Vonage: please buy some or all of us

Anyone who has been following the Vonage IPO story – as my friend and conference-organizing colleague Mark Evans has, and as Om Malik has – won’t be surprised that the voice-over-Internet pioneer is rumoured to be shopping itself around. The prospectus for its initial public offering, which was on and then off, then back on again, has been out there for months with little or no interest, or at least not enough to make it happen. That’s not a great sign.

As I’ve mentioned before – and others have too, including Mark and Om – Vonage’s IPO smacked of more than a little desperation to raise some cash while the iron was even slightly warm, and the story at CNN/Money fits with that. Whether an IPO or a takeover, Vonage needs money big-time. Its marketing costs have exploded, thanks in part to those Woo hoo! commercials (which I actually kind of like, if only because I like the song), and it needs a river of cash flow to pay for the expansion it needs to remain relevant.

As Om and others have pointed out, research shows that cable VOIP services are taking share away from standalones such as Vonage – and doing so at an increasing rate. That means the window is rapidly closing, and the risk for Vonage (which was started by VOIP pioneer Jeff Pulver, whose VON Canada I am appearing at next week) is that it could become the next TiVo, a pioneer that winds up winning the early battle but losing the war.

As someone told me once, the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land. Alec Saunders says buying either Vonage itself or the stock would be the “ultimate triumph of greed and stupidity over common sense.” Of course, as we all know, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen 🙂

Doesn’t Amazon want to get naked?

Feel a chill in the air? That’s because Shel Israel and Robert “The Scobleizer” Scoble – authors of the blogging book Naked Conversations – got the cold shoulder from Amazon.com during a recent show-and-tell about blogs at the online bookseller’s HQ in Seattle. To be specific, they apparently got a frosty response from Amazon’s chief technology officer, Werner Vogels (hat tip to Toronto VC blogger Rick Segal).

Apparently, Vogels was pretty skeptical about the benefits of blogging and challenged the star bloggers to prove that it was worthwhile for a company like Amazon, and didn’t like the answers he got. Here’s what he says on his blog:

“Welcome to life at Amazon, we set a very high bar for our own works and we expect anyone that comes to sell us an approach to actually be prepared to really defend their ideas. Just because blogs are cool and everybody is doing them does not automatically mean that we should institutionalize them at Amazon.”

He also says that:

“I wanted them abandon their fuzzy group hug approach, and counter me with hard arguments why they were right and I was wrong. Instead they appeared shell-shocked that anyone actually had the guts to challenge the golden wonder boys of blogging and not accept their religion instantly.”

Perhaps all Vogels did was challenge them, but from Robert and Shel’s descriptions of it, my impression is that it was a bit more than that. Shel – who is one of the nicest guys around – says it was a very rude way to treat someone who had been invited to Amazon to talk, like asking someone into your home and then shouting at them about their taste in music. Shel says:

“Werner, if you want to have a public debate on how Amazon could improve its customer relationships with more employee blogs or corporate blogs, please name the time and place–as well as the neutral referee. I require only two rules. (1) Let me have my say next time, without you interrupting, and (2) Let’s both agree to the same agenda before we go public with it.”

It’s fine to challenge orthodox thinking, and obviously Vogels believes that Amazon.com is good enough at getting feedback that it doesn’t need blogs. Fair enough. But it sounds like he was rude, and just doesn’t want to admit it. And as Rick Segal hints in his post, it doesn’t help that the photo Vogels uses on his blog is an unsmiling portrait that looks like something they might post on The Smoking Gun. Sounds like he has a chip on his shoulder.

Update:

There’s been plenty of blog posts – and lot of comments on posts, including this one – from both sides of this issue, including opinions from people such as Seth Finkelstein (who comments below) that Shel and Scoble should be able to take this kind of thing because it’s all part of “the conversation.”

As I responded to Seth, that’s all well and good, but it’s another thing to be sandbagged and shouted down (if that’s what happened) when you’ve been invited to speak to Amazon.com about something.

As for it all being part of the conversation, who says we shouldn’t apply normal standards of behaviour to online conversations as we do to offline ones? If we were at a party and someone was drunk and shouting or being belligerent (not accusing Werner of this, just an example), then I would have word with him, and I would hope other party-goers would too.

Scoble has posted a response to Werner here, and Werner has posted something akin to an apology here. In other news, he appears to at least be seeing the humour in what’s been going on, since he uploaded a nice mugshot to Flickr for us all to use 🙂

Father of the Web speaks on neutrality

My friend and fellow tech writer Tyler Hamilton from the Toronto Star had a great piece in the paper the other day based on an interview with the Father of the Web himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (hat tip to Rob Hyndman for pointing me to it). Sir Tim said that he was “very concerned” that the big telecom companies were trying to impose tiers of service and other roadblocks that would change the neutrality of the Web. He said:

“It stops being the Net if a supplier of downloaded video pays to connect to a particular set of consumers who are connected to a particular cable company. It would no longer be an open information space.”

Among other things, Sir Tim said he fears a time when Internet access and all that it represents is filtered through the networks of these large telecom players, who then determine what sites and services work best and are therefore the most popular, and even co-operate with operating system makers to determine how the network functions. This would completely change the open nature of the Web, he said.

“The place you buy your shoes has been decided by the search engine, and the search engine was been decided by the browser, which has been decided by the operating system, which has been decided by the computer,” he said. “Then your choice of shoes is dictated by your choice of computer.”

Attempts to incorporate some kind of protection for net neutrality into U.S. legislation have so far had mixed results, and some of the major Internet companies are not impressed. The other Father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, remains concerned about the potential for harm.

A new dot-com poster boy (updated)

Move over, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. Sure, you guys likely got a few hundred million each from eBay for your stakes in Skype. But at 30, Friis is almost over the hill in dot-com terms, and Zennstrom is almost 40, which makes him officially a geezer. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the wildly popular university social network Facebook.com is 22, and his company is reportedly on the block for as much as $2-billion, according to an article at Businessweek Online.

Facebook was set up by Zuckerberg as a way for friends at Harvard University to meet each other and network about social events, in much the same way that Shawn Fanning set up Napster to help friends at university swap music. But while Shawn got tied up in lawsuits from the RIAA and his company eventually went bankrupt, Mark and his college pals — who dropped out to work on Facebook from a rooming house in Silicon Valley, according to this great piece in the Harvard Crimson — stand to become extremely wealthy. It is a private company, but Facebook appears to only have about five major stakeholders (although it has done a couple of funding rounds with VCs).

And who would pay a ridiculous sum of money like that for a university social network? Well, media giant News Corp. paid close to $1-billion for MySpace.com, which is a similar social networking site populated largely by teens sharing information on which bands they like. According to comScore MediaMetrix, Facebook.com is the seventh-most heavily trafficked site on the Internet, with more than 5 billion page views in February — more than Amazon.com, Ask.com or Disney.

It’s reasonable to assume, as Businessweek does, that Facebook.com would likely interest any media giant that wants to compete with News Corp. — and that includes Viacom, another media conglomerate run by a 70-year-old billionaire (Sumner Redstone). Young consumers are living online, and big media companies want to reach them where they live. And Mark Zuckerberg might soon be able to live pretty much wherever he wants to, instead of sharing a flat with a bunch of college buddies.

Update:

For what it’s worth, Rafat Ali over at paidcontent.org – which has a great track record on this kind of thing – says that Facebook has been on the block for awhile, and that everyone including Viacom has looked at it, and that the $2-billion figure is “at best, hearsay, and at worst media manipulation.” But Carlo at Techdirt points out that many people (including me, I confess) said similar things about Skype, and look what happened there. Om Malik says that they should have sold out for $750-million because they are slipping in popularity (Markus from plentyoffish.com makes some good points in his comment on my post)

When is a conference not a conference?

I apologize for having conferences on the brain lately, but as you may or may not know, some friends and I are organizing one (it’s called mesh, and it’s in Toronto May 15th and 16th), so it’s kind of been eat, sleep and breathe conferences lately. And there’s also been a lot of talk about the subject over the past few months, the most recent instalment of which was Jeff “Buzzmachine” Jarvis’s post about the successful “unconference” on journalism he attended in Philadelphia.

Jeff clearly hates traditional conferences, as many people – including me – do, and so he is totally down with the idea of getting rid of the usual PowerPoint presentation crapola and letting the “audience” become part of the show. As he put it:

“There’s a meeting coming up about linking and I was quite obnoxious in my response to the invitation, pitching the Winer gospel of the unconference. I told the organizer to blow up the panels and tear down the essentially insulting distinction between panel and audience and get the people in the room to truly link.”

Jeff’s comments are just part of the ongoing discussion about how (and how not) to have a conference about Web 2.0 topics, since Web 2.0 is all about the conversation, interactivity, and so on – which the “unconference” idea is all about. And this discussion covers the spectrum from the BarCamp end of things, where the event is more or less a get-together of like-minded people in a room somewhere, all the way to the more organized and traditional ETech or New Comm Forum or whatever. And, of course, it also covers the spectrum from free all the way to those $1,200 a day mega-conference/trade shows.

For the record, mesh is not an unconference, although the benefits of those are obvious. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a boring old mega-conference riddled with PowerPoints either. We’ve been wrestling with how exactly to do it (and using some Web 2.0 tools while doing so, as Rob describes), but we think that there is a Third Way, one that mixes the best of traditional conferences – the organization, for example, which can help those who might not be quite ready to become part of the show – with the best of the unconference, such as the interactivity and openness to ideas, and the desire to get a real dialogue going with the participants (not attendees, and not “the audience”). Others seem to think that a combination is also a good thing.

And that’s why we plan to have an “unconference room” set aside, one that will be open to all to talk about whatever they wish, as well as workshops loosely organized around themes, where debate and ideas can really get flowing, and some other cool ideas that I can’t give away just yet – including a different approach to keynotes than you would get at a standard conference. We’ve got lots of things in the works. In the end, it comes down to letting people become part of the dialogue in as many ways as possible. That is what I think Jeff wants, and that is what we want. And we think that is what you want.

Got any thoughts? Let us know. Send me an email, or post a comment here or over on the conference blog.