Australian entrepreneur with FanFooty (alive) and Tinfinger (dead) on his CV. Working on new projects, podcasting weekly at the Coaches Box, and trying not to let microblogging take over this blog.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Name Inspector inspects Tinfinger

One of my favourite new blogs has been The Name Inspector, written by a PhD in linguistics called Chris Johnson who delights in dissecting company names. TNI was kind enough to review Tinfinger today, and Chris had good things to say.

This is one of the geekiest and most thought-out startup names that The Name Inspector has come across.


The name Tinfinger conjures up an entertaining vision that helps us imagine how the underlying search technology works.

Things like this start my day off with a big smile on my face. Thanks Chris, you turned my frown upside down! Now about that Logo Inspector concept...

Saturday, February 24, 2007

After 10 years*, Telstra's afl.com.au is in.... beta?

This week sees the return of Australian rules football for a new season and the return of afl.com.au to its seasonal position somewhere near the top of the most-visited Web sites in Australia. The renewal of Telstra's exclusive Internet deal with the AFL in the off-season, this time for A$60 million over five years after a bidding war from five or six competitors, has been marked by a new version of the flagship Web site. This one was designed by C4 Communications, whose C4Sport division seems like a part of Telstra in all but name, having also been used by Telstra for the NRL.com.au site for rugby league and its BigPond Sport site.

The problem is that the afl.com.au site, and the NRL one for that matter, are bywords for mediocrity among fans of both codes. Today there were three different threads on the biggest AFL forum, BigFooty, started by fans complaining about the new site. Of particular note was the complaints about bugs with the live game statistics page, which like so much of the rest of the site, is rendered completely in Flash and suffers from execrably poor readability and usability. The new system marks the first time that a flat HTML version of the stat pages has not been made available in conjunction with the bloated Flash monstrosity. Worse, the stat database went down for a time during the first quarter of the evening's games, and then there's this problem:

Is it awesome for overseas visitors. I don't know where it is getting the current time from, I've tried setting my system clock, but no matter what I do it still believes that the Port vs Crows game is going to kick off in over 6 hours (the match is over)...

I can't see live scores, or the result on the website - all I can see is a stupid clock counting down to when the game starts.

For anybody from another timezone who is smarter than me - and has figured out a way around this - please let me know

Ok. So from the other thread - if you set your timezone to Melbourne it all works fine. Not really a great solution really...

I don't think Telstra or C4 should get a pass on basic errors like that just because they put the word "beta" on the front page. They are spending oodles of money on the site, they should look further than their office cubicles to see how users interact with their code in the real world.

Let's be honest, the C4 designs are a pile of shit. From an SEO standpoint they're a travesty, with all that Flash hiding much of the great content. Jakob Nielsen and the usability crowd would have conniptions with all the tiny aliased text and tiny scrollbar-infested boxes. The W3C Validator has a field day. If you look at the front page now there are two separate boxes listing scores, which is a ridiculous waste of space considering that the news content has been pushed way below the fold. The front page file is 150 kilobytes. It's like an exercise in everything wrong with corporate Web site design.

The gold standard for sports sites is still mlb.com, which still uses Flash for its Gameday coverage (e.g. the last World Series game) but sticks to Javascript at most to present its text content. Compared to the MLB, Telstra and C4 look like two-year-old finger-painters.

* (Maybe afl.com.au is older than that, but the Wayback Machine's earliest memory of afl.com.au was from 1996.)

UPDATE: Sandra Davey, head of BigPond Sport, has started a thread on BigFooty about the AFL.com.au beta. Sandra is already getting smacked from pillar to post by disgruntled users. The fun has only just begun!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Here I am showing off our new T-shirts. There are grey ones for men, and bone ones for women, in all sizes S to XL but in limited supply for this first 60-shirt run. The printer also screwed up some of the colours, so these little beauties will become collector's items!

And here's Tai modelling his custom Tinfinger wifebeater, the only one of its kind (he provided the shirt so that's why there's an Adidas logo on it).

Monday, February 19, 2007

News Corp rolls out first netus play: a blog network called Allure

netus, the News Corporation-backed venture capital firm about which I have blogged before, is about to get rolling with its first launched company, Allure Media. Philip Sim has the scoop over at his blog Squash which reprints about half of a story posted on Phil's MediaConnect/ITJourno portal for Australian IT public relations practitioners and journalists.

In short, as I have had it told to me by those who have heard the pitch, netus' strategy is to copy the business model of five successful American Web 2.0 companies and launch local versions for the Australian marketplace. netus has A$40 million in the kitty, and a targeted 100% success rate. After Allure, I presume we'll see green-and-gold-themed clones of four out of the following: Technorati, Wordpress, Digg, Topix.net, delicious, Netvibes and Flickr. Allure Media appears to be their copy of Gawker Media, a parallel made all the more stark because Allure is licensing Gawker content.

After the cut Phil makes on his snippet, the ITJ piece (which I have access to) goes on to question Allure MD Chris Janz about whether it makes sense to have a localised version of a blog. Janz tries his best to justify netus's decision, but I think the idea is weird. Much of the Australian journalism industry, especially in magazines, is built on localisation of US content but in an Internet context it is hard to understand how anyone would think that people would not go directly to the original source. Aren't blogs about bypassing the gatekeeper function of MSM? Why would readers put up with a gatekeeper filtering content based on their own prejudices of what Allure's demographic is supposed to be, when they can get the unedited version at Gawker sites? This might make a little bit of sense if we were talking about an old MSM masthead which had trusted brand recognition, but no one knows Allure or any of its brands.

The whole netus affair reeks of News Limited desperately trying to feed off the energy and hunger of a lean startup, while retaining oversight control and middle management overheads. It's not going to work. At least, not unless the netus people learn that A$8 million can get burned pretty damn quick in Surry Hills.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

The template for making phat bank from social networking code

We're putting the finishing touches on our code here at Tinfinger in preparation for the beta, which will happen Real Soon Now. Yeah, I know, I've been saying that for yonks. When It's Done, people!

One of the areas where we've zigged where others before us have zagged is that we left the social networking elements to last. We decided to try out Marc Canter's People Aggregator (a.k.a. PeepAgg) system, liked it, and are in the late stages of implementing it.

Let me say first of all that Marc is a top bloke, which from an Australian is a high honour. I wish him and his company all the best with PeepAgg, and I'll be a big supporter of his future endeavours. He has built a very modern company whose workforce is mostly Indian with a few Euros thrown in and a couple of New Zealanders, including consultancy from Richard MacManus whom many of us Aussie 2.0ers know. His business model of allowing free downloads of the PeepAgg application and only charging commercial users based on their network size is daring and innovative.

The PeepAgg system is not perfect, however. It reminds me strongly of the Smarty system, which I encountered last year while doing a separate client project which had been implemented by some Russian programmers for a third party. Both Smarty and PeepAgg are PHP-based template engines, where the presentation layer is separated from the business logic of the Web application. In simpler terms, it means that there are template files which specify the DOM structure of a page (and contain no PHP at all), and then there are module files which then populate the DOM with content.

In practice, looking at the code, template engines strike me as the next evolution of those implacably evil WYSIWYG HTML editors of days of yore, like Microsoft FrontPage. FrontPage and its ilk were notorious for producing terribly-formatted, bloated code that ran like a dog in the wild. To prevent this added complexity from gumming up the Web server accessing all these files at once, the resultant HTML outputs are cached as flat files on the fly, but the code can still get horribly bloated.

The default CSS style file for PeepAgg is over 100KB, for instance. 100KB!!! I couldn't believe that when I saw it. There are styles for every last little element on the page, so you get classes with names like .public-module-block-data-content-parent-home-page-tags-child. I shit you not, that's a real PeepAgg class. (It's specified as padding: 1px 0px 1px 2px, if you wanted to know.)

Now, I may just be too old skool about this. I mean, bandwidth doesn't mean that much these days, surely? Doesn't caching fix most of these problems anyway? Ah, but the problem comes when you download something like the PeepAgg tarball and want to customise it. That's what I'm doing right now, and I can't help but get the feeling - the same feeling as I got while hacking those Russians' Smarty code - that somewhere there is a FrontPage-like GUI for these systems that makes editing it a whole bunch eaiser for the developer... but I don't get access to it. Because that's what these system are all architected towards, as the Smarty documentation says: "quick and painless development and deployment". It's all about rapid application development, but post-gold customisation or bugfixing is an afterthought.

In People Aggregator's case, Marc made it perfectly clear in his presentation to me that the PeepAgg system is all about getting his company consulting work to customise his own code. (I presume this is not secret knowledge, BTW.) Giving away the tarball is all very well, but it's not going to do him much good unless he can get those $100/hour custom publishing jobs, as he freely admitted. When he said that to me, I thought back to Paul Graham and his frequently stated bugbear about how founders have to avoid their startup degenerating into a size-limited consultancy and be more product-oriented in order to grow. Marc has a lot of competition in the space - Affinity Circles, Social Platform, IBM, Five Across, KickApps, CrowdFactory and many more - so it's understandable that he took the radical step of giving away his core product to get market share.

I say again, none of the above is intended to be a slight on Marc or his chosen business model. I'm sure he is in control of his own destiny with full knowledge of his destiny. I'll be there on the ride with him, wishing he'd give me the keys to that FrontPageian T-Bird I just know he's got locked away somewhere...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

IDG, Fairfax and the bottom of the trough

Time for another round of Old vs New Media. You know you love it.

In the blue corner, we have Colin Crawford of IDG, who says that for the first time, IDG's online revenue is rising by more than their offline revenue is falling.

The brutal reality that we’re facing today is the costly process of dismantling and replacing legacy operations and cultures and business models with ones with new and yet to be fully proven business models. However, we face greater risks if we don’t transform our organization and take some chances.

In the red corner we have Cameron Reilly, about whom no journalist I have ever asked has ever had any other opinion than the word "dickhead". Or sometimes "that bloody dickhead". Cameron, ready as ever to get stuck into Old Media, takes aim at Fairfax's James Farmer (in the... yellow corner?) who left a comment at the Australian Newsagency blog:

The vast majority of people come to a few sites to get their media fox, listen to a few radio stations, watch a few tv channels and read a few publications... we are what's commonly known as 'geeks' - most people are not.

Cameron says that unlike IDG, Fairfax's online revenue growth is not matching its offline revenue decline. Fairfax's last annual earnings report shows that its online operations are currently less than 10% of its business, but the shift is most definitely on. In total, Fairfax's Australian business generated A$297.7 million EBITDA (down 8.1%) on revenues of A$1,279.6 million (down 1.3%). Fairfax Digital contributed A$24.3 million EBITDA (up 268%) on revenues of A$96.4 million (up 75.6%) out of that.

The math is not hard, but we have a disconnect here. Is it just a matter of Fairfax "getting it" like IDG did, and finding the magic formula to turn around its consolidated revenue? Have they already got it, and it's just a matter of time before they hit the bottom of the revenue trough like IDG? Or is that strategy only workable for a publisher targeting the "geek" niche?

James may say that blogs are mostly irrelevant timewasters, but Fairfax's own blogs are booming, with a huge amount of comments (e.g. 83 on a blog entry about air conditioners!) showing a big mainstream audience who is gagging for good quality stuff. The numbers would suggest that James doesn't know what his own company is doing.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tinfinger: stuff to do

Tinfinger: stuff to do
Important note: very few of these items are unstarted, but all of them are unfinished.

Useless Account: sign up today!

Congrats to Jim Whimpey, the 19-year-old Brisbanite who got a fantastic writeup on TechCrunch for the site he created over the weekend, Useless Account. I haven't experienced as much new account fatigue as the TechCrunch mob, but I certainly appreciate a well-executed parody when I see one, and Jim hits all the high notes.

I'm sitting in the IRC channel of his company, Brisbane Creative, and chatting with him about his big plans. At the moment those plans are mostly based around seeing how much he can spam Digg to get the word out, but we did discuss an API. I wanted one so that I could get his users to come across to Tinfinger (or any other site). However, an API would make his accounts useful and thus go against the spirit of the thing. Maybe not.

I wish Jim all the best with his future career which, if the start of it is any indication, could be a fun ride!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Blog posts that stupid up the Internet

1. In-depth articles discussing the relative worth of two or more Internet companies, like Fotolog and Flickr, which are based solely on Alexa traffic numbers. Please Jason Kottke, allow comments on your blog so we can flame you in person.

2. Puff pieces on how wonderful it would be if Google finally released that OS/PC/Metaverse/flying car that everyone just KNOWS that they're developing in secret. No, they're not doing any of it, they're concentrating on their core business of search because they're smart. Geez, are you all 12 years old? Om Malik should know better, Google is not an ARG. They're just human beings.

3. Someone working for MySpace just farted! Isn't Chad Hurley cuuuuute? Or at least that's what Mashable* sounds like some days. Come on Pete Cashmore, it's getting a little ridiculous with the MySpace/YouTube coverage. Why are you posting digests for the interesting smaller companies on which you have been a significant reporter, and spending all of your time on the already-blanket-covered giants? Expand those snippets out into their own stories and give me something more interesting that the latest widget war story from GEMAYA subsidiaries, please.