Thursday, November 06, 2008

Plaxo looking for the People Layer

A few weeks ago I made a few remarks about the new fanpages on plaxo (currently in beta) on twitter, which got picked up by John McCrea, head of Marketing at Plaxo. About the same time I blogged Yahoo's oneConnect in which I wondered what the differences were with services like Plaxo.
In my book, Plaxo didn't have the best of starts, as it carried the smell of Napster. Way back in 2004 David Coursey wrote a (2nd) article on Plaxo, titled "Plaxo Reconsidered" at eWeek.com.

The big issue was that one of Plaxos co-founders, now departed, was also a co-founder of Napster. That company, of course, was basically about enabling people to steal other peoples intellectual property. My own opinion is that some Napster people should have ended up in jail. After the Napster meltdown, Plaxo was positioned as the "next big thing" for this ex-Napster exec. That publicity helped Plaxo raise $20 million in venture money and gave the new company more credibility than it would otherwise have had.

I don't want to get into the Napster story here, and just concentrate on Plaxo. I think the Napster background serves well in positioning the founders as being early experts in networking and understanding the power of virals. What I wonder though is, what were the initial thoughts on Plaxo? What was it that the founders envisioned. What was Plaxo supposed to do, or grow into? And what's still standing of that original conception?

Although I was not there at the time (as I joined in 2006), the original concept was to help people stay connected by leveraging the power of a networked address book. But not just another online address book, one that synced with the various tools you used, like Microsoft Outlook or the Mac address book. The vision is still pretty much the same, but the challenges of staying connected have expanded in a world of many different social apps. That’s what gave rise to Pulse, the first social web aggregator, which brings your address book to life, with feeds from your connections from all over the Web. What’s interesting to note is that the original “grand vision” observed that the Internet was missing a “people layer.” Now, as web itself is going social, and the Social Web is going open, that grand vision is looking smarter with each passing month, as we help a new “Open Stack” of OpenID, OAuth, XRDS-Simple, Portable Contacts, and OpenSocial come together to enable exactly that.

Another quote from the Coursey article:

Given that I consider Napster money and influence to be tainted, I was immediately concerned about Plaxo, especially when I couldnt imagine how they could turn the company into a huge moneymaker without doing something shady.

There were other things Plaxo did, such as keeping track of how many information requests Id received and using the number in e-mails to try to convince me to sign-up. That seemed a bit like stalking and, along with a few comments and rumors Id heard about the company, only intensified my concern.

His initial hesitation against Plaxo is one I share, but this wasn't untill sometime early 2007, when I started receiving tons of invites untill finally almost everyone in my company was using Plaxo, so I signed up also. I reckon many people have felt that initial hesitation. Did it affect the way you did business in any way, did it temper your expectations for the platform? When most invites at that time were generated by my professional network, I assumed Plaxo would take on the competition with LinkedIn for instance, being a profiling site plus extra features to lifelog. When looking at the current profiling options, it looks like it's somewhere in between LinkedIn and Facebook. Was Plaxo aimed at professionals to take on the competition with LinkedIn?

Plaxo has always had a broader vision than simply “business networking.” We are keenly focused on providing a better way to stay connected with the people you know and care about, rather than being a service that is for “networking” or connecting with people you don’t know.

The latest addition to Plaxo are the fanpages in which you can sign up as fan of a tv series. Right now this feature is only available to US residents. Are there any plans to go beyond GEO blocking and make this feature available worldwide?

The geographic restrictions are not Plaxo-specific, but rather come from the content sources. You’ll note that everyone in the space is dealing with the same issue.
[to work around geoblocking read this blogpost on hotspot shield]
Considering this latest addition, is Plaxo moving away from say LinkedIn and moving closer to Facebook, from business oriented to more social oriented?

We aren’t moving toward or away from either company. We are continuing to move further down the path that we started upon back in 2002.

From the Coursey article again:

Plaxos current mission is to reach 10 million users and $10 million in annual revenue as quickly as possible. Right now they are at more than 3 million users and essentially zero revenue. The Plaxo execs asked that I not pre-announce their forthcoming products, but they discussed them in enough detail that I have great confidence that Plaxo wont abuse its customers. A key part of their plan is finding other services that Plaxo customers would be willing to pay for. There is no plan to discontinue the free service, only to add revenue-producing products to the offering.

Well, I figure you've more than doubled the 10m users now, but where are we with revenues? This previous quote, as well as the first one about the 20m VC gets me thinking about the Business Case behind Plaxo. I've discussed this with colleagues of mine. Maybe it's because we're Dutch, but we just can't see where the money is to be made. Signing up is free, there are hardly any adds and datatraffic streaming all the lifestreams must be huge. Where's the return on investment for Plaxo?

The return on investment for the investors in Plaxo came earlier this year when the company was acquired by Comcast. Our current business model is a combination of Premium services and advertising.

What can you tell about new features for Plaxo? What are must haves for you?

As you may have noticed, Plaxo shows up in the majority of news announcements around opening up the Social Web. Plaxo is today one of the largest and most prominent OpenID Relying Parties (sites that accept OpenID). With Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and MySpace really heating up the OpenID space working on a great end-to-end OpenID user experience is an area of critical focus. And that’s really all about getting not just the sign-on piece right, but leveraging the whole Open Stack to make onboarding to a new site as frictionless, secure, and useful as possible.

I'd like to think I've got a pretty big digital footprint and participate in dozens of social networks and platforms. Initially I thought that Plaxo had a number of advantages. One was that it gave you more flexibility in managing groups than LinkedIn and you that with the new Pulse you could plug into tons of services. However, when I look at my own usage of Plaxo, I just plug in and let it stream, and it's what I see happening with dozens of colleagues. We sign up, use it for contacts, but that's it. In a way, Plaxo is converging channels into one stream, just like most sociall apps right now. This is, I believe the design flaw in the current web 2.0 landscape.In the past year I've thought a great deal about web 2.0 and how we deal with it, how we use it. We spread our names all over the web, signing up everywhere and leaving parts of ourselves all over. The major issues we have to deal with -in my opinion - are privacy and identity management which need to be elevated from a classical corporate solution to be web 2.0 ready. At plaxo, you've got millions of users putting private information into your databases. How do you deal with this? Where do you see Privacy going in this changing information age?

As you can imagine, privacy, security, and trust are critical to the success of our service. We have one of the strongest privacy policy’s in the industry. And we are focused on giving users fine-grained control of what they share with whom. Hence, not every relationship is forced under the term “friend”. When you give people a choice of family, friend, business, it unlocks a lot of sharing that would not be possible otherwise.

As LinkedIn now is gearing up with adding more collaborative tools, it will be pretty interesting to see what the competition will bring us, users and if the world is big enough for multiple players in the market. To be honest, I have spent more time and energy on my LinkedIn profile than I did with my Plaxo account, and although lately I'm starting to favor Plaxo a bit more, I think it's just not good enough yet to relocate my digital self. Both Plaxo and LinkedIn, as well as Facebook and oneConnect still have too many design flaws in common where it comes to Identity Management for me. At this time, they're players in the same yard to me, with each addition the scales might be tilting slightly, but I don't predict a big landslide here in the near future.

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