Sunday, April 14, 2019

My 20 years of web

Twenty years ago I resigned from my former job at a financial news wire to pursue a career in San Francisco.  We were transitioning our news service (Jiji Press, a Japanese wire service similar to Reuters) to being a web-based news site.  I had followed the rise and fall of Netscape and the Department of Justice anti-trust case on Microsoft's bundling of IE with Windows.  But what clinched it for me was a Congressional testimony of the Federal Reserve Chairman (the US central bank) about his inability to forecast the potential growth of the Internet.

Working in the Japanese press at the time gave me a keen interest in international trade.  Prime Minister Hashimoto negotiated with United States Trade Representative Mickey Cantor to enhance trade relations and reduce protectionist tariffs that the countries used to artificially subsidize domestic industries.  Japan was the second largest global economy at the time.  I realized that if I was going to play a role in international trade it was probably going to be in Japan or on the west coast of the US.
 I decided that because Silicon Valley was the location where much of the industry growth in internet technology was happening, that I had to relocate there if I wanted to engage in this industry.  So I packed up all my belongings and moved to San Francisco to start my new career.

At the time, there were hundreds of small agencies that would build websites for companies seeking to establish or expand their internet presence.  I worked with one of these agencies to build Japanese versions of clients' English websites.  My goal was to focus my work on businesses seeking international expansion.

At the time, I met a search engine called LookSmart, which aspired to offer business-to-business search engines to major portals. (Business-to-Business is often abbreviated B2B and is a tactic of supporting companies that have their own direct consumers, called business-to-consumer, which is abbreviated B2C.)  Their model was similar to Yahoo.com, but instead of trying to get everyone to visit one website directly, they wanted to distribute the search infrastructure to other companies, combining the aggregate resources needed to support hundreds of companies into one single platform that was customized on demand for those other portals.

At the time LookSmart had only English language web search.  So I proposed launching their first foreign language search engine and entering the Japanese market to compete with Yahoo!'s largest established user base outside the US.  Looksmart's President had strong confidence in my proposal and expanded her team to include a Japanese division to invest in the Japanese market launch.  After we delivered our first version of the search engine, Microsoft's MSN licensed it to power their Japanese portal and Looksmart expanded their offerings to include B2B search services for Latin America and Europe.

I moved to Tokyo, where I networked with the other major portals of Japan to power their web search as well.  Because at the time Yahoo! Japan wasn't offering such a service, a dozen companies signed up to use our search engine.  Once the combined reach of Looksmart Japan rivaled that of the destination website of Yahoo! Japan, our management brokered a deal for LookSmart Japan to join Yahoo! Japan.  (I didn't negotiate that deal by the way.  Corporate mergers and acquisitions tend to happen at the board level.)

By this time Google was freshly independent of Yahoo! exclusive contract to provide what they called "algorithmic backfill" for the Yahoo! Directory service that Jerry Yang and David Filo had pioneered at Stanford University.  Google started a B2C portal and started offering of their own B2B publishing service by acquiring Yahoo! partner Applied Semantics, giving them the ability to put Google ads into every webpage on the internet without needing users to conduct searches anymore.  Yahoo!, fearing competition from Google in B2B search, acquired Inktomi, Altavista, Overture, and Fast search engines, three of which were leading B2B search companies.  At this point Yahoo!'s Overture division hired me to work on market launches across Asia Pacific beyond Japan.

With Yahoo! I had excellent experiences negotiating search contracts with companies in Japan, Korea, China, Australia, India and Brazil before moving into their Corporate Partnerships team to focus on the US search distribution partners.

Then in 2007 Apple launched their first iPhone.  Yahoo! had been operating a lightweight mobile search engine for html that was optimized for being shown on mobile phones.  One of my projects in Japan had been to introduce Yahoo!'s mobile search platform as an expansion to the Overture platform.  However, with the ability for the iPhone to actually show full web pages, the market was obviously going to shift.

I and several of my colleagues became captivated by the potential to develop specifically for the iPhone ecosystem.  So I resigned from Yahoo! to launch my own company, ncubeeight.  Similar to the work I had been doing at LookSmart and prior, we focused on companies that had already launched on the desktop internet that were now seeking to expand to the mobile internet ecosystem.

Being a developer in a nascent ecosystem was fascinating.  But it's much more complex than the open internet because discovery of content on the phone depends on going through a marketplace, which is something like a business directory.  Apple and Google knew there were great business models of being a discovery gateway for this specific type of content.  Going "direct to consumer" is an amazing challenge of marketing on small-screen devices.  And gaining visibility in Apple iTunes and Google Play is even more challenging a marketing problem that publicizing your services on the desktop Internet. 

Next I joined the Mozilla to work on the Firefox platform partnerships.  It has been fascinating working with this team, which originated from the Netscape browser in the 1990's and transformed into an open-source non-profit focusing on the advancement of internet technology in conjunction rather than solely in competition with Netscape's former competitors.

What is interesting to the outside perspective is most likely that companies that used to compete against each other for engagement (by which I mean your attention) are now unified in the idea of working together to enhance the ecosystem of the web.  Google, Mozilla and Apple now all embrace open source for the development of their web rendering engines.  Now these companies are beholden to an ecosystem of developers who create end-user experiences as well as the underlying platforms that each company provides as a custodian of the ecosystem.   The combined goals of a broad collaborative ecosystem are more important and impactful than any single platform or company.  A side note: Amazon is active in the wings here, basing their software on spin-off code from Google's Android open source software.  Also, after their mobile phone platform faltered they started focusing on a space where they could completely pioneer a new web-interface, voice.

When I first came to the web, much of what it was made up of was static html.  Over the past decade, web pages shifted to dynamically assembled pages and content feeds determined by individual user customizations.    This is a fascinating transition that I witnessed while at Yahoo! which has been the subject of many books.   (My favorite being Sarah Lacy's Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good.)

Sometimes in reflective moments, one things back to what one's own personal legacy will be.  In this industry, dramatic shifts happen every three months.  Websites and services I used to enjoy tremendously 10 or 20 years ago have long since been acquired, shut down or pivoted into something new.  So what's going to exist that you could look back on after 100 years?  Probably very little except for the content that has been created by website developers themselves.  It is the diversity of web content accessible that brings us everyday to the shores of the world wide web.

There is a service called the Internet Archive that registers historical versions of web pages.  I wonder what the current web will look like from the future perspective, in this current era of dynamically-customized feeds that differ based on the user viewing them.  If an alien landed on Earth and started surfing the history of the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine", I imagine they'll see a dramatic drop-off in content that was published in static form after 2010.

The amazing thing about the Internet is the creativity it brings out of the people who engage with it.  Back when I started telling the story of the web to people, I realized I needed to have my own web page.  So I needed to figure out what I wanted to amplify to the world.  Because I admired folk percussion that I'd seen while I was living in Japan, I decided to make my website about the drums of the world.  I used a web editor called Geocities to create this web page you see at right.  I decided to leave in its original 1999 Geocities template design for posterity's sake.  Since then my drum pursuits have expanded to include various other web projects including a YouTube channel dedicated to traditional folk percussion.  A flickr channel dedicated to drum photos.  Subsequently I launched a Soundcloud channel and a Mixcloud DJ channel for sharing music I'd composed or discovered over the decades.

The funny thing is, when I created this website, people found me who I never would have met or found otherwise.  I got emails from people around the globe who were interested in identifying drums they'd found.   Even Cirque de Soleil wrote me asking for advice on drums they should use in their performances!

Since I'd opened the curtains on my music exploration, I started traveling around to regions of the world that had unique percussion styles.  What had started as a small web development project became a broader crusade in my life, taking me to various remote corners of the world I never would have traveled to otherwise.  And naturally, this spawned a new website with another Youtube channel dedicated to travel videos.

The web is an amazing place where we can express ourselves, discover and broaden our passions and of course connect to others across the continents. 

When I first decided to leave the journalism industry, it was because I believed the industry itself was inherently about waiting for other people to do or say interesting things.  In the industry I pursued, the audience was waiting for me do to that interesting thing myself.  The Internet is tremendously valuable as a medium.  It has been an amazing 20 years watching it evolve.  I'm very proud to have had a small part in its story.  I'm riveted to see where it goes in the next two decades!  And I'm even more riveted to see where I go, with its help.

On the web, the journey you start seldom ends where you thought it would go!






















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