Widgets and the Web’s Amputation Ward

TechCrunch has a thing,or a place, called the Deadpool. It’s where social media companies go when they shut down. A look at TechCrunch posts tagged deadpool shows two arrivals so far this year: EventVue, and Yahoo’s Shopping API.

I’d say that these two closings are rather different things. Although each sees the end of a web service, only one sees the end of a company. EventVue is no more, while Yahoo lives on to… well, probably to close more services, among other things.

Yahoo shutting down an API is more like an amputation than a death. Amputations may be gruesome, but the patient is still alive, and may be in better health after the operation.

I want to focus on a couple of recent amputations, each at and by a different widget company. One of the companies is Sprout, which I seem to be moved to cover around this time every year. Two years ago, widgets were hot, and Sprout particularly hot and fresh, drawing quotes such as “SproutBuilder is going to explode the world of widgets on the web.”

Sprout Builder was launched as a freemium service. A year later, in January 2009, the free part (almost) went away. Now the Sprout Builder subscription service is now more. This was pointed out in a comment on this blog by Sumit Chachra (who I find to be the CTO of Tivix, a social media platform for nonprofits).

Sprout Builder is an example of the Amputation Ward, rather than to the Deadpool, because Sprout the Company still exists. What is Sprout now? Its home page answers that question as follows. “Sprout technology allows brands to engage their audiences across the social graph.” I won’t dig into what that actually means – at least not right now.

The current post is more about the amputation of Sprout Builder. Sprout’s blog post, which was published yesterday (i.e. on a US holiday), refers to a “service transition.”

One of the toughest decisions that a start-up faces is where to focus its efforts and resources. Sprout Builder was our first product and has always been near and dear to our hearts. More importantly, we value the customers who have gotten us to where we are today. However, we have made the hard decision to shut down the Sprout Builder subscription service to focus on our enterprise product lines. The only service level that we will continue to offer for Sprout Builder is geared towards enterprise customers. The cost is $2999 a year.

There hasn’t been a lot of coverage of the amputation yet. But a post by Heather Gardner-Madras has already drawn a few comments, all to say the least disappointed with the impending disappearance of sprouts by subscription.

Clearspring is the other service-amputating widget company. Clearspring blogged the news under the title: AddThis, our universal sharing platform. The first half of the post is indeed about AddThis, which Clearspring acquired in 2008. Then:

As AddThis now supports widget sharing, today we’re also announcing our plans to deprecate our original Clearspring Launchpad platform in April of 2010. After that point, the original Launchpad widget-sharing platform will no longer be available and AddThis will be our one sharing platform. Widgets will continue to run until the beginning of 2011. All the while, we will continue to improve the ability of AddThis to share embeddable content…

For long-time Launchpad users, we realize that there are some steps required to transition… We’ve put together comprehensive documentation to help you move from Launchpad to AddThis. We’ve also setup an area on our forum.

Some of the reaction to the deprecation/amputation is on the forum. I won’t link there, since it requires login. A post at Widgetmatic states that those using the Launchpad platform have some transition work, or some broken web pages, ahead of them.

Let’s take a look at some of the differences and similarities between these two amputations. The obvious similarity is that each involves a company that used to be in the widget business, and now downplays the term widget. Sprout seems to have purged the very term from its system. Clearspring is amputating its “widget platform” to focus on its “sharing platform.” I’d say that the idea of a widget, in the sense of a chunk of code that can be embedded on web sites, is alive and well, but that the term has fallen from favor.

The main difference between the amputations relates to market segments. Sprout is cutting off its smaller customers, in order to concentrate on enterprise clients. Clearspring seems to want to keep its customers, and to transition them to its favored platform.

Some Clearspring users will indeed transition to AddThis. Some will transition to a platform offered by a different provider, perhaps reasoning that Clearspring has pulled one platform from under them and might pull another. Yet other Clearspring users will simply let their widgets die on deprecation day.

I come into the last of these groups. I got very excited when I found that it was possible to use Clearspring widgets at WordPress.com, an environment hostile to many widgets. I’m inclined to be relieved that my excitement died down, and that I didn’t get heavily into developing Clearspring widgets for others to use at WordPress.com.

So that was a first visit to the web’s amputation ward. I hope that it wasn’t too gruesome. I also hope that it illustrates the difference between the amputation ward and the deadpool.

No Such Thing as a Free Sprout

About a year ago, I tried Sprout Builder. A sprout, in this context, is a Flash widget. SB cost nothing to try, and there was quite the buzz about it at the time. Two days ago, those of us with Sprout accounts got an email from Carnet Williams, the CEO.

Like many technology companies, we offered our service for free while we worked on our products, spoke with customers and developed our go-to-market strategy. Now that we have developed a solution worthy of creative professionals at the best agencies in the world, it is time for us to monetize. Starting in early February, we will begin charging for our service.

My reaction was one of surprise and interest, given the widespread use of the freemium model. I would have expected a very limited free version, with steps up from there in terms of price and service. Instead, as ReadWrite Marshall puts it: “Users will need to pay a minimum of $140 for a year of uptime for three widget projects.” He considers the lack of a free version a bad and sad thing, as do most of those who commented on his post.

Mashable Adam takes a more neutral tone. He quotes the SproutMail in full, and, based on a conversation with Carnet, “notes that the company will continue to offer free accounts to non-profits and academic institutions.” Again, comments on the post are mainly negative, with some feeling that they have been taken in by a bait and switch, with the year of free beta sprouts as the bait, and the recent email as the switch.

“The Case of the Charging Sprout” raises several questions, such as:

  • What is the deal for edu/nonprofit customers of SB? One of the quotes earlier in this post indicates that SB will be free for such customers, while the pricing FAQ states that “educators, design students and non-profits can use Sprout Builder at a discounted rate.”
  • Did SB give sufficient warning that the free sprout honeymoon would end?
  • WW37SD? What would 37signals do? 37s has done an impressive job with the freemium model, making the free version interesting enough and the $ versions premium enough. It’s interesting to compare the Basecamp pricing chart with the Sprout Builder chart. The former shows that there is a free version, the latter that there isn’t. Now, project management is certainly different from widget building, but I think that similar pricing considerations might apply.
  • How will SB’s decision work out? I don’t think that it will work well. A free version, however limited, encourages people to get started. While SB offers a 30-day free trial, that’s not the same thing as being able to maintain a sandbox over a period of time, so that one can, as time allows, keep going back to SB, assessing its fit for different projects that come up, and comparing it with competitors.

I’ll send a couple of emails soliciting answers to the first and third of these questions. But I hereby solicit your take on them, and comments are open…

Sprout is Out, Fresh From DEMO

Several of the major web 2.0 (I know, that term is so last year… or was it the year before?) blogs have someone at DEMO, where they… attend lots of demos, and blog about them. One demo that seems particularly blog-worthy was the launch of Sprout.

As Sprout CEO Carnet Rogers noted: “Techcrunch, Mashable, and RedWriteWeb posted as we launched and gave us a very kind review.” Marshall Kirkpatrick, writing for RWW, was more than merely very kind.

SproutBuilder is going to explode the world of widgets on the web. This is far and away my favorite product I’ve seen at DEMO, not just this year but ever in the three years I’ve attended.

I’ve just signed up for the beta of SproutBuilder (invites are, or were, available from the three blogs linked to from the quote above). I did build a sprout, that is, a multimedia widget. I won’t inflict it on you. One reason is that it’s a rather sorry and bedraggled sprout right now.

Another is that my attempt to plant my sprout here at WordPress.com failed. I didn’t expect to be able to plant it here, but one of the Publish options offered by Sprout was WordPress, which seemed to mean WordPress.com. And indeed, the sprout did get sent here, to be wrapped up in a draft post. But the “interesting” code was stripped out. In other words, it met the fate of most widgets at WordPress.com.

I intend to cultivate a sprout or two, post them elsewhere, and link to them from here.