Word of mouth can’t be manufactured

Update:

Belkin has released a statement saying it was unaware such activities were taking place and that it is “extremely sorry.” The company said that Belkin “does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this. We know that people look to online user reviews for unbiased opinions from fellow users and instances like this challenge the implicit trust that is placed in this interaction.” The full note is at CrunchGear.

Original post:

A couple of days ago, an astute blogger poking around Amazon’s Mechanical Turk “crowd-sourcing” engine discovered that someone from Belkin — a company that makes computer and electronic peripherals like mice, USB hubs and so on — was paying people through Mechanical Turk to submit fake reviews to Amazon of Belkin products. The wording of the ad (which offered to pay the princely sum of 65 cents for each review) was very specific. It said:

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Who’s inside that Mechanical Turk?

Andy Baio, otherwise known as Waxy (I don’t know why) is an independent journalist and programmer who lives in Oregon, and in addition to maintaining one of the most interesting link blogs on the planet he periodically takes on research projects — including an exhaustive investigation of all 300 or so samples used in the new Girl Talk album. In order to compile that data, he used Amazon’s “crowd-sourcing” engine known as the Mechanical Turk, and became fascinated by the idea that hundreds of people were spending their time doing small research jobs for him anonymously through the service. So he posted a request that Turkers take a photo of themselves holding a piece of paper, with the reason why they like to Turk. The results? Photos of 30 people, 10 women and 20 men, mostly young and white. Some Turk for the money, some for the “lulz” (or laughs), some just because they are bored. Thanks, Waxy.

Google Phone: A mobile Amazon music store?

Update:

An Amazon music store app on the Google Phone has been confirmed at the launch of the first phone by T-Mobile, the “G1”. The only downside that I can see is that while you can browse and listen to songs on the 3G network, you can only download them to the device over Wi-Fi. Not sure why that is, but it sounds like a real pain in the ass.

Original post:

As the speculation about the launch of the first Google Phone tomorrow continues to ramp up, one of the first reports that I’ve come across that makes me a little excited is the news from MG Siegler over at VentureBeat that the device could be equipped with a mobile client for Amazon’s music store (the other piece of interesting speculation is that T-Mobile might offer free email). Like MG, I think that an Amazon store app — although still just a rumour — makes perfect sense as something to add value to the phone and make it more competitive with the iPhone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m interested in the Google Phone launch for other reasons, including the fact that I like the idea of the iPhone having an open-source competitor, and I’m hoping that means all kinds of cool apps developed by third parties. But in terms of features, the Sidekick-style HTC device that everyone has been showing photos of doesn’t exactly fill me with lust, if you know what I mean. I’ve used Sidekicks, and other devices with similar slide-up keyboards, and for the most part they were bricks. Useful bricks, but more or less still bricks.

Add an easy pay-and-download music app connected to the Amazon store, however, and the Google Phone becomes a lot more interesting. Amazon’s store hasn’t really gotten a lot of traction as a result of the dominance of iTunes, but a mobile interface that works would be a great way to expose more people to a store that doesn’t have any DRM on its files — which play on any device — and has a growing catalogue at relatively inexpensive prices. An iTunes-killer it might not be, but it would be good to see at least a little more competition for Apple on that front.

What is Mark Mahaney smoking?

Whatever it is, I would like some. According to Henry Blodget, the Citigroup analyst seems to think that Amazon will be selling $750-million worth of its Kindle e-book readers within two years. What actual data is this analysis based on, you ask? Absolutely none whatsoever, as Kevin Maney points out at Portfolio, since the company has refused to give any details about Kindle sales. In other words, it’s just a bald-ass guess. And as far as I can tell, it’s a howler.

As Henry himself knows all too well, making outlandish claims about what stocks and/or products will do in the future can get you noticed pretty quickly — so maybe that’s what Mark is after here. Or maybe it’s a kind of thought experiment, in which you run some theoretical numbers in order to get a rough sense of what might happen. In any case, while Henry seems to think Mahaney’s estimates are reasonable and even likely in some cases, the whole thing seems off base to me.

The Citigroup analyst figures that Amazon will see the same kind of sales growth for its e-book readers as Apple saw for its iPods, but will only sell about half as many. That seems hugely inflated. Like Mahaney, I have absolutely no figures to back me up, but I would guess that the market for e-book readers is less than one-tenth the size of the market for portable music players, perhaps even smaller. And the idea that users will buy a book a month just seems insane. And there’s also the Apple factor, as Rex and others have pointed out.

The only aspect that Henry seems to agree is “optimistic” is the idea that Amazon will make the same kind of revenue from e-books as it does from printed books. As Blodget notes, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon — since publishers will need to be convinced to sell them, and readers will need to be convinced to buy them, and that means they need to be cheap — and may never happen at all. I don’t know what Mark Mahaney was trying to do with his Kindle analysis, but if he was trying to make a credible argument, he failed.

Google Engine: Competitor or knock-off?

Call it a clash of competing clouds. It seems that Google is launching an application-hosting service that appears to be going head-to-head with Amazon’s trio of distributed computing services — the EC2 computing network, the S3 storage service and the SimpleDB database offering, all of which provide a kind of back-end in a box for companies that want to scale quickly. So is Google’s “App Engine,” which the company described at one of its invitation-only campfire events on Monday night, a real competitor for Amazon, or just a me-too knock-off?

Aaron Brazell of Technosailor — former technology guru for b5media — says the Google announcement is “much to do about nothing.” Among other things, Aaron says that Python, the only programming language that Google’s service currently supports, is not trivial to learn or to implement (several commenters on the TechCrunch post also seemed to think that restricting it to Python was a big negative as well). Aaron’s other beef with Google’s initiative is that it seems like an “Amazon S3 me-too” kind of product. “There is no innovation here,” he says.

To be fair, however, at least some of what Aaron is skeptical about — including privacy concerns, and the wisdom of hosting applications on remote systems run by some other company — arguably apply to both Amazon’s and Google’s suite of services. To me, the bigger question is whether companies will be drawn to Google as a host for their distributed services over someone like Amazon. I think they might. And if the Python limitation is only temporary (as Google suggested it is) then that could open up the doors even further for developers. Brady Forrest of O’Reilly says that he likes the approach Google is taking.

So now we’ve got the Google File System going up against S3, and BigTable going up against SimpleDB, and EC2 going up against Google’s server stack (no cool name for that, apparently). Is this the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight of the tech world? Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy? Or is it Paris Hilton vs. Nicole Ritchie? Update: SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill (whose service uses Amazon S3 a lot) has a take on Google’s App Engine — he sees it as interesting, but not much of a competitor — and he’s also worried about lock-in.