Use your VOIP to call a lawyer

As more than one person has already pointed out, the much-anticipated — and much delayed, and much criticized — Vonage IPO just keeps setting new records for how screwed up a public share offering can get. In what no doubt seemed like a Web 2.0-type gesture for a tech issue, the company offered its customers stock as part of the IPO, and that has turned into a gigantic boomerang that just clocked Vonage in the back of the skull. Since the stock tanked after it started trading, many of those eager investors are now saying they won’t pay.

Even if my friend Paul Kedrosky is right (which he often is) and the investors who grabbed those shares should have known what they were getting into — since skeptics on the Vonage IPO weren’t exactly difficult to find — the company is still caught between a rock and a hard place, or maybe two rocks and a hard place. It has now said it will reimburse the brokerage firms for any stock that disgruntled Vonage customers (see the Vonage forum here) don’t pay for, but all that’s going to do is piss off the ones who actually paid money for a stock that was tanking.

So then you have a company that is already losing money at a prodigious rate of speed — losing more last year than it made in revenue, which is no mean feat — spending more money to soothe the egos of the customers it convinced to buy shares. The only other option is to sue those customers, and what kind of marketing would that be? It’s a lose-lose-lose proposition, a rare money-losing hat-trick in hockey terms. It’s no wonder that Om thinks it’s a shoe-in for Business 2.0’s 101 dumbest things list. Mike Urlocker, a former tech analyst, has a nice take here.

Update:

Vonage now says that it will pursue legal action against those who don’t pay for their stock, but as I pointed out above, that is just one of the three losing options available to the company (the third being to do nothing).

Hangin’ with Bill at the D conference

Sometimes it’s just impossible not to hate Walt Mossberg. Okay, hate is a strong word. But still — not only does he have a plum job getting access to all the cool gadgets and tech stuff, and writing about it for the Wall Street Journal, but he also hosts the D: All Things Digital conference, which routinely gets people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt to show up and be interviewed and even hang around by the pool.

Case in point: Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications in Washington attended the conference and wrote about it for IPDemocracy, summarizing what Billg said in his interview — and describing how he buttonholed the gazillionaire over by the “poolside pastry/dessert table” and asked him what he thought about net neutrality. Not surprisingly perhaps, Bill said that he was “in the middle” on the issue, before being whisked away by Washington Post CEO Don Graham.

Among other things, Arlen says that Bill is convinced this is the year IPTV really takes off (it had better be, since Microsoft has been selling that vision to plenty of companies, including Verizon and AT&T). Of course, Bill also said about 10 years ago that ubiquitous pen-based computing was right around the corner, but hey — let’s not get picky. Here’s Arlen’s take:

IP “blows away the broadcast model,” Gates said, predicting that “this is the year all the pieces” will come together and eliminate the “dividing line between TV and the Internet.” Asked about the traditional broadcast model, he bluntly pronounced, “It’s gone. It was a hack.”

More coverage of Gates here, and at PaidContent, where they have a great shot of the Bill Gates “bobblehead” doll that Walt gave to the real Bill as a speaker’s gift. Very classy. And Eric Savitz at Barron’s has a list of the “schwag” in the bags given to D attendees (hat tip to Paul Kedrosky for the link), including a coupon for money off five office chairs from Steelcase. How Web 1.0.

Update:

Arianna Huffington of HuffingtonPost.com has a description of Bill Gates’ keynote — an account that is interspersed with notes back and forth between Arianna and actor John Cusack (hat tip to paidcontent.org for the link).

Tim O’Reilly handles it well — almost

I hope Tim O’Reilly’s houseboating trip on Lake Powell was relaxing, because he came back to a boatload of stress as a result of his company’s association with a “cease and desist” letter that CMP Media sent to a (non-profit) IT group in Ireland for using the term Web 2.0 in relation to a conference. There’s more on the history of it all here if you’re interested. Tim has now posted a long dissertation on what happened and what he thinks of both the Web 2.0 trademark (which wasn’t his idea) and the blogosphere’s “pile-on” response.

I will say this — after reading it, Tim strikes me as just the kind of stand-up guy and all-around straight-shooter that my friend Paul Kedrosky described him as in a discussion we had about the whole mess. And he is right that the whole affair turned into an unpleasant kind of schoolyard pile-on that had a nasty tone to it, which is unfortunate. That said, however, I’m pretty sure Paul still thinks that applying for the trademark was a wrong-headed thing to do, and I do too — and not just because I helped organize the mesh Web 2.0 conference earlier this month in Toronto.

One of my fellow organizers, Stuart MacDonald, firmly believes that O’Reilly was right to try and enforce its trademark (although it hasn’t been approved yet), but I tend to agree with Rob Hyndman that Web 2.0 is not something that is really trademarkable. As Marty Schwimmer of The Trademark Blog notes in a short post on the whole controversy, “If you coin and promulgate a term, you can sell it as a buzzword or you can sell it as a brand, but under trademark law, it’s virtually impossible to do both.”

O’Reilly has done an amazing job of spreading the gospel — so to speak — of Web 2.0, and they are justifiably proud of that. But trademarking it at this point is a dumb thing to do, and towards the end of his post it seems like Tim is coming around to that way of thinking too. I encourage him, as Chris Messina and others have, to offer Web 2.0 up as a Community Mark and turn this sh*tstorm of negative publicity into something positive. I think James Robertson has a good perspective on the whole thing here, and Don Park makes a very good point on his blog.

The Web — not democratic, but open

Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has a post in which he questions the somewhat gushing tone of an op-ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend about net neutrality. Scott says that his problem with the piece is that the great promise of a democratic Web is an illusion.

The problem with the democratic web ideal is that no one really owns their own press — not me, not the rest of the blogosphere, not Yahoo, not Google. Why? Because none of us owns our own internet access.

Since the cable companies and telecom companies own the Internet, he continues, then it can’t really be truly democratic — in the sense of being an instrument of the people — unless Congress explicitly says that Internet access is a public utility. Part of what Scott seems upset about is that fuzzy terms like “net neutrality” don’t really help the discussion, and I can sympathize with him there. It doesn’t help that the telecom industry has cleverly called its counter-campaign “Hands Off The Internet,” so both sides are effectively claiming that they want things left as they are and the other side wants to change them.

As I put it to Scott in a comment, however, I think the telcos are guilty of moving the goalposts, as I have mentioned before. According to a recent book called Broadband Scandal, the telcos got all kinds of favourable deals from the U.S. government a decade or so ago, in part by promising that everyone would soon have a super-fast connection capable of handling phone calls, TV-style programming and so on. Now it seems as though they are asking for the ability to charge more for delivering what should already be here.

In addition, as Craig Newmark of Craigslist mentioned in his recent debate with a telecom lobbyist in the Wall Street Journal, network experts say that there is still a large quantity of “dark” fiber out there (some of which Google is rumoured to have been buying), which would tend to refute the argument that the Internet is somehow getting “full.”

In any case, I would disagree with Scott’s premise: it’s not so much about democracy as it is about open access — and the telecoms are quite used to dealing with such things, since the telephone network was effectively treated as a public good through “common carrier” legislation. All the net neutrality folks are talking about is doing the same thing for the Internet. If that requires treating the Internet like a utility, then so be it.