Facebook just acquired Instagram for one billion dollar in cash and stock shortly before the big Facebook IPO expected in the next months. Another app start-up that Facebook bought not long ago was Gowalla which is one of the two check-in pioneers but the clear number two since foursquare took off all over the world. It was a talent-acquisition, yet in my opinion extremely skilled people like Tim Van Damme decided not to go to Facebook after the deal. In this case Instagram is the obvious number one with 30million (mostly iPhone) users and no serious competitor in its space which supports Zuck’s statement that the focus is on Instagram as a product, not only on the talent behind it but more about that in a second. Fun fact: Tim Van Damme, extremely talented designer at Gowalla left and joined the small team at Instagram instead of joining Facebook. Seems like there is no escape from Facebook for him.
The announcement today is huge because it symbolizes a shift from purely technological acquisitions to product vision acquisitions for very serious money. Considering that flickr was bought by Yahoo! for under $40million years ago, $1billion is just a small hint of what Pinterest must be worth today. But not just because of the code or the visual design or the product’s own number of users:
When Google bought Milk, the app incubator that Digg’s founder Kevin Rose founded, it wasn’t about the technology and engineering talent behind their first app Oink. It was all about the product guys around Kevin Rose and designer Daniel Burka and to get them on board of Google to work on consumer products. Milk’s actual developers weren’t hired by Google which is no surprise since apps like Oink or Instagram are quite trivial applications, nothing a team at Google or facebook couldn’t replicate in zero time.
Conclusion: Consumer technology is trivial, it’s not rocket science. Same when it comes to visual design I would argue. What’s valuable is product vision and the ability to make something that the average consumer wants to use or even gets addicted to. Facebook and Google are hunting for people that proved they can make consumers addicted to a product. Best case this product solves a problem that didn’t exist in its users’ minds before and makes a shit load of money on top of it. This ability can easily be worth $1billion, just think of AdSense or the concept of virtual currency. It’s not a bubble, guys like Kevin Systrom (co-founder of Instagram) have talents that go beyond a technical skill like visual design or software development, what matters are product ideas. One idea like AdSense is worth more than $1billion.
When I was 11 or 12 I had a great time experimenting with Linux distros that came on CD-R (!?) with way too expensive computer magazines. I had no internet access at home and nobody told me what open source actually means… However, it was fun to experience something different, to tackle one or the other challenge and of course I just wanted to do stuff in a different way than how everybody else was using their PC. I guess this would be pretty close to the definition of a hipster today, Linux never became cool though…and now you know why there are no comments on this blog.
As boring as the grey Windows world was to me back then, Google became boring in the last years after seeing new approaches on web search by Microsoft’s Bing, blekko, DuckDuckGo or Cuil which obviously failed but it was still something new and innovative. So I decided to give DuckDuckGo a chance after Google introduced the whole personal results and Google+ integration a while ago.
First of all, why wouldn’t you use a search engine powered by “Isaac and Thomas who is not in the shot”? But seriously:
To me a good application or product in general is not just about visual appearance or user experience, it’s about the product being not just usable but exciting and surprising to the user offering features that become totally obvious and no-brainers after unexpectedly discovering them. I got and still get this experience since I started using DuckDuckGo instead of Google Search because I felt like seeing something different like back in the Linux CD-R days. While there were significant issues when it came to drivers for my Thinkpad back then, it became pretty clear to me that search is 90% about speed. I don’t care that much about the number of results if I have to wait seconds to get any result. It’s like installing Ubuntu because it offers (offered) Gnome as standard desktop manager but your graphics card is not supported and all you get is a black screen featuring a blinking underscore. It sucks.
DuckDuckGo suffers from being not the fastest. It’s not really slow either but once used to Google’s instant search, everything seems to be a movie download using a 56k modem. I love the sound these things make though. The actual search results are good. They are different from Google’s results and sometimes they seem to be less diverse and of course it depends on the query but I’m most of the time quite happy about the answers DuckDuckGo returns. I guess one gets kind of addicted to getting the expected search results that Google taught us to consider as being good.
DuckDuckGo’s results feel more like answers than a pure list of links I would say. You still see a list of links but try and search for a piece of code or a mathematical equation: I think DuckDuckGo did a good job embedding services like Wolfram Alpha, GitHub, Stock Overflow or Wikipedia that allow you to actually get answers and in the case of Wikipedia even specify your search inline. There are also inline videos and when you click a normal link from the list of results, you will notice it is a block and not a single text link, its just super efficient in my experience. Same with infinite scrolling and a fixed search bar on top of the page so you can try another query anywhere at anytime.
Unfortunately there is no image search but instead you can do something that turned out to be a key feature I don’t want to miss anymore: So DuckDuckGo offers something like commands. You type “!images query” and it redirects you to Google’s or Bing’s image search results for your query. Now the “killer feature”: DuckDuckGo becomes a search field for major services that are search centric. Guess what happens if you search for “!icon query”. It redirects you to iconfinder.net’s search results for that query. Same for !video and several other popular services including major search engines like !bing and !google. I don’t know if DuckDuckGo monetizes this outgoing traffic at all but thinking about it, the needed processing power and bandwidth can’t be too expensive and the user’s experience is absolutely worth it.
I got used to have DuckDuckGo set as default “search engine” in the Chrome url/search field after about one and a half weeks of thinking about it as a test. I wouldn’t call it a Google killer or whatever, I still use Google via “!google X” when it comes to things like problem solving or searching for quotes and images obviously. But DuckDuckGo definitely adds value and makes my work flow more efficient and fun because I get surprised now and then and the inline results and things like the fixed search field are things I wish Google would have.
One thing I’ve learned from this experiment that hopefully continues is that it’s absolutely worth experimenting if the potential negative influence on the daily workflow is not too bad.
The other thing that I’ve learned is that building products in an internet giant dominated space makes sense. While DuckDuckGo is innovating on search in terms of UI and features, Google will never release something that doesn’t pass all of their genius usability and business tests and studies and what not. Google is just too big and too optimized on ad placements, a start-up can move fast and experiment and has to do it in order to create any value and not to be yet another rip off. Never change a running system.