Half.com Shutting Down (Again) – Farewell Old Friend

On 31 August 2017, eBay's fixed-price marketplace site Half.com will be closing its doors for good. This makes me a little sad, and a lot nostalgic. This site did so much for me over the years, and I tried to do so much for it. It's sad to see it go.

So why am I so emotionally attached to a website? Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, when a cable TV subscription was still way out of my budget and before I had heard of Netflix (circa 2000), I used to watch all my TV shows and movies on DVD. I'd wait a year for my shows to come out on DVD, buy them used, and then sell them used. Half.com made the buying and selling insanely easy and I loved the crap out of the site as a user.

A few years later, as the first dot-com bust left me unemployed and a bit desperate for a while, I was able to use Half.com to sell every DVD, book, and CD I owned in order to pay rent for a month or two. With the huge difference is listing speed, this would have been completely uneconomical to do on eBay. I probably would have had to move back to Sacramento with my tail between my legs and would never have found the wonderful career I enjoy today. This was just the first time Half.com saved my career.

In 2003, eBay announced that it was going to close down Half.com some time in the next year. They apparently saw it as a duplicate of existing eBay functionality. I thought they were completely nuts. After a few weeks of going through the Five Stages of Grief over the news, I finally arrived at Stage 6: Defiance. I could accept that it was going away. But that didn't mean its heart had to die with it.

Ok, sure. eBay didn't realize what a gold mine they were sitting on with Half.com. They didn't recognize the power that a catalog-based marketplace could bring. But I did. And I was unemployed, scrappy, and passionate. So why shouldn't I start working on a business plan to build a new solution that took the best lessons from Half.com and built upon them to create something that could bring to life the unrealized potential of a catalog based marketplace.

That obsession of endless research and brainstorming lasted until spring of 2004, when my unemployment was interrupted by a wonderful new job. At eBay. Having been a eBay user since 1999, this was a dream come true (thanks Mike!). And that dream got even better later that year, when eBay decided not to close Half.com after all and I got assigned as one of the lead front end developers on the project to rebuild the entire Half.com site from scratch on eBay's platform.

Apparently, despite eBay's best efforts to duplicate Half.com functionality on eBay and drive users over to the main marketplace, the revenue from textbook sales and intensely loyal Half.com users was enough to justify keeping the site alive. That conversion project was the biggest project I had taken on as a web developer, and was some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done. It was my own personal Mary Ellen Carter.

This was also the project that first got me interested in becoming a product manager, and where I got to write my very first PRD (Product Requirements Document) for the content management system that runs Half's merchandising pages. Without my manager Rashid supporting my interest in switching sides, and Valerie's endless patience in mentoring me in the ways of Product, I'm not sure I would have known how to make the transition from dev to product.

As a self-taught developer who hadn't even had an email address until I was 23, I was never going to be the best coder in the room, next to kids who had been immersed in the internet since high school or college. But understanding the frustrations that normal non-technical people have with technology and finding ways to make that less painful while building a sustainable business? That I could build a career on. Which makes this the second time Half.com saved my career.

Unfortunately, the cost/benefit analysis that made Half worth keeping alive to eBay's management didn't translate to an appreciation of the potential of a catalog-based marketplace. I pitched the idea again and again while I was there and got only lukewarm reception from the Powers That Be. But I never really stopped thinking about that dusty old business plan I had started when they first threatened to close down Half.com.

Thirteen years later, eBay still hasn't done anything significant in the catalog-based marketplace space. They've created catalogs that they use on the back end to make the listing process easier. But the user experience is still all about finding items, not products, which eliminates most of the potential benefits of catalogs. And so, third party marketplaces like BrickLink (Lego bricks and sets), TCGPlayer (Magic and other collectible card games), and others are dominating their niche categories, while eBay continues to concentrate only on the horizontal “you can sell anything pretty well” model, rather than diving into the vertical “you can sell this one kind of thing extremely well” model. And the collectibles market really doesn't look that much different than it did in 2000.

eBay's investment in Half.com, in the past decade, has been effectively close to zero. CSS positioning wasn't quite reliable enough for production when we did that initial rebuild project, so we temporarily used an insane mess of nested tables for the layout, with plans to replace it with CSS later. The "temporary" code I wrote in 2004 will still be 99% the same when the doors close for good next week. Including my lucky charm <!--Keep Flying--> HTML comment at the bottom of the source code.

Now here we are. eBay has announced that it is closing Half.com. Again. This time I'm sad, but not upset. If they haven't taken Half.com seriously in the past decade, maybe it's time to let it go. And hopefully there's someone else out there, just as passionate about catalog-based marketplaces as I am, who will take the opportunity to finally do something about it.

And, if no one has done so by the time my kids are a bit older and my adventures in Fintech have reached their peak, perhaps I'll dust off that old business plan and give it a go myself.

Lego TARDIS

Lego TARDIS Instructions
My latest Lego project was to build a Lego TARDIS. Like you do.

I started by scouring YouTube for instructional videos from people who had already built their own. Rifraf's design was my starting point. I loved the way he did the walls, but the top was a bit bulkier and the base less symetric than I preferred. So I melded it with a roof design from another video (which I can't find anymore) and tweaked it so that it would work with a solid core, to keep the wall pieces more stable and well aligned.

Of course, ordering parts from BrickLink can be expensive for small logs (mainly due to international shipping from multiple suppliers), so there are significant economies to scale from building more than one at a time. So I built a whole fleet of TARDISs, giving some away as gifts and making the rest available as kits for those who want to build their own, without having to go through the parts-sourcing hassle.


Build Your Own Lego TARDIS
If you'd like to build your own Lego TARDIS (or assemble one you got from me), I have put the Lego TARDIS instructions on Flickr. If you don't want to scour BrickLink for all the parts, you can buy the kit on eBay.

Charity auction of Eliza Dushku’s Clothes & Memorabilia

As some of you know, I've been working with Eliza Dushku on a charity auction. She's cleaning out her closet after a wardrobe makeover, and trying to raise money to benefit Camp Hale, the non-profit summer camp her family is involved with.

Well, it's finally live! There are fancy red carpet dresses, stylish clothes and shoes, scarves and jewelry, screen-worn TV/movie costumes, signed DVDs and memorabilia, and more. Check it out!

If you know anyone who's a fan of Eliza's, or who might just want some sexy dresses and nice pants, please help us spread the word.

Thanks!

Introducing Edutopia Groups!

This is for all you teachers, librarians, parents and education-watchers:

This Tuesday we're going to be launching our new Edutopia Groups community, as a place for educators to gather and discuss "what works in public education." We have invited some great educators to facilitate the groups for us, and we're really excited to watch the groups will up with insightful conversations.

Today we're inviting in our existing members and friends & family for a sneak peek. If you're interested in how to fix our education system, please come on in and join the conversation! And if you know someone else who'd be interested, feel free to invite them in.

eBay Express and Half.com

Last night a friend emailed me to ask if the launch of eBay Express meant that Half.com would be going away soon, or somehow taking a back seat. Today another friend sent me a link to a LifeHacker post in which one of the comments posed a similar question.

Now, let me be clear in pointing out that I am in no way an official spokes-model for eBay. But, in the words of William Shatner*, "here I am to speak what I do know."

  1. eBay Express is geared towards convenience-oriented shoppers who are looking to buy new, fixed-price goods within a more conventional e-commerce experience. If you just want to snag a copy of the Firefly DVD and get back to your regularly scheduled day, eBay Express is right up your alley.

  2. Half.com is geared more towards bargain shoppers, who are primarily looking for the best price on an item, and are usually perfectly happy to buy used. If you're staring down the syllabus for your spring semester of law school or nursing, you will come to truly understand the wonder and beauty that is Half.com.

  3. In the brick and mortar world, retail record/book stores and used record/book stores coexist quite nicely. The same buyer may go to one store for one type of shopping, and to the other for a different type of shopping. So I don't see how these two venues could be seen as anything but complimentary.

  4. If they actually were planning on shutting down Half.com, you would all have heard a piercing, gut-wrenching shriek, which a Spaniard would correctly identify as the sound of ultimate suffering (with me at its epicenter). Instead, you see me smiling to myself and humming softly. All is right with the world.

* With apologies to William Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare probably would have loved Shatner's rap rendition of "No Tears for Caesar."

Postcards from the Underworld: Volume 1

Despite my best efforts to correct the matter, I still have far more Gmail invitations than I have people to give them to. So a few weeks ago I got bored and started surfing GmailSwap.com to see if I could find any posts that were amusing enough to follow up on.

One that caught my eye was from an Australian girl who was getting ready to go on vacation to New Zealand and was offering a postcard from each city she visited, in exchange for the Gmail account. Being the huge Aussie-phile I am, I had to respond. Today I got my first installment, so I thought I'd share it with you all.

Postcard from Sydney

Hi!

Here's the first postcard of the batch. As you see, this is my hometown, Sydney. The bridge in the first panel is a footbridge that I walk across every day to get to work! I only noticed that after I bought the card, though.

Next stop is Hobart, Tasmania. I've never been there before but I hear it's very picturesque. And the main attractions are a chocolate factory and a beer factory! haha

Best wishes, Aletha


There will be several more postcards coming over the next month or two. There's also a guy in Boston who's planting an apple tree in my name, which he will be sending me pictures of. And I'm currently in touch with a guy who's offered to prove to me that Verbal Kint was not Keyser Soze, in exchange for a Gmail account.

GmailSwap amuses me.

BrickLink Order #219423

I'm such a dork!

As yet another step in my ongoing quest to sell everything I own, today I finally set up a store on BrickLink.com. It's a site that is every Lego geek's dream. I has a complete catalog of every Lego set ever made, and lets collectors buy both complete sets and individual bricks from one another. And they also let you post your entire inventory for free, and only charge you a cut when it sells, much like half.com (which we already know I love).

So I posted about half my collection to my new store, and then ran out the door in time to get lost, bitch about the lack of parking in North Beach, and make it to Dougie's bday bash (whomever thought of combining an Irish pub, an Indian restaurant, and a billiards hall with air hockey tables is a god!). I was supposed to head over to Ragani's afterwards, but decided that it was already way too late and I wanted to get up in the morning for this town hall meeting with the mayor thing.

Anyway, I got home tonight and there was an email waiting for me. Some guy in Oregon bought 8 sets from me, for $79. WooHOO!! [big, shit-eating grin] The thing is, I shouldn't be as happy about that as I am. I mean, I've been selling things on eBay, Half.com and CraigsList for ages. I've shipped things all over the US, to the UK, Germany, Australia, and even Hong Kong. Hell, even last week someone from CraigsList came over and gave me $100 cash for a bunch of Lego sets. So why am I suddenly grinning ear to ear over a transaction that isn't even a third of what the Lego Star Destroyer went for? I have two theories.

The first is that this is the first sale I've made from an actual online store. If I ever manage to get my business up and running, I'll be banking my entire career on turning the web into a tool that small businesses can use to carve out a living, not just another platform for multi-national conglomerates to hawk their wares to the world. Sites like this, that take a really simple idea and execute it elegantly just make me smile. This little "you've made a sale" email is kind of the equivalent of the first dollar a small family owned business makes, which they then frame and hang behind the cash register (or, in this case, preserve forever in the form of babbling blog entry).

Second, it means that I'm making progress. Sure, $80 comes nowhere near what I need to make off of selling my belongings, if I want to be able to stay in California after my unemployment runs out. (And that's not even counting the money the lawsuit is going to sponge up.) But it's not just about the money. I'm making progress on my promise to give up procrastination for lent. I'm getting something done that I've been meaning to do for weeks now. And it feels good!

Or maybe I'm just still on a high from all of the Guinness and curry. Who knows.

Back in the Saddle

For the past few months, I've been toying with the idea of writing a full usability review for tribe.net. My motivation was partly to let them know what I thought they needed to fix, and how. And it was also partly so that I could use this usability review as a resume piece (not only for applying at Tribe, but other companies as well).

I was composing a general outline in my head, and keeping a running tally on the various improvements that needed to be made, and how to best apply them. But nothing was committed to writing yet.

Then Tribe put a link of their sidebar trying to get people to check out their own home page redesign prototype. They also had a survey and a "talk about the preview" tribe set up to capture users' impressions of the proposed change. I was somewhat relieved to see that I was not the only one who thought the new design sucked arse. It didn't fix any of the problems I had identified, and it broke a lot of the things that were good about the old design.

My negative reaction to seeing this prototype was enough to motivate me to site down and finally commit to writing the usability review that I had been composing in my head all this time. And, since it's often much easier to understand something when you see it instead of just reading about it, the usability review would need to be accompanied by a demo of how the site would look and work if my suggestions were implemented.

So I blew off the plans I had for the weekend, worked a few all-nighters, realized that the code behind their redesign had changed as well (also for the worse), and rebuilt their entire home page and the structural logic behind it from scratch. Finally, three days and far too few hours of sleep later, the home page is finished.

Of course, I still have to redesign all of the internal pages and finish writing the usability review itself. And I may also need to write a style guide for my demo version, so that if they do decide to implement it they don't have to reverse-engineer what I have done.

But while I'm working on that part of the project, I thought I'd post a screenshot of what I've got so far, so y'all can get a sneak peek at what I'm up to.

I'm terribly tempted to also submit this screenshot and a few of my reasons behind it to the preview tribe now, while everyone is still talking about it. But ultimately, I think it will be better to wait until the rest of the demo is functional as well, and it has the full weight of the usability review behind it. That way it comes across as a well thought out approach to the problem, instead of a "me too, me too" kind of thing.

Regardless, though, it feels great to finally be working on a real project again! I can feel long-neglected synapses sputtering and firing back into action again every time I get a tricky bit of code working. With any luck, finishing this review will give me the renewed self-confidence needed to get cracking on my Ethos project.

click for a full-sized version