Amazon Sinks A9

Amazon Sinks A9: “In a surprising retreat, Amazon.com is dismantling many of the features that helped make its A9.com search engine stand out from the crowd. Things like the A9 toolbar, intricate street-level mapping, and the Instant Reward program that gave active A9 users a 1.57% discount on Amazon.com purchases are all history.”

This news item, in the piece by online stock market research and business news publication The Motley Fool, should serve as a poignant, watershed moment in our history to mark the beginning of the end of the second dot-com bubble. With a proliferation of so-called “Web 2.0” products touted by newly flush-with-cash venture-backed start-up companies in recent years, A9’s effective demise is so symbolic because when it launched three years ago, and was (along with Idealab subsidiary Snap.com) given the VIP (that’s “very important page”) treatment on such prominent blogs as Searchblog and major news wires like The Associated Press, it could do no wrong. If it were a person, its poop could not stink. Revolutionary features that allowed users: to save a bookmark to every page they’ve ever searched for and visited to an online personal archive; a personal web cache of search results for every keyword ever entered; view pictures of virtually every street corner in the United States; and, to download a customizable web toolbar that tied all of it all together were all hyped. They were going to turn the web search industry on its head, creating the new term “social search,” for web search services that allowed users to save their search results and bookmark the ensuing linked websites.

And, it did. Forced to compete and offer similar services, A9 (and to a lesser extent, Snap.com) forced search giants Google, MSN, Yahoo!, and Ask Jeeves to reinvent themselves (and in the case of Yahoo!, make free some services for which it had previously begun to charge to broaden its sources of revenue following the drying up of ad dollars post dot-com crash in 2000), add new sharing and cataloguing features across all of its services, and vastly upgrade their own bare bones browser toolbars with nothing more than a basic web search ability and bare bones pop-up blocker to something with vastly greater offerings and helpful features. The only problem is, it was so successful at helping to force the web giants to adapt and boost their own service offerings, it had lost focus on its own direction and what it needed for success. Additionally, because those same giants were now offering mostly everything it had been offering that was “cool” (with the notable exception of the aforementioned BlockViewtrade; photo map service), coupled with its lack of brand awareness, users had no need to visit A9.

So, it seems only fitting that three years later, after helping to spawn many new web search services, and many free “Web 2.0” productivity and collaboration software packages, it is the one that leads them to either, an IPO or acquisition by larger entity for the lucky ones, or their bankruptcy and/or dissolution.

Sadly, I also believe that with all of this excess capital (and we’re talking billions of dollars here) being invested in new web-based, unprofitable start-ups with scant business plans and back-of-the-napkin financial statements every day, a lot of venture capitalists and other investors are about to get burned (again!) by the hype. Overall, billions of dollars are market value will be lost. Ultimately, within a few years, we’ll be in to another belt-tightening and service closure period by those same giants, Google & company, that Yahoo! and Ask.com have already survived once in 2000-2002. To be sure, there are differences than last time. Voice-over-Internet-Protocol telephone systems, much cheaper bandwidth, and global outsourcing have all reduced costs considerably and made ad-supported products viable, but only to a point. As new start-ups are grown and products launched, ad dollars will be stretched so thin that ultimately, it will pull back and devote most of its dollars to the aforementioned giants and many small ones will be forced to close down or sell their technology and domain name on eBay.

For those keeping track, A9 joins the to-be-shuttered on Nov. 1st Audioblogger service of podcasting start-up Odeo Inc. (whose founder and CEO is, coincidentally, Evan Williams, who sold Blogger to Google three years ago for an amount undisclosed but believed to be between $5 and $15 million), which has decided to focus on its core businesses (Odeo and Twittr). Also, ajax-based social word processing services Rallypoint and JotSpot Live, the latter of which was shuttered as parent company JotSpot Inc. decided to focus on its core group wiki hosting service., have ceased operations.

Footnote: Although the A9.com remains operational, it is a vastly different reincarnation of its once-mighty self, serving only as metacrawling web search utility that searches the licensed search indexes of several different algorithmic search engines. It is, essentially, no different than say, InfoSpace’s Dogpile or MetaCrawler, which license search results from Google, Yahoo!, MSN, Ask.com, and others. It really should consider just shutting down A9 completely, rather than let Internet users everywhere bear witness to its own humility.

Too many churches in Stafford, Texas?

ABC News: Worship, But At What Cost?: “Hindus aren’t the only ones drawn to Stafford. In a town with just one movie theater, two grocery stores, and 14 gas stations, there are 51 houses of worship, representing the united nations of religions.”

An interesting report, linked above, concerning the number of churches and other religious shrines in the city of Stafford, Texas explains that there are 51 such institutions in this town of approximately 15,000. A rough, back-of-the-napkin calculation indicates that if 100% of the town’s population went to church, which would be highly unlikely and probably the first such jurisdiction in the world to post 100% support for anything (other than the supposed support that the former Iraqi head of state Saddam Hussein used to boast in various “elections” over the years), that would mean each church would have a congregation of approximately 300. For small- and modest-sized churches, that’s a fair amount of churchgoers. For the larger ones, its woefully small and, perhaps, a sign that, just maybe, Stafford can’t support so many institutions.

However, it’s not simply about congregation sizes. Stafford city council is considering putting a cap on churches so no new ones could build – at least until new people move in and commercial activity is on the rise. The evangelical right is fuming. How dare the local government try to regulate their freedom of religion; it’s simply unconstitutional, they cry.

Alas, it’s a bogus argument. In a town with no property taxes, preferring to opt for development cost charges, franchise and sales taxes to raise revenue, the city can only afford to have so much land tied up by tax-exempt churches. Eventually, they do have a right to say to the “right”, enough is enough. The town needs additional commercial development if it intends to maintain (and grow) both its revenue base and balance its budget, not to mention its bragging rights for having no property taxes.

I do hope the evangelists take the issue to court, if and when the city council passes its “church capping” bylaw. That way, city of Stafford can defend its own legal rights to provide much needed local infrastructure and government services to its citizens.

Ultimately though, my personal belief is to begin forcing churches to pay property taxes, perhaps at a reduced rate for non-profit societies and organizations. They’re flush with cash, and while they do great work in the towns in which they operate, the very fact that many of the largest churches have healthy surpluses of cash in their bank accounts and on their annual budgets, is a strong indication they can afford to pay their way. At one time, the Roman Catholic Church was a significant shareholder in Safeway, the famous North American grocery store owner/operator. While I do understand that investing in healthy blue-chip, dividend-paying corporations is a good way to raise revenue for the much-needed services they provide, there comes a point that when the large, worldwide churches begin acting like multinational venture capitalists, property taxes must be paid.

So, bottom line: everybody should pay property taxes; however, city councils should put in place (and most already have) a mechanism to apply for an annual exemption from paying property taxes so that those most helped by the extra cash in their bank accounts actually get it – and those that can afford it (like the Catholic and Anglican churches) pay their share. Afterall, they still don’t have to pay income taxes.