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Britney Spears has good news for you

The most entertaining thing I learned at yesterday's Google Developer Day (London branch) was that there is a site that tracks the gap between the BBC's idea of what the most important news is and the stuff people actually read. When Ian Forrester and Matthew Cashmore showed off this BBC Backstage widget, the BBC was only 17 percent "in touch" with what "we're" reading. Today, I see it's 39 percent, so I guess the BBC has good days and bad days.
I note, irrelevantly to this week's headline, that Cashmore also said that putting Britney Spears in the headline moves stories right to the top of the reading list (though to the bottom of the BBC's list).

The widget apparently works by comparing the top stories placed on the BBC News front page with the list the BBC helpfully supplies of the most popular current stories. A nice example of creative use of RSS feeds and data scraping.

See, journalists have mixed feelings about this kind of thing. On the one hand, it's fascinating – fascinating – to see what people actually read. If you are a journalist and a hypocritical intellectual snob, this sort of information gives you professional license to read about Britney Spears (in order to better understand your audience) while simultaneously sneering (for money) at anyone who chooses to do so recreationally. On the other hand, if you're dedicated to writing serious think pieces about difficult topics, you dread the day when the bean counters get hold of those lists and, after several hours' careful study, look up and say brightly, "Hey, I know! Why don't we commission more stories about Britney Spears and forget about all that policy crap?"

(I, of course, do not fall in either category: I write what one of my friends likes to call "boring bollocks about computers", and I have been open for years about my alt.showbiz.gossip habit.)

The BBC guys' presentation was one of a couple of dozen sessions; they were joined by developers from other companies, large and small, and, of course, various "Googlers", most notably Chris di Bona, who runs Google's open source program. In the way of the modern era, there was a "bloggers' lounge", nicely wi-fi'd and strewn with cushions in Google's favorite primary colors. OK, it looked like a playpen with laptops, but we're not here to judge.

There seems to be a certain self-consciousness among Googlers about the company's avowed desire not to be "evil". The in-progress acquisition of the advertising agency DoubleClick has raised a lot of questions recently – though while Google has created an infrastructure that could certainly make it a considerable privacy threat should it choose to go in that direction, so far, it hasn't actually done so.

But the more interesting thing about the Developer Day is that it brings home how much Google (and perhaps also Yahoo! is becoming a software company rather than the search engine service it used to be. One of the keys to Microsoft's success – and that of others before it, all the way back to Radio Shack – was the ecology of developers it built up around its software. We talk a lot about Microsoft's dominance of the desktop, but one of the things that made it successful in the early days was the range of software available to run on it. A company the size Microsoft was then could not have written it all. More important, even if the company could have done it, the number of third parties investing in writing for Windows helped give that software the weight it needed to become dominant. GNU/Linux, last time I looked, had most of the boxes checked, but it's still pretty hard to find fully functional personal finance software, persumably because that requires agreements with banks and brokerage firms over data formats, as well as compliance with a complex of tax laws.

The notion that building a community around your business is key to success on the Internet is an old one (at least in Internet years). Amazon.com succeeded first by publishing user reviews of its products and then by enlisting as an associate anyone who wanted to put a list of books on their Web site. Amazon.com also opened up its store to small, third-party sellers and latterly has started offering hosting services to other business. The size of eBay's user base is of course the key to everything: you put your items for sale where the largest number of people will see them. Yahoo!'s strategy has been putting as many services (search, email, news, weather, sports scores, poker) as possible on its site so that sooner or later they capture a visit from everyone. And, of course, Google itself has based its success in part on enlisting much of the rest of the Web as advertising billboards, for which it gets paid. Becoming embedded into other people's services is a logical next step. It will, though, make dealing with it a lot harder if the company ever does turn eeeevil.

The other fun BBC widget was clearly designed with the BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis in mind. In 1993, Lewis expressed a desire for more good news to be featured on TV. Well, here you go, Martyn: a Mood News Google Gadget that can be tuned to deliver just good news. Keep on the sunny side of life.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. She has an intermittent blog. Readers are welcome to post there or to send email, but please turn off HTML.


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