2006 Best Tools of the Web

Following up on last year’s post, here are my picks for top 5 websites, tools, and/or services of 2006:

5. Dreamhost I switched to this highly regarded web host in February, and haven’t looked back since, despite a series of public troubles during the summer. But if the measure of a company is how it deals with customers during adversity, Dreamhost rose to the challenge and then some with is transparent and extremely honest chronicling of its own troubles via its status blog. Combine that with insane bandwidth, disk space, immensely handy one-click installs, and a set of power features that can’t be matched, Dreamhost is the ideal backbone for anybody working on the web.

4. Google Docs & Spreadsheets If I could find a suitable online PowerPoint solution, I would uninstall Microsoft Office in a heartbeat thanks primarily to Google’s excellent Docs & Spreadsheet solution. While the product needs to improve its import and formatting tools, you can’t beat the convenience and ease of a centralized, tag-based repository for your documents. A shout-out to Writely, the word processing tool purchased by Google and adapted into Docs & Spreadsheets.

3. Google Calendar -AND- 30Boxes – Yep, it’s another Google tool on the list. Although I started out a devout Yahoo! user this year, I had to break away after experiencing 30Boxes excellent, game-changing calendar solution. And while I loved 30Boxes and their commitment to RSS and an open web, I ultimately made the switch to Google Calendar. It’s not the product that 30Boxes cal is, but I expect the product to improve in some great ways in 2007.

2. YouTube What else can you say about YouTube, other than the fact that it helped to usher in the video evolution, made embedded video the standard, further encouraged the open, sharing nature of the web, and played nice with both corporate producers and independent voices? It’s a nostalgia factory, a citizen’s media platform, and a distribution model, and then some, and although many other video sharing sites are out there, YouTube’s cultural influence makes it the clear leader of the pack, and an easy #2.

1. Mozilla Firefox 2.0 #2 on my list last year has risen to #1 with the release of its version 2.0. Firefox 2 adds some excellent features- notably a spell check and tighter RSS integration- and with the advent of the Web 0S thanks to Google and others, maintains its significant role at the very center of the human side of the web.

Source: Amazon will offer Xbox 360 bundle for $100 [Updated]

As initially reported by TechCrunch on Friday, jasonclarke.org can now confirm from a source with knowledge of the situation that Amazon.com will soon begin selling the Xbox 360 gaming system for just $100 in time for the holiday shopping rush. The move drops the price of the “Core”, or base model, of Microsoft’s popular gaming platform 66%, down from its current price of $300.

The source, who declined to be identified, confirmed the rumor via an instant messaging conversation just moments ago. The source did not confirm any details regarding time frame or whether any other products would be discounted along with the Xbox 360.

The move comes just a week after retail giant Wal-Mart announced slashed prices on many electronics in time for the holiday buying season. Competition for the Xbox 360 from a new Nintendo gaming system, the Wii, is another potential motivation behind the agreement. Nintendo recently announced a more than $200 million advertising blitz for its new system.

Although we’ve heard no specific time frame for the announcement, one party indicated it was likely to take effect “very soon.”

Keep an eye on jasonclarke.org as this story develops.

UPDATE: This past Thursday, the news broke on this. Online retailer Amazon.com has announced it will put up “deals” for customers to vote on once a week until Christmas. Each week, product with the most votes will be discounted. The Xbox 360 core system is included in the first week’s round of products, and if it wins, 1,000 units of the system will be offered at $100 each. Although my post clearly avoided specifying any time frame, my post is still not completely accurate in light of the news that Amazon.com customers must vote on the Xbox 360 discount (rather than it being provided immediately by the retailer). In any case, I apologize to the readers of this site for publishing information which did not accurately represent the actual situation.

Book review: ‘An Army of Davids’ is already marching

“A return to some sort of balance, in which the world looks a bit more like the eighteenth century than the twentieth, is likely to be a good thing.”

So says Glenn Reynolds, perhaps better known as InstaPundit, in the conclusion of his new book, An Army of Davids (view it on Amazon.com).

While that may seem a strange statement to make, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with it after reading Reynolds’ brisk, yet thoroughly fascinating treatise on the future of life, from blogging to space colonization.

I’ve been a big admirer of Reynolds blog for a few years, yet I always got the sense that blogging was just one of the Tennessee Law professor’s many hobbies. I think I’ve been proven right, in that quite a few of them- from beer brewing, to music, to an interest in space, nanotechnology, and life extension- are on display in Davids, as Reynolds proves to be a likeable and intelligent guide through some pretty far reaches of technology.

Beginning with the tremendous impact that blogging has wrought on top-down institutions such as government and big media, Reynolds uses the “Army of Davids” metaphor repeatedly to advance his theory that loose, decentralized networks of individuals will be the diriving force behind a multitude of amazing changes taking place over the next 30-50 years. When I say “amazing”, there’s not much hyperbole there- the colonization of space (seriously!) is one such dramatic change that Reynolds hopes will be come about thanks to the power of the individual bypassing the beaurocracy of a government.

Reynolds also describes some trends that, rather than being powered by the “Army”, will instead benefit it: If scientists succeed in slowing or even reversing the aging process, Reynolds argues that the single individual will become even more empowered, leading to a dramatic increase in personal productivity, creativity, and the like. These are just two examples- the singularity, space elevators, and artificial intelligence are also discussed.

If you think the topics of the previous paragraphs are the stuff of science fiction, I might’ve agreed with you just a few days ago. But after finishing Army of Davids, I’m excited to learn more about some things I once thought of as fantasy that Reynolds argues are already well underway.

The book is a quick read- I digested it in just a couple hours- but that is far from an insult. Rather, I suspect Reynolds’ conversational, at times swift-moving prose and frequent long-form quotes are designed to assume the reader’s intelligence, rather than condescend to it. Supplementing the wide variety of subject matter are copious citations, especially helpful when Reynolds cuts broad strokes through his often unfamiliar (to many) subject matter.

On his blog, Reynolds has, on at least two occasions, referenced reviewers who met with confusion as the latter half of the book veered away from blog-related topics and moved into more scientific and even sci-fi-esque territory. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the book transitioning into trends of the near future. Because Reynolds is perhaps best known as a blogosphere celebrity, I’m guessing some readers expected the book to remain media-centric. However, I’m pleased that Reynolds guided his book away from a pleasing yet tiring re-hash of recent memory and instead took a risk by exposing readers to a some tip-of-the-iceberg stuff that I, for one, would likely have never learned of otherwise.

So if you’re expecting a light read about the impact of blogging, look elsewhere. But if you’re interested in the extension of trends that blogging is only a small part of, you’ll probably learn a great deal- and become pretty excited- about the future that An Army of Davids foretells.

7 things to look for on the web in 2006

Happy New Year!

I have some humble predictions for the biggest themes, trends, and ideas on the web in 2006. I’ve got seven items here because the arbitrary concept of posting either 10 or 5 seemed pointless. A list either too long or too short would’ve been diminished by the inclusion of ideas either made up or left off. So, seven themes I think will help shape the web (and the world) in 2006. Here they are:

7. Hyperlocal (or “Ecosystem”) social software

“All politics is local,” goes the old saying. In 2006, I predict the social software movement- sites that allow users to share content, data, and more- will go local more than it ever has. I believe this trend will develop in part because 2006 is an election year in the U.S., meaning that action on the grassroots level will spike as it always does around elections. Further fueling the increase of hyperlocal news & content will be the continued popularity of social content sites like Flickr. As the mainstream begins to develop and amplify ways to utilize these social ecosystems among their families, cliques, and local business networks, the space will expand with the

These trends may also promote the development of pure-play local ecosystem software, most likely in news (there are already several hyperlocal news sites nationwide) and connections (dating, business, meetups).

6. Distributed advertising networks

Blogads and Google Adsense have been the market leaders in blog advertising for a couple of years now. But the market stagnacy is about to change in 2006. Smaller players like Pheedo will either innovate or fade away, but newcomers such as Federated Media (which has been long announced but hasn’t yet launched) and Pajamas Media (which has stumbled out of the gate) with both make this space active, interesting, and competitive. Hopefully, they won’t all be chasing their tails- innovation here is welcome.

Another angle is emerging in blog, or more widely, web-based advertising. That’s the concept that users- who are providing user-generated content in droves to sites like Flickr and You Tube– should be paid at least a share of the revenue generated from the millions of eyeballs they bring to these sites. Two new, as-yet-unreleased services, Newsvine and Squidoo, are hoping to lead a change in this situation. Both services say they plan to pay their users for the content they provide based on the amount of traffic they generate. I hope Flickr and others consider following suit.

5. Identity

This is probably my riskiest prediction. It concerns a concept rarely discussed, even among early adopters and/or close followers of the web. It’s called identity, and it’s a big, abstract philisophical question that, if addressed, can help overcome some of the larger, and smaller, issues of trust, reliability, and socilization online and off.

Specifically, conversations are already underway about the need for an open, distributed system for online identity. In a system like the outlined by LiveJournal founder Brad Fitzpatrick, OpenID, people carry around a single, URL-based identity that can be used to verify their blog posts, comments, and other content; a single identity can be easily managed, moved, and updated; and it can help facilitate web-based transactions (like auction buys) and/or business (think deals and jobs) and/or personal (think dating sites and meetups) arrangements.

To jump in, start with Johannes Ernst’s fascinating post on the advantages of a URL-based identity schema. This is a foundation issue for the web- one that seems erudite but actually touches all of us as is suggests a shift away from email-based identity, part of the “plumbing” of communications on the web. To put it in powerful terms, a URL-based identity system reduces not just the publicity of, but the dependency on, email addresses, which in turn can have a positive impact on the spam crisis.

4. Attention

Identity and attention belong next to each other in this list because they’re both fairly abstract, macro-level ideas as opposed to emerging technologies or tools (though both have their own vibrant development communities). They’re also similar in that identity and attention both address the issue of who we are when we’re online.

While identity is about trust, attention is about- visibility, with accountability. As Steve Rubel explains in his thorough post about Attention.xml, “…imagine for a moment you can look at an RSS feed…and see how many people have read the same post you�re reading or how many page views it is getting, etc…What if you could get an RSS feed that notifies you every time there are blog posts that are read by more than 100,000 people?”

The questions he’s asking suggest the heart of the attention issue- that for quite a long time, the living web has badly needed a unified, yet decentralized, trustworthy place to aggregate and push out data about who, when, and how often people are reading, linking, and subscribing to your blog or content. As Steve notes, the concept of such a system wouldn’t be limited to the blogosphere: “Going a step further, consider the possibilities if the mainstream media (MSM) adopted attention.xml as well. This could happen if the big RSS feed aggregators get behind it.”

The it Rubel refers to is Attention.xml, a proposed format for just such a system to reliably track who is interacting with who. While the number and important of blog search tools continues to climb in 2006, so will the discussion of a system to begin charting the exchange of interactions on the web.

3. Delivery & Organization (RSS, OPML, SSE, and others)

2005 has been the biggest year yet for RSS, and that expolosion has likewise suggested that OPML, a close cousin to RSS, will expand its reach in 2006 and beyond. Both of these acronymns have proven to be important delivery & organization systems for a variety of content on the web (blogs, news, stock/weather data, advertisements). As blogs become ubiquitious, and social service sites like Flickr continue to launch and grow,

Furthering the rise of RSS in 2006 will be the long-awaited release of Microsoft’s next operating system, Vista. The OS, along with two of its most popular applications, Internet Explorer and Outlook, with all be deeply ingrained with RSS and its Microsoft-created (much) younger cousin, SSE. With the launch of SSE, Microsoft (and early fans of the technology) hope that the current “one way street” of RSS will be alighted to allow for bi-directional flow of information. This change, if it materializes, could be as important as the initial release of blogging tools like Manilla and Blogger were to the development of the writable/living/social web.

2. User-Organized Media and Content

Okay, so I couldn’t call this one “User-generated content” because people seem to hate that term (they feel it dimishes the user- fair enough, I guess). So instead, I’m calling it “User-organized media and content”, which in the end seems to be a more descriptive term, so woo hoo.

Either way, it’s all about the concept of giving users a large, open space to share content, links, and comments and to therefore define the discussion of what’s news. The trend emerged in a big way in 2005 thanks to Digg.com, a technology news site where the news is provided via links from users, which are then voted on. No editor picks the top stories on Digg- instead, votes determine, on a constantly-rotating basis, what lands on the front page.

It’s a continuation of the living web as a place for conversation, and beyond the traditionally-opinionated nature of blogs, this round of user-organized information brings news media into the fray.

Expect many other sites, including some mainstream media websites, to follow suit in 2006 and give their users a shot at not just digesting, but defining, what’s relevant in news and other media.

One big player in the space, which I think will be one of the most popular sites of the year, is Newsvine.com. Though the site is currently in private beta, it promises to continue Digg’s innovative, user-centric spirit, while also mixing user’s links with traditional news articles from AP and other sources.

Better still, Newsvine provides all users their own space to write and has noted that it plans to share any revenue generated from user’s content. Another service, the recently-launched Squidoo, also promises to share revenues with its users, who use the site to create “lenses”, or collections of personal expertise, on a limitless array of topics. Call it About 2.0, or, as its creator calls it, a “platform for meaning”.

No matter the label, the social web enters a new phase this year as its heart- news, blog posts, comments, links, video & audio, and all varities of other content- is made even easier to share, mix, promote, and comment on.

1. Open-source video / Videoblogging

Video was on deck in 2005, but it will step up to the plate in 2006 and beyond.

I think video will explode in two big ways on the web this year. One will be via community-based sites such as YouTube, a video hosting and sharing service similar in function to Flickr, the popular photo site. 2005 already hinted at the emerging popularity of online video communities, where users will go to upload videos of all kinds and skill levels.

I had an idea, back in January of 2005, that video on the web might be starting to get big. As the horrific tragedy of the tsunami struck in late 2004, thousands of people across the world filmed videos of the events. Through the internet and blogs, these videos spread quickly, bringing home to every citizen of the world the terrible state of Southeast Asia with stark reality. At the time, I was web developer for Media Bloggers Association (disclosure: I’m still on the Board). In its role as as a blogging advocacy group, the MBA undertook a project to help host videos of the tsunami in an effort to curtail massive bandwidth fees assumed by those bloggers hosting the videos.

During the month MBA hosted the videos, I watched our traffic explode by 1000%, while we leapt from the low-thousands into the Top 50-most-trafficked blogs on the web. This was no longer the hollow predictions from analysists suggesting the arrival of the broadband web- I witnessed first-hand the power and the attraction that even the most amateur web-based video held.

The popularity of all types of viral video did not go unoticed, at least by those in the industry. Back in May, Viacom purchased iFilm.com, a relatively-unknown site that serves up a variety of viral videos, from bloopers to hommade shorts to cable news clips.

Then, in December 2005, it got crazy. The formerly lost season of Saturday Night Live got a much-needed jolt with the premier of “Lazy Sunday,” a ‘digital short’ that aired on the series’ December 17th episode. By the following Tuesday, the popularity of the 2-minute song parody had made an almost overnight sensation out of YouTube.com, a 10-month old video hosting and sharing service, where a user had posted a clip of the SNL video.

Soon after, the popularity of the clip prompted NBC to post its own version of the file for free on its website, NBC.com. NBC’s parent, Universal, quickly followed suit by releasing a version of the video for free on Apple’s iTunes Music Store (which also sells videos of NBC and other networks’ TV shows).

The ensuing hysteria over the video wasn’t something new for its creators, SNL cast member Andy Samberg and writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Members of a comedy troupe The Lonely Island, the trio have been releasing their own homemade, amateur-looking (yet brilliant and hilarious) videos free on the web for a couple years now. In fact, it was in large part due to the popularity of some of their previous videos- all released under Creative Commons licenses, which encourage free linking and sharing- that the trio was hired for Saturday Night Live.

The popularity of the “Lazy Sunday” video- linked and shared freely, beginning with users up to the corporations that “own” the content- suggests what I believe will be the biggest trend on the web in 2006:

Combined with the natural expansion of blogging from a primarily text-based medium to one rich with audio, and particularly, video files, 2006 is going to be one huge year for user-created, community-shared video of all imaginable types.

The blend is right in 2006 in part because corporations- historically, the only creators, containers and distribution model for content of all types- are finally getting wise to the immesurable potential of homegrown and delivered goods. But more importantly, it’s the creators who are recognizing- and responding to- the increasingly large audience of people who are becoming more and more in tune with the idea that their entertainment doesn’t need to come in half-hour bursts from channels 2, 5, or 7. There’s more out there, and it’s getting good.

Best of the web 2005

In abbreviated form, here are my picks for the best software, services, and/or tools for the year 2005:

5. Bloglines
I’ll start with a downer: I don’t love Bloglines…yet. But I do like it a whole lot, because it’s a reliable, pretty friendly place for me to store and view my RSS feeds. I like their categorization, feature set (but still long for subfolders), and their tools (the blogroll feed, in particular) are appreciated. In 2006, I hope Bloglines continues to expand by adding true security features, multiple view options, and perhaps a bit of a speed and/or design tweak here or there. Still though, they’re good enough to make my top 5.

4. Backpack Understatement: 37Signals was on fire this year. Shifting from a consulting firm to a product company, they first released a nifty to-list service, Ta-da List, then followed it up in May with Backpack, a service where a person or people can create lists, notes, tasks, reminders, and store and share documents and images. The service has been an invaluable tool for me (and thousands of others), won tons of accolades, and has, with others, spawned a revolution of small, simple, web-based services that is likely to explode in 2006.

3. Flickr Flickr, a photosharing service and community, is hands-down the best, most fun web service I’ve ever used. From it’s super-easy Uploadr tool for, well, uploading your digital photos, to its amazing Organizr tool for sorting, naming, and grouping them, to its truly brilliant and ever-emerging ways to bind its community of users together, it’s the shining example of how joyous online experience can be. The best part? It keeps getting better. Late this year, they’ve added digital photo printing via Yahoo!/Target, by itself a worthy reason for the service’s acquisition by Yahoo! this year.

2. Mozilla Firefox Firefox got big in 2005, and it was well-deserved. The cross-platform browser is my pick for 2nd best of the web this year for its emergence as a (nearly) all-in-one platform for using the web. The best part of Firefox in my view are the extensions. Thanks to a community of developers, I use Firefox as a blogging tool, spell checker, del.icio.us bookmarks manager, I search multiple sources, I bypass website registration, have integrated color hex code picking, and it’s web developer toolbar proves invaluable at my job.

And oh yeah, it’s a sleek, powerful, reliable browser, to boot.

1. del.icio.us The site’s design was ugly until late this year, but that didn’t matter much- del.icio.us’ great beauty derives from its simple, open-ended, RSS-ified structure. Beyond just a go-anywhere, browser-based boomark service, del.icio.us exploded the way we save and share the web by allowing us, the users, to create our own methods and habits for linking pages, media, and ideas. Just a couple of the thousands of ways to use the service: A bookmark service, a link delivery service, a PR-watchlist- even a to-do list, library manager, and, heck, blogging tool, all-in-one. del.icio.us is the best and most inherently revolutionary of the “web 2.0” services because it provides any user the basic tools and inspiration to map their own view of the web.

WordPress hosted blog service goes public

WordPress.com, the hosted blog service developed by the WordPress team (the gears running this site), is now out of private beta and is public.

I’ve been using the service for about two weeks now (but I’ve only posted to once so far, to my detriment). My reaction is split down the middle, as I stated in my lone post at jasonclarke.wordpress.com:

1. The blogging interface in hosted WordPress is vastly improved, while looking quite similar (and that’s outstanding from a usability standpoint). Especially appreciated are two key features: the “add category” functionality and the “upload/add images” function.

2. Alternately, two major drawbacks made the WordPress hosted service largely undesirable for me. One was the inability to edit your templates- even font faces and sizes were blocked. The other was the inability to map a domain to the service.

Unfortunately, neither of my major cons have been addressed with the WordPress public launch. But I know that offering customziable templates has to be on their horizon; it’s only a matter of time. One major advtange of the service that I failed to mention in my initial review: the comment spam blocking seems to be around 1 million times better than it is for me on my installed version of WordPress.

Some first impressions on Measure Map

Measure Map is a new blog stats (really, analytics) tool developed by usability consulting firm Adaptive Path and currently in private alpha mode for the time being. (Whoah- will alpha become the new beta?)

By entering you email address at the service’s homepage, measuremap.com, you’ll be added to the waiting list to receive an invitation to test out the service. I’ve been lucky enought to receive an invitation, and today I finally opened the email and signed up for the service to track this blog.

My first impressions, after using it for just a few hours, are that it is quite usable and very attractive. Unfortunately, this blog generates such little traffic that I don’t quite have the data set I’d like (or is really necessary) for a proper experimentation. Nonetheless, I can comment on the interface, as sparsely full of data as it is, and what I’ve seen so far I really like.

First, the signup process. Read More

Retail heaven or Dell Hell: Before you expect a blog to solve your customer service woes, try some basics first

Considering the serious amount of blogjuice generated by Jeff Jarvis’ 520-part Dell Hell series is generating in (and out!) of the blogosphere, I thought it only fair to relate two extremely positive customer service experiences I’ve had lately, starting with most recent and going back through earlier this summer. Then, I’ll talk a bit about some ideas that can be gleaned from the experiences.

Positive experience #1: CafePress and being flexible in special circumstances

Date: August, 2005
Company: CafePress
Rating: 5 stars

At nearly the last minute, I decided to order a custom-made BBQ apron for my son’s 2nd birthday party. I jumped on to CafePress, created the apron effortlessly and with much help thanks to their excellent online creation and ordering tools. Prepping my image was equally as easy thanks to their superb templates and image-creating documentation. To get the apron in time, I opted to pay $18 for next day shipping.

Read More

Tales from The Long Tail: an interview with the co-founder of Peerflix

Today’s Tales from The Long Tail link is an interview with Peerflix co-founder Billy McNair by my closest-in-geography-blogger, F-Stop Blues‘ Tim Coyle. In the interview, Peerflix is explained (if you don’t know what it is, read the interview!), and its founder talks about the service’s bright future:

Currently people mail DVD’s to one another. Do you see a point where people might download digital copies of the movies instead of mailing them? It seems to me this service might be a great way to legalize P2P trading in some aspects.

While we think that the U.S. is still a few years away from the masses downloading digital movies, Peerflix is absolutely well positioned to take advantage of that opportunity when it arises. While early adopters will move to digital files of movies within the next couple years, the mainstream American consumer probably will not be at that point for at least 3-5 years. There are a number of factors in play to move to digital movies including, for example, integration of Internet connectivity/PC/television, as most people arent interested in watching movies on their PC. In addition, there are bandwidth and distribution limitations.

All that being said, Peerflix has the technology today to legally enable our members to trade digital movie files via the Internet. We are waiting for the right market opportunity in terms of technology adoption, consumer preferences and legal environment to deploy this technology to our user base.

But the best part of the interview came as McNair was taking about the advantages of Peerflix over more “traditional” models like Netflix. Here, I think McNair really hits the “long tail” moment of the interview:

Peeflix is a peer to peer network and, as such, Peerflix is able to keep overhead to a minimum. Peerflix has no regional distribution centers (in fact, every household in America is a Peerflix distribution center!) or other logistical overhead. As a result, Peerflix is able to save on these significant capital costs and pass this cost savings along to our members enabling them to receive DVDs that theyd like to watch for only $0.99 each!