Clipboard’s Gary Flake: Out of the Lab, Building the Personal Web

4/13/12Follow @curtwoodward

These are the boom years for the personal Web. Think of a relationship, an interest—hell, even a mundane personal task—and there’s probably at least one connected tool for the job. And more are being built all the time.

But which one of those profiles represents the real you? It’s probably some combination of your professional (LinkedIn), friendly (Facebook), boastful (Twitter), artsy (Instagram), and aspirational (Pinterest) selves, with some missing ingredients thrown in.

To Gary Flake, a longtime computer science researcher and online product developer, there’s something wrong with that equation. Flake is betting that his new service, the still-emerging Clipboard, will let users pull together the various strands of their online lives by giving them a private space to collect everything that’s important, and only share what they want.

In doing so, Clipboard is steering clear of a typical strategy for quickly growing a user base and troves of valuable data, a race that consumer startups usually are hell-bent on winning. Think of it as the first commandment of Facebook: You grow a network by making almost everything public, with some clunky privacy options that are usually installed after a big freak-out by the users.

Gary Flake

“I think there really is an opportunity there, and also something that’s missing for regular people—to go on the other side and say, well, maybe we should actually default everything to private and then let the other things kind of emerge from that,” Flake says. “You can’t get the same sort of viral growth that you could if you were just making everything open. But if you’re in this for the long haul, if you’re really trying to do something that creates value for people, you’ll take the hit early on. And that’s what we’re doing.”

It’s a wild time for a guy like Flake to be entering the fray as an entrepreneur, perhaps perfectly so. He built his long career in the technology field a bit more behind the curtain, most notably as the head of Yahoo’s research department and later as one of Microsoft’s prestigious technical fellows and founder of Live Labs, a project that sought to bring more of Microsoft’s considerable R&D to the Web by piping it into MSN. He also wrote a book, “The Computational Beauty of Nature,” that explores the intersections of complex mathematical concepts and natural life.

Flake quit Microsoft in 2010, after Live Labs was pared down and finally merged with Bing as part of the company’s latest push to win more battles in the Internet sector. But it’s hard to think of a better time to take that plunge for someone with serious technical chops who is fascinated with the things that happen when society, business, and technology collide. Some big-name investors think so too—they’ve backed Flake with about $1.4 million in financing, as GeekWire reported late last year.

“You’d have to go back and think about things like the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution to really compare to what a special moment in time we are,” Flake says. “As a scientist, as someone with a little bit of business experience, it’s an amazing window, an amazing moment.”

Like a lot of inventor types, Flake’s latest effort was born from a personal frustration. Despite all of the gee-whiz technology we’re surrounded by, Flake was miffed that he couldn’t grab things from around the Web in the way he really wanted.

“It seems to me that it’s kind of ridiculous that we’re 20-plus years into the browser and highlighting text on a Web page and pasting it into a Word document and e-mailing it to yourself is still state-of-the-art for saving stuff,” he says. “I did it before I built Clipboard. I tried everything, and that’s what I still ended up doing.”

The technology itself is quite cool and fun to use. Instead of saving Web pages or documents to a bookmarking service, you can clip individual elements, such as selected paragraphs of a written article, certain photos, an entire webpage, or a video.

The really interesting part is that these pieces are still interactive after they’re collected on Clipboard’s site—if you save a video, it will play inside its little window on your Clipboard homepage. Clipboard also can grab other items, like rows and columns from a spreadsheet. The service is still in its early beta phase, but Xconomy readers can try it out by signing up at this link. It’s available on browsers only for now, although some kind of stronger mobile version is coming this summer.

There certainly is a need to bring order to the flood of information and entertainment available online. A few other companies, some with a considerable headstart and bigger user bases, are also allowing people to collect content from around the Web. The group of competitors includes Pinterest, Read it Later, and Evernote, so Clipboard faces some competition.

Those services and others like them are at various places along the line that separates solely personal note-taking to public sharing. Clipboard blends the two pretty well, and Flake says users in the early tests have shown that they’re still willing to move a good chunk of things into the public realm if given the chance (he wouldn’t say how many users there are).

“We still find that about 38 percent of the clips that people clip, they choose to publish later on. So they’re willing to take that extra action afterward and say, ‘Yes, I want that to be public,’” he says. “I think it really does show that even if you make things private, that doesn’t mean that everything will stay private. And I think that’s a mistake that maybe other companies have made that we’re trying to correct.”

Privacy, sharing, and the ability to move data around are a lot more than a marketing slogan these days. The Big Four in consumer tech—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook—all appear to be heading toward an Apple-like model of vertically integrated hardware, software, and connected services, all of which are disconnected from each other at some important points.

I’m not sure if that’s really scary or just fine, since quite a few powerful players are competing with each other—Microsoft is a wild card and may make a compelling entry into this vertical competition itself.

Like a lot of us, Flake is conflicted—he’s a “huge fan” of all the companies playing in this race, and owns a lot of Apple products. But he thinks that a more closed-off model could exacerbate some worries that have already emerged about user privacy and data.

“Take a look at a lot of the terms of service for a lot of these devices and services that people use, and they’re pretty clear that the data that’s an artifact of you using the device is not yours,” Flake says. “The service provider owns it and you are borrowing that data. And therefore, you have no rights to it should you ever terminate your relationship. To me, it’s amazing that there hasn’t been more screaming.”

Another sneaky-important issue, Flake says, is data portability—how easily the information for online advertising campaigns, for instance, can be extracted and moved to competing platforms, or compared and analyzed to gain insights. Big tech companies can sometimes make it difficult, or even legally troublesome in their terms of service, to easily move customer data to other platforms.

“It would be terrifying to see that kind of mentality applied to the consumer space,” he says. “It does happen a little bit. It happens almost as a side effect, where we think, ‘Ah, it’s a shame that these formats are incompatible and there’s no easy way to convert them.’ But that’s been usually perceived as a technical issue, that for technical reasons your data can’t flow from one system to the other.”

To take the extra step, however, and say that legally a user is not allowed to pull their data out, “That’s the thing that kills me,” Flake says. “We’re dangerously close to that.”

So, since he’s a critic, I had to ask what Clipboard’s terms of service on user data were—whether Clipboard really walks the talk. He didn’t blink. “We tell the user that they own the data,” Flake says. “We’ve even said that you own the data and we’re renters. Basically, you’re giving us license to use it.”

It’s always impossible to say whether these notes of difference will help a new service gain a critical mass of users that keeps it alive and growing. Clipboard as a product is only about six months old, and is still operating in a beta test.

But there’s clearly a need for people to edit the monstrous streams of information pumping through the Web and mobile networks, and that trend that is definitely not slowing down—we just wrote this week about Wavii, another early Seattle service that uses machine learning to sort news and information online. I think the personal Web will definitely have a place for services that offer a calm space to separate the important from the unending churn.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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