September 25, 2008

WaMu — WooHoo! er, D’oh!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:47 pm

From the messages-you-wish-you could-unsend department: this cheerful email arrived in my mailbox shortly after I read about WaMu’s seizure by federal regulators. WaMu CEO Alan Fishman is getting an extended holiday.

Note the “amazing rate” of 4 percent. WaMu has been chasing depositors with well-above-market interest rates. The national average is 2.42%. Chase, which will be taking over WaMu, pays a relatively stingy 0.20%. (And that requires a $1,500 balance; WaMu didn’t require any.)

An email received shortly after WaMu was seized by federal regulators.

An email received shortly after WaMu was seized by federal regulators.

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September 23, 2008

The fundamentals of our creativity are strong

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:09 am

At a time when we’re facing the first coup d’état in American history with King Henry effectively overthrowing our elected leaders, it’s refreshing to see that our creativity is still strong.

A friend forwarded a link to, a site that explains the Paulson administration’s (as George Will referred to it) proposal better than most journalists have:

Use the form below to submit bad assets you’d like the government to take off your hands. And remember, when estimating the value of your 1997 limited edition Hanson single CD “MMMbop”, it’s not what you can sell these items for that matters, it’s what you think they are worth. The fact that you think they are worth more than anyone will buy them for is what makes them bad assets.

The sad irony is that as I write this the total claimed value of assets on the site is a mere $153,122,659,240. Still a long way to go to $700,000,000,000.

Screenshot from

Screenshot from

While the site is a joke, this is not:

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

That’s the language in the administration’s proposal to Congress. King Henry indeed.

September 21, 2008

Hulu might just make it after all

Filed under: google, hulu, media, television, video, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:14 am

If I could award an Emmy for outstanding performance in television, I’d have a clear winner: Hulu. The video site from NBC and Fox is my leading choice for product of the year. Hulu allows users to stream television shows from NBC, Fox, Comedy Central and select other networks. Most shows are available the day after they air on television. There is also a decent collection of classic television; I recently finished watching the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A small collection of movies rounds out the offering.

I wrote about Hulu when the partnership was announced last year:

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.

Although I was right about Hulu not making its launch date, I was wrong about its inability to deliver a compelling product. Unlike the music industry, which still refuses to acknowledge the turn of the century, the television networks have responded forcefully and credibly to the threat posed by YouTube.

Over the summer, I spent at least triple the time on Hulu as I did on YouTube. That will be even more skewed when the fall TV season kicks into high gear this week. The quality of the video is much better. Searching is also easier: unlike YouTube, you won’t see the same piece of content 12 times in search results. You also don’t have to weed through content that was taken down due to DMCA claims.

To be sure, there’s nothing truly innovative in Hulu. But the execution of what they do is great. The site is visually elegant and easy-to-use. You can subscribe to your favorite shows. You can embed videos on your blog. My favorite feature is the ability to create custom clips by dragging sliders.

Hulu does a good job (perhaps too good) of helping users discover content they might be interested in. There are some feeble attempts at social networking.

The networks are using Hulu to promote the fall season. Some shows, such as Knight Rider, were made available on Hulu before their television debuts to drum up interest.

Hulu is also doing some interesting things in advertising. More on that later.

As much as I like Hulu, I have a long wishlist:

  • Hulu on my TV. It’s hard to beat watching TV on a TV. A laptop display doesn’t cut it. Although my TV has a VGA input, that still means using the laptop to control playback. Hulu should seek to be on as many platforms as possible: Xbox, Tivo and Apple TV for starters.
  • Hulu on the go. There are times when I want to watch Hulu on my laptop. But those are also times when I’m disconnected — on a plane or a train. NBC offers downloads of many of its shows through NBC Direct; Hulu should do the same.
  • Local buffering of videos while watching. Unlike YouTube, you can’t buffer content. This deteriorates video playback quality by causing stuttering when you have inconsistent bandwidth. It also means that if you want to rewind, that video has to be restreamed. (This is more expensive for Hulu.) Even a two minute buffer would dramatically improve the experience.
  • More consistent content licensing. Hulu is at the mercy of its content providers for when content is made available and has to expire. Although many shows are available next day, shows like Monk and Psych are delayed eight days.
  • Fewer restrictions on embedded clips. Hulu clips expire along with the content, leaving holes in Web pages that embed videos. Although I wouldn’t expect full embeds to remain available, it would be nice to see exceptions for short clips.
  • Better descriptions in search results. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Thu, Sep 18, 2008″ isn’t very helpful. The guest names should be included.

September 20, 2008

iPhone design pet peeve #2: moving app icons

Filed under: apple, iphone, rocky's iphone pet peeves, ui, usability, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:53 pm

The App Store is one of the key strengths of the iPhone. You can easily find, purchase and install applications that increase the utility of the iPhone. Steve Jobs claims that more than 100 million downloads have occurred in the short time that the App Store has been around. I’d bet that if you were to take all of the other smartphones and add up every download, you still wouldn’t hit 100 million.

My nit with the design is that when you update applications, the app icon on the phone doesn’t stay put. In fact, the iPhone 2.1 update scrambled the order of all my applications. That’s the kind of detail I’d expect Apple to get right.

See more iPhone design pet peeves.

September 19, 2008

Google guys = 2(newspaper industry)

Filed under: google, journalism, media, newspapers, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:50 am
Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans puts Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page at #13 and #14 with a net worth of $15.9 billion for Brin and $15.8 billion for Page.

That’s a bit less than the $20 billion I estimated for the U.S. newspaper industry as whole. But I was being generous and not subtracting out non-newspaper assets.

For example, only 21% of The Washinton Post Co.’s revenue comes from the newspaper division. (Despite the name, it’s mostly a test prep company.) More than half of Belo’s revenue comes from television operations. Belo’s television segment also generates more than double the income. Gannett also has significant broadcast operations.

If you take out those assets, it’s safe to say that each Googler is worth as much the entire U.S. newspaper industry.

Bill Gates could buy the industry several times over with his $57 billion net worth. As could Warren Buffett. He already has a head start: Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns 18% of the Washington Post Co.

Disclosure: I went to high school with Larry. He was talking about googol even back then.

More on: google, journalism, newspapers

iPhone design pet peeve #1: address book access

Filed under: apple, iphone, rocky's iphone pet peeves, ui, usability, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:25 am

I’ve had the 3G iPhone for a couple of months now. During that time I’ve had the same complaints that most others have had: virtually nonexistent 3G coverage, anemic battery life and frequent crashes.

But there are also details of the UI that have bothered me; some big, some small. This is the first in a series of posts about iPhone pet peeves.

Pet peeve #1: Apple allows developers to access the address book without asking the user’s permission. Apps can copy your entire contact list to their servers and you wouldn’t necessarily know. Early versions of the Loopt application abused this to send spam text messages to your contacts. Apple knows better: applications have to ask for permission when accessing location.

Traveling to NYC 9/25-9/28

Filed under: rocky's travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:54 am

If you’re around town, ping me.

For English, press 1. For a human, try Fonolo.

Filed under: customer service, fun — Tags: — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:38 am

After telemarketers, the most excruciating phone experience is dealing with interactive voice response systems. That’s what the industry calls those things that I call phone mazes and most people just call damned annoying. Unlike telemarketers, IVRs are hard to avoid.

Enter Fonolo, which won top prize at Om Malik’s Mobilize 08 conference. Fonolo “crawls” these systems and provides a visual interface to them. Go to the Fonolo Web site (or iPhone app), select the business you want and visually browse through the interface until you find the menu option you want. (My bet is on “agent.”)

Fonolo then calls the business and listens through each prompt, entering the appropriate tones. When it reaches the right prompt, it calls you.

It’s unclear whether Fonolo will also wait on hold until an agent comes on the line before connecting you. That would be the killer app for me — I never again want to hear a recording tell me that I’m a “valued customer” and that they “know your time is valuable” while they keep me on hold for 20 minutes.

Fonolo allows you to keep a log of your calls, record the calls and even take notes. Perfect for when the agent tells you one thing and does something else.

The service drew a lot of admiration from the crowd at Mobilize. Of the demos I saw, this is the one that had me saying “I want! I want!” The judges agreed: Fonolo’s was the only demo to get a 10. One VC on the panel was ready to open his checkbook. Ryan Block, editor of, said it best: “I want to give that guy a hug.”

The business model is unclear. You could sell switch ads: “Fed up with your current bank? Try Bailey Building & Loan.” Or use the data gleaned from calls and sell it to companies that actually care about improving customer service.

Fonolo is in closed beta right now. I’m looking forward to seeing it in action. Actually, no, I don’t want to have to use it. But it has the potential to make a really painful task a lot easier. In the meantime, I’ll have to rely on Get Human for any customer service needs.

September 17, 2008

Wall Street and the incredible shrinking newspaper industry

Filed under: google, journalism, media, microsoft, newspapers, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:35 pm

A friend asked me today “Does one Bear Stearns bailout equal the entire newspaper industry?” I decided to find out.

Although there isn’t a clear answer, I was surprised by how small the newspaper industry is. Here are the market caps for publicly traded newspaper companies:

Company Market cap (millions)
Washington Post Co. $5,450
Gannett 3,640
New York Times 1,960
Belo 627
Scripps 388
McClatchy 283
Media General 198
Lee 114
Daily Journal 64
Sun-Times Media Group 19
Combined $12,743

The key newspapers that are missing from this list are the Tribune papers and the Wall Street Journal. If you add in the $5 billion that News Corp. paid for the Journal and assume that Tribune is worth $2.25 billion ($8.2 billion value of the deal, discounted at the same rate as McClatchy’s year-to-date performance), the total value of the industry comes to $20 billion. (I’m being generous here and not subtracting out Kaplan’s contribution to the Washington Post’s market cap, which is likely 2/3 to 3/4 of the $5.5 billion.)

By comparison, the government has committed $30 billion in loan guarantees to Bear Stearns and $85 billion to AIG. The actual cost to taxpayers won’t be known for sometime. Bank of America is paying more than twice the value of the newspaper industry for Merrill Lynch.

Some other comparisons:

Market cap of selected companies (in billions)

Market cap of selected companies (in billions)

In other newspaper news:

More on: journalism, newspapers

September 14, 2008

Communicating amongst friends: how technology changes human relationships

Filed under: email, facebook, flickr, im, instant messaging, social networking, twitter, Uncategorized, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:43 pm

I realized recently that I’ve been communicating with one of my closest friends over IM for more than 10 years. We talk almost daily, several times a day. I have no doubt that we wouldn’t be as close without the ease of IM; we certainly wouldn’t talk on the phone every day.

IM, email, cell phones, blogs and social networks have dramatically changed how I talk with friends and changed the nature of those relationships.

Status messages often are a trigger for communications, inspiring conversations about upcoming (or just finished) trips. Friends use status messages to subtly hit up contributions for charities, to acknowledge such contributions or to flog blog posts. Facebook status messages have allowed me to meet up with friends when traveling. I often learn about world events through my friends.

Asynchronous communication allows me to catch up on what my friends are up to when I have time. I spent most of a four hour flight to Chicago reading about Jon’s trip to Russia and checking out his pictures. It beat whatever was in United’s Hemispheres magazine. Another 15 or 20 minutes went to viewing flickr pictures from other friends. Something we used to dread — friends subjecting us to slideshows — we now seek out and eagerly comment on.

As to Twitter, I’ve gotten more active on it in the last couple of months. So far, it has only taken off among my relatively geeky friends; my Twitter circle is a fraction of my networks on Facebook and LinkedIn.

The permanence of email addresses, cell phone numbers and connections on social networks makes it easy to stay in touch with people in our mobile society. Google and Facebook makes it relatively easy to find lost friends. No more having to guess at where they might live and finding an out of town phonebook or calling 411.

There are some downsides. 

The individualistic nature of cell phones, email and social networking have had the effect of reducing incidental communications. Cell phones virtually eliminate the incidental conversations I’d have with the spouses of my friends and family. Most couples I know don’t answer each other’s cell phones and some check caller ID on landlines before deciding whether to answer. My friend Amy was married last year and I have yet to talk to her husband.

A quick Facebook birthday greeting has, for many, replaced birthday cards and phone calls.

Maybe communications has gotten too easy. Social networking tools are constantly suggesting new friends based on algorithms. A few clicks to invite them all. I now have way more high school friends on Facebook than I had friends in high school. 

Overall, I communicate with a lot more people, a lot more often. But the quality of that communication can be lacking. It might be a wall post scribbled in between meetings. Or a tweet from my iPhone while I’m waiting in line.

It just isn’t the same as a long phone call or a visit.

I started working on this post in May. Joe Kraus’ post on the social Web inspired me to finish it.

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