor just acquired a brand new Apple Mac, and I recently spent a very pleasant afternoon looking at some of the features of this awesome machine. She mentioned that it was like “getting a Ferrari” – a little bit scary if you’re used to driving an old clunker. So for the 1st week or so, it sort of “stands on the driveway”, looking beautiful, while you summon up the courage to actually take it out for a spin.

All this led to reminiscing about my first Mac – way back in ’86, when the world was a little less crazy, the love affair with technology was still fresh,  there was hope for great things ahead, an’ I had a lot more hair.

This morning, sat down to work, ran into a glitch, and before long was using language that would make any sailor blush. If there was a button for “I Hate This $tinkin’ Piece of CR%#”, it would be worn out. Which makes you wonder – since this is the age of social media – why isn’t major software coming out with a “Vote” button so users can express their feelings. (Same applies to TV – but that’s another story.) And, forget “Like” versus “Dislike”. That’s a pathetic cop-out. If they really had guts, we’d also see a couple of extra voting options, for example:

  • Hate
  • Detest
  • Include Me In A Class Action Suite Against The Developer

Well – don’t they really want to know what their users think?

Why the antagonism? Well, I’ve been using this software for years. Umpteen upgrades, every one paid for. Its common knowledge the developers have made a whopping pile of money out of this product. But, instead of getting better – it gets worse. It tries to “guess” what I want – and guesses wrong just about every time. Even with simple stuff like “auto highlight”. It tries to force me to produce documents styled the way the developer thinks they should look. That’s invasion of my creative freedom. And, worst of all, it won’t tell me why it’s doing what it does. Sweet Mercy, at least the list numbering still works. ‘Cause, if you read the Tales of Woe on the Web, not even the developers know what ticks there. Except that it’s a time-bomb waiting to happen.

After wasting hours, I’m fuming. Have read the help files, googled, am better informed, but no nearer a solution. And here’s the rub – just remembered that I could do a similar thing on my old Mac – way back then, with eeny-teeny software – and it was just sort of intuitive. Kazaa! And it was done!  So what gives? We have software that takes up humungous space on our Terabyte hard-drives, needs Gigabytes of RAM to run, seems to have every bell and whistle in creation – BUT IT NEVER SEEMS TO BE ABLE TO JUST SIMPLY DO WHAT WE WANT.

Which makes me really look at software. The sort of Business Applications that millions of people use every day. Is it really getting easier to use? Or is it just the same old set of stubborn resistance, hiding under more flashy eye-candy.

Think about your software experience? How much time is actually spent on getting real work done – and how much is spent on fighting with the software? Searching help-files that seem to tell you everything EXCEPT what you need. Getting directions to do all sorts of complicated stuff, but you are trying to do something so simple it should be, well, “intuitive”.

As a developer, I see some of the reasons for the situation. Believe me – it is much EASIER tweaking the ‘eye-candy” stuff. And, since the “user interface” is what the long-suffering “users” get to see, this is considered “improvement”. BUT – to really write software that is truly “intuitive” – this is much more DIFFICULT.

In fact, sometimes it means scrapping virtually an entire development project, and starting again. And some little birdie tweets that this is NOT what the really big developers are going to do. You know the people we’re talking about – the folk who produce major office apps, and the like. And, nope, this is not a “Let’s Hate Microsoft” rant. There are other culprits out there with some really obtuse products. It’s like they create their own little software universe, and on the entry portal is a sign “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here

I rate software on the “Help-File Disuse Index”. If I get my work done, and never need to use the Help-file – the application gets a perfect 10. The more times I need to use Help – the lower the rating. And if I find myself looking up “Help” for the same problem more than thrice – then the rating is pretty close to a fat Zero. Because that feature is evidently really non-intuitive, and actually so obtuse that even the “instructions” didn’t stick. (And, please Mr. Software Developer, don’t try lay the rap on the user. Your job is to enable us to do our job.)

So, what’s your take on the direction software is taking? I mean, the stuff’s been around for decades. Have the developers really learnt anything, in the sense of making software that works WITHOUT a huge fight, or do you still find you’re wasting massive amounts of time, still frustrated and dissatisfied with the results?

In conclusion, remember the Luddites? An early form of protest against the tyranny of industrialization. Maybe it’ll have to get down to that – mobs with pitchforks and burning torches, to get some real changes in the software world.

PS: Interesting . . . the same app’s spell-checker doesn’t recognize the word “Luddite”. Nebuchadnezzar, yes, but not Luddite, or Ludd. Wonder if the developers have an explanation for that little omission. Or are they all bound by “Omerta“? Your guess is as good as mine. And, in a spare moment, you might like to google the Luddites.  For a moment of kinship.

PPS: Happy computing.   Auf Wiedersehen.

Dyslexic Software

WINDOWS DID IT AGAIN. This time the camera was handy and we got the pic documenting the problem. So . . . it’s time to blast the offenders.

Not that this is new. It’s been around since the dinosaurs (Win 95, that I remember, anyway) Each time a new version of Windows hits the streets, it’s the first thing I check. And – yes – it’s still there. A skeleton hiding in the cupboard. One of the most lunatic bits of programming / program design ever to blight this poor world. (And there have been some real boo boos.)

Let me get you into the picture. As anyone who has used Windows (any version) for more than an hour or two knows, mouse actions are divided between the Left and Right buttons. The Left button is used to select items. A double-click with the Left button usually causes an action event – and launches an application, or something like that.  (Microsoft definition)

The Right button brings up the selected item’s property page (Microsoft definition). Which gives you access to functions like Copy, Paste, Delete and RENAME.

HOWEVER – as many people also know (usually from painful experience), if you don’t do your Left button double-click at just the right speed . . . it’s interpreted by the operating system as “rename this object”. Which, as said previously, (and Microsoft agree), is a Right button action. AAAAAAARH!!! Dyslexic software!!!

Talk about this with anyone who has been a system admin, and you will be regaled with at least one story of the funny (and horrible) results of this TOTAL PIECE OF ILL-LOGIC.  You will hear stories about files that “disappeared”; folders ditto, even machines that disappeared off the network map. My favourite is the one about the entire accounting system that crashed. It started generating these really weird, sorta scary but vaguely funny error messages. It rapidly became unfunny.  Accounts department tearing their hair out. Frantic phone calls to the application vendor. People were being asked to check registry settings, scan for viruses, you name it. Someone half-seriously suggested we call in a priest to do an exorcism. The business owner (not a lover of technology at the best of times) was purple in the face, heading for heart-attack.

The actual cause was so simple. A member of staff had been looking for something, and, thanks to the “L/R Button Dyslexia Bug,”  a key folder (well, the accounting package thought so), had been renamed.  (She couldn’t remember what the folder’s original name was, so she called it something like “Unsorted”).  And, Mr Developer, please don’t pass the buck. Your job is to write software that protects the data.  The first thing they teach in programming school)

At another place, pretty much the same thing happened, except the lady re-named the object after herself. (Sensible, come to think of it.)  Note . . . I don’t call her the “person responsible” . . . because she is just one of the countless victims of the highly overpaid people who coded this piece of IMBECILITY.

 Of course, Microsoft is a mega-rich corporation that doesn’t need to listen to people. (And let’s not pretend otherwise – people have been writing about bugs like this ever since Windows 95 days). Which is why I pray for the day that somebody comes along, and gives us a solid, stable, dependable operating system . . . one which actually knows the difference between Left and Right button functions. Roll on the day!!!

Hell’s Teeth – sometimes I find myself longing for the bad ol’ days of the Black Screen. As it is, instead of getting software that simply works dependably, we get stuff with more and more complicated gimmicks. It’s like having a car that regularly breaks down. Every time you send it in to the manufacturer, it comes back with more “features” and a new dashboard – but the problem hasn’t been fixed. 

 All I can say is . . . Microsoft – you may be unspeakably wealthy – but shame on you. The world is confused enough, already.