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Zillow Kills Competition With $3.5 Billion Trulia Deal

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 2:19pm

It takes more than “Zestimates” and other zippy technology to make money in real-estate listings, as evidenced by the $3.5 billion in stock that Zillow agreed to drop in order to snap up its chief competitor, Trulia.

The impending Trulia acquisition could centralize listings and tools for home sellers. The joined company says it will provide “advertising and software solutions that help real estate professionals grow their business.” 

Real-estate sites cannot dominate the Internet with lookie-loos alone; they must have advertising dollars. Now Zillow's listing site can also attract home sellers—and their attendant advertising—with Trulia's tools for estimating a home's value.

Zestimates, Zillow’s zingy name for the proprietary algorithm it uses to estimate home value based on publicly available information, put the real estate site in the spotlight—but not always in a good way. Critics question the their true value, citing the algorithm’s inability to know, for instance, whether the neighbors mow the lawn.

A Real-Estate Squeeze Play 

Regardless, Zillow is protective of Zestimates, and sued Trulia for patent infringement in 2011, a claim Trulia disputed. Earlier this year, the rivalry between Zillow and Trulia was still going strong. In February, Zillow announced it would spend $65 million on national advertising. Two days later, Trulia announced it would spend $45 million on same.

Currently, Zillow has 83 million users, according to comScore. Trulia has 54 million. Once joined, the new real estate behemoth on the block will rule 61 percent of the market, making the most visible place for real estate to pay for premium ad placement.

In theory, Zillow's shelling out $3.5 billion in stock to swallow its former rival could save both companies some money in the short run, since real-estate agents will paying the difference in premium advertising on the biggest game in town. Knocking out the competition makes it a sellers market for ad space. Investors will be pleased.

According to the announcement, the deal—expected to close in 2015—will “maintain both the Zillow and Trulia consumer brands.” As the deal marches toward the regulatory process, specific details of how the merged company will operate and whether there will be layoffs, have not yet been shared.

Lead image by Flickr user John Morgan, CC 2.0

Categories: Technology

LinkedIn Updates Its App As Part Of Its Mobile Dis-Integration

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 12:00pm

LinkedIn’s new mobile redesign, called “Blue Steel” internally, aims to make it easier to find out information about people and make connections while on mobile.

The new update to the flagship LinkedIn application is the latest in a handful of updates and app launches as LinkedIn begins to fragment its services and create separate apps for separate services. There are now six different LinkedIn apps.

See also: LinkedIn's Latest App Aims To Reconnect You With Your Contacts

The flagship LinkedIn app has an updated look, but with the redesign also comes a better way of viewing someone’s profile. Now, when you want to know more about someone, the mobile LinkedIn profile shows you information that would be pertinent to an introduction—for instance, if you share an alma mater or work history in common. It also makes it easy to edit your profile, something that was hard to do previously on mobile.

Additional information on the new mobile LinkedIn profile includes deeper analytics including who’s viewed your profile from where, and a section that details what you have in common. Like the desktop version, the revamped app will show you other profiles viewed by visitors to your own profile. It also makes it easy for people to see what you’ve posted on LinkedIn’s publishing platform.

Because there are so many apps for LinkedIn—including LinkedIn Connected, the app the company debuted earlier this month—the company made it easy to bounce back and forth. So if you’re using Connected and notice that someone got a new job, you can flip over to view their full profile in the LinkedIn flagship app. 

LinkedIn is following the lead of other social apps like Facebook and Foursquare—all these companies are breaking up their services into multiple apps, in the hopes of appealing to a broader mobile-driven audience. 

Lead image by Reyner Media on Flickr

Categories: Technology

CloudFlare’s Matthew Prince: Building A Better Internet

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 11:00am

ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.

For a 100-person company founded in 2009, the tech firm Cloudflare certainly seems to have an outsized impact on the Internet.

Shortly after the Heartbleed bug became public knowledge on April 9, Cloudflare decided to revoke all the digital-encryption SSL certificates it managed—a move that would prevent hackers from stealing digital identities from Web servers by exploiting  Heartbleed. When it did so, it caused a dramatic spike in such revocations

Similarly, when it switched its customers by default to a new Internet-address scheme called IPv6, Cloudflare says it expanded what co-founder Matthew Prince calls "the IPv6 Web" by a full five percent.

See also: Exterminating Heartbleed: How To Clear It Out Of Your Data Center

Cloudflare's primary business is to both speed up and act as a sort of digital bouncer for its client sites. It does this by helping them deliver their information more efficiently and by sheltering them from the Internet's bad guys—hackers, spammers and scammers who try to knock sites offline via distributed denial-of-service attacks.

In the process, it's also managed to bring advanced site-management tools—the kind of things that previously only companies like Google could afford—to the masses. 

Prince co-founded CloudFlare after bouncing through a number of startups and attending both law and business school. I spoke with him about how getting sued by the porn industry got him started, how he was a lawyer for a day and the role he sees Cloudflare playing as cloud computing continues its astronomical growth.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Back When The Web Was "A Fad"

ReadWrite: You describe yourself as the storyteller. How technical are you?

Matthew Prince: When I was seven, my grandmother gave me an Apple II Plus. I grew up in Park City, Utah, and my mom used to sneak me into computer science classes. When I got to college, I was pretty competent as a computer programmer, and got bored in the computer science program fairly quickly.

In 1992, I was technical enough that the school spotted that. Along with two other students, I became one of the campus network engineers. We were building out the network across the campus. Back then, I was installing the switches, running cabling, and learning how the underlying network worked.

The other thing that was fortuitous, in college, a couple of us had started an electronic magazine. There was no World Wide Web in 1992, so we used a programming language sold by Apple called Hypercard. It was object-oriented, one of the forgotten Apple technologies that was way ahead of its time. We made this interactive magazine with Hypercard stacks. We’d email it on campus. The school loved it. It showed how innovative they were.

The apps would get so large that they would actually crash the mail server. The school kept buying bigger and bigger mail servers to accommodate it, and we ended up making more and more complicated versions of the magazine.

They finally came to us and said, "This isn’t going to scale, but let us introduce you to some organizations." One was a printer company, which invented a technology called PDF, which was of course Adobe. The other organization was a bunch of students at the University of Illinois, PhD. students, who had this thing called a browser.

I remember we would write articles and we couldn’t get anyone on campus to read them, but we’d get these emails, in broken in English, from Japan. I remember saying to one of the other guys, why do we care if people in Japan are reading this? It was one of the most naive and stupid things I could have said. I wrote my college thesis on essentially why the Internet was a fad, which is incredibly embarrassing.

CloudFlare co-founders Michelle Zatlyn, Lee Holloway and Matthew Prince

I’m technical enough that I know how this stuff works. When we started CloudFlare, I was writing code. I think I have three lines of code left in the code base. We hired people many orders of magnitude better than I am. Lee Holloway [CloudFlare co-founder] is the technical genius, and Michelle [Zatlyn], who is incredible, is the chief operating officer of our organization. The three of us together create a pretty solid foundation.

Lawyer For A Day

RW: You went to law school, and then worked as a lawyer for just one day?

MP: When I got to the end of college, I had job offers at these companies that I thought had no future: Netscape, Yahoo, a company called BBN, [and] Microsoft, for their online service. I thought this wasn’t going anywhere, so instead I went to law school. My friends were building dot-com companies that were some degree of successful, and I went to Chicago to study law.

In 1999, between second and third year of law school, I moved to San Francisco for the summer and worked at a law firm called Latham and Watkins. Over the course of that summer, I helped take six companies public. I went back for the third year of law school, and that was when the bubble burst. Latham called and said, “Good news. You still have a job. We don’t have room for securities lawyers, but we have plenty of room in our bankruptcy practice.”

I had accepted the signing bonus and had started to do some work for them. One of my law professors said hey, my brother is starting a company, he’ll match your salary and give you some stock. I stayed in Chicago and worked for this startup [a company called GroupWorks in the insurance-benefits brokerage market]. 

RW: What inspired you to go back and get an MBA?

MP: The short answer is I went to business school because I got sued by the porn industry. After GroupWorks, I did well enough that I could mess around for a while. I came up with an idea for an anti-spam technology.

Unspam is like the “do not call” list, but for email. The business plan was absurd. We were going to help pass a bunch of [anti-spam] laws all around the country, and build a technology that enables these laws, and then sell it to state governments. But instead of them paying us directly, they'd charge a fee, and we’d take a share of that fee.

I remember pitching that to venture capitalists. They’re like, you’re insane. That’s exactly what we did. So we worked with state legislators around the country to pass these laws, and then we ended up winning technical services contracts. Lee Holloway was our first technical hire at Unspam.

The pornography industry guys argued it was a violation of their first amendment rights. They were arguing that they had the right to send adult material. They sued the the state of Utah, and we were a contractor to the state, so they sued us as well.

The lawyers said, "You have a good case, but it will take three years to resolve. During that time, lay low." I sent off applications to eight different business schools, and ended up getting rejected by seven of them, and got into Harvard.

Pahk The Stahtup In The Hahvahd Yahd

RW: And that’s where CloudFlare really got its start?

MP: I continued to run Unspam while I was in business school. Lee was continuing to work for Unspam. As a final project for our last semester, Michelle and I ended up entering a business plan competition, and the business plan was CloudFlare’s business plan. It’s remarkable to read it and see that we’ve basically done what we said we were going to do.

At the same time, Lee was running out of hard technical problems at Unspam. He was getting recruited by Facebook and Google. I always wanted him to be on my team. 

I called him a couple of weeks later and said, "What if we design a service that essentially sits in front of the entire Internet, and we will build something that can not only protect websites from attack, it will make things faster?"

I knew that in order to get Lee excited, the project had to be huge. Lee needed something that was really, really big. I spent 30 minutes on the phone pitching it to him. At the end he was silent for about a minute, then he said, okay, that will work. So Lee was on board. Michelle is the operations person, I’m sales and marketing and storytelling, and that ended up being the combination that allowed us to build what we built.

Services Only A Google Could Afford

Five percent of all Web traffic passes through our network. We add 5,000 new customers every day, ranging from teeny little blogs to Fortune 500 companies. International governments use us, the U.S. government uses us, commerce companies like Gilt use us. One out of 21 sites you go to online is a customer, and their traffic passes through our network. We have 25 facilities scattered across North and South America, Europe and Asia, and the plan is to open 50 more in the next year.

The network keeps growing bigger and bigger because we’re offering a compelling value proposition. It takes about five minutes to sign up. Once installed, you’re going to be at least twice as fast and protected against a whole range of attacks, and it decreases the load on your server substantially.

We’ll provide resources that previously only a company like Google could afford, with data centers scattered around the world. We ‘ll make that easy and affordable and scalable for anyone putting content online, whether it’s through traditional websites, modern web applications, or the back end of mobile apps. We make all that faster and better.

Begging And Building Frankenservers

RW: What was the first technical challenge that you wanted to address with CloudFlare?

MP: CloudFlare got born in part out of an open source project Lee and I had started called Project Honey Pot. It’s the largest online community tracking fraud and abuse. It has over 100,000 participants in 190 countries around the world.

When we were first starting CloudFlare, after we graduated from school and moved to California, we didn’t have any money, and we needed some way to build the first prototype. Amazon Web Services was just getting started at the time, and we were trying to figure out how we were going to get servers.

Michelle said, You talk about how loyal this Project Honey Pot community is. What if we just ask them if they have some spare servers lying around? It was an absurd thing, but we started to think, why not?

We had all the zip codes of members, and we emailed every Project Honey Pot member that was within 50 miles of San Francisco: “We’re looking for servers to be able to build a prototype on, do you happen to have any that are laying around?”

We got an astonishingly high response rate. So Michelle piled in her Volkswagen Jetta and drove around to all these different people, and did two things. She’d pick up the servers and load them in their car, and ask them what they wanted CloudFlare to be. It was our initial market research. Those Project Honey Pot members were the first CloudFlare.

None of [the servers] worked, but we were able to cobble parts together to create two functional servers, and built the first prototypes—two kinds of Frankenservers.

We needed to be building a demo to show the investors, and Lee didn’t want to build them. Instead he was focused on this little piece of code that would cache requests for one second. I said, "Seriously, that’s the most important thing you could be working on?"

He said, “Trust me, in three years, you are going to be happy I built this.” Lee is this technical genius who thinks about problems five years in advance. Almost three years from the day he said that, we got some of our first denial of service attacks, and the only way our infrastructure could stand up to that was thanks to layers of caching. That caching layer that he was building at the time turned out to be this piece of our foundation which has allowed us to continue to scale.

Expanding The Taxonomy Of The Cloud

RW: Do you build your own data centers, or rent space in others?

MP: We build our own equipment. We don’t pour foundations and build the buildings, but very few companies do. Even Facebook runs out of other facilities sometimes.

We’re not running on top of Amazon or Rackspace, though those are partners of ours. Instead, we are putting our own equipment in buildings scattered all around the world, and increasingly, putting them in the end-ISP facilities to ensure we have the most coverage and can be as fast as possible.

People talk about the cloud, the taxonomy of the cloud. At the base is what I call the store-and-compute layer. That used to be companies like HP, EMC, Dell and Sun—companies that made the big boxes that held your data and processed your data. Increasingly now it's AWS [Amazon Web Services], Rackspace, Google, Microsoft with Azure and VMware building out their own clouds. So when people talk about cloud services, often they’re talking about the store-and-compute layer, only where you can rent time on machines you don’t own.

We tend to be great partners with all those store-and-compute service providers. That’s not what we do.

The layer on top of store and compute is the application layer, which used to be run by these big bundled suites, from companies like Microsoft, SAP, Oracle. Now those bundles are getting unbundled into their component parts: Salesforce does CRM, Box does storage and collaboration, Google does email, Workday does ERP, Netsuite does financial accounting.

All of those used to be in the SAP bundle. Now, instead of buying software, you're buying those individual components.

Salesforce calls itself a cloud company. It’s not the same as Amazon; it’s a cloud services company living at that application layer.

[These companies also] tend to be partners of ours. Oftentimes a big financial institution wants to use Salesforce. The problem is, if it’s not software running in their own data center anymore, they need to have something like CloudFlare if they want a layer of protection in front of it, because they can’t call up Salesforce and ask them to put in a firewall.

That leads to the third tier, what I call the edge tier. Previously the edge used to be a whole bunch of boxes that would live at the top of your rack. Those boxes would be anything with the word firewall in it, companies like Checkpoint. Increasingly it’s Fireye, or Imperva, or Palo Alto Networks. These are all firewalls that sit at the edge of your network.

And it’s companies like F5 Networks that do load balancing, WAN optimization, anyone doing performance caching, DDOS mitigation—these are all boxes, that traditionally, yesterday, you’d have to buy and put in your server rack. But increasingly, there is no rack.

Customers, however, still need this same functionality. That’s what CloudFlare is doing. We're taking all the functionality—firewall, DDOS, web apps, load balancing, caching—and deploying it as a service, instead of it being a box, or a series of boxes, you have to buy.

So the way we work with Microsoft or Google or Amazon is that they’re providing the store-and-compute layer, or the application layer, and CloudFlare is providing the edge that sits in front of that. Instead of doing it as hardware, we’re doing it as a service.

RW: Isn’t that something Amazon and others would want to build into their cloud offerings over time?

Yeah, potentially. If they’re using all the Amazon services, people tend to use things like their Elastic Load Balancer, which is similar to the load balancing we have, or use their DNS services called Route 53.

We have those services, but we’re finding, in a lot of cases, that we’re a lot better. Our DNS services is faster and more performant than what Route 53 or Google DNS service has, so when you compare apples to apples, we do extremely well.

Second, we’re extremely focused on this. Amazon is a great company, but they're not entirely dedicated to making sure the publisher’s experience as good as possible. We also end up being significantly more cost-effective than they are over time. Most people put us on and cut their AWS bill often by as much as 50%.

GZip It—GZip It Real Good

RW: What kind of relationship do you have with open-source projects?

MP: There’s a piece of software called gzip. It’s the compression software built into your browser. It’s probably one of the most common code paths on the internet. Gzip takes a web page and reduces it in size by as much as half.

Because it’s running on every single request, it is one of the things that takes up the most CPU on our systems, so we have an engineer who left Apple to come work for us. One of the first things he did was rewrite gzip. I was skeptical, because it’s open source project—Google uses it, Facebook uses it—so how in the hell are we going to make gzip better?

He goes away and he comes back, and he has massively increased the performance of gzip, and we have started to roll that out now across our network, which saves us a huge amount of time, allows us to offer our customers significantly faster performance.

One of the things i’m proud of that we do is turn around and contribute them back to the open source community. In the next few months, we’ll roll out our new improved gzip. We’ve been running the calculations, and the power savings alone, how much power we'll cut if everyone in the world were to adopt this new version of gzip, it’s just astronomical.

We’re doing something that has extremely wide impact. It touches so many organizations around the world, and our mission is to build a better Internet. That sounds crazy at some level, but can do things at our scale that are pretty substantial.

About two months ago, we defaulted all our customers to IPv6 routing, so even if their backend is on IPv4 still, we can make sure the front end will support an IPv6 connection. In doing that, we increased the size of the IPv6 web in one day by something like 5%.

One of the things I’m most excited about, we have a team that’s very close, maybe by the end of this quarter, we’re going to be able to turn on SSL encrypted connections by default for even our free users. The amount of engineering work that goes into something like that is pretty substantial. There are only about two million SSL protected websites on the Internet, and the day we switch that one on, we will double the number of protected websites on the entire Internet.

RW: What other ways can the Internet be improved?

MP: There’s a Google protocol called SPDY (speedy), and SPDY makes transferring data over the internet just a ton faster, especially for mobile devices. It’s hard for individual server operators to install, so we just enabled SPDY by default.

If your server is in Texas, and you have a visitor who comes to your website from Sweden, what will happen, that visitor will first hit CloudFlare’s datacenter in Stockholm, they’ll connect via SPDY, and that dynamic content, we need to go fetch it from the server back in Texas, so we’ll open a connection back to Texas and hold that connection open.

We also have a differential compression technology called Railgun. If you’re on even a highly dynamic page like Facebook, it has some content that’s personalized to you, but there’s a whole bunch of that HTML that’s the same for you, me, and everyone else. Sending and resending all that content is just wasted bandwidth; what you really want to send is the stuff that changes.

So Railgun is differential compression for that long haul between Texas and Sweden. The performance is a lot better.

Post-Heartbleed, we’re rewriting the underlying [communication and security] protocols so the Internet runs faster. Because we are a larger and larger portion of the edge of the network, there are things that we can do, and these are things that Google has done for their own properties. If you are not Google, there’s no way to do that unless you use CloudFlare.You don’t have to be Google to be fast, safe and secure.

RW: Who do you consider your main competitor?

MP: Google doesn’t now, but will increasingly provide some services similar to us. Amazon already provides some services that overlap. And there’s Akamai, they are increasingly creating a bundle of services that compete with us.

We each have different strengths and weaknesses. My hunch is, there will be somewhere between two to six providers that provide these suite of services, and I think we have a good shot to be the leader.

Lead image by Flickr user TechCrunch, CC 2.0; CloudFlare co-founders image courtesy of CloudFlare; illustrations courtesy of Shutterstock

Categories: Technology

8 Soaring Videos That Reach The Edges Of Earth

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 10:00am
Editor's note: This post was originally published by our partners at <a href="http://www.popsugar.com/tech/Space-Flight-Videos-27687922">PopSugar Tech</a>.

For a seventh-grade science project, 12-year-old Lauren Rojas reached for the stars—literally. Lauren sent a silver rocket bearing Hello Kitty and a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon high up into the Earth's atmosphere. After the mission's successful completion, she analyzed the effects of altitude on air pressure and temperature and will present her findings on Feb. 12 at her school's science fair.

In honor of Lauren's space-faring Hello Kitty, we found the most spectacular homemade stratosphere flights captured on film, featuring more toys that want to have high-altitude fun and stunning views of Earth from near space.

Want to send your own weather balloon into the atmosphere? See how these science-loving experimenters did it, put together your own high-altitude flight, and send us your videos.

A Space-Bound Hello Kitty Science Project

For her seventh-grade science project, 12-year-old Lauren Rojas of Antioch, CA, sent a Hello Kitty doll, which her father brought back from a business trip to Japan, in a silver rocket ship to the Earth's stratosphere.

The Little Tank Engine That Could

Wanting to give his son an unforgettable adventure, filmmaker Ron Fugelseth sent his favorite toy, the never-leaves-the-boy's-side Stanley train, to the edge of space and back. This sweet video has the best storytelling we've seen yet from a space video, capturing the spirit of a little silver tank engine that could.

An Upward-Bound Leg Lamp

The real star of A Christmas Story, despite its precarious and awkward size, reached 60,000 feet. We love the video's 30-second production time lapse before the flight begins.

Toy Robots Just Want to Have Fun

A toy robot took a two-and-a-half-hour trip to near space and captured some incredible video selfies along the way. The robot reached 95,000 feet and brought back smooth and stable footage from the flight.

A Spectacular Water Landing

As a part of the Geoforum GPS convention, the Brooklyn Space Program sent this device into the upper stratosphere, and it ascended for over 92 minutes before falling back to Earth. This is the first video we've seen with a successful splashdown (just like real space capsules!) and safe recovery.

Sunrise From the Stratosphere

Two cameras flew to 110,000 feet at the crack of dawn and caught a stunning sweeping sunrise as a full moon set on the horizon.

The California Coast From Up Above

Launched near Davenport, CA, this balloon took clear, beautiful footage of its ascent, offering spectacular views of the California coast. During its flight, the balloon also carried GPS, pressure, accelerometer, and temperature devices.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Homemade Spacecrafts

It took eight months of research and testing by a father-son team to successfully send this homemade spacecraft up into the atmosphere. The video details their journey, from building to testing to final execution, with text captions describing altitude and wind speeds along the way.

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Buy Target Items Immediately By Snapping A Photo

Alan Turing 101: The Man Behind The Imitation Game

How The Internet Helped A Boy With Cancer Get His Birthday Wish

Meet Your Favorite New Website: The Nostalgia Machine

Even After 75 Years, Batman Never Goes Out Of Style

Categories: Technology

The Battle Of The Block: How LinkedIn Finally Stopped The Stalkers

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 9:01am

When a San Francisco-based tech recruiter—we'll call her "Sally," a pseudonym—filed a restraining order against an ex-boyfriend, the court documents listed Facebook, Pinterest, and even Etsy as no-go zones for him. But it was LinkedIn that Sally was worried about.

“He started following what I was doing on LinkedIn,” Sally told me. “Who I was connecting with. He was trying to track what I was doing professionally. Every day I was seeing his face on my profile."

LinkedIn's basic features for connecting people became ways for Sally's stalker to remind her of his presence. 

"He started referring people to me, and connecting to people I was connecting with," she said.

Sally had no way of stopping him, short of a court order. Neither did any of LinkedIn's 300 million members, until LinkedIn finally rolled out a block feature in February of this year.

Why did it take so long?

Blocked On Blocking

The notion of blocking users is far from new. Instant-messaging systems like AIM and Yahoo Messenger have long had blocking systems to prevent users from contacting each other or even seeing whether another user was online.

Facebook had blocking since its earliest days; while the company's press office couldn't pin down an official date, Ezra Callahan, an early employee, believes it was present in 2004 or 2005, when the site was a simpler college-only network.

Twitter implemented blocking back in 2007 when the service was just a year old.

LinkedIn is actually older than Twitter and Facebook. When it was founded in 2003, it "started off with a big value of public profile information,” said Madhu Gupta, LinkedIn's head of security, privacy and customer-service products. That was the big innovation of LinkedIn: It took something formerly viewed as private and personal, the professional resume, and turned it into something public. 

It seems that LinkedIn's founders, intending the service for professional networking, never anticipated that its members might use it for darker purposes. But as it added feature after feature, stalking became a reality.

In Sally’s case, her ex harassed her for two years on LinkedIn—sometimes in violation of the court order—before the new function allowed her to stop him for good.

Growing Pains

People had been asking LinkedIn to implement blocking for a long time. But LinkedIn had other problems to solve.

One was keeping up with the service's explosive growth. In the last year alone, it's added 100 million users. 

Another was updating LinkedIn's technical architecture, which was hobbling efforts to evolve the site.

After the company went public in 2011, the engineering team "struggled to hold the site together with the digital equivalent of chewing gum and duct tape," Bloomberg wrote. To get back on track, LinkedIn's engineering boss launched Project InVersion, an effort to rebuild the site from top to bottom. For months, the company froze development of new features. After InVersion was done, LinkedIn's engineers could move much more quickly—but they had a massive backlog of projects to work on.

LinkedIn's fast-growing member base meant more and more people on the site—and more problems, as the site became a must-visit for professionals who couldn't avoid stalkers if they wanted to keep up with colleagues and stay relevant in their careers.

According to LinkedIn, the company was aware that users occasionally requested a block function. One of those users was Anna R., a LinkedIn member from Columbus, Ohio, who launched a Change.org petition in April 2013. That summer, LinkedIn executives learned about the petition, in which Anna R. related how a man who she said had sexually assaulted her in her workplace used LinkedIn to view her profile, an action which LinkedIn's interface notified her of. The petition became a catalyst for change. 

The frustration over this gaping hole in the company's privacy settings was reasonable: Anna R. pointed out that every major social site allowed for blocking—even Pinterest.

But the expectations held by some users were not. 

"To allow members to block stalkers would take ONE of your developers about ONE man-hour to implement. So why haven't you done it?" one disgruntled member wrote.

In fact, it took six months, and hundreds of engineers across LinkedIn—a massive, companywide effort. Work began in earnest in August 2013.

Tackling Blocking

Blocking is far easier said than done. For one thing, what does it mean to "block" a user? Not everyone has the same answer.

Twitter faced its own blocking controversy last year when it announced it would change its blocking feature to “mute” a person. In the new version of blocking, the person could still follow the blocker. The idea was that it would reduce antagonism and the prospect of retaliation if people didn’t realize they’d been blocked.

It took outraged users less than a day to convince Twitter to reinstate the block function it just got rid of. (It has since introduced a mute function alongside the older block function.) Even so, Twitter's blocking is imperfect: Because Twitter is a mostly public social network, anyone can see public tweets. The only way to prevent people from seeing your posts is to keep your account private.

One of the biggest challenges for LinkedIn was figuring out what, exactly, happens when someone is blocked.

“There are a lot of nuances as you start thinking about," said Gupta, the LinkedIn security and privacy head who oversaw the project. "What happens when you block the member? What should that experience be when you come to my profile page?” 

LinkedIn ultimately decided that when you block someone, they should be unable to see your profile or any content you publish. That includes any comments in groups you both might be a part of, or blog posts you publish to the site. It removes them entirely from your LinkedIn experience.

That product decision set the stage for the technical challenge.

“Every one of our applications like search, messaging, recommendations, all needed to implement their own version of how to filter out and how to filter out blocked members and not showing their content,” Gupta said.

Virtually every team at LinkedIn—26 product and service groups—had to be involved to make sure it worked correctly.

Putting LinkedIn To The Test

When one member blocks another, the two form a "blocking pair." On nearly every page of the site, LinkedIn is looking at content from and relationships with dozens, maybe hundreds of other members. Looking through LinkedIn's database of 300 million members for every interaction would bring the site crashing to a halt.

And to live up to Gupta's vision of how blocking should work, every thing a member sees and does on LinkedIn has to respect any blocks other members had put in place.

"When we do a feature like member blocking, we have to touch more than 60 different front- and backend services—all the member-facing products you see," Vicente Silveira, Director of Engineering Security Infrastructure at LinkedIn, said in an interview. "Profile, search, inbox—all those things are different features powered by a set of services that have to be changed to honor member blocking."

The good news was that LinkedIn's growing complexity of functions, like its new tools for publishing, also required quick ways to look up relationships and evaluate how closely two members are connected. The system for looking up "blocking pairs" could rely on some of that architectural work.

Rather than pinging a centralized database of blocked members every time, LinkedIn stored the information close to each service.

"We found a space-efficient manner to pretty much keep all the blocking info and all the services that needed it so they could do a local lookup," Silveira said. "We provide the services these lists, so they can have a local copy they can check." That approach provides "low latency," Silveira said—meaning users don't have to wait a long time for pages to load.

There was one more technical challenge: LinkedIn normally rolls out new features gradually to a small set of users to test response and catch bugs. With blocking, the team decided it couldn't do that: Everyone should have blocking at the same time, and it needed to work across the service immediately.

The engineering team had to develop 50 new tests just to make sure member blocking worked across various versions of LinkedIn, including desktop and mobile websites and LinkedIn's various apps. The engineering team also ran 18,000 existing tests to make sure the introduction of blocking didn't break other functions.

The work LinkedIn did on blocking dovetailed into other development.  One example is LinkedIn's new publishing tools. The day before LinkedIn introduced blocking, the company opened up its publishing platform to a small set of LinkedIn users. (Previously, it had only be available to a few hundred famous business leaders like Richard Branson and Jack Welch.) These posts hit a customized audience, so LinkedIn needs to make sure it shows up for the right people in someone's network—and doesn't show up to someone who's blocked.

LinkedIn may have been late to the game, but it arguably built a block feature that's more sophisticated and sensitive than Twitter's.

(For people still concerned about privacy even after they've blocked a user, it's possible to tailor your public profile to prevent anyone outside of your network—including people who search for you online and don't have a LinkedIn account—to see your name or profile.)

When Getting A Job Leaves You Exposed

When you sign up for a social network, you’re making yourself visible to the world in a way that was rarely possible before the rise of social media. And while there are many benefits—in LinkedIn’s case, it can help you get a job—the downside is that visibility can mean vulnerability.

Harassment and bullying are problems many social networks have, and ones that law enforcement is ill-equipped to deal with. It’s especially bad for women.

As feminist writer Amanda Hess writes:

“Ignore the barrage of violent threats and harassing messages that confront you online every day.” That’s what women are told. But these relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online.

Our online lives have become just as important as our offline ones—and social media companies need to take steps to prevent online harassment that can affect us in the real world.

LinkedIn faced a lot of criticism, deservedly, for being late to introduce blocking. But from what ReadWrite has learned, after the company decided to make the feature a priority, it moved swiftly to solve a complex technical problem in a way that made blocking a meaningful safety measure—not just a quickly implemented, face-saving gesture to appease critics.

For Sally, the block function provides some sense of security, though she doesn’t think her ex-boyfriend has stopped stalking her online.

“I think [blocking] has anonymized it," she said. "Do I think he’s still doing it? Absolutely. The good news is, I don’t have to see his face.”

Illustration by Bill Strain

Categories: Technology

The Coolest Objects For Sale In Amazon’s New 3D Printing Store

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 6:36am

If 3D printing doesn't take off, it won’t be for Amazon’s lack of trying. Last year, it created a dedicated retail section to sell 3D printers and materials. Now it’s at it again, this time pushing actual 3D-printed goods—and feeding an ongoing debate about the role 3D printing should play in our lives. 

Amazon’s new 3D Printing Store launched Monday with a distinct focus on people who want to buy, not build, 3D-printed wares. Amazon already had a “3D Printers & Supplies” department which sells 3D printers, plastic filament, parts, accessories and software—stuff which will only be of interest to you if you want your own mini-factory in your house.

Shoppers can now browse through more than 200 3D-printed toys, jewelry, home goods, and other tchotchkes from vendors like Sculpteo, Mixee Labs and others—no printer required. 

Some items sold in Amazon's store are customizable—like Mixee Labs’ toy figurines—while others have set designs, but offer a range of colors or exceedingly intricate detail.

3D printers—desktop machines that can produce three-dimensional objects from digital plans—have a direct and obvious appeal for designers, inventors, hobbyists and other “makers.” They've been less successful with mainstream shoppers, however.

If there's one thing Amazon knows, it's shopping. The site makes it easy for customers to discover, search and preview products (even in 360 degrees), while letting vendors offer their own wares by enrolling as an Amazon Seller.

If Amazon does this right, it could capture profits on both sides of the 3D printing business, by helping equip would-be creators and by providing them a place to sell their wares.

3D printing has been a subject of fascination for the technology sector and maker communities, but it’s still a hard sell for your average consumer. That’s one reason 3D-printing marketplaces shifted focus from offering 3D-printer blueprints to stores with completed products. Early pioneers Shapeways, Thingiverse and 3DLT got in on that action, inspiring newer competitors such as Threeding, Layer by Layer and Cuboyo. Even online auction site eBay and Etsy, the sellers’ site for hand-made goods, sell 3D-printed items.

With Amazon plunging further into this niche, it could spark mainstream interest in 3D-printed goods. That may ultimately be good for all players.

Some of our favorites in the new store:

"Create Your Own" Mixee Me

Some people find hyperrealistic 3D-printed figurines kind of creepy (and expensive). But this adorable "Mixee Me" doesn't overdo it with the details, allowing it to ship quickly in just 6 to 10 days and at just $30. 

Fractal Leaves iPhone 5 Case

This fractal leaf could be your meditation on the fragility of life—or the fragility of your phone. Either way, this $28 bumper case is uniquely pretty and offers some protection for that handset without totally covering it up. 

HP Lovecraft-Inspired Cute Gameboard pieces

Put a little Cthulhu into your Chutes and Ladders. I can't wait to see these little Lovecraftian gamepieces trounce across my chess board, and every other game I own. 

Unisex Space Invader Ring

You can wear your gaming cred on your sleeve, but why not on your finger? This blocky little ode to Space Invaders can appeal to retro gaming geeks as well as modern-day Minecraft fans. 

Chaos Table Lamp

The most expensive product on this list, the Chaos Lamp will wreak havoc ... on your wallet. The $740 price point is steep for any kind of lamp, 3D-printed or no. But oh, if money was no object, having a sculpted art piece that's also functional would be really appealing. 

 Images via Amazon

Categories: Technology