March 28, 2007

Twittering robots

Filed under: newspapers, social networking, twitter, web 2, web 2.0, wireless — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:25 pm

One of the things that has impressed me about Twitter is the speed with which developers have adopted the API. There are more than 20 desktop applications and more than a dozen mashups listed on the Twitter Fan Wiki. The Wiki also lists non-humans that you can follow.

MarketWatch is one example. You can follow MarketWatch to stay updated on breaking business news. Other bots are available for CNN, BBC and The New York Times.

The CNN bot (and probably some of the others) was created by someone not associated with network. That’s one of the great things about open data and open APIs — motivated users can create new products. It’s unlikely that anyone at CNN or Twitter would have done it so quickly. I could see Twitter being used for Amber alerts or emergency weather updates.

Because Twitter can send messages to cellphones and IM, it’s an easy way to add alert capabilities to existing sites. That’s only likely to increase with the release of new APIs that allow more direct access by publishers.

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March 27, 2007

Google’s revamped mobile site simplifies search

Filed under: google, local search, mobile, mobile search, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:05 pm

Google revamped its mobile search offering, simplifying the search process. Before, you had to enter a search term and then select which index they wanted to search: Web, mobile, local or images. Now you can type in a search term and Google will try to determine what you’re most likely to be looking for and put it at the top of the page. It works in much the same way as Yahoo!’s oneSearch.

Web and mobile results are intermixed below any specialized results.

Sites optimized for mobile phones are indicated with a phone icon. These sites seem to get boosted, but not always to the top. A search for “weather” has the mobile version of first in the Web pages section. That’s followed by the Web version of, then Yahoo!’s mobile weather site.

If you click through to a Web page, Google adapts it to fit a mobile device.

The results are generally pretty good. Here’s what came up first for various query terms:

  • “namesake” – Movie showtimes.
  • “pizza” – Local listings.
  • “iraq war” – News.
  • “capitals” – Live score information for the Washington Capitals game in progress. I deliberately picked a vague query term to test the smarts. When I changed my location from Arlington, Va., to San Francisco, the search for capitals didn’t bring up the Caps score.
  • “madonna” – Images.
  • “parks” – Local listings.
  • “goog” – Stock quote.
  • “weather” – Local weather forecast.
  • “gilbet arenas” – Images, followed by news.
  • “antonella barba” – Images. No, not those images. That term seems to be a spam magnet.

There were a few disappointments:

  • null“bush” – Oddly, images before news. The top image (at right) is different from the first result on Google image search.
  • “faccia luna” – I expected local information, not images. Local business names were generally hit-and-miss. Some pulled up business information, others didn’t. I had better luck with chains.
  • “UA 484″ – Unfortunately, no flight status.

Google SMS – a way out of voice recognition hell

Filed under: airlines, google, mobile, travel, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:46 am

Google is offering flight status information via SMS. Just send your flight number (e.g. UA 484) to GOOGLE (466453) and you get a return message with flight departure and arrival times, gate information and the airline’s phone number. (With most phones you can extract the phone number and call without having to re-enter the number.)

Flight information is a great SMS application – it requires little input and the answer can be delivered in 160 characters or less. It’s faster than trying to use the mobile Web browser to get to the airline’s Web site and navigate through the menus. And it sure beats trying to get the information through the voice-activated phone system.

Many airlines already provide the option to get mobile alerts automatically. United EasyUpdate sent me an alert two hours before my departure from Dulles last week. Unfortunately, in that two hours they moved my flight to a gate half way across the terminal.

March 26, 2007

Watching time go by, flickr style

Filed under: flickr, web 2, web 2.0, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:13 pm

A terrific presentation from Andrew Tomkins of Yahoo! Research at ICWSM today. He mentioned Yahoo’s Taglines – another way of visualizing flickr data. Flickr photos and the top tags for each day float by. (It gets better if you start later in the timeline, when Flickr has more data.)

It gives World Explorer a run for the money.

Your car’s computer – friend or foe?

Filed under: cars, privacy — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:35 am

Today’s WSJ has a story that vividly illustrates the tradeoffs that technology can offer between privacy and security (subscription required). The story explores how the increased data that cars collect can be used:

That data could be crucial to guiding an ambulance crew’s decision about whether to rush you to a fully-equipped level one trauma center, says Dr. Richard Hunt of the Center for Disease Control. Research by the CDC has shown that a severely injured person who is transported quickly to a level one trauma center has a 25% better chance of survival.

“I know from clinical experience as an emergency physician, this is a life or death decision,” Dr. Hunt says.

But what if, after you survived the wreck, that same technology turned tattle-tale, and divulged to police or the insurance company that you were speeding or driving recklessly?

That same data can also be used to save you money.

In Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon, Progressive offers a discount of up to 25% on your car insurance for letting them track you. The TripSense connects to your car’s on-board computer and records data on how fast, how far and what times you drive. The technology lets them rate risk in ways never before possible – for example, greater discounts if the bulk of your driving is between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on weekends.

If you drive more than 75 mph more than 0.75% of the time, you get a negative 5% discount, which can offset the other discounts. Progressive claims that “your data will never cause your rate to increase.”

March 23, 2007

In Colorado for the next week

Filed under: rocky's travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:24 pm

I’m in Vail over the weekend and then Boulder for the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. If you’re around, message me.

Stupid Twitter GPS trick

Filed under: gps, twitter, web 2, web 2.0, where, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:20 pm


Watch my progress from the cab, to Dulles airport, to the moon rover, to the plane, to Denver International Airport, to my rental car, to Vail Pass and finally sitting in my hotel room typing this.

Done with Twitter GPS. Now if only I could string them together in an animation like TwitterVision.

NewsCorpNBCYahooMSNMySpaceAOLTube vs. GooTube

Filed under: aol, apple, google, media, microsoft, television, video, yahoo, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:01 pm

NBC and News Corp announced a broad-reaching partnership this week that will feature shows from NBC and Fox on AOL, MSN, MySpace and Yahoo! — all the major Internet players except Google, the owner of YouTube.

The major television networks already offer shows on their respective Web sites. Their big challenges to date have been distribution and product.

Despite all the on-air promotion, people don’t go to the network Web sites. YouTube had 34.4 million unique visitors in February 2007, according to comScore. NBC sites had 6.8 million and Fox had 2.8 million. The combined reach of the 4 major networks is 17.9 million, about half of YouTube’s.

The press release claims that the distribution deal will let them reach 96% of Internet households. That’s an extremely optimistic figure, dependent on thoroughly penetrating each online network. Most internal products at companies like AOL and Yahoo! can’t fully penetrate their own network; it’s unlikely that a third party offering will. Still, it’s a huge boost.

The networks have many of the assets they need to deliver a compelling product — one much better than YouTube for copyrighted content. But I wouldn’t bet on it. And  I wouldn’t hold my breath on NBC and News Corp. making the summer launch date.

Here is how I expect the final product to stack up against YouTube on six important dimensions:

  • Completeness – Tie
  • Timeliness – Tie
  • Quality – Networks
  • Usability – YouTube
  • Sharability – YouTube
  • Community – Possibly networks, likely YouTube

(details after the break)

Missing from the announcement was any tie up with Apple. Delivering high quality programs free to the recently released Apple TV could be a huge win. But the affiliates and cable companies won’t like that very much. And the Internet might grind to a halt.

Because manholes are round

Filed under: recruiting — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:10 am
The elusive square manhole cover

I found an interesting set of answers to interview questions.

I found the answers first, and sadly, I knew what the questions were.

If you haven’t seen the questions before, consider yourself lucky. Very early in my career, I lost out on a job because of these two:

1. Why are manhole covers round?

2. There are three switches in one room and one light bulb in another. How can you tell which switch controls the bulb if you can only make one trip from the switch room to the bulb room?

The goal of these questions is ostensibly to assess your problem solving skills.

Given that none of the people I hire will ever be working with manholes, testing lights or studying angles on analog clocks, I take a different approach in interviewing. There are two questions I ask everyone I interview.

“What’s your favorite Internet product and why?”

To some extent, I don’t really care what your favorite product is. I interviewed one woman whose favorite product I considered to be a dumb product. I pushed her on all the reasons I thought it was stupid, and she was able to defend her position. She thought the interview had gone poorly, but I recommended we hire her. She turned out to be a great hire.

I’m also looking to see what you look for in a product. If you picked it because it’s blue and blue is a pretty color, that’s not very interesting.

The product someone picks can also tell me about how deep they’ve dug into the Web. Bonus points for picking a relatively obscure or new product.

“How would you improve it?”

There are no perfect products (not even mine). Once we’ve established your favorite product, I want to know how much you’ve thought about it. Good product people are those who are thinking all the time. They get annoyed when things don’t work right and think “if only it did…”

If you’ve thought critically about it, you should be able to make some solid suggestions. Suggesting improvements that already exist in the product shows that you haven’t really explored it.

I’ve found these questions to be more effective than trite questions like “What’s your biggest weakness?”

My biggest weakness is that I don’t know how to use a manhole cover to turn off lights in a room I can only visit when the hour and minute hands are at a 7.5 degree angle.

March 22, 2007

Algorithms versus car dealers

Filed under: cars, consumer electronics — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:01 pm

New stickerMy car dealer gave up on the battle.

I got my car back from the dealer today and saw the sticker at right on my windshield. On my previous visits, they always put on a sticker telling me to come back in 3,500 miles.

I’ve always ignored it because my Acura has a Maintenance Minder system that tells me when to come in for service. Based on how far I drive and how I drive, an algorithm calculates the estimated oil life. (Typically 8,000 miles.)

I figured the Acura algorithm is probably right — their incentives are to make it right. If the car breaks in the first four years, they’re on the hook for fixing it. If infrequent oil changes causes reliability problems, they get penalized in Consumer Reports rankings. The dealer, on the other hand, makes more money by recommending more frequent oil changes.

The new sticker isn’t particularly informative. It tells me to come back when my car’s indicator reads less than 15%. My car tells me that more prominently. When it hits 15%, a big orange “Service Due Soon” replaces the odometer. When it hits 5%, it becomes “Service Due Now.”

What it doesn’t tell me (and what the sticker does) is where I should take it for service. It’s only a matter of time before they program in the phone number for my dealer, along with a click-to-call on my Bluetooth phone.

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