Ethical Questions over Apps.gov

It’s been no secret since the Obama administration took office, that a key technological interest for the administrations tech policy would involve Cloud-based, Software as a Service (SaaS) initiatives. To that end, contractors and providers have been jockeying to provide cloud service to the federal government.

One of these contractors, notable for their size and breadth within the government I.T. contracting ecosystem, is Computer Sciences Corporation [CSC], who has partnered with Microsoft [MSFT] to provide a specialized product offering for the government.

Interestingly this week, the federal government jumped on the the “app store” movement, made sexy by Apple [AAPL] and expounded on by BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion [RIMM] and Palm [PALM] and now Google [GOOG] with their Android phones.

Incidentally, I’m including stock symbols for a reason. Follow the money and see where it goes. Thats your homework for the day, kids.

Screen shot 2009-09-17 at 1.52.02 PMThe new government offering, Apps.gov is a new “app store” for the federal government. Unlike other app store offerings that are geared toward mobile computing, this app store, an initiative of the GSA seeks to be a clearing house for cloud/SaaS services for the federal government. I’d be lying if I told you I thought this wouldn’t work in driving adoption by other federal agencies of these services.

The App store is divided into four sections: Business Apps, Cloud IT Services, Productivity Apps and Social Media Apps. Most of the applications found in Apps.gov are for-pay services and they are only available for purchase with a government purchasing card. These pay-services include a variety of products from Force.com, creator of the highly popular (if onerously annoying) Salesforce, and a variety of Google Apps products (all paid).

Interestingly, there are free products as well, and this is where I have ethics questions. Many of the products that are free, mostly in the Social Media section, are tools that are used everyday in social media, blogging, and web culture. Many of these apps we take for granted and talk about everyday. Applications like Slideshare and DISQUS have been used on this blog absolutely free of charge.

However, in the government, there always needs to be a tradeoff. You do something, you get something. Even Freedom of Information Act provisions make getting information a freely available right, but it doesn’t make it free. Most requests must be paid for.

Even when working with Lijit, I spent weeks and months trying to get one of the campaigns to adopt the product, but we couldn’t get it done as a free product without it being considered a campaign contribution. Granted, campaigns are not government, but you see where I’m going with this.

Daniel Ha, the CEO of DISQUS commented that they work with a variety of government agencies but that the GSA requires agreements to keep things official and on the up and up. This does not surprise me. It seems to be necessary. Ha did indicate that he was not aware of Apps.gov though, which seems to indicate that the app store was simply populated with providers who the GSA has a record of. It seems to me there’s some kind of missing piece here and I can’t put my finger on what it is.

When browsing around Apps.gov, it is not immediately known how providers get listed in the store. This is where my ethics questions come up. Companies listed in the store gain an implicit endorsement by the government, and probably immediate adoption in other agencies struggling to identify which services should be allowed and which services should not. This is not a transparent process of product selection or offering that I would have hoped for, though on the surface, it is certainly a good step in the right direction.

The major missing piece here is a transparent statement that informs the public on how apps are selected, if there is money changing hands (pay per play), how companies can get their own apps listed, etc.

This is the same problem Apple [AAPL] has had with the iTunes App store and arbitrary selection. It is such a problem that the Federal Trade Commission is looking into it. It also sets up a possibilty of an FTC investigation of the GSA for anti-competitive practice, though I’m not entirely sure if that is logistically or legally possible.

My point is that GSA is doing the right thing here, mostly. They just need to tweak and get rid of any shadow of wrongdoing or ethics questions.

Discussing DISQUS

Several months ago, I decided to give Disqus a try. Disqus is a company that provides a social commenting functionality to blogs. It replaces/hijacks a blogs comments and replaces with their own commenting system. I really liked the ability to reply to comments via email as well as comment threading.

Jason Yan and Daniel Ha have been extremely helpful over the past months in helping me with comment syncing (that is keeping a store of my comments inside WordPress as well as in their system) and being extremely attentive to suggestions and feedback.

However, I’ve decided to drop Disqus and return to native WordPress comments. I told Daniel I’d write this post as a point of feedback for him and his team and to hopefully provide some structure around my thoughts.

Spam

Recently, there has been an onslaught of spam here and yes, I have the ability to remove comments but they should never make it to my blog at all. I was under the impressions that Akismet was being used to control spam flow but now I’m told they moved away from it. This could explain the onslaught of spam. However, I’m just not comfortable with lack of spam moderation functionality and the lack of “assume is spam” mentality when a comment is unknown to the system. If there’s a hint that it is spam, it should be held for moderation at all costs.

Lack of Theme Integration

The common response to my complaint of lack of theme integration is that most of the elements of the Disqus comment form are stylabe, and while that’s true, I don’t think it’s enough. Really, I don’t want the comments that Lisa designed for me to be displayed any other way. I like them that way. In fact, I like the WordPress form and behavior. It’s comfortable and familiar.

A benefit to the Disqus commenting system was threaded comments, however, WordPress 2.7 is coming with threaded comments so the point is moot.

Comment Moderation Panel

I always feel like I’m stomping through someone elses house when I go to my comment moderation panel. I imagine this is largely due to the cumbersome iframe that houses the Disqus moderation panel. Really, a WordPress plugin should be tapping into API that manages this stuff and allows a native user experience. This is the least of my problems, but it doesn’t feel right at all.

At the end of the day, what I really want is Disqus-lite. I want the social functionality of Disqus with the assumption of native WordPress benefit. I want reply by email and comment moderation by email in a WordPress context. My WordPress context.

I love the Disqus guys over any of the competition and I don’t close off the possibility of returning as a user one day. But for now, I’m going to shelve the idea and come back at another time.

Good luck to you, Daniel and Jason!

DC Needs a Fred. Any Takers?

FredWilson cropped.pngProfiled in Sunday’s New York Times, Union Square Ventures‘ Fred Wilson is a legend of contemporary venture capital — a title previously reserved for West Coast luminaries like Moritz and Doerr, and maybe a couple others. At Web 2.0 Expo in New York last week, Wilson was greeted with cheers usually reserved for celebrities. . . or rock musicians.

We don’t need a celebrity here in DC. But it would be great to have a venture capitalist with a fraction of Wilson’s passion, commitment, and drive. It’s not so much that he’s an investing legend. . . what’s amazing is his sheer devotion to his companies, his followers, and everything Web 2.0.

By his own admission, Wilson’s had his share of bad calls. But most of that goes back to The Bubble, when he was at Flatiron Partners. I was at a startup (liveprint.com) pitching Flatiron in 1998. I met Wilson briefly back then, as well as the firm’s the most vocal partner, Jerry Colonna; the partner who ended up leading our investment was Bob Greene.

Flatiron’s highest-profile investment was probably deliver-to-your-door service Kozmo.com. I remember getting a Kozmo.com hat. Kozmo raised $100M, before its legendary implosion. I left liveprint.com after the first Flatiron (~$3M) round, before an additional ~$40M bought all those Aeron chairs, and the chairs were acquired (along with the rest of the company) by Kinko’s in a transaction so complicated that no one knew what they had until a check arrived in the mail.

According the NYT profile, Flatiron wrote off a third of its investments.

But Wilson returned, humbler and smarter. To me, he’s the quintessential early-stage VC. Why? Because he’s so focused on his space, and passionate about his companies. True, he’s been accused of shilling for them . . . but from an entrepreneur’s standpoint, the benefits of having such a high-leverage, high-profile investor on your team is literally worth millions (not to mention what you’ll save on not needing a PR firm.)

Just watch Wilson work. He uses nearly every one of his portfolio company’s products — twitter (6,571 follow him @fredwilson), disqus, tumblr. Add these to his blog (A VC), and he’s one of the most prolific posters on the planet.

DC needs a Fred.

Or maybe a Josh. Josh Kopelman, though less vocal than Wilson, has put his money where his mouth is, on behalf of the venture fund he founded just outside Philadelphia, First Round Capital. In fact, First Round has made no fewer than 57 early-stage investments, nearly triple USV’s portfolio.

Or maybe a Bijan. Or a Brad.

And this isn’t just about attitude. There are clear metrics here. Several mid-Atlantic firms talk about their ‘seed’ programs. But the litmus test is: name the ones routinely doing investments in the $250k – $1M range. For most firms, the funds are just too large for the math to work — invest a $250M fund $500k at a time, and you end up with 500 startups in your portfolio. That’s a helluva lot of board meetings.

Which is why First Round usually doesn’t take a board seat. (Most VC firms have a six-seats-per partner limit.) This is about volume (or more accurately, statistics). Quicken the cycle of investment, trim the due diligence, invest more with the gut . . . and let the odds work in your favor over a larger statistical sample. Though time will tell, based on initial exits, it seems these guys are doing pretty well.

So while it’s good to see them on the East Coast (Silicon Valley has sufficient players that none is noteworthy) — and Baltimore, DC, and Northern Virginia are certainly within their flying radius — it’s just not the same as having our own local VC hero. I mean, how sad is it that a local meetup was organized for DC Fans of Fred? (Full disclosure: I was there, and met some great, like-minded entrepreneurs.)

And perhaps more than anything else, these guys get Web 2.0. Unlike most VC firms, USV is not only not afraid to invest in pre-revenue companies, they will invest before a revenue model is even figured out (twitter, tumblr, disqus). So who out there will claim this mantle? Anyone? Anyone?

Identi.ca and the Art of the Launch

Ask any startup. The most difficult decision leading up to a public release is when and what? Some might argue that getting funding is the most difficult but a good startup avoids funding until later, if at all. Others might argue that the difficult part is getting the right mix of people and hitting milestones. That also is important, but not as important as the when and how.

Usually, a good launch product is the result of a perceived need. Or maybe a need not yet realized – it’s hard to say for sure. There’s some black magic involved in all that.

FriendFeed launched not long ago because there was an empty hole in Twitter – that was aggregation and conversation. FriendFeed figured out that, to be successful, it was going to target that emptiness in the highly popular Twitter experience.

Disqus and Intense Debate figured that, in order to be successful, they needed to target the missing piece in blog comments – that was reputation and reputation management across blogs. The two fight it out, post-launch, over which is going to differentiate it over the other.

In these cases, the timing of the launches was critical to the uptake. Twitter started experiencing significant problems and influential early adopters began getting itchy to be somewhere that scratched their itch.

Putting aside timing, the most important part of a launch is what. It’s feature-sets. It’s determining the balance between a fully developed roadmap of features and what is needed to “hook” early adopters and get them to stay.

Take Identi.ca, the new Twitter clone that is completely open source and is timely in that Twitter faithful are really, really close to burying the hatchet and simply abandoning it altogether. The timing could not be more perfect. Folks have been talking about distributing Twitter and relieving the strain of a centralized service at one time. Open sourcing the product does this, to a degree.

However, Identi.ca gets a big “FAIL” for its launch for a few very important reasons.

  1. There is no coherent way to deal with “replies”. Folks used to Twitter realize that when there is a river of content, and that’s what Twitter is, there must be a way to manage conversations. There must be a way to keep up with followers who are talking to you. In my working with Identi.ca, there is no way to do that and, while that might be coming, it wasn’t there at launch. Very conceivably, I’ve been lost forever and I generally have tons of followers as an early adopter. FAIL.
  2. XMPP doesn’t work. The one reliable way to reply that folks on Identi.ca were talking about last night was with XMPP, the protocol used for various IM clients including Google Talk. I could deal with replies that way if it worked but at some point, XMPP stopped working. I could receive, but I could not send. A one way conversation is a monologue. FAIL.
  3. OpenID integration must be seamless. I was pleased to see OpenID supported when I signed up. Unfortunately, today, I could not login with my OpenID account. If I can’t get in, I can’t use it. FAIL.

Some would say I’m being too hard on this startup. Screw that. Perform or get off the stage. There are very obvious and defined features that must be included in a microcontent site at launch. I’m not saying an entire roadmap needs to be worked out. No, get a working beta up and get testers in there. However, without replies, without reliable “offline” access (i.e. IM, SMS or client integration) I’m not going to stick around. Finally, direct messages would be a nice feature.

While I have high hopes for Identi.ca, I will remain there only to squat on the name “technosailor”. Bye, guys.

I Own My Data, Dammit

Micah had a very encouraging article last night about two commenting social networks, Disqus and Intense Debate. It was all about listening to your customer base and making trajectory adjustments as needed to ensure you’re meeting real needs, instead of just assuming your business model has everything mapped out for you and you know exactly how to execute on your vision.

The discussion over Disqus and Intense Debate has been an interesting one. Particularly perceptive readers may have noticed me playing around with both of these services a few weeks ago in the wee hours of the morning. If you didn’t notice, never fear… it was only for a minute before switching back to my default WordPress comments.

So here’s the thing. I met Intense Debate, and perhaps Disqus, at Blog World Expo. At the same time, I met SezWho, a competitor. Each of these services offer a “social network” around commenting. But what set them apart was in who owned the data.

I use the word “own” loosely here. What I mean is, “Where is the comment data being hosted?”

There’s legitimate reasons for this. One example of why it is important for me to own the data is in the case of a legal issue or subpoena. Very relevant concern. At b5, there were several times where the Police called us asking for data about some random person on some random blog who was a person of interest in some random crime. In all cases, we could not give up data without a subpoena. When provided, we cooperated. When we were not served, we didn’t relinquish data.

This is pretty common and the bigger a property (or in b5’s case, group of properties) get, the bigger the target that is on your back.

In the case of Intense Debate and Disqus, none of this data is controlled by me. It’s controlled by them for a variety of reasons. SezWho did not host the comments which was a big selling point for them.

In the case of blogs, there are many things that can be done via mashup that doesn’t place any kind of liability on the site owner or blogger. However, in the context of comments, that is actually content.

In order for me to use Disqus or Intense Debate here – both of which I’m interested in using as it adds some nifty functionality to the blog – I need to host the content and control the styling. Without that, it’s a no-go.

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