Grandma, what a big browser you have? On separation anxiety & cloud applications

If literary researchers were in the habit of announcing new literary phenomena in the way that biologists announce the discovery of new species, they would probably define abandonment letters from online services as a new literary genre. This genre has had a rapid evolution, and is apparently based on a combination of bailiff’s notices, bar mitzvah invitations and chain letters. Last week I received an amusing example of such a creation from the team at Apture, informing me of a unilateral cessation of their services. Apture is an excellent service (apart from its name, which sounds like the transcription of a sneeze!), which I subscribed to soon after its launch. It was designed to easily add an information layer to websites. Apture has two main products – one is an add-on to browsers (Chrome, Firefox and Safari) that allows a reader to mark a word in the text on some website, and to then receive a popup window with information from various sources about the concept or term. Its second product is a service for website owners, allowing them to mark specific words in the text and display a miniature icon next to them which, when clicked, brings up the same popup window. Apture’s service helps keep users on their website, without them moving to other sites when they want to understand a concept that is not totally clear. Such a tool has enormous potential for educational websites, and at one stage we toyed with the idea of integrating it into our projects. Among the start-up’s major clients were large organizations such as the New York Times or Scribd (while among their lesser known clients was one of the crazier blogs that I maintain).

The letter that I received from Apture

This small company (about 10 employees), set up in 2007 by Tristan Harris, was able to reach, according to them, a very impressive number of web pages using their service – about one billion pages. Over the years, the company was able to raise about $6 million in capital, but I could not find any information about its profitability. If I had to guess, I would assume that this is yet another example of a company with impressive performance and a nice product, but without a concrete business model. Such companies close down over time, or else are sold just before they do so. Fortunately for Apture, it fell into the second category, and was sold about two weeks ago to Google. As a result of the sale, I received the following letter from them, in English – with the Israeli interpretation between the lines:

Hi there,

(After all, we’re friends, aren’t we?)

We’re writing to let you know that Apture has been acquired by Google.

The Apture team got together around the computer, invited a few friends from Google, maybe even Larry Page himself, and sat down excitedly to formulate this letter, which sounds like they are telling a friend abroad (almost like a member of the family) about selling the company to Google (thank you, my friends, I’m moved that you have remembered poor little me, at this significant moment)

Since day one, we’ve been working on getting the Apture experience into as much of the web as possible.

From day one, no one fully understood what this product was exactly, and what its business model should be – every time we had doubts, we raised a little more capital.

While we’re proud of having helped thousands of publishers enhance their websites

It’s all a matter of ideology. We were debating whether to set up a kibbutz or to open a soup kitchen, but the cries of the publishers, begging for help, gave us many sleepless nights. We’ve helped them, and now we are moving onto another heroic rescue mission

, we think now is the best time to expand our efforts by joining Google’s Chrome team to help build the next generation user experience directly into the web.

Just before we thought about declaring bankruptcy, Google came along with this purchase offer. A way out was always what we dreamed of.

On December 20 we will discontinue Apture’s product and services. When this happens, users will no longer be able to highlight and search terms with Apture on your web pages.

We’re discontinuing our service unilaterally; in other words, to hell with you and your content, we both know that there’s nothing really important there.

Your website will continue to work as normal even after our service is suspended;

Your website will continue to work as normal, mainly because it’s not connected to us in any way

however, you are free to remove the Apture

You are free to delete our code from your website, or to write any slogan you like – after all, generosity is our middle name.

We want to thank you personally for your support and positive feedback over the years,

We have no idea who you are, and are not sure that you know who we are; we’re writing to you only because Google’s lawyers told us that this will protect us from lawsuits.

and we hope you’ll stay tuned for some amazing new Chrome experiences coming your way.

If you have nothing better to do, you are invited to watch how Chrome develops, or count the cars passing in the street. As for us, first we’re off to the Caribbean, and then we’ll consider other ways of investing the proceeds of the sale.

You can view the announcement here on our homepage, or check the FAQ below.

It’s a masterpiece, you should read it again on the website (and just wait for the musical).

The Apture Team

As I said, letters of this type have developed into a kind of independent literary genre, combining the writing of legal contracts with the writing of friendly, personal letters.

Five thoughts that come to me as a result of the letter

1. Taboo words
The words “amazing” and “personally” ought to be declared bankrupt, or, in keeping with the spirit of the times, they should be outlawed and their use should entail an automatic fine.

2. A weepy interpretation
It’s not clear where the somewhat bitter tone of my interpretation to the letter comes from – after all, it was an excellent, free service that I had enjoyed for some years, and now the time has come to say goodbye and move on to the next service (what’s more, they’re actually nice people). The truth is, it’s not quite that way. A user who chooses to use a particular service invests time, places his trust in the service, and prefers it over competing services. This preference translates to points in favor of the service being able to raise additional capital.

3. Annoyance Index
Within the developing genre of polite goodbye letters, this one lies half way along the scale from “really annoying” to “not too annoying” – on the more annoying end of the scale are those letters that address you by your first name, and beg you to stay in touch and write back. At the less annoying end of the scale are the letters that Google sends about those of its services that have been shut down – for example, in the letter that I received (this week, too) regarding the suspension of Google Wave, they offered various suggestions for saving the content, as well as listing tools from other companies to which it would be possible to export the accumulated content. Google acted similarly when it closed other services, such as Google Notebook and Google Pages.

4. Stability of the Cloud
The closure of this service joins the closures of a series of services announced by Google last week (Wave, Jaiku, knol). A similar wave of closures recently occurred at Apple (and led to an outburst of grumbling by Nick Carr). These closures give rise to thoughts about the survivability of the virtual applications which we make use of. While a whisky distillery or tea producers might state proudly that they were founded 150 years ago, it is questionable if we can even think about how to frame the question “What will Twitter look like in 20 years?” On the other hand, the level of identification and penetration of these services in our daily lives is even deeper than those of services from the old world. Apture isn’t a sufficiently dramatic example, since its applications affect a relatively narrow part of our daily lives. A unilateral closure of Evernote, Dropbox or gmail, for example, would probably shake up our daily routines significantly.

Vintage Twitter, as depicted in Brazil’s maximedia series

5. Chrome’s Roadmap
 However, Apture’s transition to being part of Chrome draws attention to a problematic trend. First, Chrome may at some point lose its outstanding advantage – its ease of use and speed – and become a heavy, Baroque browser, loaded with add-ons, as occurred with Firefox. Second, it is in the interest of the web’s evolution that there be maximal decentralization: the broader the playing field and the greater the opportunity for independent players – like Apture – to exist and function, the faster the web will develop, and with greater creativity. In addition, the damage caused by these closures will be limited; there will always be parts of the web that are more stable or less so. In a world in which one company has a growing dominance in a number of fields, there is the danger that this room to move will be lost. Some days ago Lifehacker announced one of its lists of the 50 free apps that we could not live without – of those 50 apps, 7 already belong to Google, and there are rumors that another 5 of them will, in the future, be taken over by them. Google has a strong grip on the framework of our activities on the web – searches, e-mail, social networks, browsers and operating system. In parallel, it is trying to take hold of what exists within that framework – the content (video, books, and recently music as well), and the devices. Its most recent acquisitions indicate that it is continuing along this line in the realm of browsers, and that it wants to gain a foothold in the territory of the applications that live on the edges of the browser software.
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