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eBay announced today that the sales through eBay mobile for 2010 hit 2 billion dollars, which translates to more than 200 million in revenue for the company. The majority of mobile activity comes from the eBay iPhone app, while the rest comes from the mobile website and apps on other platforms. eBay Mobile now represents one of the few bright spots for the company, but what is most amazing is that it almost didn happen. has had mobile apps and a mobile web version for years. As little as 3 years ago, all mobile app development involved testing applications on dozens of different phones and negotiating distribution deals with carriers. The eBay mobile app strategy back then was to partner with Bonfire Media they had already written an app and eBay helped get them additional distribution deals and then took a percentage of the revenue (users had to actually pay for the app). As for the mobile website, it was a WAP site, which is the same as saying that it sucked. Of course these hurdles were too much for most users, and the amount of purchases flowing through either the website or the apps were not enough for eBay to publicly disclose any numbers.
This all changed with the iPhone App Store. I was working in the “Disruptive Innovation” group at eBay, and when the App Store was announced that spring, I immediately applied for a developer license and was lucky enough to be in the first group of developers given access. As far as I could tell, no one else in the company had access yet, and I spent about 36 hours straight developing an eBay iPhone app prototype for an innovation content we were holding later that week. The app was just a prototype, but it did work you could search all of eBay and browse your My eBay items, and because it used standard iOS components it looked great despite being thrown together in a very short time. The app impressed the judges and attendees when it was demoed at the innovation event the iPhone SDK was so new that any custom app, let alone one that did something even modestly useful, was impressive. (One judge, Michael Arrington of Techcrunch, was so impessed that he actually approached me afterwards and proposed that we create a social networking app. We had set up a meeting, which he then cancelled after he saw a demo of Loopt, which had already built the app he wanted to build.)
I kept working improving the prototype in my spare time, and met with the eBay Mobile team to discuss how we could get a real version of the app built. The team had previously decided to not invest in building out an iPhone app, and to instead focus on improving the mobile version of the website. Luckily, one of the product managers on the team, Ken Sun, did take the opportunity seriously and he took responbility for getting a contact at Apple and finding others who could work on the project all in our “spare time”, of course. There was exactly 1 person in the whole of eBay who seemed to have any development experience with Objective C, Rick Hoiberg, and he was overjoyed to get a chance to work on coding the backend. But it was clear that we would need help especially with the frontend, and our contact at Apple got us in touch with Critical Path the same company who has continued to develop the majority of the eBay iPhone app ever since then, and which was just acquired by eBay. a small team of eBay employees and an outside development firm lined up, we had just weeks to create the application to get it done in time for the App Store launch. We were able to pull together an attractive, workable demo in time to get it demoed on stage at WWDC when the App Store was announced. (You can watch Ken and me demoing the app on stage).
The importance of this event can not, I think, be overstated. Every company that built apps that appeared in the keynote worked extremely hard, not just on the apps themselves but also preparing for the on stage demos. And the companies that presented have all been treated well by Apple since, with spots in television commercials, ads promoting the app store, and placement within the app store itself. eBay could have taken a “wait and see” approach, as the eBay Mobile team had wanted to do, but it wouldn have had the momentum that started from day 1 of the App Store launch, wouldn have had the talent (Critical Path), which became extremely hard to come by after the success of the App Store became clear, and it may not have received as much free promotion from Apple. the Mobile team did drag their feet, I do give them credit that they came around quickly, especially once they saw the early success (if I remember correctly, the eBay iPhone app accounted for over 20% of all mobile traffic within a week or two of the app release). But the eBay executive team took far longer to come around. In late 2008, after I had left the company, most of the eBay Mobile team was laid off or re assigned to other parts of the company. Executives wanted to focus on the “core” of the business, and eBay Mobile was evidently not considered “core”. (I note that this information comes second hand, but it does jive with my personal experience with the company and their lack of product vision and leadership.) Even the execs have come around though, and the team in charge of eBay Mobile has made some great moves, especially the Red Laser acquisition. But it is incredible to think about how the project could have never happened, or at least not have had the impact it did. AMP is the first developer that is build with the express purpose of allowing people to create online marketplaces. We also put out a press release this morning to make it all official.
If you happen to be a developer, I love to get your feedback on the platform. Sign up and try out the APIs. What is missing? What features would you want to see? What kind of online marketplace would you want to build?
This project is what I been working on since joining Auctiva last May, and I really proud of what the team in San Jose and Chico has accomplished. I haven blogged at all since joining Auctiva (since joining Ning actually) but for any readers who might find this entry I happy to answer any questions you have about the platform on this post (leave a comment) or on the AMP Google group. Auctiva has been in the business of providing software and services for eBay sellers for a decade, and I be leading their new effort to build a platform that powers new services for sellers off eBay.
Why join Auctiva? Here are just a few of the many reasons:
I have known many of the people who work here for many years, and I really respect what they have accomplished in building the company to where it is.
Auctiva has a vision for online commerce that I can get behind. If I ever get back on the blogging horse in a serious way I will have much more to say about this vision, but in brief, Auctiva is building a powerful platform that will enable many new, uniques way to connect buyers and sellers.
The people who work here are humble, and are willing to admit mistakes and reverse course quickly. Auctiva was recently forced by eBay policy changes to start charging for some services that were previously free. The original pricing that we came up with was a mistake too complicated, and too costly for many sellers. So we changed it, and every indication from our users is that this time we have got it right. Of course you hope to get things right the first time as often as you can, but any company will make mistakes, and what one of the things that makes a company great is how it acts to recognize and fix those mistakes.
Auctiva has a very flat organizational structure. At Auctiva I am reporting directly to CEO Jeff Schlicht (and most other people in the company are also no more than 2 or 3 levels removed). This contrasts with a previous employer where the CEO was (no exaggeration) my boss boss boss boss boss boss.
Although my new role is focused on Auctiva off eBay projects, I will be working on some eBay projects as well. I will be attending eBay developer conference this week (which is literally being held down the street from Auctiva new San Jose office) and I look forward to catching up with my eBay developer community colleagues who I have met over the years. I be sporting my new bright blue Auctiva shirt, so give me a holler if you see me.
I recently got an invite to the Mozilla Weave alpha, and after playing around with it for a while I can say that this product has a chance to be a very big disruptive force on the Internet.
The features provided by Weave are modest right now. It offers bookmark, history, and tab syncing, and of these features only bookmark syncing seemed to be working correctly. Other features set to be released in future versions, such as cookie, password, and, most exciting of all, extension syncing, have the potential to make Weave much more useful.
So why am I so excited about Weave, especially considering that production quality extensions like Foxmarks already offer the same features as the current version of Weave? I’m excited because Weave has the potential to shift the balance of power away from the large Internet services and back to the user. Like many users, I gave up using browser bookmarks many years ago because I was using more than one computer on a regular basis. While I gained some useful features by using these services, I was at the same time handing my data over to a third party, relying on their good will and the strength of their security systems to keep my data private. Weave is different because user data is encrypted, when the data is uploaded to a Weave server, the data can still only be accessed by the user who first encrypted it. So even if Mozilla wanted to access the data (or if there were a security breach and someone stole it), user data remains safe. More importantly, even if the data were to be subpoenaed, it would remain unreadable by a third party. Of course this puts the onus of security on the client, but since Weave is open source, you don’t simply have to trust the creator’s word that the client side encryption is secure.
You don’t just have to be a security spook to be excited about Weave, though. I’m very interested in the possibilities for third party applications that could be built using Weave. The hard part of building a web application is scaling it. What if you could build a web app that used Weave to store and sync all the user data instead of building out your own backend servers to do the same thing? Right now the best alternative out there to building your own backend infrastructure is to use services like Amazon S3. But again, this centralizes too much data with very few service providers. Building apps that leverage Weave would keep user data close to the user, where it belongs.
There are significant challenges that face Weave if it is to be a success. The project creators have spent much of the last year building a scalable infrastructure, and the alpha users are eagerly awaiting completion of the basic feature set that was promised when the project was first announced. The emphasis on security necessarily impacts the user experience. Not only will users have to get used to “signing in” to their browser, but they will also have to understand what is the difference between a “password” (authenticate the user with Mozilla) and a “pass phrase” (encrypt/decrypt user data). With enough testing and design iterations, Weave could be made acceptable to mainstream users, but it will take time and effort to do so.
With all the press last week about eBay’s big layoffs you may have missed the best article on eBay I have ever seen written in the mainstream press. Instead of regurgitating the layoff press release, the article digs into the cultural issues that are at the root of eBay’s malaise.
I was one of the senior managers on the “eBay 3.0” team that the article mentions, and through that process I got to see first hand how dysfunctional eBay had become. When the team presented our ideas to the executives, John Donahoe said that it was his “best day at eBay so far.” After the presentations, the marketing group, which had championed eBay 3.0 to begin with, based the entire 2007 advertising campaign around the ideas put forth. But some within the product group never really bought into it and it was those individuals who, I suspect, ensured that the budget allocated for eBay 3.0 product changes never materialized. The eBay 3.0 team handed executives a roadmap, one they said was great, but they chose to continue on the same meandering, directionless path as before. Products still were built by consultants after pouring over reams of data, but data can’t tell you what is going to happen that takes insight, intuition, and courage.
The Forbes article also includes a great quote from a “former strategist,” who says: “eBay is run by smart people who don’t use eBay and spend hours debating the data about how other people use eBay.” I can attest for the truth of this statement, and I think it is absolutely damning. When walking the halls at headquarters, you used to see cubicles decked out with stuff bought on eBay. Not anymore. Indeed, one of the most elaborate such decorations, a 4 foot long eBay logo made out of Legos, is currently being auctioned off on the site by an employee who was laid off last week.
Where has the eBay spirit gone? The biggest single cause is that eBay has, over the last few years, increasingly relied on outsourced developers (who rotate into San Jose on shifts) and H1B employees. These are good people, but because of the temporary nature of their work at eBay there is less reason to become emotionally involved in the company. There is also no effort to instill eBay culture into the employee base (including contractors and outsourced workers). For too many at eBay, working there is just a job.
One of the ideas that I had voiced many times was to add each employee’s eBay user ID in the company web directory. When eBay bought Skype, it added everyone’s Skype ID to the directory, making the omission of eBay IDs all the more striking. This small change would give those who don’t use the site nowhere to hide (and come to think of it, eBay IDs should probably be added to public announcement board posts too). “Oh, Bob, I see you haven’t sold anything for six months. are you sure that the changes you are suggesting to the SYI page are a good idea?” Working at eBay without using the site is like being a chef who won’t eat what they cook.
I agree with much of eBay’s current strategy. The investments in trust and safety are long overdue, and growing the fixed price inventory available through eBay makes sense. But the eBay website user experience is still terrible. There is no product visionary in a leadership position at the company no person who has the knowledge and the ability to look at the day to day process and say “this sucks!” and then follow through to fix it. There is no one person who can manage the user experience in its entirety and say “no!” to dribbling out changes week after week. A strategy is great, but if the company doesn’t have the ability to implement it right then that strategy is just a bunch of words. eBay needs its product visionary. eBay needs its Steve Jobs.