Why adsense for feeds is a bad idea (at least for now)

I've been thinking about advertising in RSS for a while (and Google's foray most specifically) and always with a general distaste for it. It wasn't until recently that I was able to put my finger on exactly why I think it's misguided, but I think I figured it out.
From my experiences in using Adsense nearly two years on PVRblog, I've noticed a great deal of my traffic comes from search engines. I only have stats on those viewing the site via the web (bloglines says 4k users read it via RSS, but there's no way of knowing the full number), but a random swath of stats will frequently show 75% or more of the web traffic has google.com as their referrer. Here's a screenshot of my Typepad stats, showing a single page of accesses in the past few minutes as I'm writing this. The ones with no referrer listed were reading the site directly.
These are folks looking for information on products I reviewed and mentioned or tips I might have divulged in a post. I have no way of verifying this, but I would assume that my adsense click-throughs are mostly due to this search engine traffic and not due to my daily readers. At the very least, the random searchers simply outnumber the daily readers, but I think it goes beyond that (which would assume both groups click through ads at the same click through rate). I don't have any data to prove this, but I'm going off on a hunch since that's how I tend to use google's text ads myself. If I'm searching for information about a baby monitor or trying to figure out when the superbowl is starting, and I end up on a site with Google text ads, I often click on the ones that seem to offer better info than the site I'm viewing. If I'm viewing a page that mentions the text string "Superbowl" and "start" and "time" but doesn't answer my question, and there's an ad that says "Plan your Superbowl Party Here" I would probably click it, hoping they happen to mention the kickoff time.
Let me circle this back to ads in RSS feeds. You can be fairly sure that every single person subscribed to your feed is a daily reader and it's not likely random searchers would add your feed. The people reading your feed are using a feed because they don't want to miss a single word you're saying. They're not just fans reading your site, they're more die-hard than that.
Who would you subject to advertising, if you had a say in the matter: random visitors or your biggest fans?
I've come to the conclusion that I do have a say in the matter, and that I do my best to decrease advertising pitches to my biggest fans. On MetaFilter for instance, there are blogads and google text ads for outside browsers, but when you get an account there you don't see any of it and the site is ad-free. PVRblog has both blogads and google text ads on the site but I won't be adding anything to the feeds.
None of this is set in stone, of course. Currently, the technology that does text matching in all the RSS ad examples I've seen is quite poor. Out of the context of a site with thousands of words, giving a unique ad to every single post that might only have a handful of words seems to result in totally random ads. I find myself looking at a someone's blog post on iPods and seeing a text ad for refinancing a mortgage far too often. If ads in RSS were more sophisticated and actually were pitched at the very things you were discussing in a post, I might reconsider. The other main thing that might change over time is that RSS readers are typically technology-savvy and a small minority of your audience. If RSS grows to the point that random visitors become the majority of your traffic, it might be time to reconsider this, but for now it seems pretty obvious: don't clobber your biggest fans with pitches to ads and instead relegate ads to areas where it might help people find more information or related products.

South by Etech recollections

During breaks in travel last week, I wrote a bunch of notes about both SXSW and Etech conferences and finished it off last night while waiting for a flight. What follows is a loose bunch of thoughts on various subjects.

SXSW

SXSW was fun, and good to catch up with everyone. At this point, I think it's officially a conference by and for bloggers, as the number of mentions of code or new products was minimal and every panel seemed to focus on the ins and outs of blogging, with some CSS thrown in. I enjoyed myself and the party atmosphere of the week even though I was nervous about having two talks. I don't recall anything too mind blowing as the conference has turned into a mix of summer camp reunion with friends and a four-day excuse to party. About the only interesting panel I recall was the one on minorities in blogging. Even though anyone can blog, it's still the domain of white males by and large, and while the speaker list at sxsw has plenty of women now, there were few people of color. The panel was a good one to have since it was just about the only one to force everyone to take a look at the medium critically. There's a difference between navel gazing and critical introspection and I think this one handled it well. I'd like to see more panels challenging conventions instead of celebrating them.
One weird thing I noticed is that I rarely brought out my big digital SLR camera. Usually on a four day trip like this, I'd take probably 100-150 shots but thanks to my cameraphone and flickr, I left my SLR at the hotel and ended up taking barely a dozen photos with my full-sized camera, while I probably uploaded 30-40 shots to flickr that week. I imagine if cameraphones get up into the 3-5 megapixel range, people will just use those instead of dedicated cameras. There's no photo downloading, manipulation, or resizing necessary. You just shoot, mash a couple buttons, and send it off to flickr. It's a lazy photographer's dream.

Etech

Etech and SXSW used to be quite similar, with one a bit more technical than the other, but I think this year they really diverged. Etech felt a bit weird this time around, much less hackery and technical and much closer to what I assume conferences like PC Forum or Web 2.0 are about. The long story short is that Etech suddenly seemed to be about money. Everyone talking about getting or giving angel funding, dropping tips on talking to VCs, and half the crowd sported gray hair and suits instead of fauxhawks and cargo pants. It was odd. The cutting edge geeks at etech have always pushed code and potential product trends but it seems the bubble is back and the money guys have wised up, and they descended this year to check it out. In this year's money-ified etech, Joshua from delicious seemed like the last unfunded, unincorporated guy with a great idea and he was the belle of the ball. I saw him get mobbed after every talk, surrounded by what appeared to be VC types.

O-fucking-deo

Every time I attend SXSW or Etech, it seems like the really amazing moment doesn't happen until the final day, when for one reason or another a panel or demo blows my mind. Late on the last day of Etech, that demo was Odeo.
I've long thought of podcasting as being technically cool, but problematic. You basically only have two options: download mp3 files off a website one by one by hand, or subscribe to a podcast and get everything, whether you wanted to hear it or not. There has to be a bandwidth-saving happy medium right? Odeo looks like it, offering in-browser previews and playback, a shopping cart-style download system, and the ability to subscribe in classic "download everything" podcast style if you want.
The biggest innovation of Odeo in my mind was the browser-based multitrack recording studio. You don't need to own expensive, sophisticated audio software or hardware, you can just use your browser and built-in mic to record your voice and add music bumpers or other recorded audio. You can even edit your final tracks, all in the browser. It has to be seen to be believed. Powerful tools, all inside the browser and they'll work with any browser on any system with the Flash plugin. It makes basic audio technology available to anyone, and I can't wait to see what kinds of shows pop up on Odeo once they lower the technology bar for all.
I got to talk to Ev for the first time in a couple years after his panel and I told him that while Odeo seemed to have a lot in common with flickr (you have friends and contacts and can easily find new tracks by your circle of friends), the in-browser recording set it apart. I remember telling him "It was like a flickr that included a free camera for every user." Just as Blogger+Blogspot lowered the bar and let anyone with an idea share their thoughts with the world, Odeo appears to be poised to do the same for sound.

Damn that Merlin Mann

While stuck awaiting delayed flights on the return home, I finally gave in and downloaded quicksilver and read all the tutorials. The strange thing is that while sometimes I feel like a slow, money-losing contestant on jeopardy when tabbing and auto-completing, the simple app launcher stuff is great. After training it to grab my ten favorite apps with just a couple keys, I closed down my dragthing launcher. Then I got used to the "open files with…" feature and cleaned my desktop of clutter. Now I have this zen-like clear desktop and anything I want is a keystroke away in quicksilver or expose. It only took a couple hours of tinkering but I definitely see what everyone is raving about. It feels like my mac just got that much easier and faster to use, and I finally got rid of my desktop clutter. I'm a bit of a lazy slob, often having dozens of folders and files on the desktop and now I have none. I've added App Rocket to my PC for the same effect and it's working pretty well as an app launcher too.

Conference IM stalk hacks

I was poaching folks from rendezvous in austin one day when I started to feel guilty and asked the person next to me if they ever felt pangs of guilt when doing this. "When doing what?" I heard back. I asked around, and no one among my friends had discovered a great (and potentially problematic) feature of iChat, so I might as well tell everyone here.
Open your rendezvous buddy list and your aim buddy list and put them side by side. Now, in the conference-populated rendezvous list, look for a name of someone you've always wanted to talk to over IM but haven't yet. Click, hold-down, and drag their name from the rendezvous buddy list to the aim buddy list. Ta da! You just poached someone's public aim name onto your perma-buddy AIM list and they have no idea. When you leave the conference and return home you can chat with them over AIM.
This is incredibly useful for getting friends onto your buddy list that you know personally but didn't know they used AIM. The more sinister fun/scary/stalky part is that you can also add famous people you'd never have aim names for, but that you happen to be on the same network with. When I first discovered this, I checked to see if it worked by putting Tim O'Reilly and a bunch of famous tech journalists on my list. The following week I realized I could tell when they were at their desk and it sufficiently creeped me out so I got rid of them. iChat should probably have a preference for whether or not you want to allow this feature (I would allow it personally, it's fun to touch base with conference goers afterwards), but for now it's a handy dandy free-for-all that no one seemed to know about. Now you know, so remember to poach everyone you'd like to talk to after the conference the next time you're at one. (update: several people emailed to say that it's in iChat's preferences, under privacy, so turn if off if you're concerned about this)

On Speaking

This year's conferences were a bit stressful for me because I had to talk three times in the span of four days, and two of the three talks were on subjects at the edge of my grasp. I don't get much practice talking in front of crowds so I always sweat these sorts of things. I think my community panel went well even though I prepared the least of all three talks. It was almost completely off the top of my head and fun to dive into the ins and outs of community management with Craig and Molly (it helped that she was an incredible moderator). My second panel at SXSW was my first time ever as a moderator and I think I did an ok job letting everyone talk and keeping the panel moving, but I did a terrible job introducing the subject and delineating the scope of the talk. My talk at Etech was more of a classic powerpoint-bullets-for-20-minutes kind of thing and in the formal confines of a standard lecture format, I think I did pretty bad. That kind of speaking takes practice and right before my talk I got to see a seasoned pro. I think I've honed in on what it takes to give a good talk in that format.
Clay's talk that preceded mine was fantastic, one of the best I've seen at a tech conference. Clay teaches at NYU and his polish from regular lecturing showed. He knows how to work the crowd and drop jokes at appropriate times and he moves his arms and body enough to keep you from drifting off but not so much that it's annoying. What really wowed me was his command of audience attention span. I've seen Lessig do it well but I think Clay does it even better.
Most folks have an attention span that cycles every 90 seconds or so, as they drift between total concentration and something less so. Clay had a knack for doing two things: he'd stay on a slide/point for about that long, and when he went to the next thing you were always ready to take it in. The other thing he did well was work with attention span on the macro level. He'd have pauses between shifts in subject matter to let the audience relax and cue everyone up for the Next Big Point he wanted to make. This entailed having a title slide for every section of the talk (maybe 8 or 9 of them in 40 minutes), which was completely black and only contained one or two words centered. Your eyes and mind could rest a bit on each one, which he used as a quick intro to a section, then he'd dive into charts 'n graphs or a meaty slide filled with bullets. After 3 or 4 slides on that section, he'd transition to another title slide that you could rest on. On an even more macro level, the entire talk created a thread between each section and made sense, and his conclusion simply reiterated the connections. It was just about as perfect as a talk could be and I can tell I have a lot to learn and a lot of practice ahead of me if I ever want to get any good at it.
Until next year…

Two things that suck about Intellectual Property Law this week

Earlier this week I heard Seth Green on Fresh Air, talking about his new stop-motion sketch comedy show, Robotic Chicken. It debuted last week but I caught a rerun and enjoyed it. The show basically follows the model that Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, and MAD TV have followed for years — a bunch of sketches making fun of pop culture, but the twist is that they use action figures, animation, and claymation instead of actors.
Before the opening credits even rolled, the law got in the way. The show opened with a message saying what you were about to see was parody, which seems like an unnecessary opener to a comedy show. Then I remembered from the interview Seth Green said that before they could show a 30 second goof on the "This is your brain on drugs" commercial, they had to get an ok from The Partnership for a Drug Free America. Apparently, since they used the woman that voiced the originals, the phrasing and her voice were "the intellectual property of the organization" and the bit didn't get into the show until they signed off on it. What's shocking is that I've seen 3 or 4 parodies of this commercial on shows before and I doubt anyone ever had to ok it first. The Simpsons did a joke version of a Schoolhouse Rock song, parodying "I'm just a bill" with the original voice talent, and now I wonder if had to get ok first.
The other sucky thing this week was when Sony got Beatallica's site shut down. Sony owns the rights to some Beatles songs and the guys in the rock parody group Beatallica sing send ups of Beatles classics, as if they were done by the guys in Metallica. They feature bits of lyrics from both bands along with lyrics they make up, and they play off The Beatles' melodies. It's a cultural mashup of 60's rock and 80's metal and it's a rocking good time. They don't charge for their songs and freely give them away online, so when they had hosting problems last year I volunteered to be a mirror for their first two albums. Now that Sony convinced their host to shut off their account, I'm one of the few places to find it and I hope Sony doesn't strong arm my host as well. Their work is non-commercial parody and I would think they were safer than a band like Dread Zeppelin or Mini Kiss that does shows for money, but Sony doesn't like parody works that build off their property, so they're offline for now.
I love comedy, and if I had a sketch show or a jokey band, I would never in a million years think that I have to ask for permission before I make a work parodying something from pop culture. What if the Partnership for a Drug Free America didn't like Seth Green's fake anti-drug commercial? Since when does the subject of a joke get to decide when and how you get to tell it, and since when do they employ lawyers to decide that?
So much of comedy exists in order to poke fun at our culture and these two examples make me think that lawyers using intellectual property law may have disastrous effects not just on culture and comedy, but on everyone's freedom to say what they want in the future.
update: The National Prostrate Cancer Coalition issued a press release playing off another bit from the same first show, where Optimus Prime gets prostate cancer. Kudos to them for having a sense of humor about the whole thing.

The Sony Ericcson s700i/710a Review

s700i, flipped open
There's been a lot of buzz over the new Sony Ericsson 700i/710a in recent months. As soon as I heard about this 1.3 megapixel bluetooth cameraphone on Gizmodo last year, I coveted this device. In late summer of 2004, a few people got early versions and started posting photos from it along with rave reviews. In November of 2004, I bought an unlocked one from this grey market phone site, for about $550. Today, cingular wireless finally launched it in the US, but still at the $500 price point.
For the past couple years I've used a phone that was one of the first to be good at bluetooth, a Sony Ericsson t68i, and one of the first phones that was good at photos, a Samsung v205. Moving up to the s700i was the best of both worlds for me.
All about the camera
Simply put, the camera is fantastic on this phone. It's one of the only phones you can buy today with a real CCD camera in it, just like a real digital camera. In fact, the way the phone is built, it's pretty much like a Sony Cybershot compact digital camera from early 2000, but with phone guts attached. Here's a gallery of my favorite photos taken with it.
O the glory of ikea Airport casino 20041217 Employees Only
What's great about the photo quality and small form factor is that for the first time, I always have a camera with me and it even has instant post-to-the-web capability. The drawback of my digital SLR is that it's big and I have to remember to bring it in its bag, along with the lenses I want to use. While the 1.3 megapixel photo quality from the phone doesn't compare to the 6 megapixel SLR, it's not that bad — miles ahead of other pixellated, blurry cameraphones you've probably used. I take a lot of photos to remember a place or a moment and since the phone is so small, I've always got a decent camera with me.
I've also found the camera comes in handy to the point that it's downright practical. Recently while going to a garden center to pick up seed and fertilizer, I noticed a few plants I was interested in, but felt I needed to do more research at Google before I could decide what fit best in my backyard. So I took shots of the labels to look up later. I've also taken to using it while shopping, when I need to remember if a price is better than what I can find online, or if something will fit in my home.
Everything else
Overall, I've found little to complain about when it comes to all the other phone features. Getting it to work on t-mobile was a matter of dropping my sim card in and having tech support send the MMS and VPN settings. The screen is bright and gorgeous, and the swivel keypad is smooth, though I only use it when keying in new numbers or text, otherwise I use it closed. While it doesn't iSync yet over bluetooth, I was able to send all my address book contacts to the device using bluetooth. On t-mobile it's just $20/month to add unlimited data so I can use it as a bluetooth modem when I travel away from wireless, and I can send as many photos as I want to flickr. It comes with a web browser that understands xhtml and css, but the bright screen is just too narrow to be useful for web browsing so you end up scrolling around and around. I kind of wish it converted pages instead and only sent text.
I replaced the stock 32Mb memory stick with a 128Mb one I found on ebay shortly after getting the phone (about $30), and with that setup I can take hundreds of photos (they're only about 200kb each) while at the same time being able to carry about an hour's worth of music for the mp3 player (the phone uses proprietary ear bud headphones though). It has a java gaming engine that has some pretty impressive graphics, but I've barely touched that feature.
One of the few gripes I've heard from folks is that the OS can seem buggy or slow. I've never had it crash on me, but I have noticed some lag when jumping through menus sometimes, though it is nothing like the horrible slow interface my t68i offered.
The only other problem with the phone is the price. I splurged and got it as an early xmas present to myself and I'm surprised to hear it's still going to be about $500 months later. If a carrier can get this phone down to $200-300, I suspect it will be so popular as to be ubiquitous.
Conclusions
Overall, a great phone, a good camera, and something I'm heartily reocmmending to all my friends, especially the ones that are also photographers. This is the phone you've been waiting for, one that combines all the basic phone functionality you'd want, along with a fairly respectable point-and-shoot digital camera that fits in your pocket.

Pieces of the Future

I haven't rented movies in months (seen plenty on HBO thanks to TiVo and *cough* downloaded from the internet) but recently grabbed a couple gems.
Pieces of April was something I wanted to see last summer, but its life was short-lived on the Oregon art house movie circuit, and before I knew it, it was gone. The movie is fairly strong, it's a little slow in parts, a little flat here and there, but has some really great emotional parts that make up for its shortcomings. I guess I'd give it a 80/100 if I rated movies on a quality scale.
But while I may consider this a pretty good film, I think it's a real breakthrough work; a milestone of sorts. The real breakthrough was the format. Now, I'm not focusing on it because I know it's sort of a gimmick to do a mainstream movie on cheap DV cameras, but it's worth looking at this movie as a sign of things to come.
I'm sure someone in 1979 (or whenever Wordstar first came out) made some bold prediction that in five years the Great American Novel was going to be typed out on a computer running their software and I'm sure people laughed. And when you think about how 99% of the publishing industry works today, through laptops and copies of Word, the Great American Novel is being written every year, thousands of times over, on cheap computers running cheap software that allows for easy writing and editing.
Pieces of April is the first thing recorded on digital video I've seen that finally felt like a "proper" movie. I'm going to say it was the performances and script, not just the actors involved that made it shine. The picture quality definitely feels like a step down from regular cinema, but after the first 10 minutes or so you don't notice any jaggies or the harsh exposure and focus instead on the story. The entire film was made for about $160k, using prosumer-level cameras.
When iMovie came out soon after MiniDV cameras became popular, I heard a lot of people predict that someday soon, the next great film was coming out of some unknown person with a computer, a good script, and a few grand to film it. There has been a few attempts at this already. Sundance recently screened a film edited in iMovie.
Although Pieces of April came out of the "Hollywood Machine" it's the first DV feature I've seen that made me forget it cost nothing and was produced with cheap gear. It was a good movie that happened to be shot in DV, and as technology marches forward, there's no doubt that ten years from now anyone will probably be able to buy a high-def DV camera for about a grand that could shoot a feature.
Of course, you're still going to need the basics that no piece of software or hardware can provide: great story, actors, locations, sound, and editing, but the prices of tools are dropping so fast that maybe someday we'll get to the point where an artist won't be limited by the cash in their pocket, but by the ideas in their heart.

All Hail Bluetooth

While I've known about bluetooth phones for the past few years and heard you could do cool stuff like use it as a modem, control your pc, and sync your computers with your phone, I didn't really give it a try until I got back from Etech this year. In the few months I've been playing with it, I can say one thing's for sure: it's like living in the goddamned future.

What it is

Understanding bluetooth is pretty easy, it's just a name for a low-range networking standard. It's essentially "personal area networking" meaning you can connect a phone to a wireless headset or a mouse with a computer, all without wires. There are a bunch of bluetooth enabled phones and PDAs out now, and thanks to USB adapters, powerbooks and PCs can play too.
My current setup entails a Sony Ericcson t68i phone on t-mobile, paired with a 12" aluminum powerbook. The follow's a run down of how to set it up and what you can do with it once it's in place.

The setup

I started by swapping the sim card from my old phone (a samsung I bought specifically to take photos and post online) into my partner's t68i and vice versa. I was surprised that this Just Worked, but it did. Once it was my phone I called t-mobile customer service and dropped my t-zones service for transferring photos and signed up for their unlimited GPRS internet service for $20/month. I asked for setup help, and they forwarded me to a tech that helped me figure out how to setup the account on my phone and what the CID settings were. I got an SMS a few minutes later with all my settings automatically stored onto the phone as well.
I fired up my powerbook, updated bluetooth to the latest firmware, then ran the "Setup a new bluetooth device" option in the bluetooth menu. I left everything on the defaults then when it asked for an access number to get online, I simply entered in *99***(your CID value)# where (your CID value) depends on your phone but is simply a number. That should add a bluetooth modem to your network preferences and I added the icon to my menubar so I could connect whenever I needed to.
And just like that I had a permanent backup connection whenever wifi was not available. No more worrying about which hotels have network connections and how much they cost. No more getting lost while traveling because I forgot to print a map. I just pop open my powerbook, start the bluetooth connection to my phone, and I'm connected.
In the 20-30 hours I've gotten to use my phone as a modem I've enjoyed a connection that seems to run right at the reported 20kbps speed. It's just a tad slower than a 28.8 modem, but is entirely serviceable for email and web browsing. Reading weblogs with lean code and CSS and RSS feeds is easy as well as reading email on the connection. Bluetooth does seem to suck some battery life out of the phone. I went from a full charge to about 50% left after a couple hours of bluetooth'd connection at an airport recently. The time to connect is fast, only taking a few seconds to establish a connection and bluetooth seems to work fine if I leave the phone in my pocket.
There's something impressive about leaving the phone in your pocket and getting a connection just fine (though you do have to fight the urge to yell "Hey everyone! I've got the internet in my pants!"). WiFi is revolutionary but I take it for granted. Playing with data connections over bluetooth, it feels like the first time I tried WiFi. It's almost magic that I can stand almost anywhere in the US, and pull down data from the air, via a wireless local connection to my phone.

While operating heavy machinery

You know how you can talk on your cell phone while driving at a high rate of speed? If you've got a good cell connection, you can transmit data as well. I'll give you a second for that to sink in.
This means while you're (or better yet, someone else is) driving down the freeway at a high rate of speed, you can connect and browse the web and download email from your laptop. I don't know why, but at first I figured this was impossible to do reliably. I've had tons of calls drop off in the last ten years I've used cell phones and voice quality is often less than 100%. If I want to downlaod 50kb of email, at some level I thought every byte is sacred and less than 100% perfect service would result in an unreliable data connection. In practice however, driving across the country at 70mph while downloading email and browsing the web works just fine. It even worked perfectly fine when I tried it on Caltrain, the commuter train line in the Silicon Valley.

caltrain bluetoothin'
Connected via bluetooth on the Caltrain, my laptop near the window as the houses roll by

This recent revelation that you can connect on freeways and trains has really opened up the possibilities. There's little stopping someone from doing a 2004 version of Travels with Samantha, but using a cellphone to post stories and photos from the road along the way.

Bridging the usability gap

One thing about cell phones that's always annoyed me is the keypad interface. You end up spending hours keying in your contacts whenever you get a new one, only to lose them afterwards if you ever switch phones or lose one. Bluetooth on the mac makes this problem a thing of the past by allowing you to link the address book application to your phone via bluetooth. When I switched to this new phone, I simply added a few entries to the Address Book that weren't already there, then sync'd up my phone and I suddenly had 40 phone numbers loaded up. As long as my future phones are bluetooth equipped, I'll never have to key entries in by hand. This is a very cool thing and one of the reasons why all my phones will have bluetooth from now on.

Nerdy fun

A cool bluetooth/t68i helper app I had to try out was Sailing's Clicker app. It installs a whole bunch of little applescripts that can be fired off from your phone. While it was fun to stand 10 feet from my laptop, point my phone and advance songs in iTunes, change the volume, and give powerpoint and keynote talks using my phone's buttons, I can't see this being totally practical for frequent use. The only actual useful feature I did find was incoming calls could be triggered to pause iTunes and set your iChat status to away. I usually leave my phone on vibrate and unless it's nearby on my desk or in my pocket, sometimes I miss calls. With the visual and audible changes on my mac desktop, I most certainly would know there's a call. The downside of this app is battery life on my phone. Without bluetooth on, I can go 3-4 days before I need a charge, but with Clicker connected via bluetooth all the time the phone's nearly dead in about 24 hours. After a day of playing around, I haven't used it since.

More Gadget Freakdom

Lastly, there are a whole host of bluetooth devices out there that you can connect to your phone, laptop, or both. I've got a Jabra Freespeak wireless headset, and it can connect to my phone and my mac. The sound quality is really good on phone calls and after you get used to tweaking it around your ear and jamming the piece into your ear canal, it's really comfy and you hardly feel it after a few minutes. On the mac, you can use it to iChat people using video or just live audio (using iChat as a phone), and it's ok, though the sound quality is kinda so-so.
I haven't tried out bluetooth mice or keyboards on my powerbook since I hear they don't wake sleeping macs (you can't just shake a bluetooth mouse to wake it up like you can with a usb mouse), and I hear the battery life is an issue (changing batteries once/month or recharging often).
I'm looking forward to the integration with cars. This has been problematic so far, but I think it's only because we're in the early stages of adoption. I can't wait until I have a car that is aware of my phone and can turn down my music when it rings, or transmit data (directions, car status, location, etc) to and from my phone.

Conclusion

It all started when a friend smuggled a phone from Finland into this country 2-3 years ago, and I saw his wireless headset that seemed too Star Trek to be real. Fast forward to today, and my own personal setup isn't just feeling Star Trek, it's actually useful.
So far the killer app is data over the connection. Whenever I'm out of my office and beyond the reach of free wifi, I'm on bluetooth. I hear that pricing for Bluetooth is still all over the map (which can bite you in the ass if you travel a lot) but my t-mobile plan has been a solid $20 in the months I've had it, and it even allowed for free data use when I was in Canada recently (on the rogers network I think). I'm still amazed you can speed across the land while downloading email at the same time, and the little gadgets like headsets are also quite useful. I know Bluetooth has been around for a while and no one ever thought it'd be ready for prime time, but that time is now, and the useful applications of this technology are plentiful and easy to use.
updates: A lot of people have sent in tips but here's one I didn't know about:
"One thing your article didn't mention is the how Mac's Address Book can work with Bluetooth. When you have Address book open you have the little BT button enabled, address book will have a popup with the name (if in the address book) and number of the person calling. This is great when you're at the computer but you're phone is across the room or in your pocket or whatnot. The popup will let you send the call to voicemail if you don't want to take the call." — Kirk

Social Software ideas

While social software may be the internet revolution du jour among venture capitalists, as a user I'm still waiting for the killer social software app that lives up to all the market hype. Recently I've been thinking about how the current crop of options could be improved upon, or at the very least, how they could be leveraged to be something useful for users. I've come up with a few ideas, some half-baked, others fully baked. I offer them here in the hopes that someone, somewhere already built it or would like to build it.

Colloquial mapping

The gist
Yahoo Maps + Slashdot
Have you ever been literally steered wrong by automated mapping systems like Yahoo Maps or Mapquest? Either the maps are out of date or the algorithm that determines the shortest distance between two points doesn't account for local traffic patterns. I find the difference between how Yahoo Maps says I should get from a point A to a point B and how a friend or family member would tell me how to get there differs about half the time. I find that the more rural or off-the-beaten-path a destination is, the bigger the difference.
I'm finding that in Oregon, the speed difference between two lane roads with stop signs and four lane freeways is substantial. Yahoo Maps suggests the shortest distance and it almost always includes backroads that are riddled with delays. Where these systems fall short is that they are not aware that a quick 5 minute jog over to a major freeway can save 20 minutes or more on an hour long drive.
The idea
Create a mapping service that allows the community to suggest alternate paths along with reasons for it. Suggest the routes to be taken as dictated by the software's GIS information, but also list user suggestions, and to ensure quality, also add ratings of user suggestions by others.
If I wanted to go from San Diego to Ventura, CA, there are several paths I could take and it would depend on time of day, day of week, time of year, and/or the weather. Software would dictate that I go directly up the 5 and 405 freeway to the 101, but that'd be murder during rush hour on a weekday and might take 4-6 hours to cut through three major metropolitan areas. During a holiday period, you'd probably save lots of time taking an eastern route around most of Southern California even though it would be a longer distance.
The rub
The biggest obstacle I can see is normalizing all the data. By its very nature, getting directions from people would be "dirty" and require some significant logic to normalize and get it into a database format that could be queried. You could store the paths based on the geographic start and end points, and perhaps take long/lat points along the way, then you could show users paths suggested by users that had start and end points that were shorter or longer than their desired path. The trickiest thing would be providing user suggested paths for a trip between say Los Angeles and Ventura, CA that could correctly draw upon some of the suggested paths from the San Diego to Ventura submissions.
Allowing other users to rate the quality of suggested directions would hopefully keep bad directions to a minimum and at the same time float the best alternate paths to the top. With proper reputation management in place, the service could keep track of a user's overall quality of suggested directions and highlight those ingenious travelers that always seem to know the quickest way to get somewhere.
Along with the proven utility of internet mapping, adding a suggested route system could fill in the last remaining gaps and produce a hybrid automated and human created system that any amount of AI programming couldn't match. Mapping software relies on simple mathematics and a conceptual map of the earth's surface that imaginary vectors can be plotted along. Humans that are veteran drivers in a particular region have extensive knowledge based on years of experience that simple mathematical models can't replicate. This service would attempt to bring those two worlds together to provide the best possible experience for users trying to get from point A to point B.

2. Geographical opinion systems

The gist
Epinions + Friendster
Last summer I moved to a town in a place far away from where I've spent the past few years, and one of the first problems I had to solve was finding the perfect everything. I quickly amassed a bunch of questions that took months of trial and error to answer through a network of new friends and neighbors. Where could I get a good haircut? Which one of the local dentists would be most understanding of my dental anxiety? Which store should I shop for food at if I want a lot of organic, natural, and meatless food? Are there any trustworthy mechanics in this town? Which one of the two Thai places is "the good one?" Where should I go for a nice night out here? Which theater plays the art house movies? Which one of the furniture stores should I trust with my money?
The idea
Even with a small network of friends, it's tough to find answers for all the questions you might have when you move to a new city. Worse yet is traveling to a new place and having to send off emails to friends that live there, asking them for all their favorite places to eat and have fun. The crux of this idea is to build something that combines a service like Friendster with a review site like Epinions. Basically the site would serve as a digital representation of the connections and knowledge one builds over time when living in the same place.
I'd be more than happy to write detailed reviews of all my favorite places in San Francisco for friends. Currently I do it over email when asked by friends and on localized or private email lists when the questions come up. It took me years to find the one honest mechanic, the nicest dentist on earth, and the best sushi in San Francisco. I share knowledge freely with my friends and they do the same right back at me, but it's tough to keep track of this stuff. This site/service would serve a place to share this information among a trusted network of friends or strangers given appropriate levels of privacy control and reputation management.
The rub
The hardest part of course is weeding out the tainted information. If limited to your friends network, this wouldn't be too hard to manage, as you probably do it currently. I might not treat my friend Jonah's opinion of hairdressers highly because I know he is married to one and talks up his wife's business too much. The bigger rub is when you expose the reviews to strangers, because it quickly becomes a minefield where trust management is paramount to keeping the service useful. Given any system that tracks quality or quantity of any property, participants will game the system to rise in rankings. People signing up fake accounts to rate their own services highly would be the death keel for this service among the many possibilities for tainting data.
Another obvious problem is why anyone would enter all this information somewhere. Sure, epinons could someday do this and it was fun at first, but writing reviews takes work, and I believe epinions relied on encyclopedic reviews and should have instead allowed shorter 1 paragraph reviews that might only be meant for friends. Reducing some of the formality and perceived amount of work would reduce the friction of getting information. Using perhaps an existing network like Friendster, keeping reviews private to only those close to you would also help. If you wanted to share a review of your favorite bar, it wouldn't mean spending fifteen minutes writing to help out some nameless corporate website network, if it was for your friends only, then you'd have the more immediate feeling of helping people you care about out. This would also give an incentive to expand your friend networks, in order to access to this privelaged, private information.
Tribe.net sort of does this by putting some emphasis on geographical location, though they seem to be more of a Craigslist style classified ad network. When I log in, I usually see a list of strangers trying to sell a guitar amp or get a knitting group together, which is fairly different than what I envision here.

3. Collaborative consumed media

The gist
Friendster + ??? (some sort of media management service)
Friendster currently lets you list interests in a free-form way and those become links to others interested in the same subject matter. What I want here is something a bit more formal than "rock music" or "AC/DC". I'd love to know the last five books my friends purchased and the last five CDs they liked. I'd love to know what's spinning in their MP3 player currently and what DVDs they enjoyed watching recently. While this may be a potential privacy problem, as long as my friends are the only ones that can see this info, I wouldn't mind sharing it, and I'd love to check up on what media they've been loving recently.
The idea
A central service perhaps built upon existing systems at Amazon or Friendster that allows you to share as easily as possible all the media you are consuming. Currently my friends do this using a mish-mash of web services, spaghetti code scripts, and their weblogs. I might think about getting the New Pornographers album after I hear my friend Andre rave about it on his site, or if I see Jason's "now playing list" that features the tracks.
The rub
As with the last idea, reducing the friction as much as possible is key to allowing people to enter data into the system. At amazon, simply let people share their recent purchases with friends and perhaps let them write micro-reviews that don't show up as formal amazon reviews. Provide javascript bookmarklets to let users quickly add movie listings, book ordering pages, and band homepages into their media library to share with friends. This would be trivial to tie into an existing commerce system like amazon, which already has the data and only needs to make it easy as possible for me to say "hey friends, I just finished reading Word Freak and it was a blast from start to finish!"
Privacy concerns would have to be addressed, as this could be a Total (media) Information Awareness listing of everything you've bought, watched, listened to, and read. Users would have to trust the company running the service and trust that their data wouldn't be used against them in any way.
Currently Erik's ingenious service All Consuming does this by scraping weblogs (and letting you dictate which ones are your friends) and creating pages and sending you alerts when friends mention new books, though it doesn't do music and movies, and it sort of does a end-run around the data by grabbing it from your site and normalizing it into an amazon-like framework.
Audioscrobbler does "what's playing" lists pretty well (here's my out-dated profile), perhaps if they could be incorporated into an amazon purchase history, it could be extended to movies and books.

4. Reputation management ideas

The gist
Multi-variate reputation management
Reputation systems have been around for a few years and it's about time to improve upon them. I've noticed that after using eBay for a few months that the simple +/- rating system doesn't always tell you what you want to know about an unknown seller, nor does it equate with trust in some cases. This could work with any reputation system, but eBay comes to mind as the most obvious application.
The idea
This is less of a product or service and more like a bunch of ideas around reputation systems.
Add additional variables for tracking reputation in a community system. For eBay, there are numerous informative data points that could help calculate trustworthiness. I'm going to trust someone that has high ranking for selling ten $1,000+ items more than someone that sold 50 $5 trinkets, and doubly so if I want to buy a $500 item. After having been burned by an overseas transaction gone wrong, I'm wary of buying from sellers that are very far away, unless they have extremely high marks.
Similar to the "grade inflation" problems common in colleges everywhere, everyone at eBay seems to have the same positive rating of "GOOD COMMUNICATION WOULD USE AGAIN A+++++++++++" which doesn't really tell you much and becomes meaningless if every bit of feedback looks like that. If you plumb someone's profile and all their previous transactions, you can eventually figure out if they've moved any big ticket items but it'd be great if that information (which is already in the database) could be surfaced and used to assess an adjusted reputation ("This user has been rated positively on 125 sales of items over $500". Other bits of info could include things like location of both the seller and the buyers (I'll trust a seller in Spain if they have lots of high ranking sales to others in my country).
Besides eBay, a system such as the one in use at Slashdot that keeps tally of a user's karma could be expanded to include additional datapoints, such as # of words per highly rated answer. You might prefer encyclopedic answers, or you might instead like to know the efficient users that pack the highest ratings in the fewest words/post.
Additional data would really help out sites that involve larger sums of money changing hands. The eBay-like freelance job site eLance and the home improvement finder site Service Magic could improve their simple +/- systems with a cost calculation. I wouldn't hire a handyman that typically does $50 doorjamb fixes to hang $10,000 worth of windows and at eLance, if I was looking for a cheap $500 website for my business I'd hire someone that had successfully done those jobs in the past and had a portfolio filled with low-cost jobs.
Update: Jay Allen lists an idea I would also love to see, an address book that could be shared with friends. This past xmas I had to email my new address out to a couple dozen people that asked, and most all of them were already connected to me in friendster.

Blogging for Dollars

In mid-July of this year, the new weblog service Typepad launched, and after a couple months of beta-testing I was hooked on the features. Rather than try and move my highly-customized blog over to the service, I decided starting a new site would be much easier, so I decided my next site would be housed at Typepad.
I've long been a fan of TiVo, having owned one for the past three years. Last year I finally started hacking them and found it to be much easier than I thought. I have always followed TiVo news, I'm often writing long emails evangelizing the product to those that ask, and I've wanted to write easier how-tos than the ones I'd read on TiVo hacking. I realized then that a blog focused on the digital recorder space would be perfect for Typepad, and PVRblog was born (actually I originally wanted to call it DVRblog, but accidentally bought pvrblog.com before I realized my mistake, so pvrblog it is).
When I started planning and designing the site, I realized that since it was at Typepad, it was going to cost me some money to run it each month. Currently I already have one commercial unix account, a co-located debian server, and a co-located windows server. I wasn't looking forward to another monthly bill, so I looked at my options and realized I could throw Google's Adsense textads into the template and perhaps defray the costs. I designed the site templates with this in mind, making sure there was room for it.
My dream with PVRblog was to make five dollars a week, in order to easily cover any hosting costs
I've run Adsense textads on Blogroots since Google launched the service, but they weren't very lucrative. I figured it was probably because "blog" wasn't too highly sought after of a keyword, so consequently Blogroots usually make only a couple bucks a week, tops. My dream with PVRblog was to make five dollars a week, in order to easily cover any hosting costs. I've been blogging for four years and paying for it throughout, but if I could write a blog I enjoy doing and have it pay for itself, well, that certainly would be something.
I launched PVRblog publicly on July 16th with half a dozen posts, then announced it on my personal blog. In a matter of hours, dozens of other sites linked to it, the site ascended Daypop and Blogdex's lists, and all told the debut was a big success.
Late that night I remembered the ads and logged into my Adsense account to see how the day went. I clicked over to reports to see the activity. From approximately 3,000 visits (not too shabby at all), enough people clicked through that I made $40 in the first 24 hours. The first thought that came to mind was this:

Great googly-moogly, holy crap. Crap, crap, crap. What the hell just happened? What did I do? What does this mean for weblogs? Would the world be covered in textads when I tell people about this? Shit!

To say the least, I was a bit freaked out. I was measuring everything in increments of $20, hoping to make my monthly hosting and in one day I had enough to pay for two months of hosting. The next day brought another month of paid hosting, and this continued until a few days later I was a Yahoo pick for new site of the day and it resulted in twice the traffic I'd seen so far and over $100 in click-thrus came in during a 24 hour period.
Once again, I freaked out.

Micropayments suck. No, really.

I've been a big fan of Scott McCloud's comic works for years and I have optimistically followed his essays and speeches about someday paying writers and artists online through micropayments. I've been a user of Paypal since May of 2000 and have bought many a CD and shirt from local musicians selling online. I've followed the recent launch of Bitpass and have used it to view McCloud's latest work and buy a pile of MP3s from various bands. I've used all these systems but I realize their limitations: uptake is minimal when compared to most web surfers, and few people probably go through all the trouble to pay anyone for content.
after using micropayment systems like Bitpass, and compared to something like Google's Adense, I've come to the conclusion that micropayments indeed suck
Clay Shirky recently tore McCloud and Bitpass a new one over this (Scott wrote a response), and after using micropayment systems like Bitpass, and compared to something like Google's Adense, I've come to the conclusion that micropayments indeed suck.
There are a whole host of reasons for their suckitude, but the biggest obstacle has to do with user experience. People are lazy. You are lazy. I am very lazy. I don't want to lift a finger to do anything generally, unless it is really worth it. When you're reading stuff online and you're hit with signup forms, registration forms, or worse of all, payment forms, most people close their browser or go somewhere else. It's just how we work. I haven't read the LA Times website since last year when they instituted a draconian registration process that requires your email for their spam cannon. When users are faced with what looks like work when they were expecting to enjoy reading something, you can bet they will leave, be pissed, or both.
Now don't get me wrong, I love Scott McCloud's work and I'd gladly pay him a buck a day to produce the high-quality comics he's capable of, but if I was randomly hitting Bitpass "pay me to see the next page" screens in my web wanderings, I wouldn't be wandering for very long. I'd be leaving. And no matter how far micropayment companies take the technology, there is always going to be a cost (no pun intended) involved with paying for content. You'll have to click buttons, log into extra screens, authorize your accounts and the like. Not all of those steps can be automated and the process will continue to be slightly painful for anyone going through with it (the vast majority will not go through with it).
With unobstrusive textads like Google's, the experience for users of your site is only slightly changed. They now have to see an ad (depending on how well you integrated it into the site), and a few of them may very well click on the ads. As the site owner, you get money trickling in, everyone and anyone can view your site, and some people will even find better information or bargains on stuff they wanted. Your readership can grow as much as you want, and usually this carries with it higher click-thrus and more money.
Compared to micropayments, unobtrusive textads look a million times better for both the author and the reader.

Google's innovations

Google doesn't get much credit for what it has done to revitalize online advertising. Google's textads aren't just a great technology because they are less of a hassle for readers (compared to micropayments or banner/popup/popunder ads), they are also better than any other textads I've ever seen. I built my own system in fall of 2001 for MetaFilter, and while it did mimic the format, it didn't have any of the content-sensitive filtering, nor did it have any performance limits built-in.
When I launched MetaFilter's textads, the first ads were terrific. They were often members' blogs or new services other members had launched. People clicked on them like crazy because they were loaded with fun new sites. It was ads by the members, for the members of MetaFilter. This is typical of other services I've launched online — the early adopters are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, so their first contributions are terrific. A few articles were written about MetaFilter and the new ads and soon after several copycat systems sprang up. People talked about a new revolution in unobtrusive advertising on corporate and hobbyist sites.
I enabled anyone to advertise on MetaFilter, and although I kept some standards to keep erotica sites and spammer sites out of the system, eventually most people advertising weren't members and didn't know MetaFilter too well. Many placed ads based on the promises the highly positive textad articles talked about. Their ads were often for things that no one was interested in, even though I warned many advertisers before taking their ads and their money. As people realized the majority of ads weren't that great, they started to ignore the textad box on the front page. The click-thru rates fell like a brick, from 5% in the first month down to the typical advertising industry average of 0.5%, and like that, the revolution of textads was over (there are still ads at MetaFilter and a few dozen people use them for some fairly high-quality ads these days).
Google did two amazing things to prevent the same activity in their own system. First off, most everyone knows they do content-sensitive filtering on ads. This is vitally important for sites like PVRblog, but at MetaFilter, any ad was randomly placed next to any content. Google goes to great lengths to make sure that any ads you see have something to do with your searches or the content that accompanies them. The second innovation is their performance metrics and lower limits imposed on advertisers. Simply put, if your ad sucks, you will get booted, so the quality system-wide of the ads never goes down. It's brilliantly simple, but if your ad was written poorly or you picked the wrong keywords, the click-thru rates will reflect that, and Google often ends campaigns that don't meet a minimum of criteria. This Darwinian system ensures the strong survive, that ads are highly targeted, well-written, and used by a good percentage of searchers and readers, making the system as a whole work.
Simply put, Google not only invented the textad, they perfected it, and thanks to those innovations, Adsense carries those benefits to site owners and readers.

Adsense advantages

I've met with some great success from Adsense, beyond my wildest dreams, but one of my first thoughts was "what does this mean for blogs." When I asked a few friends during my initial freakout phase, even those that had low opinions of blogs in the past saw this as a ray of hope. People creating websites for the fun of it have never really had a way to be compensated directly for maintaining high quality sites. "This is a wonderful thing" they said. "For once, writers can get a break, by finding a way to pay for hosting and maybe even encourage them to write more" was something else I heard.
When was the last time you heard someone say they received a check for advertising on their hobby site that could be used to purchase a fully loaded Aeron chair?
I think the success of Adsense means a lot for not just blogs, but for any website produced by writers, historians, artists, and fans. One of the first great things about the web was the plethora of amazingly informative sites maintained by passionate individuals in their free time. There's no reason any topic-focused site can't benefit from Adsense. It's my hope in writing this piece to show how this is a potential boon to other website authors.
Make no mistake, last month PVRblog made a lot of money from Adsense. When was the last time you heard someone say they received a check for advertising on their hobby site that could be used to purchase a fully loaded Aeron chair? Sounds like something you might have heard in 1998, no? Well it's true today, and I hope a lot more people meet with the same success.

Tips for a successful Adsense site

I know that a lot of the PVRblog's luck with adsense was just that: accidental luck. I had no idea so many people would like the idea of a blog about DVR technology. I didn't know TiVo was such a sought after keyword at Google. I had no idea my previous projects' Google ranking would help my site out when I first linked to the site from my blog. The whole thing was one big happy accident, but I've noticed some trends between what I did and what others have tried. What follows are things I've noticed worked to my advantage.
1. Pick a topic
Blogs are about anything and everything and it isn't every day that you find a good blog focused on a topic. In order to have any remote chance of success gaining an interested audience and getting good on-topic ads showing up, pick a narrow topic you are passionate about and run with it. I would guess that I do just as good or better than Gizmodo on textads (Gizmodo certainly covers the same area of PVRblog, just not as in-depth) even though I probably have 1/10th the traffic because my site is more tightly focused.
If there's anything in this list that requires a drastic change on the part of website authors, this is it. Focused blogging isn't that popular but I'm convinced it's the only way to have a chance to carve out a niche on the web. If you want to proclaim yourself as an expert on a topic to both an audience and search engines so that people will know you're the one site to go to for information, you'll have to focus. Focus and be as specific as you can.
2. Consider your topic as it relates to the web
If what you are aiming for is ad revenue, it helps if your topic is something you can buy products related to it. It also helps if those products can be bought online and people are comfortable with it. One of my favorite topic sites (arguably slightly blog-like) is Kicksology. Professor K knows everything and anything about basketball shoes and about once a week I drop into the site to see what's new in cutting edge shoe design. Often when I see a rave review on a cool looking shoe, I want to know how much it costs and if I can buy them. It's an impulse buying thing, but if you notice Kicksology recently added Google's ads to the site, but they're not super-focused. Ideally, if I was reading about a new shoe, I'd want ads offering the same shoe for purchase right now. I've checked out a few dozen of the reviews, but the new air jordan review is the only one that carries with it targetted ads. Generally speaking, Kicksology is about something not normally ordered or sold online and the ads are often a poor fit for the content (no one's fault really, people just don't buy that many shoes online).
TiVos are very close to the web. People buy them online, they look up tips and hacks for them, and resellers have tons of TiVos to move. I didn't really think about it when I started the site, but thanks to the mass availability and customers looking for deals on them, the web's a natural place to shop for a new TiVo.
If you're really interested in knowing how well a topic might work out, try going through the process of placing a Google Adwords ad. During the process they'll tell you how much a keyword will cost you, and you can use that to determine if writing a blog about goldfish is going to be more lucrative than the one you could be writing about golden retrievers.
3. Be passionate and write your ass off
Don't start a blog just to turn a buck, because it's going to be clear to your audience that you don't really care about the topic if you don't offer much beyond press releases from companies. If you want to have a site that ranks highly at Google, write how-to article after how-to article and offer content no one could find anywhere else. I love this guide to ranking higher in google because it doesn't focus exclusively on HTML tricks or stoop to tips on gaming the system, it simply says: write the most useful website on earth and everyone will link to you, which will make you #1.
I started PVRblog because I've been following the space for the past three years and I have dozens of in-depth tutorials I've written and want to write about the subject. I'm enthusiastic about the topic and I look forward to spending a few downtime hours writing articles, conducting interviews, or reviewing books and hardware for the site.
4. Designing for Google and your audience
Don't underestimate the power of Google and google-ability of your site. About half of all the traffic to PVRblog is from a Google search. If people are looking for information on how to upgrade a tivo, they might find my articles about it, and alongside every article are four links to upgrade kits at various prices. I wouldn't be surprised if the click-thrus are crazy high on those links, for those users. I do the same thing myself, often looking up reviews on cellphones and following ad links to help find the best prices I can.
On the technical side of things, having an accessible, valid XHTML site, with good semantics, good page titles, and good filenames helps Google index your site. Typepad does all these things extremely well right out of the box. After I launched PVRblog, Google indexed the entire site within hours and reindexes it often. The site shows up in the top ten for many common TiVo hacking or TiVo feature searches. Searchers are often looking for info to help a purchase, and are likely to click an ad, so it's worth thinking about them.
Nick Denton recently wrote about the design of a weblog may change based on Adsense, and I'd say he's got a lot of good points, but be careful that you don't go too far, forcing people to make extra clicks just so you can stream more ads at them. Your audience will pick up on this eventually and bail.
What not to do
Of course now that I've given you a few tips, it's important to reiterate what you shouldn't do. Don't just slap ads on your blog and expect to get rich the next day. If every blog about anything on earth is going to carry adsense boxes, their utility is going to go down and people won't be likely to click on them. Don't be disappointed if you're not pulling down big bucks on your topic-focused, well-googled site. It takes time to build an audience and gain links from people that find your content useful. If you follow these guidelines, it's quite possible you'll be able to pay for your own hosting. Eventually, you might make more.

The downsides

Like anything, it's not all roses and Adsense is far from absolutely perfect. It's got two big drawbacks: the approval system and the terms of service.
The approval system is evidently run by humans, and they state upfront they won't accept personal sites. I would guess that's likely because most personal sites aren't focused on much of anything besides a specific person, and hence would be hard to advertise to. For even focused sites, some people have had real trouble convincing the Adsense folks to approve them, even when their sites could potentially produce great on-target ads. The decisions are sometimes arbitrary and will likely work against Google if it continues to mistakenly deny legitimate sites.
The other big problem is the terms of service for Adsense which have received a lot of scorn recently after a few people were booted from the program without any recourse. Google took it a step farther and beefed up the legalese to even prohibit the discussion of the TOS, which is kinda nuts. Of course, I've benefited greatly from Adsense, and it's probably no surprise that the TOS issues weren't a dealbreaker for me personally.
Google's between a rock and a hard place on this issue. If they were more transparent, like they have been with their search results, people would no doubt spend their lives gaming the system. What Google hasn't stated upfront about how pagerank works, people have reverse-engineered to great effort. There are whole sites and thousands of people that dedicate their lives to getting their sites as high as possible in Google, whether or not their site has good information or helps out web surfers. These folks see no problem in making Google less useful for searchers if it means their clients are happy with their rank. Google's spent every day since their launch in a cat-and-mouse race to beat those that seek to game the system. If Adsense were transparent, say if they told you how many clicks were allowed per hour from a page or an IP, you can bet that within a couple hours people would produce adsense link clicking bots and bot farms that carried hundreds of IPs solely to produce fake click-thrus for cash. So it looks like they are trying to keep a lid on this, keep their methods as secret as possible and went as far as to put a gag order on the entire subject. I don't know what's going to work out for them in the end, but I think they could potentially lose a lot of money whether or not they tell everyone how Adsense works exactly. The future will tell us if they made the right move here.
Areas for improvement
The tools offered for authors using Adsense are pretty paltry. It's a new service and I expect it to change, but it'd be nice if the results were more granular so you could compare which pages produced the highest click-thrus, and tailor your content to that. It'd be nice if you could see a breakdown of each domain/site you were using the ads on. The new custom colors and layouts are great, but it'd be nice if you could track how different sizes/colors were performing to enhance your design. Currently you just see a number for views, a click-thru total, and a dollar value assigned to that.

Conclusions

A long-ago promise of the web was that people could share their expert opinions and thoughts on anything, and others in the world would find them. Search engines have helped the web live up to that promise and it works well today. Google's Adsense goes one further, in that someone writing passionately and expertly on a topic can now also make some money doing it. Nick Denton has been saying niche blogs could turn a profit for a while now, and after my experiences I'd have to say he was right.
The opportunity is now there — if you've ever wanted to write a topic-focused blog and wondered if you could get paid for it, Adsense could make it all work for you.

Beyond the Blog

I've spent the past year and a half playing with the possibilities in Movable Type (MT), through my personal and client sites. Like all weblog management tools, MT is basically just a lightweight content manager, but it's power is in its flexibility. This article is aimed at people comfortable with HTML and creating their own MT templates, but if you're new to the tool there might still be some tips worth picking up.
The template system is the core feature of MT I'm tweaking in all the following examples. MT came onto the scene in Fall of 2001 and introduced a feature not many other blogging tools shared (then and still now), and that is the flexible way templates are handled. Instead of just skins for your weblog, or a predefined limit of templates for your index and archives, it not only ships with templates for every aspect of a weblog, you can have as many additional templates as you want and they can do any number of things you need.

Easy tweak: publishing the rest of your site in MT

It's pretty common for people new to weblogging to embrace the simplicity of publishing, and crave it in the rest of their tools. Once you start blogging and the pain of FTP and hand HTML coding is gone, many people start wishing their blogging tools could handle other pages on their site, but virtually none of them do out of the box.
About six months ago, I was asked to help with some updates on Stanford's Center for Internet and Society site, and I learned that the entire site was editable in MT. It was so extensive and powerful that I spent a couple days making layout, content, and site-wide navigation changes and didn't even have a server FTP login. The ever brilliant Kathryn Yu used a combination of server side includes (to hide redundant markup) and MT templates to control every single page on the site (both static and weblog). Then she gave some people rights to modify templates, in order to let them edit the text of static pages. As you'll find out, it's pretty effortless to power a site's about page, a resume, and/or a contact page with MT.
The secret is simple: create new templates that hold your static content. Although templates were designed to feature output by the MT weblog content engine, there's no requirement for that, and this is a easy tweak of the system.
Example: adding an About page to an existing MT-powered blog.
Log into Movable Type and select "Templates" on in the left hand menu.
To make things easier, you'll want to copy the design of your Main Index template so the HTML is identical on your About page. Click on "Main Index" to get the template edit screen, then copy all of the template code. Hit your back button to return to the list of templates.
Follow the link to create a new Index Template. Give it a name like "About page" and an appropriate filename. Paste the Main Index template code into the textarea. Remove everything between the MTEntries tags, including the tags themselves. In the place of the weblog code you just deleted, enter your About page content, with appropriate markup as necessary. Figure 1 shows a conceptual diagram of how this works.

Figure 1: conceptual diagram of movable type powered blog and static page
Figure 1. Conceptual diagram of how a normal weblog page works in MT and how a static page works.

If you want to make things easy on your server, check off the option that says rebuild this template automatically, since it won't have any weblog data that will be changing constantly (otherwise it'd just be wasting server resources every time you posted a new blog entry). Whenever you do want to update the page, edit the About page template HTML and make sure you rebuild just that template by clicking the Rebuild Template button below (note: not the rebuild link that will shown above your template information, the form button at the bottom).
While it's a slight bit tedious to setup each static page in this way, you will gain the convenience of being able to update any page on your site directly within MT. You can continue creating as many pages as you need, such as a page for your resume, a page linking to your photo galleries, a contact page, a search page, and/or a links page. I've converted all the static pages on my site using this technique and find I only have to update a static page once a month or so, but having them all accessible from a web browser makes updates easier and I find I make changes more often.

More Advanced tweak: using MT as a simple database application

While movable type was designed to handle all the data associated with weblogs, you'll soon see that MT can also be used to create a photo gallery, power a design portfolio, keep a recipe catalog, or anything else you can imagine.
I've been building database-backed websites for the past four years and there's one simple reason I love building them: once you've done the extra work and created the code to output a single page, you can then output ten thousand pages. After building site after site like this, I've found one of the problems is that coding the database layer and scripting layer is time consuming and requires a lot of work. Then I realized that I could use MT for simple database needs.
It all began when I starting thinking of how I could convert this featured essay section from a system I built myself to movable type. My custom application used these fields to describe each essay: title, subtitle, image, the essay itself, and the date. I realized there were at least that many pieces of data in a movable type blog and went about converting things over.
Basic database concepts
I tend to think of databases a lot like simple spreadsheets. If you imagine every piece of data a Movable Type blog can have, it looks something like the table below.

MT field name Data type Sample data
Entry ID number automatically generated by MT 624
Entry Title text Catching a ball game
Entry Date timestamp September 12, 2003
Entry Body text I scored two tickets to the World Series game between the…
Extended Entry Body text When I got to the ballpark, I realized I forgot the…
Entry Keywords text baseball, stories, World Series
Category numeric pointer to another table of category names Sports

Note: You might not be able to see all these data fields in your Movable Type installation, make sure you have the latest release (2.64 or later) and be sure to click the "Customize this Page" link on the new entry page, then enable everything you can in the "Custom" view.
In the table above, the title, body, extended body, and keyword fields are totally open-ended text containers. For this section of my site devoted to featured essays, I re-used the data in the following way.

Essay section names MT fields used sample data
Essay Title Entry Title Beyond the Blog
Essay Subtitle Extended Entry Body Powering an entire site with Movable Type
Essay Image Entry Keywords beyond.jpg
Essay body Entry Body I've spent the past year and a half playing with…
Essay date Entry Date July 14, 2003

As you can imagine, Movable Type's weblog engine can be re-used for all sorts of pages. I am currently using MT to power my press list at MetaFilter and the press at Ticketstubs, it powers my mobile phone photo gallery (Additionally, I'm using a piece of email-to-MT software that saves the images and puts the image names into MT fields), and it also powers my list of photo galleries (I designed a separate app to host the images — eventually I'll move that to exported iPhoto galleries).
Example: Creating an online portfolio with MT
I use a database application whenever I have content that repeats and follows a distinct pattern. For this example I'll create a portfolio of web sites I've designed. A portfolio generally follows a pretty set pattern where you have a screenshot, description of the site, and associated data (name, date, etc). I'll start by listing the bits of info needed for each entry in my website portfolio.

Portfolio entry name sample data
Name of Site Creative Commons
Screenshot image of Site creativecommons.gif
Description of the Site For the non-profit Creative Commons, I set out to…
Date Site launched December 16, 2003
Type of work Employee

Looking at the available fields in MT, I'll map them as follows:

Portfolio entry name MT field name
Name of Site Entry Title
Screenshot image of Site Entry keywords
Description of the Site Entry Body
Date site launched Entry Date
Type of job Entry Category
(category types include Employee, Contractor, and Volunteer)

Keep in mind that for media files like images, audio, or video, I typically put simply the filename in a MT field, then build a link in the template like so:
<img src="/portfolio/screenshots/<$MTEntryKeywords$>">
and I upload the images separately into the folder. To be honest, I'm still working on my portfolio pages and can't show you the output with a link, but Ryan Schroeder recently emailed me to show how he'd done his portfolio in MT here.
You can see that he's using categories to split his type of work into Web Sites, Print, Presentations, and Identity, and each entry features screenshots and text (probably all within a single entry field I'm guessing).
Caveats and limitations
Now obviously MT can only go so far with this, and you'll have to limit any site to six different types of information, but it should be clear that for a lot of websites it's all the complexity you need. Anything you want to keep track of online that is limited to several properties can be handled by MT.
The other major downside to repurposing MT is that you're still stuck with the MT posting interface that clearly asks for all the pieces of a weblog, even when you're using it for posting recipes (which, by the way, could be done using category as the meal type, the name of the dish would go in the title field, the instructions in entry field, and the ingredients in extended entry). I know the Movable Type folks have talked about creating a developer program and after doing things like this with MT, I would suggest that MT someday become flexible enough to where a developer could customize the interface to posting for client sites. I'd love to deploy a site intended for an aspiring author to track all his articles written, books reviewed, and favorite sites, but give them a custom backend that clearly labels each thing appropriately. Sort of like a template system for MT itself. Just the other day I noticed that Jay Allen has done just this for one of his clients.
So what have we learned?
I learned these techniques slowly, and as the lightbulbs went off I thought it might help to share it and hopefully spark ideas in others. I didn't realize what a flexible and powerful system I had right under my nose and now that I've started playing with the possibilities, I can't wait to see what others come up with.
Updates
This article has sparked some great additional hacks. Brad Choate, grand master of MT hacking, tells of a smoother way to add static pages to your site. Scott mentions how to tweak output paths. Doug Bowman explains exactly how he uses MT to control his portfolio, using a bit of PHP to go beyond just a handful of existing data fields. Some example sites I forgot to include, and from people that emailed me are below.
Some examples of innovative MT uses
Boxes and Arrows
An online magazine with over a year of archives and dozens of articles (with comments) that span multiple pages (how that was done). Looking at this site, it's not much of a stretch to imagine Wired News being powered by Movable Type someday.
The Morning News
Another magazine-like publication that uses MT for both articles and their front page's blog-like headlines. Features nice use of categories for stories and a robust page for every author, with pointers to all their previous contributions.
Adaptive Path
A business organization's site that features both static and dynamic content, AP's newest site went through a recent redesign and is now entirely powered by MT (see comment #80 in that thread for pointers to how it was done).
About.com
I don't know how they did it, but every sub-sub-sub category at About is running its own MT blog (with RSS!). Examples: index of a category, single entry
Redland Baptist Church
MT being use as a whole site CMS for a church's small site.
Touch of Hope
Charity site built entirely with MT (info on the setup)

SXSW 2003

I didn't start out feeling gung ho about this year's south by southwest interactive festival, in fact I wasn't having that good of a time until the last day. Last year was fun enough, but I sort of felt that maybe the conference had been replaced by others.
While the market has been down for the past few years, it didn't seem to negatively affect SXSW too much in the past. It weeded out the stupid and the weak: no one talked of synergizing their sticky eyeballs after 2000. This year however, not only had the crowd of hucksters returned to the golf courses from whence they were created, but unfortunately so had many designers, writers, photographers, and bloggers. The crowds seemed smaller this year, and there were several designers that didn't choose to attend.
Friday night, I rolled into an amazing Austin evening. Watching the previous week's forecasts and seeing cold temps I thought the festival's theme might become "everyone in sweaters." A quick warm snap made this year as perfect in terms of weather as the past. But after settling into my hotel and catching up with pb after he arrived, we noticed a lack of peers in the area. While we missed the big event of the evening already, there didn't seem to be anyone else around. We had a quiet dinner with Andre and Dana, and afterwards noticed the Omni's lobby was totally dead. We got back to our hotel around 10:30 and the night was prematurely over. What happened the packs of 50 geeks roaming every nook and cranny of the city like in years past?
After getting the first long sleep and big breakfast in days, we caught the very end of the Kick event and I was happy to finally see everyone was here. Saturday's keynote broke the champagne on the boat for me and David Weinberger got up to share his common sensical long-range view of why the web matters, and it didn't disappoint. The convention space for panels seemed a bit smaller this year, with most rooms holding maybe 50 people, and a big room that could handle 150 or so. There were oodles of bloggers around, perhaps the decline in attendance was only in the professional sector. I can't remember seeing a lot of people sent by their workplace in the halls and presentation rooms.
Hugh and the gang seem to tweak their setup every year based on feedback and the new panel schedules worked pretty well this year. Most presentations were a short 60 minutes, with 30 min breaks in between. There were plenty of panels to see, though if I was pressed to share any downsides, the 30 minute breaks seemed a tad long when there were a string of panels I wanted to get through. I don't know if everyone would agree that 15 minutes was a better time, but although the breaks let me catch up with speakers after their talks, and take time to check email and write up notes in the hall, sometimes it felt like too long of a break (especially after the 2nd or 3rd one of the day). As always, there were times when I didn't want to see any panels and times three great things were happening at once, but there's not a lot that can be done to combat that kind of scheduling. At one point I thought "why doesn't Hugh ask some bloggers to look over the schedule to point out conflicts" thinking that we webloggers had our fingers firmly on the pulse of the conference, but then I remember attending Po Bronson's "What should I do with my life" panel. A condensed version that showed up in FastCompany a few months back rocketed to the top of daypop/blogdex and stayed there for a few days upon its debut, but Po's panel was only about 1/3 full when I would have predicted a packed house.
The subjects of panels themselves were for the most part interesting, though I noticed a lack of vision in many. My memory may be fuzzy, but I seem to remember the most exciting panels at SXSW (and any other tech conference for that matter) focused on what was next. Instead of looking towards the future, I felt far too many panels talked about the present. The theme of some panels (including my own) could be summed up as "This is how the world views weblogs (right now). This is what CSS is currently like. This is what it means to run a non-profit site (right now)."
The most interesting panels this year seemed to be all the non-technical panels that discussed social issues. The panel on how communities could deal with online deaths, Kevin Warwick's talk about his cyborg-ness, the Po Bronson reading about how to find ones purpose in life, and Bruce Sterling's panel on the future.
As usual, the social gatherings eclipsed anything the official conference sessions could offer, and the organizers did a good job steering attendees towards parties, open bars, and site launches. The Fray Cafe was a blast, and maybe it was due having an in-house bar. As the night wore on, people loosened up and got up on stage, probably due to the social lubricants available from the bar. The 20×2 event was a lot of fun. Hearing Dakota Smith play at the familyalbum.com party was a highlight. And it was the first time I made it out to Bruce Sterling's house party.
Like I mentioned earlier, this year's conference didn't really click until it was almost over. I think it was a combination of good panels (Po Bronson's morning panel asking the audience to think about their life's passions and Bruce Sterling's afternoon talk that looked into the wacky frontier of the future) and talking with new folks that brought me a bit out of my element. I got to see new creative projects people were working on. I got to feel a little out of place talking to people I barely had met.
While I didn't have any direct discussions or see any panels that discussed specific issues I faced, the environment of the last couple days in Austin sent my mind racing. I came up with a dozen new innovations for my personal website that I wanted to work on as soon as I got home. In the dead time between panels I came up with novel ways to optimize MetaFilter that hadn't occurred to me before. Seeing other people's projects spurred on a new idea for a photo essay. On the plane ride home I started writing what I hope will become my first story either performed or written for the Fray. I brainstormed ideas for a technology story I'd like to pitch to a magazine. After seeing digital video cameras everywhere, I came up with an idea for a short film I'd like to someday do.
I'm happy that I got to attend this year's SXSW. After days of panel discussions and nights filled with drinking and socializing, I came away rejuvenated and inspired to work on lots of new projects. In the crowds that only come together once a year, I found motivation and I've already begun to work on all the new ideas I got there. While the content of panels wasn't ground-breaking across the board, the conference itself has carved out a niche as a place for creative minds to gather and interact, and that's where I find the real magic lies.
Photos from this year's SXSW