Internet

Browsers: Time to have a default margin

In most browsers, the default style presents text adjecent to all sides of the browser window, with no margin. This is a throwback to early days of screen design, when screen real estate was considered so valuable that deliberately wasting it with whitespace was sacrilige.

Of course, in centuries of design on paper, nobody ever put text right up to the margins. Everybody knows it’s ugly and not what the eye wants. Thus, when you see a web page using the default style, which I end up with myself out of laziness, people have a reaction to it as ugly.

Screens are now big enough that it’s time to change the default style to be one that is easier to read. And that means margins. If a page designer wants to put stuff up against the edges, they can easily define their own stylesheets now to do this, so let them do it. I doubt they ever will put text there, though they might put graphics or their own custom margins. If text to the edges is a choice that nobody would make if given the option, it sure seems like silly default to have. It won’t break anything, you can just make the window wider, or make it a user option (which I believe it is in some browsers, but rarely set).

And then more people could use the default for quick pages without having to think about style every time they spit out a web page.

How web sites can do a much smarter 'pledge drive'

There is buzz about how Jason Kottke, of kottke.org, has abandoned his experiment of micropayment donations to support his full-time blogging. He pulled in $40,000 in the year, almost all of it during his 3 week pledge drive, but that's hardly enough. Now I think he should try adsense, but I doubt he hasn't heard that suggestion before.

However, PBS/NPR are able to get a large part of their budgets through pledge drives, so it's possible to make this happen. I think we should be able to do it better on the web.

For example, on PBS/NPR, when they start the pledge drive, they get into a pretty boring endless repeat of the basic message. They tell you that if they reach the goal, they can end the pledge drive early. But this rarely happens, and even when it does, if you pledge early, it doesn't stop the begging.

On the web it could. You could do a pledge drive here where, after a person donates, the drive is over for them. This is not the same as sites that simply charge a subscription fee to get past the ads (such as Salon and Slashdot). This would be an organized pledge drive which is over for everybody after a set period, but over even sooner for those who donate. (There's a touch of work to do for people who use multiple machines, of course.)

Indeed you could even have a "turn off pledge drive I'm never going to give" button for the freeloaders as an experiment. Or it might turn it down a notch. Hard to say if this would work. Of course, people could also write filters for web begging if you make the drives too long. Of course, the drive could even be started at an individual time for the less frequent visitors, though that punishes those who disable cookies or switch machines.

Wanted: A google/yahoo/etc. ad optimizer

Yahoo is now entering the context-driven ad field to compete with Adsense, and that’s good for publishers and web authors. I have had great luck with adsense, and it provides serious money for this blog and my other web sites, which is why I have the affiliate link on the right bar encouraging you to join adsense — though I won’t mind the affiliate fee as well, of course.

But I’m trying Yahoo now, and soon MSN will enter the fray. However, it seems to me that no one network will be best for a diverse site. Each network will have different advertisers bidding up certain topic areas. In an efficient market, advertisers would quickly shift to the networks that give them the best performance (cheapest price, most qualified clicks) but in practice this won’t happen very often.

So it would make sense for somebody to build a web site optimizing engine. This engine would automate the task of switching various pages on a site between one network and another, and measuring performance. Over time it would determine which network is performing the best for each page or each section of the site and switch the pages to use the best network. It might run further tests to see how things change.

Such optimizations could take place even during the day. (Yahoo doesn’t have much intraday reporting yet.) For example, Google does better in the morning than it does in the evening. I guess that this is because advertisers have set a daily budget, and more of them hit their budget as the day goes on. My CPMs usually start high and then sink in the later hours. It might make sense to switch from Google to Yahoo as the CPM drops. However, Yahoo’s advertisers will have their own budget limits so this may not help.

Another interesting optimization might be to present different ads depending on whether the user came in from the associated search engine. Theory: If the user searched for “copyright” on Google to come to my copyright myths page the chances are they already saw a lot of copyright related adwords ads. Might make more sense to show a different set of ads from another network. Likewise if they came in from Yahoo, might be best to show the Google ads. If they come in from elsewhere, use the best performing network. This would be generated live, based on the Referer field. Hard to say if the search engines would like it or not

Experimenting with Yahoo Publisher for RSS

While I have been using Google ads on the blog for some time (and they do quite well), they don’t yet do RSS ads outside of a more limited beta program. So I’m trying Yahoo’s ads, also in beta but I’m on the list.

They just went live, and all that’s showing right now is a generic ad, presumably until they spider the site and figure out what ads to run. Ideally it will be ads as relevant as Google Adsense does.

Competition between Google and Yahoo will be good for publishers. Just on basic click-rates, one will tend to do better than the other, presumably. If one is consistently doing not as well, they will lose all the partners, who will flock to the other. The only way to fix that will be to increase the percentage of the money they pay out, until they get to a real efficient market percentage they can’t go above.

Read on for examination of the economics of RSS ads.  read more »

Deep bookmarks in the browser

In playing with a few firefox extensions that display things like my cellular minutes used, I realized they were really performing a limited part of something that could be really useful — deep bookmarks which can go past login screens and other forms to go directly to a web page.

So many web sites won’t let you bookmark a page that you must log-in to see, and they time out your login session after a short time. The browser will remember my password for the login screen, but it won’t log me in and go to the page I want. Likewise, pages only available through a POST form can’t be boomarked.

A deep bookmark would be made by going to a page, then using the BACK tool to go back to the entry page before it, which may be more than simply the previous page. You would then ask for a deep bookmark, and it would record the entire path from entry/login page to most forward page, including items posted to forms. Passwords would be recorded in the protected password database of course.

This would work in many cases, but not always. Some deep URLs include a session ID, and that must explicitly not be recorded as the target, as the session will have expired. In a few cases the user might have to identify the session key but many are obvious. And of course in some cases the forms may change from time to time and thus not be recordable. Handling them would require a complex UI but I think they are rare.

This would allow quick bookmarks to check balances, send paypal money and more. There is some risk to this, but in truth you’ve already taken the risk with the passwords stored in the password database, and of course these bookmarks would not work unless you have entered the master decryption password for the password database some time recently.

On the two-tier internet

Of late there’s been talk of ISPs somehow “charging” media-over-IP providers (such as Google video) for access to “their” pipes. This is hard to make sense of, since when I download a video from a site, I am doing it over my pipe, which I have bought from my ISP, subject to the contract that I have with it. Google is sending the data over their pipe, which they bought to connect to the central peering points and to my ISP. However, companies like BellSouth, afraid that voice and video will be delivered to their customers in competition with their own offerings, want to do something to stop it.

To get around rules about content neutrality on the network that ILEC based ISPs are subject to, they now propose this as a QOS issue. That there will be two tiers, one fast enough for premium video, and one not fast enough.

Today I’ve seen comments from Jeff Pulver and Ed Felten on possible consequences of such efforts. However, I think both directions miss something… (read on)  read more »

MMORPG for Seniors and Shut-ins

I was visiting a senior citizen today who rarely leaves her house due to lack of mobility. Like many her age, she is not connected to the net, nor interested in it. Which makes the following idea a challenge.

Could we design a really engaging game/online community for seniors? Especially those who have had to give up much of their old community because of infirmity? They don’t want to slay monsters like in Evercrack or Warcraft. They won’t build objects like in Second Life.

It must be a killer app — so compelling that they are willing to learn a bit about computers in order to get it. For some seniors, they killer app has been emails and photos from grandchildren.

The game would have to be aimed at the fantasies that seniors have, and it must also be deliberately aimed at the computer novice with less desire to learn new technology than average. (Not that there aren’t seniors with full ability to learn new tech — many of them are already online.)

Thus it would not necessarily require the hottest new graphics cards or fastest net connection. It might try to avoid typing or require fast reaction times. It might use audio for socializing, and focus on the topics most dear to these players. (I jokingly wonder if avatars should be surrounded by pictures of grandkids.) Obviously research is needed to see what they want to play about, and how to deliver it.

There are also questions of levels of ability. Some people become mentally infirm with age and their skills and desires are limited. But is there nothing in the way of interactive community entertainment we can offer them?

Adsense and the advertising/editorial wall

You are probably familiar with Google adsense, which is providing the ads you see on the right hand side of this page. Adsense code examines the text of pages, and tries to match Google adwords bids against it. The publisher of the page gets some undisclosed share of the Google revenue.

Recently adsense has been improving a lot for me, and my revenue from it per day has more than doubled, either due to better ad placement, better share or higher bids — it’s hard to say. It has gotten good enough that one can now readily see making a living as a good web writer through adsense. At an extreme example, my Copyright Myths article, which is admittedly very popular, is now generating over $250 per month in revenue. Just that one article. An author able to generate articles that popular (admittedly difficult, part of the popularity comes from having been around for decades and being linked to from many places) could make a living wage.

On one hand, Adsense seems like a great implementation of the wall that is supposed to exist between advertising and editorial. I have no idea what ads will appear, I don’t control it. I have no relationship with the advertisers, and there are so many advertisers that it would be hard for any one of them to hold sway over me as a writer.

However, there is an opposite factor. Clearly some topics are much more lucrative than others. My jokes and photos pay just a small fraction of what writing on copyright pays, because there are lots of copyright lawyers willing to bid high to advertise to people curious about that topic. My spam essays pay decently because of anti-spam companies. My DNS essays get little traffic, but when they do they get people selling domain names etc.

In the extreme, if you become the big expert on a disease like mesothelioma, the asbestos caused disorder, laywers hoping to sign up clients will pay many dollars for every click. (It was famously the most expensive word in a survey last year.)

So there is a strong push now, for a writer wanting to make a living (instead of one like me getting some extra change) to write about the very specific topics that get high adwords or overture bids.

Part of this is nothing new. In the past the way to make the most profitable magazine was to cover a topic that would attract readers that advertisers want to reach. Some general media, like newspapers, sought only to gain an audience, and advertisers would pay to reach the general audience.

But advertisers don’t want to reach a general audience, or only rarely do they wish to do so. Google has broken one of the great aphorisms of advertising, “90% of all advertising is wasted, the problem is figuring which 90%.” And from this they have a multi-billion dollar business. But how will this affect editorial down the road?

Interviewed about USENET on public radio "Marketplace"

I am told an interview I did a few months ago on USENET and elements of its history will air today on the American Public Media show “Marketplace.” The audio can be played from the Marketplace web site in realplayer format. It airs on most NPR stations at times ranging from early afternoon to about 6:30pm.

I did my interview mostly on history, but the story ended up mostly being about Google with just a few quotes from me (with other quotes from friends of mine like Marissa Meyer and Lauren Weinstein, who got to play the privacy advocate though it’s normally my job.)

When I did this interview, I did it by phone but put on a headset mic and recorded my audio locally. Then I uploaded an MP3 of my end to Marketplace. I also did this with an All Things Considered interview in 2003. Worked out pretty well.

If you’re curious about what the original interview (about USENET) sounded like before being turned into quotes for a Google story, you can hear my side (but not the questions, but you don’t need them) by downloading it from this 5 megabyte Speex File. You will need a Speex decoder (it is a free codec meant just for good quality speech, you’re getting 5 minutes of audio per megabyte!) If you can’t do Speex, try the 15MB mp3

Intermittent free wifi

I recently read the story of the coffee shop that's shutting down their free wifi on weekends because it mostly gets them moochers who, far worse than simply not buying anything, sit and stare at computers and don't talk to anybody. They found that when they shut down the free network, they not only got people to buy more coffee, the place was also more social.

So while there are a variety of solutions to sell or control access to a network, such as printing tokens that give a period of access on every receipt, or selling the access as they do at Starbucks, here's another idea -- intermittent access.

In such a system the access point lets you on for a modest amount of time. Enough for a quick web search or two, a checking of your e-mail or even a modest phone call. Then it denies you access. It doesn't have to deny it for long, perhaps just 5 minutes before you can get on again. No authentication, though during the period of denied access, it may redirect all web requests to a page that explains the situation, and optionally offers continuous access for money.

Though that's not the main goal. The main goal is to create an atmosphere where you're coming to the shop to do other than stare at your computer, but in which you can use it on occasion to get your fix.

Who knows, if the sale option for continuous access was popular, it might even make more money than an always charging system. Of course, fancy users could change their MAC address to get around it -- but if they're going to go that far, let them. Most won't.  read more »

Down with PoIP

Voice over IP, a field I've been working in, has been generating some recent excitement. And that's appropriate.

However a lot of the talk is about something I consider the wrong direction. I call it PoIP, for PSTN over IP or worse, POTS over IP. (POTS, in turn, stands for Plain old Telephone Service.)

This is largely what you get from Vonage and AT&T CallVantage and similar companies. An effort to create a product very similar to the old style phone or PBX, just at a lower price. Yes, there are some differences -- a few cute features formely found only in higher end PBXs and so-called Intelligent switches, and of course the geography-independent nature of using your internet connection as the hookup.

But must of these new features are evolutionary. They aren't the "disruptive" change that we're really looking for. Indeed, in the early days, I used to joke that VoIP was "Not quite as good as the old telephone, but at least it's harder to configure."

It may be that reputation that scared people into making PoIP. They feel, perhaps correctly, that first they must convince the public that VoIP isn't scary, that it's very similar to the phone. And indeed, some customers need that convincing. But that train of thought never leads to a disruptive change, and Vonage will never survive being AT&T for a few bucks less.

Skype, for better or worse, was ready to give up the old world, and insist you use a PC to make calls. I've had investors insist there is no way people would pick up a mouse to make calls, but they are doing so.

A disruptive product is worse than the status quo in others, and does something new the old guard weren't expecting. VoIP users should embrace the internet, not just to jam it into the phone.

Support public/private in 802.11 access points

Almost everybody has a WiFi (802.11) access point these days. Some leave them open by accident, some deliberately, some turn on encryption or other security. Being open can be nice to neighbours and wanderers, though it can also be abused, and if you have insecure machines on the local NAT, it's risky.

I propose pushing home NAT/WiFi boxes to, by default, work in both open and closed modes. They would support two NAT networks, independent of one another. One network would be for inside. Connecting machines on the inside network would need the WEP encryption key, or in lesser-security mode, be on the approved MAC list. Machines without the authentication would go on the external, open network.

The two networks might have two different SSIDs if the box can broadcast both of them, or it might be easier to have one broadcast SSID and one non-broadcast one.

Traffic for the external network would be given low priority, so that internal network use is never slowed by external use.

In other words, other than ISP complaints, there would be no reason not to do this. It would be good for giving access to visitors to the home or office, and also mean free wireless almost everywhere in the world.

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