Comcast has acquired social web application Plaxo for an estimated $150m or more. Techcrunch confirmed the deal first but offers an understated critique of the alliance. Many web users familiar with the operations of both companies are much more upset about the deal.Communications giant
Plaxo has probably the most clouded reputation of any of the major participants in the current data portability discussion, except perhaps for Microsoft. Comcast is no angel either. Together the two companies will be ill prepared to serve end users well.
Users Want ISPs Out of the Way
The plan for Plaxo at Comcast appears to be for the acquired company to power media publishing, sharing, lifestream aggregation and presumably contact management. The problem is that there's a whole market of alternatives for those services and many users just want their ISPs to deliver the damn internet so they can use it however they see fit.
Comcast has done a poor job of this lately. By engaging in a practice called "traffic shaping," whereby the company throttles down the bandwidth available for activities like media downloading, Comcast has made itself the poster child proving that network neutrality is a valid concern. How much further would things need to go before Comcast slows the user experience to a crawl when users seek to visit sites that compete with Comcast properties? The kind of lifestream aggregation that Plaxo offers is an emerging bandwidth hog - perhaps Comcast customers ought not be allowed to use lifestreaming apps other than Plaxo.
Likewise, you'd expect your address book to mind its own business - but that's not what Plaxo has been about traditionally. Email inboxes around the world used to be filled up with spammy requests for contact info from Plaxo. ("hi, this is Joe, could you update the contact info I have for you in Plaxo?") While the company's earliest reputation as one of the biggest scum-bags of the mainstream social web has been greatly softened lately by a very charming (and now wealthy) young exec named Joseph Smarr, the old tarnish is hardly gone from many peoples' minds. Some users complain that Plaxo is still spammy and some people in data portability circles, where nouveau hip geeks like Plaxo (and yours truly) hang out, say that Plaxo is still clearly doing what's best for Plaxo above all else.
Maybe big money on the table means never having to do more than say you're sorry, but the Plaxo deal with Comcast is liable to hit more bumps in the road than just an unpopular history.
Mismatched Visions, If Everyone's Telling the Truth
One-stop social web shopping at your ISP isn't an unusual vision at all. Plaxo's data portability talk seems at risk of going out the window for the relatively cheap price of $150m, though. Comcast is far more likely to want Plaxo to power a new line of Comcast branded social web services than they are to want their customers running links off-site to Yahoo and Google properties through their Comcast experience.
Given the histories of both companies, something devious is liable to happen. Perhaps though Comcast just wanted to acquire some human resources, including people who figured out how to spam the whole web for contact information and just a few short years later end up hated less than a telco. That is impressive, even if not enough to warrant trust from users.