I’m going to let you in on a little secret: most of the reviews you read online are performed in a manner that you, as an intelligent consumer, would find abhorrent. I’m not naming names nor am I pointing fingers, but aside from a few very specific cases, your vision of a highly-experienced tech journalist sitting down at a workbench next to a Faraday cage and a drop test station is pretty much fiction.
This is a little bit of inside baseball, so bear with me or skip reading this.
First, I want to talk a little bit about the reviews cycle. This is the plan PR people have when sending out items for review. For years, that plan was simple: you fly to New York, drop off a few devices, fly back. All the print media there would futz with things and the go to press. This gave reviewers a month lead time, if not longer. I used to write for Laptop magazine and we had lead times of three months. Now, with the always-on Internet, reviews go up as quickly as possible. In fact, when you see a bunch of reviews go up at exactly the same time its because the company set an embargo for that date. Rather than risk looking slow, all the major sites pop up their reviews in unison. But almost everyone gets a few days before the review embargo is up.
If you’re a MAJOR MEDIA TECHNOLOGY WRITER at any MAJOR OLD AND NEW MEDIA PROPERTY you’re beholden to this for a few reasons. The primary reason is because it’s a holdover from the old days of embargoed news that had to be physically sent by mail out to the frontier lands by Pony Express. The second reason is that it lets the oldsters have plenty of time with a device before they cough up a review. I’m only being partially tongue-in-cheek about this.
So I’ll use the iPhone 5 as an example, although almost any major device follows this pattern. First, the announcement is made. In this case, the announcement was two weeks ago but announcements can happen at CES and devices can take months to appear or they can appear without warning – although some tech press still gets them early.
In the case of the iPhone 5, the cream of the tech press (MG, Mossberg, oddly not Topolsky UPDATE: Topolsky held his review to create frisson! How novel!) got early review units with express instructions not to show the device off to anyone. If there hadn’t been an announcement/handout event, the cream of the tech press would get the device a week or so early anyway, via FedEx or a “deskside meeting” with express instructions not to publish until (and this is increasingly not the case) either Thursday and/or the day of the official unveiling boozeathon that they usually hold in a major city. Why Thursday? Because that’s when Pogue and Mossberg publish their columns and in the world of PR having the NYT or WSJ to slip casually into your client’s clips file is like printing money. With the advent of the Internet, Pogue and Mossberg can now publish whenever but, like some sort of weekly Feast Day, Thursday was traditionally the Day Of Reviews.
But there’s a problem. One person spending one week with a device is a pretty small sample size. Whereas the proud men and women of the tech press pride themselves on working quickly, succinctly, and with a fervor for the facts that would make Mr. Murrow proud, they still only have a week to mess with this stuff. So you miss a lot. And I mean a lot. You miss Maps sucking, purple flaring, scratches, static. Considering how many iPhones were shipped and how many eyeballs ended up inspecting every cranny of the new device, it’s not surprising that these problems cropped up.
I would also posit that every other phone out there has similar problems. However, because this is the iPhone and everyone is staring at their iPhones at dinner, the problems are writ large. The early reviewers miss the problems because they’re enamored with the device. They don’t have it long enough to really see the problems (if any) or nit-pick on perceived problems. Now imagine this is for a less popular phone. The reviewers for those are far less thorough, which is why we stopped reviewing incidental Android phones: the temptation to give these phones a 6 out of 10 and call it a day is too great. The reader receives no value.
Readers will also yell that the writers just want to suck up to Apple/Google/Microsoft and so they won’t give anything a bad review. This is false. Most writers won’t write about bad stuff. I’ve seen so much garbage roll through my attic office that I could build my own little mini landfill. I’ve seen phones and tablets that were about as exciting as a block of concrete and devices with no earthly purpose. If we reviewed them all – like CNET does – we’d probably all go crazy. I’m happy to let CNET have the Google juice for a four year old HP inkjet printer. I have my pride.
More to the point, however, is that we can’t really trust early reviews. I always recommend caution when it comes to buying products that have just launched and I rarely take my own advice. Many devices only begin to exhibit problems after lots of use and many faulty devices pop up only after the first batch of highly scrutinized devices runs out.
So now you know a little bit about how the reviews process works and why you shouldn’t (or should) be mad at tech writers for singing encomiums about the latest and greatest: the problems you’re facing aren’t the problems they faced. They didn’t sit with the device for very long. Their review, while presumably thorough, was written over a few days and aims to paint a picture of the particular device in a way that offers a minimum of consternation. After all, they’re the lucky ducks who got this stuff early.
In the end, the real reviews are the ones that percolate up out of the forums and blogosphere. Devin wrote about this earlier, as well. In short, in the great drama of tech journalism, the players in the play mean well, and they are often right. But the plebeian chorus, in the end, always has the last laugh.
Original post: The Problem With Early Reviews
Apple broke records again opening weekend, with the iPhone 5 selling more than 5M in its first three days, compared to 4M for the iPhone 4S.
The iPhone-maker also announced that demand for the iPhone 5 far exceeded the initial supply, which is likely the only reason why opening weekend sales didn’t cross into the 6- to 10 million range some were predicting. Still the number is impressive, and reflects strong pre-order performance, which Apple said topped 2 million in the first 24 hours.
Apple also announced that 100 million iOS devices have been updated to iOS 6, an amazing rate of adoption, considering that the company has sold just north of 400 million, according to its own numbers released earlier this month. We saw a lot of evidence that adoption was very high, very early on after the release of iOS 6, but Apple’s official totals really drive home just how many eagerly pushed that update button in the first week.
Google’s early stumbles with Wallet are the startup ecosystem’s gains. Chicago’s up-and-coming Braintree just poached Aunkur Arya, who headed partnerships for Google Wallet, to be its general manager for mobile. The company, backed by Accel Partners, also picked up Klas Bäck to oversee international and payment strategy.
Braintree is processing about $1 billion per year in mobile payments, for clients including Hotel Tonight, Angry Birds-maker Rovio and Zimride, which runs ride-sharing service Lyft. They, along with other competitors like PayPal and YC-backed Stripe, are trying to grab a slice of what is fast becoming the most strategically important area in e-commerce.
Braintree estimates that about 20 percent of e-commerce shopping sessions are happening on mobile devices and that raw figure is growing by two to three times every year. Companies like Groupon say that mobile platforms account for about a third of their transactions in developed markets like North America. Braintree stresses that the $1 billion in transactions it’s facilitating aren’t just peer-to-peer transfers, they’re actual purchases of goods or services directly from mobile phones.
The company, which had been bootstrapped up until last fall, took a big slug of funding from Accel with a $34 million round that the Palo Alto venture firm took whole. They then turned around and acquired New York-based mobile payments startup Venmo for $26 million. Venmo operates as a separate unit.
“Venmo gave us a very slick consumer wallet application that sits right with our our checkout process,” CEO Bill Ready tells us.
Google Wallet, meanwhile, has seen a spate of departures to Square and smaller startups after an internal clash between new leadership brought over from PayPal and early team members who backed NFC. Rob von Behren, one of the founding engineers for Wallet, went to Square, while other founding team members Jonathan Wall and Marc Freed-Finnegan have started their own company Tappmo.
Arya becomes one of the latest to leave the team. Before Wallet, he led mobile app business development at AdMob. That means he should have a wealth of relationships with top tier mobile developers, which will help Braintree quickly rack up more big name clients. Bäck, meanwhile, will lead international strategy at a key time for Braintree. The company just opened in 30 new countries.
The cost of higher education in the U.S. today is ridiculous. Student debt shot north of $1 trillion earlier this year, for example. It’s not surprising, then, that we’re seeing growing adoption of online learning platforms and tools. MOOCs, or massive online open courses, have been the stars of a new educational model, thanks to their potential to offer quality, affordable education at a scale that just wasn’t possible five years ago.
While some say that MOOCs will fundamentally change higher education and distance learning, others have seen these platforms as having more of a supporting role, offering certificates or flair rather than diplomas. That doesn’t really matter right now. The experimentation at this early stage is what’s important. To their credit, many universities have begun to support and/or develop MOOC platforms (like EdX), but probably not have taken such an active role in developing these new models as Stanford has.
Again, while Stanford is one of many, the university has long offered courses and lectures online, more recently through iTunes U, and at the end of August, went so far as to create a “Vice Provost of Online Learning” to oversee the integration of web technologies into Stanford’s education. What’s more, the well-funded Coursera, the tech-focused, Khan Academy-inspired Udacity and the group-based Venture Lab either got their start at Stanford or are currently on campus.
And now, it seems, the school has another MOOC. Yes, while that may seem superfluous, Class2Go is bringing a unique approach. Created by eight engineers in Stanford’s CS Department, the program is a non-profit designed for both teaching and research, portable and interoperable.
To unpack that a little: When Class2Go says it’s portable, it means that it wants to be platform agnostic. Its documents are already portable, its videos already live outside its system on YouTube, its assets can be repurposed as professors see fit and the platform’s exercises and problem sets are in the Khan Academy format (meaning they’re not in a proprietary database) and can be used anywhere.
In terms of interoperability, Class2Go’s website reads, “we don’t want to build or maintain more than we have to,” so it stands on the shoulders of, or relies significantly on, other services to run, like Khan, Piazza, YouTube, Python Django, Amazon AWS, Opscode and Github. Furthermore, designing the platform for both teaching and research means that the platform will leverage data to inform and evolve pedagogy, as well as to give them a glimpse into the efficacy of lessons, teaching style, tech tools, etc.
But the biggest differentiating factor for Class2Go — in case it hasn’t yet become apparent — is its early dedication to building and maintaining a totally open-source platform. This means that the platform aims to be both free of cost and of pricey IP, while professors are free to contribute to Class2Go’s code and get involved in the development of the platform, as well as to collaborate with other institutions and organizations.
And that’s where you start to see what might be Class2Go’s biggest appeal. A big complaint against existing platforms (and really, educational technology as a whole) is that it is more concerned with progress for the sake of progress — even if that means technology replacing teachers (the human kind) altogether.
Instead, the most successful edtech platforms (and this is obviously especially true for MOOCs, given their structure) are those who truly empower teachers, designing their platforms in such a way as to optimize a teacher’s ability to teach effectively, control their content — and engage their students.
The platform does this by making all content created within, regardless of type, property of whoever creates it. Professors can also take advantage of the aforementioned backend, which enables them to track student use, see how students are watching video, when they drop out and what kind of content resonates with them the most, video or slideshows — essentially creating an A/B testing platform for teachers.
For students, the long-term goal is obviously to offer a wide variety of courses and learning experiences. However, the platform is still early in its development (after all, it came together over the course of three months) and hopefully continues to be experimental. Class2Go will offer 16 online courses in the fall, with the first two officially launching on October 8th — “An Introduction To Computer Networks” and “Solar Cells, Fuel Cells, & Batteries.”
The other differentiating (and life-saving) factor for Class2Go is that it’s being supported by the university. Compare that to Coursera, which was lucky enough to raise a huge first round for such a young company, but still has to eventually face “Monetization Mountain.” Business models seem to have been the farthest things from mind during the development of Class2Go, and, thanks to Stanford’s support, the team can focus on building a great user experience for professors and students.
Education and monetization have always enjoyed a strained relationship, and is an ever-present pressure over the oft-mission-based edtech startup. So, hopefully, being free from that will allow Class2Go to experiment in ways others may not be able to, and by becoming open source, build a platform that in the end will have greater integrity and more bells and whistles than its closed counterparts. Hopefully, Class2Go (which, by the way, is also working on mobile apps, hence the name) and the other MOOCs in its class will soon be able to move beyond the experimental phase to really begin solving the big problems in higher education.
Here is the original post: Class2Go: Stanford’s New Open-Source Platform For Online Education