Category Archives: Software

Impressions of “We Were Yahoo!: From Internet Pioneer to the Trillion Dollar Loss of Google and Facebook,” by Jeremy Ring

Recently I read We Were Yahoo, a chatty history of the former internet giant by an early employee. We Were Yahoo is similar to an abridged version of the cycle of Bell Labs’ history during the transistor era — Crystal Fire (growth), Life in the Crown Jewel (corporate politics), Optical Illusions (implosion), and Kitten Clone (living death). We Were Yahoo is all of these at once, but fittingly for such a short lived company told through the career of one employee over a 23 year period, 1994- 2017.

It also includes a bizarre kidnapping plot.

I initially was disappointed because the author, Jeremy Ring, is from sales and not engineering. You will learn nothing about the platforms or tools used by Yahoo, only the products and how they were sold. The narrator appears to neither have the critical overview of the entire industry like Sixty to Zero, or the critical perspective of CEO-level overviews like IBM under Lou Gersntner or Ford under Alan Mullaley. Ring’s early career in New York ad sales and his one-day stint working for Paul Allen is fascinating, but I would have preferred to know the engineering challenges  Yahoo faced.

Instead Ring focuses on the company’s large-scale revenue sources. Yahoo! went from no monetization, to display ads during the heydays, to keyword ads in the final painful days under Marissa Myer. I suspect some tension is lost in the telling and that a stronger editor could have been useful. Ring emphasizes the difference between display and text, but the enormity of the transition must be comprehended. Display ads work like billboards, generally attempting to create some form of positive brand impression. But keyword ads, displayed in line with search results, target people who are already actively researching a specific service or good (such as hotels in Hawaii or local personal injury lawyer). The latter are immensely valuable — almost all of Google’s market valuation is based on them — and Yahoo was late to develop a technology, was plagued by internal feuds over how it would be developed and monetized, made a poorly thought out alliance with Microsoft in the field, and then failed to internally develop a coherent competitor.

Ring provides color for the otherwise incoherent list of Yahoo CEOs recruited by the company over the years. The list begins with the founders and Timothy Koogle, who oversaw the dotcom boom and bust, and ends with Marissa Mayer. But Jeremy Ring saves most of his fire for Terry Semel, a former Hollywood executive who (in this telling) is the most disastrous CEO in corporate history. He may be. Under his watch Yahoo! declined to purchase Google twice, sabotaged his own deal to purchase Facebook, destroyed the Flickr social network, and intentionally abandoned Yahoo’s position as a technology leader. Mayer, once a beacon of hope and now a lightning rod for criticism, is succinctly described by Ring as having taken the reigns too late to do anything other than (unsuccessfully) gamble on high-risk high-upside investments.

We Were Yahoo could have been better organized. I think a great idea for a book would be to chronologically tell the story of these missteps along with the history of the competitors who did survive — in other words to do for the 2000s web what Console War did for 1990s game machines, or The Four did for 2010s software giants. Additionally, some interesting context is lost. For instance, the Disney Interactive enters the narrative twice — once in its predecessor Starwave, a company that Ring worked for, and again as Go.com, a company that Ring greatly admires. But no connection is made between these firms.

Then there’s the bizarre kidnapping plot against the author. It’s as random and irrational as real life can be. It’s not well integrated with the story of Yahoo at all — but maybe it can’t be. It definitely spices things up!

I read We Were Yahoo in the Audible edition.

Firefox Drops to 3rd Place

I remember driving to the mall with my dad, to buy a copy of Netscape Navigator 1.2 on floppy disks. Since that time I’ve had a soft spot for Netscape and its successors, including Firebird and the increasingly irrelevant Firefox.

firefox_third_place

This month comes the news that Firefox has fallen to 3rd place, with more users on both Google Chrome and Internet Explorer.

Life’s too short to waste time on a third place browser.  I am writing this on Google Chrome, and regularly use Internet Explorer.  But I’ve uninstalled Firefox.

How to Scan Multi-Page Documents in Windows 8.1 Preview

I just set this up for my mom, so I thought it might be interesting for others too.

My employer recently released the Windows 8.1 PreviewModern Scan app. I’ve been a fan of the possibilities of Modern since I heard early rumors of it. The original “manifesto” just looks cool 🙂

Microsoft-METRO-UI-Description_svg

Anyway, here’s the process of scanning multiple page documents in Windows 8.1 Preview.

Once the scanner’s driver is installed and the Scan app is present, simply click on it in the Start Screen. When it opens the UI should look something like this:

scan_1

You can click ‘preview’ and the scanner will send you an image of what the document will look like.

scan_preview

But you can select other options, like XPS for file format (which will create a multi-page document), Greyscale (appropriate if you’re working with text, and other options)

scan_2

And then it will save in your Documents folder! Voila!

Review of “Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker,” by Kevin Mitnick with William L. Simon

Several weeks ago Kevin Mitnick spoke at the research arm of my employer. He is a funny guy, knowledgeable, a great public speaker. He was also hawking his book. During the Q&A Kevin was asked what the most realistic movie about computer hackers was. He replied, “Sneakers,” a 1992 film starring Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, and Sidney Poitier, which I had remembered watching as a teenager. This answer seemed so bizarre it made me want to know more — hence several hundred pages later, I’ve read Mitnick’s book.

After re-watching Sneakers, I was struck that it did not use the Hollywood trope of a computer whiz sitting down on a keyboard, hitting random buttons, and getting into the system. Or Mission: Impossible high tech wizardly or suspension cables. Instead, in Sneakers access is gained by talking to people, calmly and persuasively lying to them, and getting them to do what you want. This was Mitnick’s method. That was why he liked the film.

Kevin’s story begins as a boy “hacking” the L.A. mass transit system to get free rides, thru getting his mom free long distance, to finally an increasingly complicated web of compromised systems to evade the growing number of enemies who was looking for him. Mitnick’s adventures take him from California to Las Vegas, Seattle, South Dakota, and North Carolina, before finally being arrested.

Kevin’s spoken a lot about his former life. Here’s a 60 minutes report:

And an hour-long talk he gave at Google

Shortly after his release his prison, he was called to testify before a Senate committee headed by Joe Lieberman and Fred Thompson.

If technology, “social engineering” (which Mitnick calls “lying on the telephone”), and security interest you, I strongly recommend Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker. I read Mitnick’s book in the Nook edition. It is also available for Kindle.

Review of “The Difference Engine,” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine is a hard book to review. On one hand it is technothriller that asks, “What if Charles Babbage had succeeded in building his programmable computer in the 19th century?” On another it is literary science fiction, with a depth comparable to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. On the third it’s a rumination on word processing.

Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin were contemporaries in early 19th century Britain. Both men made great discoveries, and both were perfectionists. Famously, Darwin only published his theories when he heard that Wallace had independently discovered natural selection and was going to release his own version of the theory. Less famously, Babbage designed the Difference Engine (which has successfully been constructed from his plans in our down day), a mechanical computer, but abandoned work finishing it to attempt the Analytical Engine, a computer that was as advanced as the electronic ENIAC that was finally built more than a century later.

No men, if their careers could have been more successful, might have changed our world more than Archimedes and Charles Babbage.

But what would such a world have looked like? Could an information revolution occur at the same time as an industrial revolution? Who would benefit from such a world? Who would oppose it?

The Difference Engine is composed of several “Iterations” and a final “Modus.” Many characters appear again and again, though often the reader’s view of them differ – a character might simply be standing near an event in one iteration, an antagonist in a second, a helper in a third, and the protagonist in the fourth.

The meaning of the ending of The Difference Engine is disputed, and (in the finest literary tradition) there is no need to take the authors’ remarks as the last word. I’m still unsure what finally happens.

I read The Difference Engine on my Kindle.