Apple, Hardware, and the Cloud by Nate Westheimer

On my commute this morning, I came across this Daring Fireball post taking issue with some comments Fred Wilson made about Apple's dominance as it relates to hardware and the cloud.

Evidently, Fred argued that Apple is "too rooted in hardware" and that "hardware is a commodity" so in the next several years we'll see the fact that they've largely fumbled on the cloud come back and bite them.

John Gruber's issue with Fred's call here is that while most of the hardware industry is a commodity, there will always be premium hardware product – product that push boundaries in the right ways – and that Apple's stronghold here is firm and relatively permanent, given the competition.

I think Fred and John are both right.

To John's point, Apple's hardware will always have the edge in a hardware world that has edges. Even with all its riches and intel, Samsung and friends can't seem build a phone that doesn't blatantly steal from Apple, and even when they do produce something one can't really tell the difference between what they've produced vs the products of their pals HTC, LG and Motorola. Meanwhile, an Apple device is always distinctive, introduces new UX paradigms (Siri vs whatever weird bump thing Samsung has) and is largely paving its own way (which in turn will be the way for all other device manufacturers, and we the consumers).

In a nutshell: Given the fact that Apple has owned the innovative hardware formula for the past 20 years, and really honed it in the past 10, I don't see how anyone else unseats them as the most important hardware manufacture in the world in that timeframe. And in 20 years, we'll still need, want, and buy hardware. So, Apple is here to stay.

But – and now to Fred's point – Apple has already put a limit on what "here to stay" actually means. By ceding the cloud to Google and other providers, they can own the software experiences most tightly tied (or held back) by the hardware and OS, but have entered a phase where everything else will become unbundled and under someone else's control.

John Borthwick and his team at Betaworks published this analysis of Apple homescreens and reveals just how much Apple has already given up. A potent combination of Google's Maps, Mail (via its own app and via SMTP), Search, and YouTube, mixed with Dropbox and Google Drive for storage, dominate Apple products and Apple's users' experiences with their hardware.

While there are still cloud experiences up for grabs – spoiler alert! photos are one of them, one even John questions if Apple really gets – many of these areas are experiences Apple could have won if they had truly invested in and understood the cloud; more importantly, they could have owned the experience even outside of Apple devices and if they had gone so far as to innovate and win with their Maps, Mail, and Photos in the same cross platform way they won with iTunes in the early 2000s, and in the way Google is winning with the cloud today.

Had Apple used this playbook, they would have been in a much more impressive long-term position then they are today, having to defend themselves "strictly" based on hardware and OS, and not what they could have enjoyed: the one-two punch of device and cloud.

"Strictly" is in quotes of course, because come on: winning in hardware for the next 20 years ain't that bad at all.

Long Live Twitter by Nate Westheimer

A Eulogy for Twitter:

Twitter used to be a sort of surrogate newsroom/barroom where you could organize around ideas with people whose opinions you wanted to assess. Maybe you wouldn't agree with everybody, but that was part of the fun. But at some point Twitter narratives started to look the same. The crowd became predictable, and not in a good way. Too much of Twitter was cruel and petty and fake. Everything we know from experience about social publishing platforms—about any publishing platforms—is that they change. And it can be hard to track the interplay between design changes and behavioral ones. In other words, did Twitter change Twitter, or did we?

In the last couple days we've read a lot of negative press about Twitter. Mainly this came from the financial press and analysts who seemed to hate or at least be surprised by their Q1 earnings and growth numbers.

The above "eulogy," by the Atlantic's Adrienne Lafrance and Robinson Meyer, has stood out among all the negativity, however, mainly because it felt so familiar.

Four years ago, nearly to the day, I wrote "Down and Out in the Twitter Ecosystem" due to some platform policy changes I thought would squash the vibrancy of the Twitter I loved – the same vibrancy it seems Adrienne and Robinson are eulogizing.

While back then I was writing about the developer ecosystem's effects on a user's Twitter experiences, changes in the developer and the user base have always had the same net effect: deprecation of parts of the Twitter experience you love, only to be replaced by a new Twitter experience you learn to love.

But Twitter is an amazing force, now more than ever, and what I ultimately concluded in 2010 holds even more true today:

Okay. So maybe I'm crazy and hyperbolic. Maybe Twitter will be a $20B company one day... Twitter got away with what they're up to for the past two years and more than flourished. All the power to them and let's hope for them and others that they continue to flourish while somehow maintaining a healthy ecosystem around them.

Long live Twitter.

Business of Coding Interview by Nate Westheimer

When I first got started in tech, Gary Vaynerchuck was one of the first people to take me under his wing.

At the 2008 SXSW conference, Gary introduced me to many of the finest people in tech that I still know today, one of them being Joe Stump.

At the time, Joe was the Lead Architect of Digg, which in 2008 was one of the largest sites on the web. I remember thinking Joe was larger than life. A day after meeting him, I attended the Considerations of Scalable Web Ventures panel that Joe was on -- a panel which included other Internet Incredibles like Cal Henderson, Garret Camp, and Matt Mullenweg.

Though I didn't code yet, I was completely blown away what those guys did. I was especially blow away by Joe's ability to talk about scaling Digg in a way that even I understood, without dumbing it down.

By the end of that SXSWi, I was a Joe Stump fanboy.

Fast forward two and a half years later and Jackie and I found ourselves hitching a ride with Joe back to San Francisco, after attending Gary's Tahoe Tech Talks (we had stayed in touch and hung out since 2008).

During that ride, I told Joe that I was going to learn how to code when I got back from our West Coast trip. We talked for most of the ride from Tahoe to San Francisco about coding, but I'm pretty sure Joe still didn't believe me that I'd actually learn. I knew Joe had heard it all before, and I'm fairly sure I had said it all before.

Nevertheless, a week later, after we got back from San Francisco and armed with the advice of one of the smartest people I knew in the business, I sat down and really learned.

Fast forward three years again and it was my honor to sit down with Joe last summer (before I made the hop to CEO of Picturelife) and talk to him about life as a business-guy-turned-backend-lead. Today, his company Quick Left has posted our interview on their site.

I'm embedding the podcast below, but head to the Quick Left blog to check out the whole thing (and other posts they've done in their The Business of Coding series).

Twitter's Card Problem: The Photo Upload Anti-Pattern by Nate Westheimer

There is little doubt that "the card" will become a critical unit in the future of the World Wide Web.

App developers and marketers alike are climbing over each other to update their campaigns and websites to live in a "card" world, while startups like Wildcard are building out the much needed plumbing to help people take advantage of this new design pattern and extend it beyond Twitter's walls.

However, I see a major obstacle standing in the way of "card" adoption, and that's Twitter's separate, favored-nation treatment of photo uploads on their system.

Whereas Twitter only show users a small icon in their streams when a tweet contains a normal "card", Twitter prominently shows when a user (or a brand, or an app developer) uploads a photo. Here's an example from my Twitter stream this morning:

Photo uploads get favored over Twitter Cards

Photo uploads get favored over Twitter Cards

It is completely understandable why Twitter would want to favor user photos -- if your friend took and is sharing a photo, it's likely far more relevant than a visual summary of an article a friend is linking to. Screen space is in short supply, and so Twitter has to decide what to favor.

But, the problem is that this design decision is encouraging a nasty anti-pattern that threatens the future of cards and therefore threatens the future of a more usable, enjoyable Internet.

Because Twitter is so clearly favoriting directly uploaded photos over their own "photo card" format, app developers and publishers are skipping this new open standard and reverting back to direct uploads.

Take Business Insider, as an example. There is a very clear standard for marking up news articles with big images using Twitter Cards. It's appropriately called "Summary Card with Large Image."

However, being the clever company that Business Insider is, it chooses instead to upload the image used in the article, thereby greatly increasing the chances that its followers will actually see the post and click-through. And, while Twitter's photo upload API was clearly meant for users' real pictures, you can't blame Business Insider for "hacking" the use-case and getting more views.

Business Insider didn't use cards, it used a simple photo upload

Business Insider didn't use cards, it used a simple photo upload

While Business Insider may be one of the more aggressive publishers out there, high-growth, smart startups are also entering the fray, and in some cases are going back in Internet time, going from use of cards to cleverly generated images that look like cards.

Take our good friends at Timehop as an example. Last year they were an early adopter of Twitter's Cards standards, beautifully showing you a summary of your past moment right in your Twitter feed -- if you opened up the card.


Today, however, Timehop seems to have abandoned Twitter Cards, and has joined folks like Business Insider by simply doing a direct upload of their card as a rendered out image -- as if they were a user sharing a photo with friends.

As a user, fan and friend of Timehop (and a very tiny, indirect investor)*, I'm glad they've gone this new route to make sure I see more interesting Timehop content in my Twitter feed.

In fact, as soon as I saw what Timehop was doing I started building a prototype of how Picturelife could do the same thing, instead of using the aforementioned Twitter Photo cards. As with Business Insider, you definitely can't blame the publishers and developers for exploiting a design decision Twitter has made.

However, ultimately steering people away from open standards like "cards" is bad for the Internet and will attract as many bad actors as good actors using the system. It's like what happened with emails in the late 90s and early 2000s. Before best practices followed by Outlook and other popular email clients, web designers just started emailing full-text images of formatted text, eschewing HTML, machine readable text, and open standards for what "just worked."

Today, because email clients and spam filters have gotten better, and because search has become such an important part of email, this anti-pattern has reversed and sending an all-image email is left to the fake Viagra spammers of the world.

The good news is Twitter can get out in front of this quickly and reverse the trend.

The right thing for Twitter to do is not block the Business Insiders, Timehops, and Picturelife's of the world from using their media upload endpoint, it's to stop favoring media uploads over Twitter Cards in their interfaces.

My solution for Twitter would be rather simple: Twitter should invest in generating a quality score for all cards and direct uploads, and smartly obfuscate cards and photos from uploaders with low quality scores, and prominently display full cards and uploads from users, publishers, and developers with higher quality scores.

Twitter can reverse this anti-pattern if they act now. Until then, more of us will just start "hacking" Twitter and upload our cards as static photos.

Disclosure: Wildcard's CEO, Jordan Cooper, is a Partner at Lerer Ventures, an investor in Picturelife. Nate Westheimer is an investor in TechStars, which is an investor in Timehop.