Sunday, December 31, 2006

Resolutions

Dear reader, have a fantastic 2007!

For me, 2006 was a good year. I finished school and got a huge amount of stuff done.

My resolutions for 2007: I need to exercise more – when skipping on the gym, yoga, and other sports for weeks, happiness significantly degrades. Also, I need to focus: Instead of trying to a gazillion things at once, I should put the emphasis on work and maybe one other side project at a time. At Google, I'd like to get stuff launched.

See you next year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Why Startups Don't Condense in Europe

(This post is based on a discussion at BarCampZurich back in October. The opinions expressed here are mine, not those of my employer or other attendees.)

When you ask a random but well-informed person, the only European startup he or she will name is Skype, but when you ask about the US, plenty come to mind: Google, Yahoo, eBay, Youtube, and many more. What's the reason for this disparity?

Many have written about this before, including Paul Graham, Xavier Comtesse, David Heinemeier Hanson, and David Hornik and I doubt that my thoughts on this are unique.

Still, here's my take on why there aren't many more European web startups:

1. Lack of Role Models. Even revolutionaries need role models. The fact that others have hit it big before makes startups look like a much more reasonable option. For Europe, there's the aforementioned Skype. In the US, there dozens of very successful entrepreneurs and companies to look up to.

For recent graduates such as myself, going to a big, established company seems like the smartest option. The traditional way of slowly climbing the ladder at a big company is hardwired in our brains.

2. Lack of Venture Capital. While you can start a business with two guys in a garage and a few of thousand Euros, you may at some point need money to grow and hire employees. This is where Silicon Valley's ecosystem of venture capital comes in. We don't have that here in Europe: Here, good VCs who are willing and able to take risks and give valuable advice seem few and far between.

3. Lack of Ambition. When Larry and Sergey started Google, they had global domination in mind. After all, organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful seems like an ambitious goal.

In contrast, Many European startups often grow to a comfortable size of 10 to 20 people, and then stop. It's fun to work with your dozen best friends and enjoy a family-like atmosphere: If you grow any bigger, some of the fun melts away. While you can change the world with just a dozen people, I doubt that the 'next Google' will have just twenty or so employees, or grow organically from an existing small business. Europeans need to aim higher.

4. Attack of the Clones. Many web startups here are rip-offs of existing US companies with established business models. Alando may have started started it all: This Berlin-based company, started by the Samwer brothers in 1998, cloned eBay's functionality and UI in every detail. They sold it to eBay for $43 million after just 6 months, showing that you can win big by simply copying. For today's examples, look at Sevenload, Yigg.de, or Aimido. A little more creativity wouldn't hurt: The potentio upside of doing something truly original is much larger.

5. Fragmented Markets. The US has a single, relatively homogenous market of 300 million people. Almost everyone speaks English, payment systems are the same everywhere, addresses share the same format, and laws are very similar in all states.

The European Union has a total of almost 500 million people. It is a huge, largely deregulated, but heterogeneous market. This makes it unattractive to web startups: For every language and possibly every culture, you'll need a localized version of your product. You could start with one of the three biggest countries, but you'd still need to localize much sooner.

So what? There are many things that Europe is getting right. We have smart people, good universities, and attractive cities. It's easier for qualified people to get a visa in Switzerland than in the US, it's still possible to IPO without too much overhead, and tax rates are quite nice if you incorporate in the right country.

All Europe needs is a few rebels with great tech skills, original ideas, and good connections to VCs. People who fit this profile will ignore all the difficulties and just go for it.

--

Thanks to Nicolas Berg, Douwe Osinga, Christophe Dessimoz, Alexandru Balut, Philippe Schoen, Keno Albrecht, Florian Walpen, David McCreery, and Corsin Camichel for attending and participating in the discussion.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Holidays!

This just in: Apparently, it's that that time of the year and I once again forgot to write cards. (Well, actually, I did send out a few some weeks ago, promising myself to write more.)


Anyways, Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays! (Whichever you prefer.) Sorry you didn't get a card. Have a fantastic New Year!

A Month of Google Zurich

I re-joined Google a little more than a month ago. My friends have been asking me how it is. Obviously, I can't say about what I actually work on, can't talk about the Endoxon deal and also won't be able to disclose the Master Plan. But I can say a couple of things.

Above all, I love the team I work with. There's my friend Douwe, best known for inventing Google Trends. He has about two multi-billion-dollar ideas per week. We should hire an intern just to follow him around and write up all the stuff he comes up with. My manager, Oliver, won the best-PhD-thesis-award in Germany before he joined. Jonas, my super-friendly co-worker, has churned out a cool demo of what we're building. Then there's our charming Austrian product manager Chris, whom we should really get to work less. Our intern Alex should also get an award for his achievements: He produces tons of code, but is hauntingly quiet. When he does point out something, it's usually some tiny detail we forgot about but would have cost us days of debugging later on. Last week, he returned to his native Eastern Europe to get his degree, but our recruiters 'convinced' him to return afterwards.

When US companies put engineering offices in Europe, it's usually the dull work that they're concerned with: Localize this, translate that. Google's EMEA Engineering HQ in Zurich is different. I'm happy to report that we work on really crazy, brave, and fun things. You don't need to be in Silicon Valley to do that.

The most popular pastime at the office is foosball: I really need to get some mad skillz.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Music Tastes

My taste in music is a bit odd. Back before I switched to buying all my music on iTunes, I bought a large share of my CDs in the US, which gave me a heavy dose of Americana. Here in Europe, radio stations are either stuck in either in the mid-90s, play classical music all day, or focus on techno tracks. The result is that the music I listen to seems too avant-garde for fellow Europeans, and evokes only contempt in North America. That won't stop me from handing out recommendations, though.

I've been listening to a lot of electronic pop at work. Most probably know Postal Service from their music's plentiful appearances in TV commercials. Similar in style, but less well-known: Electric President. Their music is beautifully crafted, with lots of attention to detail, and slightly melancholic. Electric President is much like the Canadian band Broken Social Scene: You listen to the album once and feel a bit uncomfortable. By the third listen, you'll notice all the tiny details and nooks and fall in love with them.

I discovered Nizlopi at a Jamie Cullum concert in Freiburg, Germany, where they were the support act. In some ways, they were better than the main show: It's just two guys, a bass, and a guitar, singing sad songs about girls. The band itself is named after a Hungarian girl whom the vocalist had a crush on in school. Meeting a Hungarian girl and falling in love with her, only to be disappointed soon after seems to be a common mantrap: I've heard this story too many times. In this case, it at least resulted in good music.

Europeans will yawn at this, but I quite like Jan Delay, the German hip-hop superstar of the year. Energetic, funny, German hip-hop from Hamburg. He seems to be much-loved in his hometown: When I visited Hamburg earlier in the year, this album seemed to playing everywhere.

Attentive readers will have noticed the Amazon links I planted in this post, but rest assured that this is just an experiment. I'd guess that most readers have switched to iTunes anyways: Apparently, after just 5 years, Apple has already captured more than 3% of the US music market: Quite a feat.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Hardcore Yoga

I first started going to yoga classes at Google in Mountain View. The classes were perfect: There was soft music in the background. The beautiful and charming yoga teacher – she had, if I remember correctly, a Berkeley Ph.D. in physics – always told cute little stories at the beginning of each class.

Far away from California sunshine, I have faced harsh Swiss yoga reality for the last 2.5 years. The classes at ETH seem very disciplined. No soft background music. A focus on energy-sapping positions. An instructor who thinks that the "Yoga + Meditation" class I've been going means 80 minutes of downward-facing dog and 10 minutes of breathing exercises. My wicked mind turns these classes into a competition: "Oh, I'll show her!", which contradicts the original purpose of going there to relax.

I'll need to find a better class or good gym. From a quick search, the yoga places in Zurich seem either sketchy or ridiculously expensive. Any suggestions?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Toys

Zurich is so much more fun when you're earning money. It's an expensive city. So far, food and entertainment have been my largest budget items. With food taken care of – courtesy Larry and Sergey – my disposable income seems comfortable. Modern life constantly reminds us of all the niceties out there: Plasma TVs, whirlpools, designer furniture, luxury weekend trips, and fancy restaurants all seem within reach.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that every Swiss Franc I spend will impact my future choices: Once you get used to a certain standard of living, it's hard to go back. Being a poor grad student already seems unappealing, and going back to the ascetic experience of startup is hard to endure with the monthly insurance payments on that fancy sports car. That's why I had my future flatmate and fellow Googler Markus promise to watch over my lifestyle spending.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ribcap

Last weekend, I went to Zurich's Museum für Gestaltung to see this year's winning entries in the Swiss Federal Design Prize. The 18 winners each get either 20000 CHF or a free studio spot in either New York or London.


One of the winning teams – and my favorite entry of all – were Lisa and Tom, who designed the Ribcap: Head protection gear that doesn't look and feel like a bulky helmet but like a standard cap. It contains materials by D3O which are soft when worn, but instantly turn solid upon impact.

From the Ribcap site, it looks like these a worn mainly by snowboarders and skiers. Can I replace my bike helmet with a Ripcap? If yes, I want one now!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Disclaimer

Everything written here is my personal opinion and not that of my employer.

This blog is not in any way endorsed by Google, so I figured this was probably a good thing to add the sidebar here. (Copied verbatim from Jason Shellen.) While anything stupid I say here can still be used against me, I'd rather avoid seeing it used in the New York Times (or worse, Valleywag) against Google.

Anyways, I doubt I will be disclosing Google's master plan here. So far, I'm not sure how my blogging will be affected by my job. Last week, I had some very interesting and enlightening discussions, but I doubt I'll be able to share it all with you guys. When independent ideas strike again, you'll see it here first.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Joining the Workforce

Tomorrow is my first day at Google. My dad always said that being a student is the best time of your life, but is it? You have neither time nor money. It seems like when you're not studying, you're agonizing about exams.

I really started taking things seriously in the summer 2002, just before the first big preliminary tests: three months of continuous cramming under the pressure of not knowing whether you're cut out for ETH. Soon after, an early-morning text message received in a Motel 6 just outside Portland, OR, where I was visiting my brother. In retrospect, I should probably have worried less: I never flunked even a single class, and the results were usually pretty good.

Sure, the month-long studying in winter and summer weren't that great. But when we skipped class to go hang out on the shores of Lake Zurich, it was quite enjoyable. Ah, the fun stuff: Hanging out at the local student bar. Late-night hunting trips in Zurich's bars with my macho roommate. Debriefing the other roommate after her many dates with what seemed to be Zurich's least eligible bachelors. The girlfriends. Cooking for friends at home. Exchanging ridiculous startup ideas over Asian and Mexican food. Nursing expensive lattes at Starbucks for hours and hours while writing theses, papers, and blog entries. Traveling Europe. The little chocolates you get from Swiss airlines just before landing at far-away destinations. Giving the canned tour of Zurich to friends visiting from all over. Jogging in ice-cold Swiss winter. Sailing classes.

Seems like all the fun things we did in university don't actually require the presence of a university. You can enjoy them even afterwards, when you're all grown up.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Academic Lunch Dating

Swiss people are shy by nature. Academics are often a bit reserved. Combine the two and you get what is a common phenomenon at ETH: Entire research groups always go out to lunch together. The same people eat with the same people, every day.

On the other hand, great research always happens at the intersection of two fields. Ideas do not form in a vacuum, but are the result of interaction. To get more ideas, you'd ideally talk to different people every once in a while.

That's why I'd like to propose academic lunch dating. Unlike in traditional online dating, the ultimate goal here would be the exchange of ideas, not gene sequences

We'd make Thursday the designated lunch dating day. We build a website where students, researchers, and professors can sign up. Every Wednesday, they enter what kind of person they want to talk to: Student or researcher, data mining specialist, mathematician or biologist? The system would match up fitting pairs, and send out emails. You'd meet Thursday 12:30 at the cafeteria you agreed on.

On Friday, everything would go back to normal and you could have lunch with your peers in peace.

Offline Mobile Content

Have you tried Google Maps Mobile? It's the most useful application I've ever seen on my cell phone. Still, at least here in Europe, few people are using mobile services. Since telcos are competing on the price per talk minute and price per SMS, they are still charging extremely high fees for GPRS. With my current plan, I pay a whopping CHF 2.50 ($ 2) per MB! Most people don't even know what GPRS costs, so they are hesitant about using it.

Still there is so much content you'd want to have access to on your phone: Aside from the maps, I'd love to have mobile access to tour guides, restaurant reviews, business listings, movie ratings (for next time I'm at the video rental place without a clue of what to get).

Almost every new mobile phone today comes with a memory card with ample capacity: My Nokia 6280 came with a 64 MB card. Its successor comes with 512 MB.

For the time being, this creates kind of an arbitrage opportunity for content providers: While GPRS data rates remain high, they could offer downloadable packages of offline content instead of a web service. A map of Zurich to download on the web and store on my cell phone via Blueooth? All for CHF 5? I would certainly pay for that.

This model will be viable unless data service becomes practically free: Most would probably rather pay a small flat free than put themselves at the mercy of intransparent price plans. Once data is free, it's better to use the online service as it is more up-to-date. But I doubt this will happen soon: Making data service free endangers the telcos' core business – Mobile Skype, anyone?

Two Social Search Ideas

I'm on a short vacation in the Mediterranean, and as always during trips, I get a bunch of ideas that seem smart when you're chilling on a beach but may be useless when confronted with the real world.

Here are two simple ideas that could make search more useful by accessing your social networks. Both ideas seem pretty obvious. So obvious and trivial, in fact, that I'm pretty sure someone has already tried this. I figured I'd still put them up for discussion.

Click Popularity

A recent article in the Economist points out that people like to follow the herd when confronted with many options. They buy the most popular cereal in a supermarket, and download the most popular songs in an online music store.

What if we extended this concept to search results? If search engines showed click counts for each item on the results page, SEOs would instantly start clicking away, making that measure completely useless.

But what if we integrated search and social networking? We could show just the click counts of your friends. Your friends have little incentive to skew results. They will have similar tastes and preferences as you do, so they will search for similar things and likely click on the same items on a results page. And you could be sure you clicked the "right" result – i.e. the one your friends clicked.


Query Trail Sharing

Search results are seldom perfect on the first try: Even Google can't read your mind. When searching for something specific, users often spend considerable amounts of time refining their queries.

For example, I was recently looking for the name of the Python function that lets me get a class member given a string with its name. The function is called 'getattr', but that had somehow escaped me. Here is the query trail for that day, reconstructed from my Google search history (The first and last queries are unrelated):By looking at word overlaps and the timestamps, one could now find out that the inner three queries belong together. When a friend searches for the same item, one could now show related queries.


Problems

Implementing both features is fairly straightforward and could likely be done with a bunch of Greasemonkey scripts. But the two huge problems are privacy and the number of friends needed to make this useful.

I doubt that users would dare to use this if they thought that their searches are watched by friends. Therefore, click counts and trail sharing should be anonymous: You don't know which one of your friends clicked where. Plus, it may be useful to filter those Jenna Jameson-related queries.

Second, you don't want to be the only one signed up for this service: You only profit from the feature if you have lots of friends signed up for it as well. Sure, we could also look at data from friends-of-friends and further layers, but that increases spamming opportunities and decreases privacy. Maybe it would make sense to integrate this with existing social networks, such as Xing or LinkedIn, and have people download a browser plugin. If Google or Yahoo did this in our post-AOL-leak world, there could be an public outcry.

Let me know in case you know a product that already does this.

Monday, November 13, 2006

London Impressions

Some more impressions from my trip to London where I visited the Nestoria guys.


I went to see the Gherkin aka Swiss Re Tower aka 30 St Mary Axe, Norman Foster's well-known skyscraper on the former site of a building destroyed by an IRA bombing. While the shape may be evoke some interesting associations, it's a gorgeous building, and it has become a new symbol for London. But success comes at a price: On ground level, the building is surrounded by car blocks to protect from bombs and the vacancy rate is high: Few want to work in a building with such high visibility.

Shopping is great in London, even if you don't actually want to buy stuff. From the yummy food at Borough Market, the Tate Modern's museum shop, to Soho's specialty bookstores, you'll find great stuff and huge selections. London is expensive, though: Ed and I went to see The Departed and paid the equivalent of 30 CHF ($24) for uncomfortable seats. And I thought Zurich was expensive.

Everything in London seems to be clustered: All the antique bookshops are on the same street. All companies that make CG effects for movies are within few blocks of each other. The big web companies (except for Google, who have moved into a 'palace' near Victoria station) and web ad agencies are also within a small radius of each other. This behavior is far less pronounced in Zurich and elsewhere and I wonder how it started in the first place.

Lastly, all the pretty girls in England are not actually from England. In certain parts of London, it's hard to run into anyone with a British passport.

Nestoria Revisited

Since I'm still officially "on vacation", I figured it would be a good idea to visit my friends at Nestoria, the UK real estate search engine. One of the co-founders, Ed Freyfogle, was my personal guru back in the golden days at Yahoo Germany.

I'm impressed. Last time in February, the site consisted of just a few mockups, and lots of ideas about how to revolutionize real estate search. Nine months later, they've already built the site, signed up lots of partners, built very sophisticated back-end analysis systems, and got press attention. Good job!



Unlike other websites whose interest it is to keep you on their site so they can show you banner ads, Nestoria works on a referral basis. It's best for them if find what you're looking for as quickly as possible. They're doing a great job at keeping the site very simple. However, their results pages provide a huge amount of useful information: Maps, closeby tube stations, hospitals, and schools, congestion charge indicators – they even have different pins for each of the tram systems in the UK. The latter requires quite some effort: Apparently, British real estate agents typically write longish descriptions of each property: Cutting that down to a reasonably short summary on the results page requires some non-trivial processing.

Their site is so good that Google technology evangelists are using it to pitch the Google Maps API at real estate conferences in the UK.

I wish there were a Nestoria Switzerland: I'll need to move out of my fancy university-subsidized room very soon. Update: As one of the commenters pointed out, immo.search.ch is actually pretty good, and that's what I'll be using.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Junior Managers

Many recent or soon-to-be Computer Science graduates from ETH Zurich are aiming to become strategy consultants, investment bankers, and junior managers right after graduation.

I'm not sure this is a good thing.

A career in these fields seems enticing. In theory, the jobs are prestigious, you get to travel a lot, and most of your time is spent talking to top brass in glass-and-steel buildings. In reality, the culture at these places is unfriendly, workdays are long, and you never quite get the satisfaction of seeing the success of your work. By the time you know whether your advice led to triumph or failure, your assignment is already over. You tend to miss out on the most valuable experience of all: Knowing what works and what doesn't.

In the development of information technology products, it's the engineers who create value. Consultants and managers don't actually build products but infrastructure and processes, both of which the end user isn't really paying for.

Unfortunately, it's hard to make becoming an engineer more attractive. Unless you work on very simple stuff, the work is relatively challenging, hard to learn, and sometimes frustrating. But every once in a while, when something starts working and everything clicks into place, there is a rush of euphoria that's hard to beat.

It's sad to throw away a solid ETH education to work as a junior manager, especially if you are a gifted engineer. Earlier this week, I met with a friend who was probably the most talented student of our class. He now works as a junior project manager at a large Swiss bank, on a project budgeted at several million dollars. Eventually, he got so fed up of the incompetence of his superiors, the suppliers, and the endless meetings, that he hacked up a simpler, cheaper solution to the problem in about half a week. With this architecture, the bank also saves around half a million dollars in license fees. Will that reflect in his bonus? Doubtful. I hope that will make him angry enough to return to computer science.

A shortage of software engineers is on the horizon. In 2001, around 400 people started studying computer science at ETH Zurich. My school then filters out the low performers in tough exams: Less than half of the people I started with will ever graduate. In 2006, enrollment is down to around 100 people, so there will be less than 50 ETH computer science graduates in 2011. After subtracting those that go into consulting, banking, or decide to do a PhD, there will be around 30 engineers to recruit from! I doubt that enrollment numbers elsewhere in Europe or the US look much better.

Maybe this will all fix itself. When a war for talent ensues, entry salaries may rise to new heights. How lucrative does engineering have to be to make wearing a tie all day look not so enticing at all?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

After the Reddit Sale: The Age of YCombinator Clones

Congrats, Alexis and Aaron, on the Reddit sale! It was the right idea at the right time. Wired Digital is a great fit.

In this TalkCrunch podcast, Mike Arrington seems very surprised that they're still just 4 guys and have taken less than $100'000 investment in total.

This is the genius of YCombinator idea at work: Take smart people, very little money, and try to build something popular. This can become a very profitable business and a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if Reddit sold for more than around $10 million, YCombinator is already in the black. Many other YCombinator startups are doing well and could get bought in the future, such as Xobni, Wufoo, loopt, or Likebetter, among others.

Earlier this year, I wrote an essay on how to clone YCombinator in Europe. When I discussed this idea with VCs and wealthy individuals, some doubted that YCombinator was even worth cloning: "How successful are they?", "Can $10,000 really take them far enough?", "I looked at y combinator very closely for last six months once current project is a success, EU y combinator is definitly [sic] the plan."

The Reddit sale has now proven that the YCombinator idea can be successful. My guess is that we'll see plenty of clones in the future, whether in the US, Europe, or Asia. There are some difficulties: You need smart founding fathers to pick the companies. Ideally, you'd also have another Paul Graham or a strong brand name that will drive the application process.

Incidentally, just a few hours after the Reddit acquisition, one VC already announced their "Quick Start" program, which invests small amounts of money in large numbers of startups.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

BarCampZurich - Thanks for Coming!

Thanks everyone for coming to BarCampZurich and helping out! I think the unconference was a success: 99 people came in total. At our first planning session in August, I made a bet with Paul H. that more than 50 people would show up. Looks like I won that one.

Our goal was to provide a balance between a highly structured shrink-wrapped conference, and total chaos. Sign-ups were free, people were casually dressed, and everyone could talk. Still, we did try to keep the conference on schedule, to allow people to switch between parallel tracks (up to 4 at a time). The speakers didn't seem to mind me jumping in at the end of each time slot, telling them to finish up quickly.

The majority of people at BarCamp were native German speakers, but we had lots of attendees who did not speak German. As often in Switzerland, speakers resorted to English. As one of my professors at ETH Zurich likes to say: "We need to schpeak English in clässes because we don't want to be se best technical university in just Eastern Switzerland, but in se world."

The BarCampZurich concept seems to have worked quite well here. The one-day format was the right choice: Lots of people couldn't have showed up for the entire weekend. On the other hand, since we had such a huge number of speakers, many interesting sessions were scheduled in parallel.

Some interesting talks I attended: Sascha Corti talked about Ajax based on Microsoft technologies, the Coding Monkeys explained SubEthaEdit, and Douwe Osinga showed off his Artificial Life projects. I also joined discussion about how we could encourage entrepreurship in Switzerland, with some great insights from experienced founders. We need to have more of these discussion slots next time around!


In my presentation, dubbed "Organizing Email", I gave a short overview of existing research work and showed off a demo of a tool I wrote. From a quick initial discussion of problems people have with email, it seems like this will remain an interesting problem for years to come.

There are already plenty of photos on Flickr (tags: barcampzurich and barcampzurich2006). Almost all of the sessions were recorded and Corsin has already started harassing me with clips from my talk: I really needs to get rid of my "errms". You'll find these and other videos online soon. Go here to get the slides.

Thanks everyone for coming! We hope you liked it!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Off to Hamburg

I'm off to Hamburg, Germany for a relaxing weekend visit. My friend Peter now works for Lufthansa Technik and kindly invited me to hang out. If you have suggestions about what to do there, drop me a line.

Last night, I saw Snow Patrol play in Zurich. I'm always surprised by the large size of the expat population in Zurich - it was a crowded concert hall, and at least half the people there were from the US, the UK, or Australia. Slightly disappointed by the performance, though: The first half of the concert could easily have been recreated by putting some dancing monkeys up on stage and playing their album really loud. These guys sound just like their record.

Rules, Revisited

From a recent article about the perceived chaos at Google in Fortune Magazine:

Take the case of Sheryl Sandberg, a 37-year-old vice president whose fiefdom includes the company's automated advertising system. Sandberg recently committed an error that cost Google several million dollars – "Bad decision, moved too quickly, no controls in place, wasted some money," is all she'll say about it – and when she realized the magnitude of her mistake, she walked across the street to inform Larry Page, […]."God, I feel really bad about this," Sandberg told Page, who accepted her apology. But as she turned to leave, Page said something that surprised her. "I'm so glad you made this mistake," he said, "Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don't have any of these mistakes, we're just not taking enough risk."

I was happy to see this article after writing a few weeks ago that my fear with joining Google is the intricate system of rules they may have devised by now. The Fortune Magazine article also mentions the book Competing on the Edge by Shona Brown, Senior Vice President of Business Operations at Google, and co-author Kathleen Eisenhardt. Since it's a hobby of mine to read vintage material from the last business cycle, I picked up a copy of this 1998 book at the ETH library. While the book's examples are clearly from a past era (Remember the AOL flat-fee capacity crisis? Or the Steffi Graf vs. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario matches?), the ideas are surprisingly up-to-date.

The book deals with creating technology businesses that are successful in very competitive markets. The focus is on creating a framework and a culture that encourages innovation. The book advocates structured chaos: There are rules, there is supervision, and there is cooperation, but just barely enough of it to hold it all together. This is the way things are apparently done at Google.

One of the early chapters deals with the trade-off of regulation vs. creativity. Too many rules stifle innovation but increase effectiveness: The company will crank out widgets cheaply and quickly, but will miss the next big thing – it's stuck in the bureaucratic trap. The other end of the spectrum is the chaos trap, where there are no rules and those that exist are consciously broken. Creativity ensues, and innovative products come out, but because the business lacks discipline, these products are too late to the game, strategies stay unrealized, and market position is lost.


The optimum is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Personally, I'm most comfortable just on the edge of chaos, which is exactly where Fortune Magazine places Google. Phew.

Monday, October 16, 2006

(Yet Another) BarCampZurich Update

Another quick update on BarCampZurich.

Room upgrade: Initially, we had only one room as we didn't expect this many people to sign up as attendees and speakers! Gladly, the friendly people of ETH Zurich Corporate Communications were happy to help, and we now have three of the finest auditoriums at my school. These were just renovated and have new audio systems and projectors; the paint is barely dry. I'm so happy we got these rooms: They are perfect for BarCamp!



Attendees: Two weeks before the event, we still have 39 empty seats -- sign up now!

Sponsors: Google is sponsoring the event (yes, they're paying for food and drinks, you guessed it!), and we're in talks with another high-profile company for more yummy stuff.

I hope to see y'all in Zurich on October 28!

Friday, October 06, 2006

An Era Ends

Earlier this week, I handed in my Master's thesis. The realization that my student years are over hasn't hit yet, partially helped by the fact that the final presentation isn't until next week. The title is "Organizing Email" and it will be online sometime in next month.

As always after bursts of immense productivity, the last couple of days have been a mixture of sleeping and running around town to take care of errands. I also participated in what seems to be a twice-yearly ritual at ETH: Saying goodbye to other students leaving for internships, work, or years abroad. Vanja left for Frankfurt and Chicago to join Accenture. Peter is off to Hamburg to work at Lufthansa Technik, and Moritz is leaving for Mountain View to intern at Google. The economy seems to be doing very well: Former students who just started working are now paying dinner with Amex Gold cards.

BarCampZurich is on track: We now have 47 signups and have found our first sponsor. I met with Corsin yesterday to discuss our plans. I hope to see y'all there!

As promised, there will be more blogging in the next weeks.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Kevin Rose, Dot-Commander

I'm sure everyone remembers last month's BusinessWeek hype piece on Kevin Rose at Digg.



A bit late to the party, Swiss magazine Weltwoche features Kevin Rose on the front page this week.



Their subtitle: "The Internet is hot again – and Kevin Rose is the Dot-Commander". I was happy to see that their article (German) was a lot less hype-y than the BusinessWeek piece. They also paid a visit to Bill Gross in L.A. and talked to Nicolas Dengler of CoComment and Lars Hinrichs of openBC to add some local perspective.

Next up in Weltwoche: The Reddit alien.

Other People's Conference Notes

No time to blog much, so I figured I'd keep you guys entertained with some links.

It seems like the Future of Web Apps conference in San Francisco was better than its European cousin I attended earlier this year.

  • Evan Williams, founder of Odeo and author of the ingenious "Ten Rules for Web Startups" shared his perspective on "How Odeo screwed up" and didn't follow his very rules.

  • Carl Sjogren of gave a talk about The Road to Google Calendar. He highlights the relentless focus on the user experience. They were even using MySQL and PHP in the early stages! I'm surprised.

From the RailsConf Europe, here's a writeup of Dave Thomas' talk "On Risk". There is much FUD surrounding Rails even now, I'm happy he addresses that.

Friday, September 08, 2006

BarCampZurich Update

A quick update on BarCampZurich, the unConference I'm helping organize. It takes place on October 28, 2006 in Zurich, Switzerland.
  • We finally found space for the BarCamp! We'll be at ETH Zurich, in the CAB building. There will be WLAN (free) and a bar for snacks and drinks (free once we find sponsors). There's room for about 100 attendees.

  • Corsin and I have been hard at work recruiting speakers and attendees. Our efforts have paid off: Our speakers now include famous Swiss entrepreneur and investor Nicolas Berg, Douwe Osinga, one of the guys behind Google Trends, as well as Cédric Hüsler from local.ch, the guys behind the popular collaborative editor SubEthaEdit, and many others. The number of signed-up participants has doubled in the last 24 hours.

  • If you want to help promote BarCampZurich, put one of our pretty banners on your site or blog. They come in all shapes and sizes.

Go to zurich.barcamp.ch and sign up! I'll see you there in October.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Going to Google

I've accepted an offer from Google and will start working at the Zurich office in November. As a big fan of Google, I have fond memories from my internship there 2 years ago. As an alternative, I had thought about joining a number of startups, which could have been far more lucrative, but potentially less enlightening.

Decisions

Rest assured that this decision was made in an Excel sheet with pros and cons and expected net values with estimated probabilities.

My great fear with Google is that it may have become a corporate behemoth, along with all the stupid rules, book-sized guidelines, and people who merely serve as bottlenecks. If they are, Freedom Fighter Gabor will be in deep, deep, trouble. If they still have the friendly attitude from 2 years ago, things will be great.

Performance

This is the first point in my life where I had to decide between becoming an entrepreneur and becoming an employee. The great thing about being an entrepreneur is that you escape the gravity of average performance: There are huge variations in the output of recent university graduates. But big companies, even those claim to be a meritocracy, cannot pay these kids by actual output.

The reasons: First, performance may be hard or impossible to measure – what's the value of a new algorithm? Second, having huge differences in pay between employees may lead to social unrest. And third, some of the highest-performance kids do not actually know that they're worth much, so why pay them more?

Startups

The only way to get paid according to your market value is to directly address the market. That's exactly what startups do. But there is a huge amount of luck factored in. Personally, I'm fine with risk. The problem of being an early employee at a startup, however, is that you get substantially lower stakes than the founders, but put in comparable amounts of work and carry a similar risk.

So why not start a startup myself? Well, you need to have the people, the idea, and the money. I had been thinking about this intensely, but at all times, at least one component was missing. And with one of my potential cofounders joining me at Google and the other one going to a startup, that idea disintegrated. Maybe another time.

Self-Censorship

Marcus Foster has a good point: Once employed at a high-profile company, you have to self-censor. I'm not sure what the policy at Google is these days, but getting fired for blogging about company secrets is not one of my ambitions.

I still have plenty of topics for essays and thoughts I want write about. Once I've handed in my thesis on October 3, I will try milk every last bit of thought from my brain and commit it to a blog entry.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

More Screen Space = More Productivity

Two years ago, I got myself a dual-monitor setup and have been preaching its benefits ever since. However, I was never able to back up my claim of huge productivity gains with scientific data. There have been some articles on this: But these pieces never elaborated on how they came up with the numbers. A fun example is this report, which apparently bases a 42% productivity gain estimate on polls, not measurements: "Sir, how much did the second screen improve your productivity?", "Ehm, I don't know, I had one before and now I have two, so I guess it doubled!"


That's why I was happy to come across this Pfeiffer Report (long version) which measures the productivity of using a 17-inch LCD vs. the 30-inch Apple Cinema Display. Sure, the report was paid for by Apple, but the results are pretty clear. For their experiments, they clearly defined tasks such as "Moving Files Between Folders" and "Full-Page Editing (InDesign)" - identical step sequences, executed three times each by trained professionals. They found productivity gains between 39 and 73%.

Finally, some hard numbers from systematic measurements. I hope one of the LCD manufacturers will soon get the idea to repeat this study for single-screen vs. dual-screen.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

New York and Boston

Earlier this week, I took a short trip to the east coast. After some drama in New York, things turned out really well. Meetings, meetings, meetings.


In New York, I talked to Aaron Harnly of Columbia University who also works in the email field. Great guy with great ideas. Also met with Fabrice Grinda, a bright entrepreneur who has started companies in both Europe and the US. Check out this Venture Voice podcast to get a sense of how energetic he is.


After a longish trip on the Chinatown Bus, I arrived in Boston, where I met with Xobni. I was impressed – these guys are very smart and are determined to revolutionize the email space.

These days seem like a blur. Six more weeks to go for my thesis.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Review of Zurich

After having lived in my beloved Zurich for 5 years, I have considered leaving several times this year, for different destinations. I'm still thinking about it. With August 1 being Swiss National Day, today offers a great opportunity to review this tiny metropolis near the alps.

A warning: This will probably sound much like a travel guide, not the highly opinionated tech-related blog entry that you may be used to!

Things I Like

Cosmopolitanism

Of the Beta world cities, Zurich is probably the smallest. It has fairly diverse demographics – there are people from all over Europe, Asia, Africa, and a large expat community from the States. But it's hard to beat London or Paris.

The financial industry, ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich, and a number of international organizations such as FIFA attract great people from all over the world. In contrast to Germany, Switzerland has simpler immigration laws.

Socially Liberal, Fiscally Conservative

With few exceptions, politics here seem to be taken from the Economist's playbook.

Great Quality of Living

Zurich is scenic: There is Lake Zurich and pretty mountain views. Unlike cities in Germany, Zurich didn't suffer in world wars, so all the little houses and churches are authentic. There are no huge skyscrapers. You can walk from one end of the city to the other in half a day. Zurich is a human-scale metropolis.

The consulting firm Mercer places Zurich first in its world-wide quality of living survey.

Efficient Bureaucracy

So far, I've dealt with the bureaucracies of Hungary, Germany, the United States, and Switzerland. Switzerland has been the most pleasant and most effective. Usually, bureaucracies are unpleasant because of insufficient capacity, overregulation, or the public servant personalities.

In Swiss government offices, there always seem to be a sufficient number of public servants. I've never waited in line endlessly in Switzerland, but I have done so at the DMV in Santa Clara. Don't even get me started about Munich or Budapest. You always pay about 50 to 100 CHF afterwards: Since they get paid per transaction, they can scale capacities accordingly.

Americans often joke about Switzerland having a rule for everything, but it's not like the U.S. has a lower regulation density. Gabor's "law of regulation complexity" states: "Overregulation in a country is approximately proportional to the number of people governing it." It's fairly obvious that the legislative bodies of the federal, state, and local governments of the US or Germany are much larger than that of Switzerland. This country doesn't really suffer from overregulation; It's just that the rules seem to be followed here more than elsewhere.

Switzerland has the friendliest and most effective public servants I've dealt with.

Transportation

I'm writing these words on a tram. Zurich has one of the densest and punctual public transportation networks in the world. This also extends to the train network: Whenever I take train trips with guests from abroad, I always hope for a delay because they're easily impressed by the huge "we're so sorry" speech they hold when the train is late by just 4 minutes. So far, this has only happened once.

In the summer, I can take my bike anywhere! It's a yellow mountain bike, has a cool-looking frame, and is otherwise completely unpractical. The city government dislikes cars and has installed a lot of speed radars. Also, it seems like they've been reducing parking and driving space for cars downtown. Still, I wish there were more bike lanes.

Things I Dislike

Store Hours

Most grocery stores are open from 8 am to 8 pm, with one exception: At the main train station, shops are open until 9 pm. But even this is completely ridiculous! Back in Mountain View, the closest grocery store was the Safeway at 570 N Shoreline. I cannot remember a single instance of visiting it before 9 pm on a weekday.

Fall

You haven't seen fog if you haven't been to Zurich in November.

Smoking

About a one-third of the Swiss population smokes. The amount of self-deception necessary to make that seem bearable is comparable to making yourself believe that global warming does not exist. Some restaurants in Zurich still don't have a non-smoking section! That should be fixed. Hope is on the horizon: It seems like smoking has decreased significantly when the SBB, the Swiss national railways, abolished smoking sections in trains.

Attitude towards Risk

The Swiss are famously risk-averse. The majority of ETH and university graduates seem to believe that the best way to become rich is to join the Graduate Training Program of UBS right after school, at the tender age of 25. (Dear UBS, I'm sorry that you're always the target of my mockery, but you make it so easy!) At this age, your living costs are low and to conform to the Swiss average, wife and kids are at least five years off. It's okay to take on risks when you still can.

Border Controls and Import Taxes

I dislike being stopped at the border to Germany to get my passport checked. It's even worse when they pull you over for a quick search, but I probably look a bit too harmless for that. Inside the EU, you can roam free. Having signed the EU's Schengen accord, passport checks on the Swiss border will be abolished, but there will still be import taxes. For Swiss companies, the import / export tariff regime represents a huge burden, as they have to go through many forms to export products to neighboring countries.

One more thing: People moving here from other parts of continental Europe often complain about the high prices. Compared to Germany, this is true. But living here is less expensive than Silicon Valley or London, while income levels are about the same. The Big Mac Index, which everyone seems to quote, misstates things because meat is relatively expensive here, increasing the price of the burger.

The Verdict

Zurich is great, but not impossible to leave.

Monday, July 31, 2006

BarCamp in the Press

Our idea of organizing BarCamps in Switzerland is barely a week old, and we already have some press coverage! Today's Heute newspaper features this tidbit about our first BarCamp in Chur (page 28)

With things going this well, I'm sure we'll also draw plenty of attention for BarCampZurich, the main event!



Thanks to Markus Egli for pointing out the article.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Help Wanted for BarCampZurich!

BarCamps are 'unconferences': Open, participatory workshop events, whose content is provided by participants. Anyone can attend, anyone can present! I'm a big fan of the concept and I'm happy to have found some enthusiasts who are would like to organize one this fall in Zurich. So far, this is just an idea and the date (October 28, 2006) isn't quite cast in stone, but we already have a page up!

BarCampZurich

Interested in helping out? We'll need participants, a venue, and sponsors. If you can help us find any of these, let me know. You'll find my e-mail address here.

Thanks to Corsin Camichel for everything and to Chris Messina for the logo.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Look of Things

Two interesting, recent articles:

Kathy Sierra writes about design differences between the US and Europe: "The restaurant/cafe decor in much of western Europe looks like it was ripped out of a MOMA installation." In one of her examples, she compares Swiss bank notes to those in the US. Switzerland wins because of fancy features: the colors, the designs, the different sizes for each value, and tactile cues for the blind. Personally, I have to admit that I first didn't like the 10 Franc note because it looks like Monopoly money.

Bálint writes about the future of the desktop: "Today's operating systems still use a GUI based on ideas already available in the 90s. But computer resources are growing exponentially - couldn't we use this extra computing power for a better desktop experience? We could." He argues that the desktop experience will start resembling the real world by introducing physics-based interactions. The examples in the entry are pretty nice - be sure to check out the videos!

Friday, July 07, 2006

How Researchers are Reinventing the Mail Client

For the last 10 years, the three-pane has been the standard view of looking at email. A pane for folders, a pane for folder contents, and one showing the selected email. Even though mail clients are highly configurable, this has been the standard view of many users. It isn't likely to change soon: The beta of Microsoft Outlook 2007 – pictured below – sticks with conventions.


Email today has many annoyances. Even though we now seem to have a grip on the spam problem, many users are suffering from email overload: There are just too many emails flooding the inbox. Many are drowning in heaps of emails that aren't even important – it's just a colleague at work Cc-ing everyone evenly remotely connected to his project.

There are plenty of ideas on how to improve the current state of mail clients, and I'll present some of them here. None of this is my work: I'll give references to publications of others. There are literally hundreds of papers on this subject, so I've chosen to present my selection of personal favorites.

Here are the three ideas I'll present:I'll present one example from each category.

Task-Driven E-Mail Organization

People's lives today are organized in their mail client. It's not just communication that takes place here: Meetings are organized, lists of todos and deadlines are exchanged, documents are sent around.

In effect, what you're keeping track of in your email client are tasks. Most emails you get are part of some project, belong to an event you're attending or organizing, or are part of a greater plan, e.g. keeping in touch with a girl.

That's the idea behind TaskMaster [2], a tool developed at PARC in 2003. All your emails, drafts, attachments, and bookmarks are mapped to "thrasks". Emails in the same thread are grouped automatically, but the user still has to assign other mails, links, and deadlines manually.

Thrasks can have associated actions, such as "call this person", and "review this". You can also add deadlines to each task: they are shown as green and red bars as they approach. Documents can be previewed right inside TaskMaster's UI, as seen with the Word document on the bottom.



I think the great advantage of this approach is that items that belong together are displayed together. Instead of using email folders to hold related messages, the central element is the task, with all the associated deadlines, todo items, and documents.

Here's a quip from the paper's usability interviews:

"It's just nice to be able to have the control over mixing [...] related things together, even though they might not be [...] the identical kind of thing."

What if we went a step further and looked at workflow patterns? For example, at a company where you interview candidates in a formal hiring process, you get automatically generated messages reminding you of the interview, requesting feedback after the interview, and a notification of the final decision. In the future, we might be able to automatically identify the structure of such processes [4] and classify email into these activities [5] – both of which goes beyond Taskmaster's model, which requires some manual effort.

Creating Smart Organization Structures

Almost everyone I know keeps incoming email entirely in the Inbox. Newly arriving messages join the 500 messages already marked as unread and are displayed at the top of the pile. Is there a better way to organize this view? Can we sensibly restructure incoming mail?

Bifrost [6], a plug-in originally conceived at Lotus Research, that takes this approach. The idea here is that the people are the main indicators of whether an email is important. After installing Bifrost, you're asked to sort your contacts into five groups: Your own email addresses, "VIP Platinum" (extremely important people, e.g. your manager), "VIP Gold" (important people: friends and family), as well as small and large distribution mailing lists.

Bifrost then reorganizes your inbox and displays your email in a number of predefined categories:
  • Timely: Emails that contain today's or tomorrow's date in the subject line. They'll likely be important today, but not next week.
  • VIP Platinum: emails from your manager.
  • VIP Gold: emails from friends and family.
  • Personal: replies to emails you've sent out, emails sent directly and only to you, and any unclassified emails you receive.
  • Small distribution: Intended for group messages.
  • Large distribution: Large-distribution mailing lists.
Below is a mock up of what this looks like in practice. (I had to draw this up myself as the screenshots in the paper were too small).


This structure is helpful in identifying important messages and weeding out the less interesting ones. A quote from their user interviews:

"If I am running through an inbox, I might be tempted to read a title and get sucked in because it is interesting. Whereas if it is in a pile of listserv stuff, I just ignore it altogether. That was a nice thing when I was busy, to not get distracted by unimportant mail."

It's interesting to note that except for differentiating small and large distribution messages, this approach can already be replicated in today's email clients. You can simply create search folders or message filtering rules which simulate the Bifrost behavior. However, this would put emails into folders and wouldn't offer the one-page overview that Bifrost has.

Cool New Features

ReMail [7] was a project at IBM Research that ran from 2001 through 2004. It was basically a reimplementation of an email client from the ground up and had several cool new features. I'll describe two of my favorites below.


Thread Arcs visualize relationships between email messages. Instead of wasting lots of space with a tree view that Thunderbird has, it displays the thread structure in a little image. This feature helps you see where you are in a long conversation. For example, in the picture below, emails B, C, D, E, F, and H are all direct replies to A, while email G is a reply to E.



The advantage of thread arcs is that you can see the position of the email you're viewing in the larger conversation, without having to switch to a tree view: your main inbox pane remains sorted by arrival time.

Contact Maps offer a different view of the address book: Senders from which you have received email are grouped by domain. Each person's name is shown with a different background color, depending on the time of the last email exchange. This offers a better view of your contacts than the traditional non-grouped lists where your least important contact looks just like your most important one.



Many of ReMail's other ideas can be found in today's popular clients: Instant messaging is now integrated with Gmail, which also groups emails by thread. The collection mechanism in ReMail is semantically equivalent to Gmail's labels. Outlook integrates emails and calendaring and has list separators ('today', 'yesterday', 'last month'), just like the ReMail prototype.

Conclusions

It seems like the ideal email organization tool would be like your personal, smart secretary: It knows what's important or interesting, and deals with stuff you don't want to be bothered with. That would be perfect.

Today, we seem to be at a point where it seems like we might be able to solve the spam problem. But the problem of figuring out which of the non-spam emails is important, and what it relates to, still exists.

One solution – the one I presented here – is to add nifty features to the mail client. But would all these features really be understood and used? Users today seem to be using a very basic set of mail client functionality. Anything we add should not only solve a painful problem, but also be easy to use. I'm not even sure this applies to the applications I've shown here: You don't know until you've tried.

What do you think? Are these good ideas? Would normal people who are drowning in email use these features? What features can't you live without? Post a comment and let me know.

--

Thanks to Keno Albrecht, Bálint Miklós , Markus Egli, and Fabian Siegel for reviewing drafts of this.

--

References

A more thorough and academic overview of the subject:
[1] Steve Whittaker, Victoria Bellotti, Jacek Gwizdka: Email in personal information management, Communications of the ACM, 2006

Examples of task- and activity-based systems:
[2] Victoria Bellotti, Nicolas Ducheneaut, Mark Howard, Ian Smith: Taking email to task., CHI, 2003
[3] Michael J. Muller, Werner Geyer, Beth Brownholtz, Eric Wilcox, David R. Millen: One-hundred days in an activity-centric collaboration environment based on shared objects, CHI, 2004
[4] Nicholas Kushmerick, Tessa Lau: Automated email activity management: an unsupervised learning approach, IUI 2005
[5] Mark Dredze, Tessa Lau, Nicholas Kushmerick: Automatically classifying emails into activities, IUI 2006

Bifrost:
[6] Olle Bälter, L Sidner: Bifrost inbox organizer: giving users control over the inbox, NordiCHI, 2002

ReMail:
[7] ReMail: Reinventing Email Website, Collaborative User Experience, IBM Research, 2003

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Gregory Crewdson in Winterthur

On my walls, you'll see three art posters and a world map. Two of the posters are prints of paintings by Edward Hopper, the American artist (Gas and New York Office). In rough strokes, he paints images of people in buildings, often alone, often sad. I like his style and the way he deals with ordinary lives of ordinary people.

Gregory Crewdson is to photography what Edward Hopper is to painting. When I saw a poster advertising an exhibition of his pictures at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, I knew I had to pay a visit.

Crewdson's motifs are American suburbia and rural landscapes. Most of his pictures are taken around Pittsfield, MA, where he drives around for days to find just the right spot. The right spot, of course, is a nondescript corner of the town, with small commercial buildings or residential homes built in a style that I associate with New England.

There, he stages little dramas. Disaffected people are pictured in quiet loneliness. A story is being told. Something strange and surprising just happened.

The images are beautiful and dreamlike, and undercut with something fearful.

Crewdson's pictures aren't snapshots: They are elaborately prepared. A video at the exhibition showed a 60-man crew preparing a photo shoot at a North Street intersection in Pittsfield. A nondescript car with a woman in the passenger seat stands in the middle of an intersection. The driver side door is wide open, but the driver is nowhere to be seen. For this shot, the street was blocked off for almost an entire day; it was sprayed with water and fog machines clouded up the background. Many photos were taken, but only one was produced: The final, perfect image is often put together in Photoshop, from perfect pieces of all shots, to create a Spielbergian moment.

While there are many similarities to Hopper – lonely people, attention to light – there are also differences. Hopper doesn't care for mysteries and his pictures aren't fine-tuned to perfection, but are painted in rough strokes. Hopper also didn't need Photoshop. Clement Greenberg once said: "Hopper is simply a bad painter. But if he were a better painter, he would probably not be such a great artist."

The exhibit continues through August 28, 2006 at the Fotomuseum Winterthur. Gregory Crewdson, 43, is a photographer and art professor at Yale University.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Nestoria Launches

A couple of months ago, I talked about Opencage, a stealth startup in London. Ed Freyfogle, who was my mentor when I interned at Yahoo Germany in 2001 (aaah, the good old days), assembled a team to build a real estate search company.

After what must have been long nights of hard work, Ed and the team have launched Nestoria. Far from the austerity of Craigslist, this site focuses on the user experience: Strong search functionality, maps, and much extra info (pictures of the neighborhood, nearby tube lines, schools, pubs, etc.).

My favorite visual feature is the display of nearby neighborhoods on the map. One click takes you to the hipper, less-expensive neighborhood next door.



Nestoria is very open about sharing data with others. In fact, their approach to building the website reminds me of the "Native to a Web of Data" presentation by Tom Coates of Yahoo at this year's Future of Web Apps summit. They have hackable URLs, an RSS feed for every page, and will even offer direct access to their database to external developers.

They're are also helping the open source community by sponsoring – among others – the Mapstraction project, which is trying to pull together all the different mapping APIs (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) into a common abstraction.

Full disclosure: I had taken on a small consulting role for a part of the system design for Nestoria, but do not own stock in the company.