This morning I was walking around my farm in Uruguay and saw a small owl standing on a post. As I approached the owl stood still until it seems I crossed a threshold that the owl considered potentially dangerous and it flew away. I watched the owl fly away on to another post from which to look for small animals to hunt and thought of the decision making that had just taken place. While the owl was on the lookout for prey, when I came close I became a potential predator myself. This situation is not too dissimilar to many I face in the telecoms business when I judge a market ripe for taking yet are concerned about the larger predators and their responses. Is entrepreneurship based on risk analysis techniques that are shared with many in the animal world? Probably.
I am spending my holidays in Jose Ignacio, Uruguay. This small village of around 700 homes has become over the last 3 years quite a magnet for sophisticated travellers from Europe and North America. Last night my wife and I were having dinner at Marismo, an extremely original restaurant that is basically a huge bonfire built on a sand dune surrounded by low lying tables where people eat great dishes made out of Uruguayan produce. As we sat down I noticed that most people around us were not native Spanish speakers, a new phenomenom around here. I´ve been coming to Jose Ignacio since 1985 and only recently have foreigners been seen in this town. But as opposed to the typical gringo visiting Mexico demanding that everything be explained in English I was pleased to see that most foreigners managed to make their way through the Spanish menus and order in Spanish. Last week I was in San Francisco at a Japanese restaurant where curiously when you were at the bathroom they would play a tape that taught how to count in Japanese. I loved the idea. An unexpected cultural experience. I think it´s time that we all made serious efforts to understand cultures in their original languages. Being part of Spanish culture myself I am thankful to the Jose Ignacio visitors for making the effort. Maybe the difference between a tourist, a traveller and a visitor relates to their relationship to local culture. A tourist wants to find his own culture everywhere else. A traveller wants to enjoy what´s foreign, a visitor wants to be part of it and in so doing…becomes our guest.
Yesterday I met Sergey Brin, Megan Smith, Chris Sacca at the Googleplex and had intense, friendly conversation on FON´s strategy to create a unified standard for people to share wifi signal around the world. After this meeting I went on to Technorati´s HQ on 3rd Street in San Francisco and spent 4 hours having an intense conversation about search with David Sifry, CEO and Tantek Celik CTO of Technorati. Now it so happens that Google and Technorati are my two favorite search engines. It was very special to be with the founder of each company on the same day and I have a few comments to make about this.
First I was shocked to find out that there´s practically no contact between Technorati and Google. I guess it´s hard for 5000 people strong Google to meet 30 people strong Technorati and clearly Google is in a complete different league altogether but with both companies being so close to each other I found it remarkable that each should follow a complete separate path to similar objectives, facilitating search.
Secondly after having studying the way Google works vs the way Technorati works my conclusion is that Google has a model that is not as scaleable as Technorati. I know this may sound shocking but here´s why. Google basically copies the internet every two weeks just to find out what changed. This process is slow and incredibly wasteful as “what changed”, may be, and I am guessing, one percent of what´s on the Net. In a way Google is based on the principle that people don´t want to be searched but Google goes ahead and searches them anyway. Technorati instead is based on the principle that anyone who publishes something wants others to know. Thus Technorati needs very few computers as it is only collecting notifications, the famous pings. In other words, while Google combs the haystack to get the needle Technorati simply uses a magnet that attracts the needle, and that magnet is people´s ego. While I use and love both Google and Technorati I see Technorati as the newspaper and Google as the book. Google has more results than Technorati. Many more results than Technorati. Google is thorough. But when I google my last name, Varsavsky, I get 250K results and I drown in thoroughness. Moreover top 20 rarely change while I can hardly make sense of the 249,980 that remain. When I Technorati Varsavsky I get 941 recent and relevant results. As opposed to Google most of these results are very new, some minutes old. What my ideal search tool look like? It would be a Technorati that is blended not with Google but with Google news. If Technorati was able to get pings from all the relevant news organizations in the world plus blogs they would be on to something very powerful and not just for ego victims as myself but for anyone who cares deeply about any specific topic. Going back to FON I would say Technorati is more fonera than Google. Technorati is built by people contributing content to facilitate the search. Moreover while I empathize with Google´s attempt to find everything that´s on the net I wonder if people who write things on the net who don´t want to be searched are aware of the fact that they will be searched. Or in other words I wonder how many criminals can get social security numbers for example just by googling names and social security number in the same string. At FON we wanted to sniff all the wifi networks in a city and publish those open for foneros to enjoy but then somebody pointed out that a large part of those who leave their wifi networks open do so because they don´t know how to put a password to their routers and that we should only publish the points that we KNOW that people want to share. Should this principle be applied to search?
This was a TV interview that they did of me at Les Blogs.
Last Friday, I met Pierre Chappaz, co-founder of Kelkoo and formerly head of Yahoo Europe. Pierre was one of the first to blog about FON in French, he’s an exceptional entrepreneur and I highly recommend his blog (for those who read French). Just as FON is a Spanish/European movement spreading worldwide, I think it’s time for us entrepreneurs who start companies in Europe to create another movement, one that aims to help Europe offer more opportunity to creative and innovative people, who think differently and who want to change things. Sadly, we’re too few entrepreneurs in this part of the world. Europe believes too much in the big company while Asia and the US kick our butts innovating. Lately, i’ve been forming alliances with all the european entrepreneurs we can collaborate with.
America rules and so those of us leaving outside of the US love to pick on America the same way that those on the net love to pick on Microsoft… and recently Google. On a recent visit to the Valley however I found something that money can´t buy you: decent bandwidth. Allow me to explain, in Spain, or France, two countries in which I have homes, I have 20 megs of bandwidth for 15 euros per month. In America they get 20% of that no matter how much they pay. And not only that, American mobile/cell phone service is pitiful. The ultimate paradox was when I was at the offices of Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins to introduce FON. At two of the most successful and richest venture capital firms in the world cellular coverage went from poor to non existent and the speed of their internet went from poor to pathetic. Many times when using Yahoo outside the States, I had found that their portal, while extremely useful and still my home page, was built to LDC internet speeds compared say to what we did at Ya.com. Now I understand why!
When I enquired about the paradox of bandwidth poverty and awful cell coverage in the Mecca of the Internet the answer was invariably the same. The Bush Administration has sold its soul to the telecom giants: anti trust has been put to sleep. Personally I see a terrific opportunity to combine fiber optic technologies with wireless meshed networks to provide bandwidth services to American consumers who will most likely pay the 89 euros equivalent that people are paying Labs2 in Sweden to get 100 megs both way service.
Last week, we launched FON in France and from there, I flew to London and then to Silicon Valley. My meetings with the giants of the internet, with VC firms and makers of WiFi routers were really encouraging. I visited the headquarters of Google, of Yahoo, of Skype in London, of Netgear, of Kleiner Perkins and of Sequoia. I’d love to write about my meetings and conversations there but I simply can’t right now. I know I said that it was my intention to blog the making of FON but at this point I think that if I do blog it I will end up blogging the UN making of FON! For now, all i can say is that our plan do build a global standard to share WiFi is going in the right direction and moving forward. We know we need money, web exposure, hardware “fon ready” presence, ISP deals, word of mouth and we are working on all those fronts at the same time.
On a more anecdotal level, what i can definitely write about is my tour of the Google headquarters which absolutely amazed me.
The Googleplex shocked me. Are you hungry? Almost everywhere you look you have sweets, snacks, cereals, candy…If you work there, you can eat for free in their cafeteria or rather, their food court that offers Italian, Mexican, North American and Asian food. You like swimming? Google as a lap swimming pool right in the middle of its Googleplex. You can also go running in their gym or work out whenever you want to during work, or you can leave your kid in the Google day care center, or you can wash your clothes in their laundry room. I have never been to a kibutz but whatever I imagine they look like…I saw at Google. When walking from one building to the other, just hop on one of their Segways. Here’s an immensely successful company working in a kid’s paradise. I just love it. Now please when you look at the pictures do remember that what you see is Google sense of humor and do not take anything seriously!
Yesterday I had Tariq Krim over at my place in Paris. While the purpose of the meeting was for him to become a Fonero and that he did gladly, I must say I was totally impressed with this French entrepreneur and his latest development, Netvibes. Do check out Netvibes. As settled as the net giants are I see three start ups threatening their supremacy. I consider Netvibes as a real threat to My Yahoo. I see Technorati as a threat to Google and I see Gizmo as a threat to Skype.
Ejovi Nuwere, our lead fonero in the States is only 26. Ejovi however has put together an amazing American Board for FON. I just spent two days working with Ejovi in the Bay Area meeting with Dan Gillmor, a few key VC firms, hardware manufacturers and web site companies and I could very well see how so many different people can trust Ejovi.
Right now, i’m in the famous Silicon Valley. The cradle of the internet. I’m having lots of meetings with legendary venture capital firms, with WiFi access point makers and with the giants of the internet. In each one of these meetings, i try out the internet connections that people use here and i come to the mind-boggling conclusion that internet connections here are REALLY BAD. Seriously, people here surf at speeds that we were used to in Spain back in 2000. I am astonished to see that the people who design the most advanced software, websites and hardware, surf at internet speeds not much faster than a dial-up modem. While in the Valley inquired why internet was so slow and I always got the same answer: that it’s due to the fixed line operator monopoly in the US where you have 1 or 2 main net providers per city seemingly colluding. Interestingly, in Europe, there is a lot of competition among fixed line operators and very little with mobile operators. Here, it’s the contrary, mobiles are much cheaper (terrible quality though) but fixed phone lines have smaller bandiwths and are very expensive. Clearly, this is not Sweden where Labs2 amazed me with their 1 Gig bandwidth for only 89 euros.