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November 25th, 2012

By now, it’s ancient history that iCurrent was acquired  in July of 2010 by the Washington Post.  However, I wanted to tidy up some items floating on this site and finish off the story.

iCurrent ran from early 2007 to mid-2010. We raised $3M total  from Crosslink Capital starting with a $500k seed.  My sole board member from beginning to end was Peter Rip. Peter passed in late 2010 taken by leukemia.  It is a testament to his greatness that he was supportive right through the acquisition even with his illness. He was a good friend and he will forever be one of my heroes.

In early 2010, it was clear we had built a great platform and product that really worked (high percentage users getting to high engagement) but also that without proof on distribution, we were not going to raise an attractive B round.  Meanwhile, on the acquisition side, we were getting attention from a few media companies. The Washington Post moved decisively and swiftly, and we had a deal closed in 7 weeks from first web conference to completely done.

The team, the product, the technology, and even the vision have all been integrated into the Washington Post. My six former colleagues are still happily working in the vibrant and expanding San Francisco office of  WaPo Labs. The iCurrent service itself was relaunched as Trove. And the iCurrent platform and technology powers many Post efforts on personalization (e.g. Personal Post), aggregation (e.g. WP Topic Pages), and socially-driven news (e.g. WP Social Reader).

It was a great outcome with all parties winning in the end. I’m incredibly thankful to Vijay, Don, Gerry and all the others at the Post who lived up to their commitments in every way.  More than anything else, it was the character of the people all the way through–team, funders, advisers  service providers, and acquirers–that made the endeavor worthwhile.   It’s a story that should not be as rare as it seems it is.

One important set of people I didn’t mention in that: the users of iCurrent.  We were very focused on users from the beginning even before we had a product and we were grateful for and gratified by the many many interactions we had with our users over time.  This more than anything told us we had created something of value and it sustained us across the journey.

Related to that, one part of me remains unsatisfied. There is more to do still and the full insights of iCurrent are still not fully realized. However, when I see how much the space has heated up and the many excellent effort by players, big and small, far and wide, I am confident that we collectively are headed toward news and information experiences that serve the interests of people better and better.

For me, iCurrent was the next place in a long vector from MIT through PARC and Inxight.  After years of seeing search, text analytics, and user experience technologies applied in specialized information and intelligence applications, I felt it was time to attack the challenges of  the everyday intelligence app for everybody, and that would be personalized news.  A few posts on this blog and elsewhere tell the story:

  • The iCurrent Back Story: Visions of personalized news and information were old, but we had new ideas on then and how.
  • Beyond Search is Reap: Conceptual distillation of intelligent information access based on text analytics and user-driven experiences at the end of 10 years at Inxight.

I can move on now.  To come back or not, time will tell.

April 17th, 2010

My Leonard Cohen channel popped above the fold on my iCurrent front page today and got me playing Hallelujah.  I’d created my Cohen channel to follow him on tour a year ago when an article on the use of Hallelujah in the sex scene of the Watchmen movie hit my Allison Crowe channel.    All this resonates for me with the lively topics of serendipity and discovery and the secret life of interests.

Hallelujah has been covered 200 times [Wikipedia].  In an April 2009 interview, Cohen says this is “ironic and amusing” given Sony rejected the album it was on. He continues (at 35:20):

I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it and the reviewer said – ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way …

The whole interview is worthwhile listening, a wise and humble man for sure (see background on the interview). Reminds me of the finest people I know.

There is a reason why this song is covered so much. Sheer lyrical brilliance that works for fine singer after fine singer. I picked him on his tour and four other takes here. Which do you like?

Pick your favorite of the four below or tell me a different one:

April 5th, 2010

Ken Doctor’s recent book, Newsonomics is a fine tour of the forces (A tour de force even) transforming the news industry as we enter “the Digital News Decade.” Though the disruption has been underway for a dozen years and the crisis for the news industry crescendoed to a clamor in 2009, it is still too early to know exactly where all this will lead.

Still, if you want to understand realities that constrain what could happen and to participate or survive in the news industry that will come, then reading this book would be a great starting point. It provides both snapshot of the “blooming buzzing confusion” at the moment and a “handbook for all those that care deeply about our news future”.

Doctor is perfectly qualified to cover the full sweep of the territory, former and disrupted. His career started in the world of the second half of the 20th Century news where metro and local newspapers could both serve public purpose and be great businesses. His career continued as digital news executive and consultant in the last dozen years of the Internet’s dismantling of the former reality.

Doctor sets the stakes on the two big questions for what’s ahead. How will we get hiqh-quality news produced and how do we get it paid for?

Though Doctor clearly carries the values of a traditional journalist—Certainly in this nation of 300 million people … we can figure out how to pay living wages to fifty thousand or so people who root out what is going on in our communities and cities—he understands and embraces the forces of change, and having traveled along with them, is optimistic or at least willing to believe that new models that address the civic need will emerge.

The book is organized as twelve laws, though perhaps better called trends or themes or as he says, building blocks for the future of news. Doctor shows his stripes as both newsman and analyst in producing a highly-readable and substantive stream of quotes, stats, facts, stories and analysis.

In alignment with the new ways of journalism he describes, Doctor continues to cover the story across the web. Below are the 12 “laws” linked to pages on his site that act as portals to his ongoing writings. I will certainly follow Doctor wherever he writes.

  1. In the Age of Darwinian Content, You Are Your Own Editor — More and more channels for receiving news and information yet the same fixed time in a day leave us at disorderly aggregations at the end.
  2. The Digital Dozen Will Dominate — Scale and depth of capacity are still going to matter, therefore a dozen or so media companies will dominate the market of 900B news and information consumers in English.
  3. Local: Remap and Reload — the arena of greatest ferment with many experiments on all dimensions, maybe like the days before conglomerations of local newspapers. (Note: the longest chapter by twice the average of the other)
  4. The Old News World is Gone- Get Over It — Neither readers nor advertisers are locked in anymore, attention must be constantly earned, and advertising made accountable.
  5. Mastering the Fine Art of Using Other People’s Content — Though 2009 was focused on Google and the major news organizations, the game around aggregation is hardly over given both local ferment and aggregation by the digital dozen.
  6. It’s a Pro-Am World — It’s more complex than professional journalist vs amateur contributors. It’s about the better, faster, cheaper made possible by the groundswell of energy from everybody.
  7. Reporters Become Bloggers — Both news companies and enterprising journalists have moved into blogging with the pace, mix, and forms befitting of the digital genre.
  8. Itch the Niche The bundling together of the sections of a newspaper to be delivered in a daily package is no longer necessary so travel, technology, sports, health, and other high-value niches can be and are independently targeted on the always-on web.
  9. Apply the 10 Percent Rule — New whole systems will combine human and technological capabilities, the 10 percent here being the skills, intelligence, and judgment that humans will provide, even if in new ways, for the forseeable future.
  10. Media and Marketers Find New Ways to Mix and Match —Media now has to compete for attention and this means both through other media outlets and social media.
  11. For Journalists’ Jobs, It’s Back to the Future — the salaried staff jobs purely focused on producing content are dwindling and a much wider range of business and technology skills are needed to succeed in the “gig economy” of Internet media.
  12. Mind the Gaps — Though many historical systemic factors (monopolies, brands, unions) are now being rapidly smashed by economic fiat, these and others (consumer behavior) will still play out in the sorting out still ahead.
November 26th, 2009

Time to pick up the Information Flow story again.  The next leg for me is iCurrent.  Over the last 2+ years, I’ve been working with a fabulous team with the full support of the VC I wished for to build a product for personalized news delivery for the mainstream audience.  Two years quietly building a product.  Are you crazy?  I can hear some asking. In this day and age, when you can ship on the Internet in 6 weeks with no money from VCs, and when the audience can help you discover what they want?

Our case is rather simple:

1) the vision of what is wanted is old
2) achieving it is tremendously hard
3) we had earned a viewpoint on what was required
4) we were ready to play a round at a time to eliminate risks

Read the rest of this entry »

July 2nd, 2008

Illustration of Some five years [&] ago, I gave a talk at BayCHI titled the Long and Winding Road to Information Flow [*].  The protagonist was the PERSON.  We called him Corbu Man, the image, here seen, that the masterful designer Jean Orlebeke created.  Thank you, Jean, still after all these years, thank you!

This PERSON is not a cog in institutional and social machinery.  He aspires and acts in a world of constraint in marvelously resourceful ways, an individual figure shaped by modern life. Having met his basics needs (not forgetting [1]), he carves out rich interests and over time engages in ways that creates rich layers of meaning in life.

Over the last 18 months, I, along with a team I’ve pulled together, have been pursuing a way for people to get regular information they want across a wide range of interests, broad and deep, professional and personal.  Many people do exactly this on the Internet now, but the experience is a mish-mash experience.

What is needed is Simplification along with Robust Fit in Real Life and Greater Yield.  What that requires is Personalization.  Nothing here has gained widespread adoption or even attention.  Nothing has been truly PERSON-alized. Read the rest of this entry »

June 24th, 2007

It’s been a while. I’ve certainly been busy the last 6 months, but amusingly enough I had also wrecked my blogging software moving from one hoster to another . I suppose this is kind of the equivalent of “my dog ate my homework.”

Though I’ve never managed to be a prolific blogger, across the 5 years, I have participated just enough to have a grounded sense of blogging from both social and technology perspectives. Read the rest of this entry »

December 30th, 2006

The words “listen to the customers” get sprinkled on product builders like magic pixie dust. After a while, it’s hard not to smirk when somebody even leans toward the line. Certainly there is no lack of trying by sensible product builders, however the mantra and intention belie the fact that engaging customers and users is a subtle process and that there remains a shortage of simple clear techniques that work well in real business settings with their inherent constraints and realities.

Along has come the new book, Innovation Games, by the ever-energetic Luke Hohmann with a new and powerful approach. I first met Luke when he was VP of Engineering at Aurigin, one of Inxight’s early customers. Luke was the rare customer who gave me no choice but to listen. And our products (and I personally) benefited greatly from the experience. And thus, though not a complete surprise, it is deeply satifying to see that Luke has crafted a suite of ideas and techniques that draws out in others the same spring of enthusiasium and creativity that he naturally channels himself. Read the rest of this entry »

November 16th, 2006

When it comes to posts that go at “Beyond Search is ___”, one has a good chance in the blogosphere, of, well, being mostly ignored … By now, you can more or less be overloaded just by search results for Simon “Poverty of Attention”. Hence my threshold, following my first post on REAP remains high, but this doesn’t by itself prevent some flights of fancy. Think of it as a meme tasting party of some memes that have reached their time

First up is Sensemaking, originating in the foothills of Palo Alto, and as noted, my all time fav for naming the human process itself. It scales to the biggest questions that make us humans, and anthropologists and philosophers alike have been there at increasing levels of abstraction. Read the rest of this entry »

November 5th, 2006

Over the years of toyful blogging, I’ve resisted splitting the flow of this blog into separate blogs for the “personal”, other, and off-topic. Certainly, there has never been much more than a trickle to split, but it was also a sense that a percentage personal was an intrinsic and a goodness in this genre of conversational writing. However, it’s clear you shouldn’t let the air to fuel ratio get out of whack.   Read the rest of this entry »

November 1st, 2006

… I’m sure I’m repeating myself and plenty of others by now, but it’s time to resurface “the vision” of Information Flow. It’s easy with long days and a real and full life with varied encounters with strangers, friends, and family to fall back on the crutch of calling what I do, “Beyond Search stuff.” But here in my open conversations with you it’s time to remint the concept, especially in the fresh dirt as the sprout of a new company labors to push its head out.

Beyond Search is not the same thing as Search getting better. Search can get better. Boy, can it?! However, Beyond Search is something else. Not just the litany of algorithms and technologies i.e. linguistics, statistics, extraction, categorization, clustering, personalization, visualization, social this that and the other. There is a holistically different experience to be had! And it will be at least as valuable as Search to some people, and that some is a huge many. It’s everybody that has a long term stake in subject matters and that utilizes such knowledge to get things done in the world. It’s poets, priests and politicians; it’s lawyers, doctors, and professors; journalist, analysts, and researchers; and it’s business professionals, financiers, and even thoroughbred horse rearers.

At PARC as we saw a future shift from document creation to information access coming, we, speaking Academicese called it Intelligent Information Access. And at Inxight, in Marketingese, we called it Discovery. And in the idiolect (and that doesn’t mean a language spoken by an idiot) of Ramanese, it’s the difference between “Users Chasing Documents,” and Information Flow enabled by “Statistics over Statements.” How we utilize information available over the Internet in professional activities is still fundamentally challenged. I think everybody can tell their own version of the story.

In throwaway lines, I’ve said to many, “you could called our new venture, a Vertical Search play, but it ain’t vertical, and it ain’t search.” That line is a disservice in its aint-i-ness, because things worth doing should be expressed in the positive (hmm, maybe). Now, the drum roll … we are building a REAP system (now you got it, huh?), but REAP is much bigger than us, much, and so I’m going to start talking about the bigger.

Beyond Search is REAP. REAP acro-expands into Retrieve, Extract, Arrange, Present. And REAP systems help people support that full process using those technologies mentioned above. Certainly, any of these verbs can be picked on, and many alternatives like Collect, Analyze, Organize, Keep, Share, hey even Remix, so fly to mind. But in aggregate, the point without niggling, is that we’re still not there with the deeper tools and the whole experience we desire for truly reaping the value from all that’s available to us on the Internet. Consider the typical information work flow of a professional:

  • Retrieve — collect information from a variety of sources
  • Extract — extract data, facts, examples
  • Arrange — arrange documents and facts for use now or later
  • Present — compose information into artifacts of value

Search is just about the retrieve and the -eaping is pretty much left to the person. Does knowledge worker come to mind? My all time favorite word for the human process (hat tip of fifteen years back to friends Dan Russell and Mark Stefik) is sensemaking because it reaches to even the deepest levels and the broadest extent of what we are after. Some of my friends, especially these two—actually pretty much all of my friends and yours too—are incredible sensemaking machines.

We all use the aggregate of tools and means at our disposal to make sense of subjects and the world and to guide our actions. However, I’m sensing a widespread frustration with a great deal of wasteful manual labor as we die, gently reaping. And though I am a huge believer that doing things by hand often gives you a depth of understanding, there’s a lot I don’t do because of the effort required. The difference between productivity and new capability isn’t always in kind, but often in degree. If you can take many more steps, you arrive at places you’d never get. And I’ll continue to invest my time on the bet that huge social opportunity lies ahead in making us all smarter by mainstreaming REAP systems.

Speak up, come along …