Results tagged “google”

Who benefits from iOS6's crappy maps?

September 19, 2012

The classic criticism that thoughtless Apple haters use against the company is that it makes products that are pretty but dumb. Usually those criticisms are by people who don't understand the value of a comprehensible user experience, frustrated by the reality that many people will eagerly trade the open-ended technologies of competitors for the simple and satisfying experience that Apple provides.

But this time, they're right: Apple's made a new product that actually is pretty but dumb. Worse, they've used their platform dominance to privilege their own app over a competitor's offering, even though it's a worse experience for users. This is the new Maps in iOS 6.

Walking Alone

Apple's used Google's mapping features since it introduced iOS with the original iPhone and iPod touch in 2007. Google provided the actual tiled images that make up the maps, search for venues on the maps, and directions to destinations by car, transit or walking.

Apple started acquiring mapping companies a few years ago, pursuing their typical path of trying to own the entire technology platform for critical features, both so they could exert business control over the technology and so that they could improve the experience. (iOS maps had lagged behind in implementing new Google Maps features like turn-by-turn directions and vector-based infinitely zoomable maps due to the tension between the companies after Google launched its Android mobile OS.)

But with iOS 6, Apple decided it was time to rip off the band-aid and replace Google's maps with their own. Not at all a surprise, given the company's history of controlling critical areas of functionality on its platforms. But what is surprising is that the user experience got worse.

Wrong Way

I've been using iOS 6 for a few months, and initially chalked up the problems I'd had to likely bugs that would be worked out as the software matured. Unfortunately, now that we all have access to the release version of iOS 6, it's evident that fundamental mapping features like venue search and directions are significantly worse than in the Google versions.

lexington-map.jpg

Here in Manhattan, where I live, basic search by building names is profoundly degraded in Apple's maps search. "Bloomberg" doesn't find the Bloomberg Tower; on Google Maps it's the first result. Searching for its address "731 Lexington Avenue" yields that address on Lexington Avenue in Brooklyn. It's fine to think that perhaps I wanted the address in Bed-Stuy, but even appending "NY, NY" or "Manhattan, NY" still yields the Brooklyn address. Google maps has none of these comprehension issues. I understand this is due to Apple partnering with Tom Tom, whose maps are considered to be lower in quality than other players like Nokia, but I'm not informed enough to say with certainty whether that's the case.

Similar troubles plague the directions and routing features for drivers. I'd tried the driving maps for everywhere from the New Jersey suburbs to rural Mexico and found out-of-date road information, impossible directions and a general level of unreliability that I never recall seeing from Google maps, even when it first launched. I have only used the walking directions in Manhattan where Apple's new maps have worked fine, but in fairness, it's almost impossible to screw up walking directions when you're on the grid in Manhattan.

And then there's transit. While transit maps were the subject of some misinformation when they were originally removed during the iOS 6 beta releases, the fundamental truth is that, out of the box, Apple's maps have no transit features. One could argue that Apple's ostensible strategy of supporting lots of local transit apps that plug in to the primary maps experience is more scalable, and certainly Apple can offer a credible defense that collecting all of the non-standard data that powers local transit is unreasonably costly. Given that Apple has a bigger cash hoard than the vast majority of countries, it seems as if this is more an issue of priorities than resource constraints.

Whatever the case, I was happy to support the OpenPlans Kickstarter campaign to bring an open source-based transit experience to iOS 6. I hope it gets traction and becomes widely deployed on iOS 6 devices, both to improve the maps experience of users and so that this kind of functionality can be more driven by a community rather than Apple's whims.

There are other opportunities, too — iOS 6's abysmal maps should provide a real opportunity for apps like Foursquare which have great local search; I've been using Foursquare for almost all of my venue search and local searching since upgrading to iOS 6 and it's helped me out every time the native iOS 6 app let me down.

Why It Matters

Obviously, Apple's going to fix as many of these bugs as they can. I'm not pretending they're incompetent or somehow want to deny people access to good maps on mobile devices. But the simple fact is: When you buy an iOS 6 device, you get a worse experience for search and no ability to get transit directions out of the box, both of which are significant downgrades from iOS 5. Apple's taken features away (critics would say "crippled") from apps before, typically during major platform changes or when rethinking the fundamental architecture of an app. But in almost every one of those transitions, they've provided a transition period or staged upgrade path that didn't force users to bear the brunt of the new platform's weaknesses.

Apple made this maps change despite its shortcomings because they put their own priorities for corporate strategy ahead of user experience. That's a huge change for Apple in the post-iPod era, where they've built so much of their value by doing the hard work as a company so that things could be easy for users. I'm not suggesting (yet) that this is a pattern, and that Apple will start to regularly compromise its user experiences in order to focus on its squabbles with other tech titans. But history shows that dominant players in every era of operating system history have reached a turning point where they shift from the user experience and customer benefits which earned them their dominance to platform integration efforts which are primarily aimed at boxing out competitors. It'll be interesting to see which direction Apple's maps follow.

Clouds for People, or the Consumerization of the Cloud

June 28, 2012

Right now, there's no App Store for Amazon EC2. Today's just-announced Google Compute Engine isn't plugged in to Google Play, the Android Music and app store. Microsoft seems to be moving toward unifying the various Windows and Zune and XBox stores into one great super-store of content, but stuff that lives on the Azure cloud is a world apart.

I don't think that's going to last.

Google Cloud Engine The simple consumer model of one-click buying of app experiences at low prices is, happily, here to stay. But currently, those apps can only be bought for mobile devices (phones and tablets have very mature app stores) and are just starting to become available on desktops through the Mac app store (I had some feelings when that was announced two years ago) and the upcoming Windows 8 store. The television/gaming consoles like XBox, AppleTV, GoogleTV and the rest have pretty robust app stores, too, of course.

There's an entire class of innovation that's being ignored by focusing on just these consumer devices, though. Cloud computing is getting increasingly powerful and rapidly decreasing in price, but right now the only beneficiaries are a narrow class of enterprise and developer technologists. Apps that have the always-connected, high-bandwidth, compute-intensive, storage-hungry traits that make them a perfect fit for today's cloud consumers might make a great experience for a lot of regular individual users. We see that today with the awesome potential of platforms like OnLive, which uses the cloud to bring those expensive elements of computing to much cheaper devices.

So we need a consumer cloud offering. An app store for EC2 or a marketplace for Rackspace. The same one-click stores that offer us easy apps on our own local devices should let us purchase consumer-friendly apps that run on our own individual cloud servers.

EC2 For Poets, And For Other People

Sure, regular folks having their own cloud computing accounts might seem more complicated or esoteric. If you wanted a service that runs on other people's computers, wouldn't you just sign up for a centralized site like Facebook or Gmail or something? Maybe not.

First of all, I'm not suggesting that regular consumers (or even power web users) should be exposed to the super-technical management interfaces that current developers and administrators face when working with cloud infrastructure, whether it's platform-as-a-service or infrastructure-as-a-service.

Instead, newer cloud providers like Digital Ocean or AppFog (or even friendlier versions of offerings from existing providers like Heroku and Rackspace) point the way towards experiences that regular people might actually want to use. In a way, these platforms would be the successors to the mom-and-pop web hosts that used to be used to run all kinds of one-off apps a decade ago before the web hosting market consolidated.

For years, Dave Winer's been talking about "EC2 for Poets", the idea of getting Amazon's web services platform running for regular liberal-arts-leaning folks. I agree with his fundamental premise that only arrogant techies think their platforms are beyond the grasp of normal users.

But I do think many people who would benefit from these kinds of platforms just don't want to invest that kind of time in learning. More importantly, incredible innovations in features and user experience emerge when you moving computing power to the edges of the network.

Through this lens, a huge part of the entire mobile app phenomenon that iPhone really catalyzed is merely an impact of moving so much computing power to the edge of the mobile phone network, instead of trying to provide so many services through archaic centralized infrastructure. Put simply: Move the brains to the edge of the network, and you get great new kinds of apps. We don't know what the Angry Birds or Draw Something of the server-side web app world looks like right now, because right now there's no way for consumers to buy it.

Regular People Having Web Servers?

Now the skeptics reading this will say, "Who in the hell is gonna want their own cloud server to run an app when they could just sign up for a simple centralized service?" First, I am supposing that the sign-up and account creation experience for these services could be made as simple as signing up for Facebook or iTunes or other payment services.

But second, I know there's an entire class of applications that centralized services don't create. Every day, a dozen different people at Google or at Facebook or at Twitter say to each other in a meeting, "Well, that's a great feature, but only one percent of our users would want it, and it's super compute-intensive, so let's just table that for later."

Unless some enterprising and generous engineer devotes their slack time to creating the feature out of sheer enthusiasm, those ideas die. Not because of merit, but because we have no option in between intermittently-connected, low-bandwidth personal devices and centralized megaservices with unified, homogenous feature sets.

No two people's smartphones have the same functions, thanks to app stores. Everyone's web sites have the same features, even despite platforms like Facebook's apps, because those apps have to live within the constraints of what Facebook permits and can support.

So there's a third way. Hopefully a robust and enthusiastic multi-front war between the giant cloud players like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Rackspace, platform efforts like Cloud Foundry and OpenNebula, and enablers like Jumpbox and Bitnami and Cloudstore will yield benefits not just for big companies, but for regular users, too.

There's no reason the experience can't be as seamless and easy to buy an EC2-hosted web app on a Kindle Fire as it is to buy Words with Friends or the Foursquare app. Of course, we're starting to experiment with the first steps towards this ourselves on ThinkUp. We've been trying out a simple cloud setup for ThinkUp that gets people up and running with the app on PHPFog's infrastructure in a few minutes. We make a couple bucks, they provide a great infrastructure, and semi-technical users get an experience that, while not quite as easy as point-and-click in iTunes, starts to hint at how a whole new app ecosystem could work.

Related

Showing some of this evolution, from two years ago, a list of all the app stores. It's a very different perspective on the then-current application platforms, before we'd realized that some of them were app stores in disguise. Of course, some of those platforms still don't know that they're app stores.

Why you can't trust tech press to teach you about the tech industry

April 30, 2012

If there were one lesson I'd want to impress upon people who are interested in succeeding in the technology industry, it would be, as I've said before, know your shit. Know the discipline you're in, know the history of those who've done your kind of work before, understand the lessons of their efforts, and in general look beyond the things that are making noise right now in order to understand bigger patterns of how technology works, both literally and socially.

This is a difficult challenge, because today's media about the technology industry will not teach entrepreneurs and creators what they need to know about the history of the technology industry.

I don't just mean this in the obvious way — nobody thinks you can earn a PhD in computer science by reading a tech blog. But I mean the broader landscape of sites that attract attention from technology developers and startup aficionados are woefully myopic in their understanding and perspective of the disciplines they cover. [Disclaimer: This post mentions lots of sites that write about tech; I write for Wired (ostensibly a competitor) and advise Vox Media (parent of The Verge, mentioned below), as explained on my about page.]

Open For Comment

Let's take one example from a month ago. A blogger named Saud Alhawawi reported (judging by Google's translation) that Google is going to introduce a blog commenting system powered by their Google+ platform. If you work at a company which makes tools for feedback on sites, or if you care about the quality of comments on the web, this would be important news, so it's a great thing that it got picked up by WebProNews and TheNextWeb.

Given that Google generally refuses to comment on such pronouncements, and therefore would be unlikely to confirm or deny Alhawawi's blog post, the burden is thus on the rest of the tech blogosphere to explain to their readers the implications and importance that such a product would have, if Google were to launch it.

Fortunately, we have a very good record of how the major tech blogs covered this story, if they did. Techmeme has admirably preserved links to the many pieces written a month ago about this story. As you might expect, most were regurgitating the original stories, with a few mentioning Alhawawi's source post. These reposts showed up all over the place: 9to5 Google, BetaBeat, Business Insider, CNET (which oddly credits ReadWriteWeb but links to TNW), DailyTech, MarketingLand, Marketing Pilgrim, MarketingVox, MemeBurn, SlashGear, The Verge and VentureBeat.

Lots of linking with just the barest amount of original reporting, which is actually a fairly efficient way of getting a story out. But while I admire many of the smart people who work at a lot of these outlets, apparently no one who was linking to this story has more than the slightest bit of knowledge about the discipline they were covering.

What's Missing?

As you might expect, nearly every story mentioned that Facebook has a commenting widget similar to what Google is presumably creating. Google and Facebook are competitors, so that's a wise inclusion. Most also mentioned DIsqus, and sure, that's relevant since they're a big independent player. I don't expect that these stories would be comprehensive overviews of the commenting space, so it's fine that other minor players might get overlooked.

What is ridiculous, and absurd, is that not a single one of these outlets mentioned that Google itself had provided this exact type of commenting functionality and then shut it down. Google provided this service for years. And that last Google commenting service, called Friend Connect, was shut down just three weeks prior to this news about a new commenting service being launched.

That's insane. Whether you're a user trying to understand if it's worth trusting a commenting service, a developer judging whether to build on its API, an entrepreneur deciding if you should incorporate the service or worry about competing with it, or an investor who wanted to evaluate Google's seriousness about the space, the single most salient fact about Google's attempt to create this new product was omitted from every single story that covered it.

Worse, the sites themselves suffered for this omission — when everyone is covering the exact same story, if one site had gone with a headline that said "Google's New Commenting Service: The Secret History of How They've Failed Before!" they could have actually gotten more page views and distinguished themselves from the endless TheNextWeb regurgitation.

This isn't a case where a few lesser outlets omitted a minor point about a headline. It's a case where a story that was interesting enough to earn a full Techmeme pile-on was lacking in coverage that would be necessary for understanding the story at even the most superficial level. As you might expect, a few of the larger outlets have big enough audiences that their commenter communities were able to add the missing salient facts to the story, but on both The Verge and Business Insider, the comments which mentioned Friend Connect were buried in their respective threads and, as of a month later, not highlighted in the original posts.

Do Your Homework

Fortunately, whether or not Google makes a commenting widget isn't that big a deal on its own. Maybe they will or maybe they won't, and maybe it'll fail again or maybe it won't. But the key lesson to take away here is that we know a few things are wrong with the trade press in the technology world:

  • In tech financial coverage, there is a focus on valuation, deals and funding instead of markets, costs, profits, losses, revenues and sustainability.
  • In tech executive coverage, there is a focus on personalities and drama instead of capabilities and execution.
  • In tech product coverage, there is a focus on features and announcements instead of evaluating whether a product is meaningful and worthwhile.
  • Technology trade press doesn't treat our industry as a business, so much as a "scene"; If our industry had magazines, we'd have a lot of People but no Variety, a Rolling Stone, but no Billboard.

There are many more examples of the flaws, but these are obvious ones. What we may not know, though is that there's another flaw:
* For all but the biggest tech stories, any individual article likely lacks enough information to make a decision about the topic of that article.

Imagine if Apple launched a new version of the iPad and a story did not mention that any prior versions of the iPad existed. This is the level of analysis we frequently get from second-tier tech stories in our industry. And that's true despite the fact that technology trade press is actually getting better.

We need a tech industry that values history, perspective, and a long-term view. Today, we don't have that. But I'm optimistic, because I see that people who do value those things have a decided advantage over the course of their careers. One place to start is by filling in the blanks on the stories we read ourselves, perhaps by making use of a comment form?

Three's a Trend: The Decline of Google Search Quality

January 3, 2011

Noticing a pattern here?

Paul Kedrosky, Dishwashers, and How Google Eats Its Own Tail:

Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches -- from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons -- churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you're done. On the web, no-one knows you're a content-grinder.

The result, however, is awful. Pages and pages of Google results that are just, for practical purposes, advertisements in the loose guise of articles, original or re-purposed. It hearkens back to the dark days of 1999, before Google arrived, when search had become largely useless, with results completely overwhelmed by spam and info-clutter.

Alan Patrick, On the increasing uselessness of Google:

The lead up to the Christmas and New Year holidays required researching a number of consumer goods to buy, which of course meant using Google to search for them and ratings reviews thereof. But this year it really hit home just how badly Google's systems have been spammed, as typically anything on Page 1 of the search results was some form of SEO spam - most typically a site that doesn't actually sell you anything, just points to other sites (often doing the same thing) while slipping you some Ads (no doubt sold as "relevant").

...

Google is like a monoculture, and thus parasites have a major impact once they have adapted to it - especially if Google has "lost the war". If search was more heterogenous, spamsites would find it more costly to scam every site. That is a very interesting argument against the level of Google market dominance.

And finally, Jeff Atwood, Trouble in the House of Google:

Throughout my investigation I had nagging doubts that we were seeing serious cracks in the algorithmic search foundations of the house that Google built. But I was afraid to write an article about it for fear I'd be claimed an incompetent kook. I wasn't comfortable sharing that opinion widely, because we might be doing something obviously wrong. Which we tend to do frequently and often. Gravity can't be wrong. We're just clumsy … right?

I can't help noticing that we're not the only site to have serious problems with Google search results in the last few months. In fact, the drum beat of deteriorating Google search quality has been practically deafening of late.

From there, Jeff links to several more examples, including the ones I mentioned above. As Alan alludes to in his post, the threat here is that Google has become a monoculture, a threat I've written about many times.

Now, is all this anecdotal evidence reliable? Perhaps not. What is worth noting now is that, half a decade after so many people began unquestioningly modifying their sites to serve Google's needs better, there may start to be enough critical mass for the pendulum to swing back to earlier days, when Google modified its workings to suit the web's existing behaviors.

Further Reading

Continuing the Conversation

August 18, 2009

Phew! Seems like there are a ton of people talking about the topics we've all been discussing here lately. Here's some highlights:

Startup.gov

After I posited that the U.S. executive branch is the most interesting startup of 2009, there have been some amazing responses. Craig Newmark (you love his list!) very kindly gave a nod towards my post, adding "In some results, it's run like a really good Silicon Valley startup", and spreading the word on The Huffington Post as well. Mike Masnick at Techdirt chiimed in as well:

For plenty of reasons that you can guess, I'm pretty jaded by people in government, and it's rare to come across people who seem to be doing things for anything other than "political" purposes. But I have to admit that the amazing thing that came through in both [Federal CTO Aneesh] Chopra's talks was that they were both entirely about actually getting stuff done, with a focus on openness and data sharing. Chopra talked, repeatedly, about figuring out what could be done both short- and long-term, and never once struck me as someone looking to hoard power or focus on a partisan or political reason for doing things. It was never about positioning things to figure out how to increase his budget. In fact, many of the ideas he was discussing was looking at ways to just get stuff done now without any need for extra budget. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you hear regularly from folks involved in the government.

Towards the end of my essay, I'd pointed out one particular challenge that faces this new startup-minded government effort: "Acquiring and retaining talent is hard, especially in a city that doesn't have as deep a well of people with tech startup experience." Amazingly, the latest perfect example of the type of talent that are heading to D.C. these days just popped up, with Christopher Soghoian's announcement that he is joining the FTC. I only know Christopher's work by reputation at Harvard's Berkman Center, but I think the fact that the government is looking for talented people in academia (a talent pool that typical tech startups often overlook) is a great sign.

Of course, there are skeptics. Gautham Nagesh covers the government for Nextgov and Atlantic Media, and he thinks I'm believing the hype". Of course, I think Gautham and I just disagree about government's role in general, and that I'll take small signs of progress as successes, even if there is a lot of work left to do yet.

In fact, I'll be talking about this a bit later today on Federal News Radio's Daily Debrief show. If you're in D.C., tune in to 1500 AM at 4:05 EDT and one idea I'll be discussing is how the recent web achievements by the executive branch are a lot like Microsoft's recent success with Bing; It doesn't mean that the whole giant organization is on the right track, it just means that it's still possible for these behemoths to do the right thing.

The potential is also hinted at in Brady Forrest's post about EveryBlock's acquisition over on O'Reilly Radar. I'm ecstatic to see Adrian and his team at EveryBlock get even more resources for their work, but just as pleased to see the government's work being discussed as a peer to even the most cutting-edge startups in the private sector.

Google's Wave Moment

After my recent posts about The Wave Way and Google's Microsoft Moment, I was very graciously invited to join Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis on their awesome podcast about Google and cloud computing, This Week in Google. If you have an hour or so to spare for listening to a podcast, I am very proud of how it came out, and especially that I got to participate with such pros on a show like this. TWiG is available on iTunes and Boxee and all of those usual services as well.

The idea that Google is facing a reckoning as it grows in size and influence seems to have caught on, and comparing the company to Microsoft has gone from seeming a bit radical at the time I posted to becoming much more popular when Wired covered the idea to finally having become something approaching conventional wisdom in just a few weeks. Take, for example, New Google is the old Microsoft, by Galen Ward, which lists the ways that Google ties its nascent (or even unsuccessful) efforts to the results of its dominant search engine.

Apple Blinks on Secrecy?

Less than three weeks ago, I was arguing that Apple's culture of secrecy can't scale. Fortunately, we may never know if I'm right. Astoundingly, Apple has opened up to some degree, most notably via VP Phil Schiller reaching out personally to bloggers John Gruber and Steven Frank. Of course, that's not a complete course change for Apple, but it is still significantly more human, personal and open than any recent communications they've made about their efforts.

Meanwhile, the idea that Apple's traditional secrecy is untenable has gotten an even larger audience with The Times' lengthy look at Steve Jobs and Apple:

[A]long with computers, iPhones and iPods, secrecy is one of Apple’s signature products. A cult of corporate omerta — the mafia code of silence — is ruthlessly enforced, with employees sacked for leaks and careless talk. Executives feed deliberate misinformation into one part of the company so that any leak can be traced back to its source. Workers on sensitive projects have to pass through many layers of security. Once at their desks or benches, they are monitored by cameras and they must cover up devices with black cloaks and turn on red warning lights when they are uncovered. “The secrecy is beyond fastidious and is in fact insultingly petty and political,” says one employee on the anonymous corporate reporting site Glassdoor.com, “and often is an impediment to actually getting one’s work done.”

But employees are one thing; shareholders are another. Should Jobs (who, as far as the world is concerned, is Apple) have been allowed to conceal the seriousness of his illness? Warren Buffett, the greatest investor alive, doesn’t think so. “Whether [Steve Jobs] is facing serious surgery or not is a material fact.”

Some say another sign that Apple omerta has gone too far was the death of Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer of Apple machines. He was given 16 prototypes of new iPhones. One disappeared. Facts beyond that get hazy, but it is clear that Sun committed suicide by jumping from a 12th-storey apartment. Internet babble says he killed himself because of the vanished prototype and, therefore, because of Apple’s obsessive secrecy.

Pushing the Right Buttons

Finally, the idea of the Pushbutton Web seems to be gaining steam. I am delighted to point out Om Malik's The Evolution of Blogging, which Om uses as an example of a longer-form blog post he's enjoyed recently, but which I also hope will be a catalyst for the evolution of blogging that he's calling for in the post overall.

That point is taken even further with Farhad Manjoo's ruminations in Slate, which reference my Pushbutton post:

[A]s technologies like PubSubHubbub proliferate around the Web, with companies like Google, Facebook, and others embracing them, real-time Web updates will become the norm. It won't be hard to build competitors to Twitter—systems that do as much as it does but whose decentralized design ensures that they're not a single point of failure. Winer envisions these systems coming up alongside Twitter—when you post a status update, it could get sent to both Twitter and whatever decentralized, next-gen Twitter gets created. If these new systems take off, Twitter would be just one of many status-updating hubs—and if it went down, there'd be other servers to take its place.

Seeing so many great conversations pop up recently around the topics I've been obsessing over has been very inspiring; Right after I made offhand mention of one of my Big Think interviews being about the Philology of LOLcats, my original piece on LOLcat language, Cats Can Has Grammar, was indirectly cited in Time's profile of "I Can Has Cheeseburger", through a reference to "kitty pidgin". It might seem like a minor mention, but the idea that a random dude like me can write a post that results in a phrase showing up in Time or The New York Times is still very exciting to me, after all of these years.

Best of all, there have been a spate of amazing comments on all of these posts lately, both on this site and in some of the responses I've linked to above. I'm having more fun than ever in watching the conversation across the blogosphere.

In the meantime, two to consider:

  • Slow Web: "There's a web that well-considered and worth savoring. We'll show you where."
  • Every Friday, Rain or Shine: "When you see an interesting idea expressed in 140 chars that you think could use elaboration, ask them to do a longer-form post to explain. Especially on Fridays."

The Web on The Web Way

August 11, 2009

More great responses to some recent posts to recap, along with an interview I did a few weeks ago that seems to be pretty timely.

EWEEK brought the post to Google's attention August 10, looking for comment from Wave creators Lars Rasmussen and Jens Rasmussen, who built the platform in secret in their home country of Australia before unveiling it to a room of applause at Google I/O in May. However, Google declined to challenge Dash's points.

  • J Aaron Farr posted Wave's Web of Protocols, and Eric Smith wrote PubSubHubBub Hullabaloo, both offering helpful diagrams to help explain the architecture of Google Wave and PubSubHubBub, respectively. I found both to be useful starting points for understanding these technologies if you're more of a visual thinker.
  • I'd meant to include a link in my original Wave post to A Google Wave reality check, where Tom Krazit at CNET provided some interesting glimpses behind the scenes of the making of Wave. A key quote:

Google believes developer feedback is crucial to [Wave's] evolution as a product. "We wanted to get people thinking about how we're going to use it and what people are going to use it for," [Wave co-creator Lars Rasmussen] said.

What Works: The Web Way vs. The Wave Way

August 7, 2009

Google Wave is an impressive set of technologies, the kind of stunningly slick application that literally makes developers stand up and cheer. I've played with the Google Wave test sandbox a bit, and while it's definitely too complex to live up to the "this will replace email!" hype that greeted its launch, it certainly has some cool features. So the big question is whether Wave will succeed as overall in becoming a popular standard for communications on the web, because Google has made an admirable investment in documenting the underlying platform and making it open enough for others to build on and extend. I think the answer is no, and the reason is because the Wave way is not compatible with the Web way.

What do I mean by "the Web way"? Well, if we look at the history of new technologies being adopted to extend web sites and enhance communications, we see a few trends emerge:

  • Upgrades to the web are incremental. Instead of requiring a complete overhaul of your technical infrastructure, or radical changes to existing behaviors, the web tech that wins is usually the sort of thing that can be adopted piecemeal, integrated as needed or as a normal part of updating one's websites or applications.
  • Understanding new tech needs to be a weekend-sized problem. For a lot of web developers, long before they start integrating a new protocol or platform into their work, they hack together a rough demo over a long weekend to make sure they truly grasp how it works. And a weekend-scale implementation on a personal site usually translates roughly into a 90-day implementation cycle in a business context, which is a reasonably approachable project size. (In tech, three days in personal effort often translates to three months of corporate effort.)
  • There has to be value before everybody has upgraded. This is basically a corollary to Metcalfe's Law. While we know networks increase in value as they add more nodes, the nature of web tech is that, in order to be worthwhile, it has to provide value even if the people on the other end haven't upgraded their software or web browsers or clients or servers. Otherwise you're shouting into an empty room.
  • You have to be able to understand and explain it. Duh.

Now, if we take a look at some examples of what has worked, we can see how various successful technologies have displayed these traits. One great example is feeds. When RSS feeds were new, it was easy to understand their potential immediately, and since I was working at a newspaper at the time, I just spent an afternoon understanding the format and hacking together a quick feed of headlines that anybody could subscribe to. If nobody had adopted feedreaders yet, that was no problem, since there was no cost to just having the feed sit there with no subscribers — the "nobody's upgraded" problem would only result in me having wasted a few hours.

Ajax had a similar adoption pattern. It took a little bit more time to comprehend, but not much more than an afternoon, and the development effort required for adding Ajax enhancements to an application started as a weekend-scale project and has only gone down over time. Following the principles of progressive enhancement, well-designed implementations performed just fine on older browsers or systems that couldn't handle the new features. And most sites that have added Ajax features have done so by adding the requirements as a checklist item in the course of normal ongoing updates, not as standalone efforts to migrate to a new technology.

Google Wave

This brings us to Wave. Wave offers excellent opportunities to extend its core features and to add richness to its "wavelets", and I have no criticisms over its utility as a developer platform that third parties can build upon. But the fundamental Wave protocols are, I fear, a bit too complex to ever be fully and correctly implemented by anyone other than Google. Interoperability is likely to be a challenge that plagues the platform for its entire existence. In short: It's likely that nobody will ever build a fully-compatible clone of Wave that competes with Google's own implementation.

Why is that true? Let's look at what's built in to Wave:

  • Powerful realtime collaboration features
  • Unlimited versioning of content
  • Built around robust XMPP protocol
  • Combines chat, document editing, and message threading — wikis + blogs + comments + IM
  • Delivered as a very polished rich user interface

Each of these is a very compelling experience. But a lot of developers' reactions to seeing them was not just "I can't wait to use that!" but also "I want to add that one feature to my own existing application!". And that's where it gets tough. Let's take a look at Joe Gregorio's list of the protocols that power Wave. (Joe works at Google, but made this list before he was working on Wave. I appreciate his research and openness on this topic, and presenting his work here is a tribute to what makes Wave great, not a criticism of his effort.)

  • Federation (XMPP)
  • The robot protocol (JSONRPC)
  • The gadget API (OpenSocial)
  • The wave embed API (Javascript)
  • The client-server protocol (As defined by GWT)

That's a lotta stuff! XMPP alone is a bear to implement, let alone to deploy at large scale. (I can't think of anyone outside of Google, Earthlink and LiveJournal who have deployed XMPP to millions of users.) But if you wanted to make another application that truly interoperates with all that Wave can do, combining all of these pieces would just be the starting point.

And people aren't looking for a replacement for email, or instant messaging, or blogs, or wikis. Those tools all work great for their intended purposes, and whatever technology augments them will likely offer a different combination of persistence and immediacy than those systems. Right now, Wave evokes all of them without being its own distinctive thing. Which means it's most useful in providing reference implementations of particular new features.

If a developer wants one of the compelling individual features of Wave, like near-realtime collaboration, they're more likely to use something like (wait for it...) Pushbutton technologies. The infrastructure afforded by the components of the Pushbutton Platform comes nowhere near the richness and polish displayed by Google Wave. Pushbutton isn't even designed to offer the benefits demonstrated by Wave. But to its credit, Pushbutton displays nowhere near the complexity of Wave in its interoperability requirements. More importantly, integrating Pushbutton features into a website or application isn't a monolithic process of building dozens of cutting-edge features, but rather can be deployed incrementally by even non-expert webmasters.

In this context, it might help to think of Pushbutton tech as a "micro-Wave". As Gina Trapani said in mentioning Google Reader's support for PubSubHubBub:

Huh-wha? you ask. Yeah, I know. It's no Google Wave. But that's what makes this exciting. This kind of small Pushbutton implementation is how real web pages will easily use existing technology to notify one another of new updates. The Google Reader/FriendFeed integration is just the first tiny step in what will be a broad deployment of realtime-enabled sites. These sites and services will let one another know when they have new data to share without the sucky inefficiencies of polling. Check out how fast FriendFeed updates when you share an item in Google Reader in the video above.

In short, it's almost zero latency.

Why is this clearly "inferior" technology going to win? Well, as just one example, XMPP is way too complicated for any normal human to deploy. Whereas if you're reading this, you probably already have access to a regular HTTP web server that could talk to a Pushbutton hub. In fact, the only two backers I know who have worked extensively with XMPP are Brad Fitzpatrick and Artur Bergman, who co-created Djabberd. And they are both excited about PubSubHubBub. Realistically, someone like Yahoo might try to do all of this, and inevitably one or two open source projects will try to lash together open implementations of each of these pieces to make a kind of FrankenWave application. There are probably already one or two teams working on the inevitable "Enterprise Wave Server" platforms as well, though I haven't heard about them myself. These efforts may succeed, but that doesn't mean they'll ever be robust enough that people will trust them for communicating on the web.

More to the point, I'm a regular blogger who knows a little bit about scripting on a normal web server. I can poke around the documentation and add a few tweaks to my RSS feed (or, in my case, do nothing and have Feedburner automatically handle it for me), and all of a sudden my blog's feed is part of the Pushbutton web, ready for others to build on. I literally wouldn't even know where to start with the Wave developer documentation if I wanted to integrate it with my site or any of the little apps I like to hack on during a long weekend. What seems more realistic — that someone will figure out a way to incrementally build on top of realtime feeds to enable Wave-like experiences, or that all this talk of Waves, wavelets and blips is going to suddenly become easy to understand.

In short, web-way tech like feeds, Ajax and Pushbutton win because people who make good sites and applications have a place to start with it. Does this mean we get fancy realtime simultaneous editing right away, now that Pushbutton exists? Nope. In fact, Wave might even get the early jump on those kinds of features for web apps, simply because it's pioneered that part of the user experience. But Wave only runs to its full potential on the most cutting-edge web browsers. And there may only be a dozen companies in the world with the in-house expertise to clone the entire complement of technologies underlying Wave in order to make a full-fledged competitor. Worse, the monolithic nature of the Wave experience means it will even be a challenge to make a full-fledged open source competitor to the official Google service.

I hope that Wave succeeds, because I love to see ambition and innovation rewarded. But I think it's mostly likely that Wave's success will be in inspiring people to create similarly compelling experiences by adding incremental enhancements to their existing sites. That's how the web's always advanced in the past.

Related Reading:

Preconceived Notions and The Web As Water

August 6, 2009

I've really been enjoying the response to my recent blog posts — here are some more thoughtful replies.

Rafe Colburn, one of my favorite bloggers for a decade now, followed up my Apple and secrecy post with "Apple vs. my preconceived notions":

In one scenario, this is a bubble of sorts. Apple may be doing OK now, but they’re headed for a big crash when people get sick of their behavior. In another scenario — one that I think is, sadly, more likely, Apple continues as they are, adjusting when it must to address reality, but only in the most minimal way.

I've also really been enjoying watching Dave Winer's work recently. In the past we were both too young and stubborn to realize we're amused by a lot of the same things (There's my refrain of "We hate most in others that which we fail to see in ourselves" again!) but these days it is just plain entertaining to watch Dave go. My amusement is amply covered in "Anil's belly laugh", which mentions my response to Dave's latest bit of hacking. As I mentioned on my Twitter account, I also recorded an episode of the Bad Hair Day podcast with Dave and Marshall Kirkpatrick last week.

Speaking of podcasts, This Week in Google is a new one featuring Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis and Internet Hero Gina Trapani. This week, they had a very nice look at The Pushbutton Web towards the end of the show. I'm delighted how many people have told me they found that post valuable or useful in talking about this whole area of innovation. Since I'm a lousy coder, writing blog posts like that is the most helpful thing I can do.

Finally, as it's come up in several contexts lately, it's probably worth repeating the key point of a post I wrote two years ago, which attracted some attention then but is probably even more relevant today. The core concept is about "The Watery Web":

It's not true to say that Facebook is the new AOL, and it's oversimplification to say that Facebook's API is the new [MSN] Blackbird, or the new [AOL] Rainman. But Facebook is part of the web. Think of the web, of the Internet itself, as water. Proprietary platforms based on the web are ice cubes. They can, for a time, suspend themselves above the web at large. But over time, they only ever melt into the water. And maybe they make it better when they do.

Thanks, as always to people who've responded to what I've written, and especially to all of those who've taken these posts as starting points and expanded the ideas into some truly inspiring creations.

Wired on Google's Microsoft Moment

July 25, 2009

If you liked my post on Google's Microsoft Moment last week, you may well enjoy Fred Vogelstein's detailed piece in this month's Wired.

I think no small part of the reason so many people enjoyed my post and responded to it was that I deliberately chose an evocative title by referencing Microsoft. Microsoft is shorthand for a whole, complicated set of emotions and responses in the tech and business world, and the brand itself is very effective at communicating a complicated idea very efficiently. Wired's made a few interesting choices in their own headlines:

  • The online story is titled "Why Is Obama's Top Antitrust Cop Gunning for Google?"
  • The print magazine's teaser line on the cover says "Is Google a Monopoly?"
  • The story itself is headlined in the table of contents and on the page as "Keyword: Monopoly".

Now, "monopoly" in a context like this is intimately associated with Microsoft, but "Keyword" actually feels like AOL speak, not something particular to Google. And the Obama reference (as opposed to, say, the DOJ or the administration as a whole or Eric Holder as Attoryney General) seems a little off. But I think it's no accident that the story itself opens with the quote "I think you are going to see a repeat of Microsoft."

Clearly, this perspective on Google's current dominance and cultural shift has reached its moment in the zeitgeist. But aside from the fact that this is an idea (or at least a meme) whose time has come, I think it's interesting to see exactly which way of articulating the idea is most effective in getting people to talk about Google's moment of reckoning.

All Around The Web

July 13, 2009

There have been a lot of great conversations around and about some of my recent posts; Here are some highlights.

My post about Google's Microsoft Moment seems to have really struck a nerve. First amongst the responses, from my perspective, is prominent Googler Matt Cutts' "Why Googlers should read Anil Dash's post. The open-mindedness and willingness to take constructive criticism that Matt shares with a number of his colleagues at Google (I'd also highlight Karen Wickre, who helps lead Google's efforts in blogging and on Twitter) are going to be the factor that decides whether or not Google falls prey to the dangers outlined in that essay. Matt concludes his comments with a simple, and inspiring exhortation:

Googlers, ask yourself how you can help make another one of those moments where you’re proud to work at Google. I think those moments are a great way to keep from becoming just another large company. And if Googlers are open to posts like Anil Dash’s, the web is tell us tons of things it wants us to do, or how to do them better.

Some other notable conversations around these ideas popped up as well:

  • The presciently-named (but independent) Google Operating System blog offers up Google's Changing Corporate Culture.
  • Ex-Googler, current FriendFeeder and all-around good guy Kevin Fox takes issue with some of my points in Google's Apple Moment. Kevin raises the point that a lot of Googlers did: It's okay for Google to have two different operating systems because they serve two different markets. I don't disagree — I did ask in my original essay "If the keyboard works with my fingers instead of my thumbs, I should use Chrome OS and not Android?" and folks at Google have already responded to me privately with, in effect, "Actually, that might not be such a bad way to put it..." My point, though, was not that it doesn't make good technical sense to have these systems. Rather, that sort of roadmap complexity makes it hard for casual outside observers to believe that their needs are being put ahead of the company's platform ambitions. I'll chalk up the lack of clarity there to my own poor editing and the fact that John Gruber highlighted that bit on Daring Fireball, which may have put more focus on what was a relatively minor point.
  • I loved, and totally agree with, Mini-Microsoft's Microsoft Has Turned The Corner. This makes explicit what was part of the subtext of my essay: Even Microsoft doesn't do this kind of shifty crap anymore, if they can help it. And to their credit, Microsoft since Ray Ozzie's ascension has also seemed to regain their ambition and clarity around creating innovative products. I'm not sure if that's correlation or causation, but it's good to see regardless, and this is a post well worth reading in full.
  • One of my favorite bloggers, Mike Masnick of TechDirt, asks Has Google Reached The Perception Tipping Point? The post consists of the single word "Yes." Okay, not really, but it's still thoughtfully argued and especially highlights Google's recent track record in the area of intellectual property and DRM, which is TechDirt's strongest suit.
  • Finally, a couple more mentions in bigger media: BusinessWeek's Rob Hof offers up a critical look at Google's strategy, which is a welcome change from most mainstream press that tend to slavishly puff up any pronouncement of this scale that comes out of the tech industry. Similarly, Alex Pham at the LA Times puts the Chrome OS story in the context of Microsoft's Office 2010 announcement today. Matt Asay has an even more skeptical take over at CNET. And finally I thought MG Siegler's brief post about the back-and-forth between me and Matt Cutts offered up a nice perspective on the perils and potential of this inflection point in Google's evolution.

Here's a two-fer: Chris Anderson's CNN Commentary on Google, Microsoft, and Free. Chris ruminates on whether the tech giants' habit of entering new markets with free products funded by the obscene margin they make in their primary lines of business is going to face legal scrutiny in the future. Recommended if you liked either Google's Microsoft Moment or Free Criticism, Science After Data and Airport Books.

Reason mag's Tim Cavanaugh had an amusing riff that referenced that post of mine from the other day: Resolved: The New York Times Should Be Staffed By Volunteers, Like Meals On Wheels. I thought it was a fun read, at least.

And if you're seeking out even more comment on these topics, Silicon Alley Insider has a pretty fun thread in response to my Free Criticism post, along with a slightly more inane one in response to last month's post about The Future of Facebook Usernames.

Finally, some stuff that's actually related to my day job:

  • Tony Dearing at AnnArbor.com has a really smart take on a conversation we had about what that site is doing to make a real community-focused local news website. I think the current AnnArbor.com team has the best chance at success of any of the dozens of similar efforts I've seen over the past several years.
  • In a similar vein, Ken Edwards has a detailed look at what it's taken to build the new BG Views community at Bowling Green State University. It's always fun to watch a project like that from afar and get to see a new community take off.

Thanks to everyone for great comments on my previous posts, and even more for the inspiring conversations that have happened around these topics. And a specialy thanks to the many of you who've shared links to these pieces on Twitter: @padmasree, @timoreilly were instrumental in kicking off the broader conversation around the recent Google post, and it was really gratifying to see @wilw find a quote in my Free Criticism essay that really seems to have struck a nerve.

Google's Microsoft Moment

July 9, 2009

I'm not sure Google's new Chrome OS announcement is that big a deal, or that the eventual product that gets released will actually have that much impact, but it's a useful milestone in marking Google's evolution towards becoming an older company with a distinctly different culture than they used to have.

This is, for lack of a better term, Google's "Microsoft Moment". This is the point when the difference between their internal conception of the company starts to diverge just a bit too far from the public perception of the company, and even starts to diverge from reality. At this inflection point, the reasons for doing new things at Google start to change.

google-microsoft-chrome-480.jpg

Let me be clear: I don't think Google is "turning evil". Hell, I've caught a lot of flack for the fact that basically I don't think Microsoft was evil. But there are some notable trends going on across Google today that could cause the company to compromise its stated values and that will certainly cause people to think Google is being evil, if not corrected. I'll try to outline a few key cultural indicators from around Google.

Designing for corporate synergy, not for users

Google's recent development work on applications for mobile devices has often been delivered exclusively as applications for their own Android platform instead of as iPhone applications, despite the fact that iPhones are roughly forty times more popular in the marketplace. iPhones are also much more popular outside of the United States than Android, further limiting the actual audience served by these applications. Now, it's obviously good company policy to make sure to support Google's own platforms, and Google does an admirable job of using generic open web technologies where possible to avoid having to choose between platforms at all. But choosing to leave the majority of users in a given market unaddressed because they are on a platform that is not part of your corporate goals is short-sighted and leaves a lingering sense of mistrust.

If you look at Microsoft ten years ago, or even as recently as five years ago, they had a tendency to say "Well, we've got a version that works on Windows Mobile." or "This works on Internet Explorer" and feel that they'd done their job for addressing mobile or the web. Or Windows Media Player would connect to XBox but not to any other systems for sharing media. They were putting their corporate agenda ahead of what the marketplace had chosen as its preferred platforms. But after all these years, Microsoft's internal teams have finally started to develop their web or mobile versions of products to work on competitor's browsers and competitor's mobile platforms, recognizing that they have to go where the users are, instead of favoring only the platforms created by their corporate siblings. Google appears to be headed the other way.

Forgetting what the real world uses, and favoring what's convenient for your own business goals is a quick way to have customers think you don't care, and to indicate to partners or developers that pleasing Google is more important than pleasing customers.

Multiple competing product lines: Chrome OS and Android

This is one of the simplest and most obvious examples, after this week's announcements: Google is now offering not one, but two mobile operating systems. While they undoubtedly share code, I can't help but think back to ten years ago, when Microsoft was vehemently protesting about how much code was shared between the Windows NT/Windows 2000 operating systems and the Windows 95/98/ME operating systems. If I make a screen two inches smaller, should I use Android instead of Chrome OS? If the keyboard works with my fingers instead of my thumbs, I should use Chrome OS and not Android? I know Google is convinced its employees are smarter than everyone else in the world, but this is a product management problem, not a computer science problem.

Changing methods of communication

Within Google, I'm sure the perception is that their public-facing communications are still very "Googley". Now, Google does an excellent job of maintaining and using an enormous number of official corporate blogs in dozens of languages for a rapidly-blossoming number of products and initiatives. But despite my admiration for that effort, and their commendable willingness to forgo the usual boring press releases, the way that the company communicates with the public has fundamentally changed, and not necessarily in a more human direction.

In lieu of blog posts or simple word-of-mouth, as helped popularize the Google search engine itself ten years ago, efforts like Chrome are being accompanied by television ads, complete with all of the production values of primetime TV. Instead of launching a new developer initiative by promoting an SDK on their blog, Google is filling convention centers, Apple-style, with day-long developer presentations and an Oprahesque giveaway of free phones under every seat. Instead of white papers, there are highly-produced comic books being distributed to the press to explain the value of Chrome.

Now, I actually support these types of outreach. Getting outside of the insular tech bubble requires higher production values and clearer messaging. But when Google evokes Apple or Microsoft or Oracle in its style of communicating ideas, and when cell phone ads on TV say "Powered by Google", an average consumer's conception of Google essentially shifts to seeing this company not as "those guys who do the search engine" but instead as another consumer electronics company, like Samsung or Sony, but a little more hip.

This would be okay, except that I doubt Google's internal self-image as an organization has changed to reflect this new reality. "We're not like some giant company with flashy TV ads — we're just a bunch of geeks in Mountain View!" And while that might be true for the vast number of engineers who define the company's internal culture, the external impression of Google being just another tech titan like Microsoft will gain footing, making the audience for Google's messages less tolerant of ambiguity and less forgiving of mistakes.

Only the last generation of companies can be evil, not us!

Though it's almost impossible to picture now, in the era when Microsoft was formed, IBM was synonymous with an almost Orwellian dominance of information technology. It's been a full 40 years since the antitrust actions against IBM, and IBM is seen as a bastion of open-sourceness now, but Microsoft's founding mindset clearly was shaped with the idea that "those old guys from the last generation are evil, and we're the nimble, smart upstarts who are going to humanize this industry". Sound familiar?

Though it's hard to believe, the FTC's first investigations against Microsoft began eighteen years ago. When Microsoft reached its apex in terms of public perception and industry respect, with the launch of Windows 95, the culture inside the company still largely saw themselves as upstarts against old, proprietary behemoths. Though Microsoft's headcount has increased fivefold since then, at the time of Windows 95's launch, they had about 17,000 employees.

Google's headcount just passed roughly 20,000 employees. And most of those staff members are firmly convinced that evil, or at least incompetence, is a trait of the last generation's dominant tech player: Microsoft. The idea that developers or customers might start to bristle at their dominance is met with the (true, yet irrelevant) argument about how open their data and platforms are. Eric Schmidt said yesterday that Chrome OS is so open that Microsoft could make Internet Explorer for it, though of course the effort of porting the browser would be prohibitively complex. By neatly inverting the framing of the conversation ("We didn't bundle a browser with our OS, we bundled an OS with our browser!"), Google's avoided having to confront the parallels between this moment in their corporate culture and Microsoft's similar moment of ascendancy 15 years ago.

Still haven't developed Theory of Mind

And finally, as I outlined two years ago, Google still hasn't developed theory of mind. From my piece then:

This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.

Worse, because most of the dedicated detractors of Google have been either competing companies or nutjobs, it's been hard for Googlers to take criticisms seriously. That makes it easy to have defensiveness or dismissal of criticisms become a default response.

Conclusion

Google has made commendable steps towards communicating with those outside of its sphere of influence in the tech world. But the messages will be incomplete or insufficient as long as Google doesn't truly internalize and accept that its public perception is about to change radically. The era of Google as a trusted, "non-evil" startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over.

Years ago, GMail introduced context-sensitive ads and was unfairly pilloried for being anti-privacy or intrusive. And while there have been a few similar hand-slappings along the way, Google's never faced a widespread backlash against their influence or dominance from average consumers yet. Today, protestations of "but it's open source!" are being used to paper over real concerns about data ownership, and the truth is that open code doesn't necessarily imply that average users are in control.

And ultimately, once a tech company becomes dominant in its space, it's susceptible to a kind of reverse Hanlon's razor: Anything caused by stupidity or carelessness will instead be attributed to malice. Similar to the Law of Fail ("Once a web community has decided to dislike an idea, the conversation will shift from criticizing the idea to become a competition about who can be most scathing in their condemnation."), Google is entering the moment where it has to be over-careful not to offend, and extremely attentive to whether they are treading lightly.

Is Google evil? It doesn't matter. They've reached the point of corporate ambition and changing corporate culture that means they're going to be perceived as if they are. Whether they're able to truly internalize that lesson, accept it, and act accordingly will determine if they're able to extend their dominance in the years to come.

(Illustration courtesy of Federico Fieni.)

Related Reading:

Update: There's been a phenomenal reaction to the ideas discussed here. I rounded up a lot of the responses in a follow-up post. But it's also worth noting that a number of people from both within and without Google have pointed out that in many cases, the release of an Android application has preceded its counterpart iPhone equivalent due to delays in Apple's opaque approval process for applications on that platform, or because the Android applications were only created as hobbyist projects by Googlers in their free time. Similarly, a number of people have pointed out significant differences between Chrome OS and Android, such as the primary development environments (HTML5 and Java, respectively), memory limitations for applications, and the distribution model.

While I've certainly not meant to gloss over any of these clarifications as insignificant, and appreciate the additional information, the key argument I'm advancing here is about the overall impact of changes in Google's culture and perception. Many more examples can (and have) been identified to support that larger trend, and I'm pleased that the larger dialogue has focused on that bigger issue, inspiring some great conversation.

Fair Use for Fair People

April 8, 2009

Worth noting: Both independent bloggers on the web and the Associated Press are in the news this week for asking for appropriate credit for their work when it's excerpted for fair use by online news aggregators. But the web natives frame their argument in terms of respect for the reader and defending the credibility of the information being published, assuming correctly that their businesses will grow if they honor these principles. In contrast, the AP leads with its business argument first, establishing an atmosphere of legal threats and aggrieved arguments about licensing fees with no mention of what readers want, or what respect they have for the very stories they're ostensibly fighting to present. Hijinks ensue.

A Basic Disconnect

Andy Baio collected some reactions from Matt Haughey, Merlin Mann and Joshua Schachter on having their recent works excerpted at length, republished on the Wall Street Journal-owned AllThingsD, and arguably being misrepresented as contributors to a site they don't actually participate in.

For indies like John Gruber, Matt Haughey, or Merlin Mann, they're more concerned about the appearance of being affiliated with a publication without their consent. Merlin wrote, "It reflects a basic disconnect about what we're really 'selling' when we self-publish. Obviously, I'm not selling paper or plastic discs or even words. I'm selling me."

None of the writers Andy interviewed (and, by way of disclaimer/boasting about how proud I am of their success, I count all of these guys as friends) balked about being linked to, or was even quoted mentioning compensation for the ads that were run next to the excerpts of their work. Indeed, the refrain from each of these web experts was that they wanted clarity about the presentation of their work, and a completely unambiguous disclaimer about how their words ended up on those pages.

In short, each of these guys was concerned about two things:

  • Protecting their credibility and reputation
  • Making sure the information being communicated to a reader was absolutely transparent in terms of sourcing and accountability

"Share"

These requests for clarity from the bloggers were made even when they might negatively impact revenues for their individual websites. Contrast this, then with the Associated Press reaction to a directly analogous situation of being excerpted and linked to by aggregator sites like Google News and, presumably, AllThingsD.

“We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories,“ Singleton said at the AP annual meeting, in San Diego.

As part of the initiative, AP will develop a system to track content distributed online to determine if it is being legally used. AP President Tom Curley said the initiative would also include the development of new search pages that point users to the latest and most authoritative sources of breaking news.

The Associated Press announcement addresses pricing, licensing, and legal threats. There is no statement made about the credibility of the information being published through these online channels, nor whether the act of aggregating and disseminating news this way has an impact on its accuracy or accountability.

Ken Doctor, an analyst specializing in selling online information products is one of the industry experts who has been working mightily to reframe the conversation, and his quote in this BBC article articulates this view well:

The real question is, "Is it fair for news companies to produce all this content for Google and for Google to keep the lion's share of revenue?" What we should be focusing on is "fair share".

I have no quibbles with Doctor's business focus here, and Google's responded well to that part of the conversation. But by letting people who are focused on selling the news as information products lead the conversation, newspapers are missing the most persuasive moral grounding for the case they are trying to make.

Persuasion

If the Associated Press made its argument on the basis of credibility and reputation, transparency and accountability, as the web-native publishers have, it would be far easier to defend their desire to share in the business model developed by the aggregators. The good news is, I'm sure there are many passionate, articulate and credible members of the Associated Press who'd be willing to present a thoughtful argument to that effect, if given the platform. And the web natives who've built those successful aggregators might be a lot more likely to want to work out a relationship.

The Dream of Being Discoverable

March 23, 2009

I'm a fan of The-Dream, the producer-turned-singer who was born Terius Nash and is responsible for pop gems ranging from Rihanna's "Umbrella" to Mariah's "Touch My Body". His solo albums have been genuinely entertaining and well-produced, a fact that is particularly fortunate given that nearly all of the catchiest choruses to his songs contain expletives that can't be sung on the radio. The-Dream's excellent debut Love/Hate, in particular, demonstrates this trait. (Listen to the samples to hear for yourself!)

However, a few days ago, I was recommending The-Dream's work to my friend Ben since we share similar musical tastes, and I was surprised to hear that he had been reluctant to listen. Ben was balking because, as he correctly pointed out, the extraneous hyphen in The-Dream's stage name is annoying.

The-Dream: Love vs. Money

Then I realized: The-Dream is one of the first successful pop acts in the world to have deliberately incorporated search engine optimization into his stage name. (If you're fortunate enough to not be familiar with the practice, SEO is the effort that many people put in to making their content easier to discover on the web. It's part necessary evil, part spam-inducing cargo cult.)

You see, without the hyphen, "The Dream" would have been almost impossible to find on Google or iTunes or YouTube before he got famous. In fact, unless you have a fairly distinctive (at least in English-speaking parts of the world) name like I do, this can be a common challenge. But I posit that the hyphenation of his name made him unique enough to be easily discoverable even before he had hit songs. Simply showing up when people are searching for music or videos is a pretty important part of getting your name out there if you want to be a big star.

I used to make predictions on my blog years ago, but one of the ones I forgot to write down was that Google would influence business names just like the Yellow Pages did. Instead of naming yourself "AAA Plumbing" so that you are listed first, you'd make sure you were easy to search for on the web by naming yourself The-Plumber, presumably.

Semi-related:

re: Vision

March 4, 2009

When launching the new version of Amazon's book device the Kindle, Jeff Bezos offered up the vision that the company has for the device: "Our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds." It's a message that Amazon has been consistently advocating since the device's initial rollout, and meshes nicely with the early Amazon vision of being the world's biggest bookstore.

Others have noted the audacity of the Kindle's vision. That kind of vision obviously evokes Google's early mission statement of striving to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". In truth, Google doesn't talk much about that mission these days, which might explain why a lot of their recent efforts do pretty well with the organizing the world's information part, but can be downright abysmal at making it useful. Virginia Heffernan articulated this quite well in the New York Times recently in regard to Google's image archive of old Life photos:

Google has failed to recognize that it can’t publish content under its imprint without also creating content of some kind: smart, reported captions; new and good-looking slide-show software; interstitial material that connects disparate photos; robust thematic and topical organization. All this stuff is content, and it requires writers, reporters, designers and curators. Instead, the company’s curatorial imperative, as usual, is merely “make it available.”

But at least Google's trying. That does count for something. And articulating that vision in cultural terms, phrased in language that explains the benefit to society, not just to stockholders, is important. Now, I think Google has a gap between their intention and their reality because the organization lacks theory of mind, but perhaps that's a problem that can be fixed.

And hell, I still even have a soft spot for Microsoft's old vision of "a computer on every desk and in every home", not just because in retrospect it seems so modest. It's also because it was a more ambitious vision that, if realized, would mean benefits even for people who never gave a single dollar to Microsoft. (As turned out to be the case.)

And these statements of vision are particularly resonant to me because we seldom hear any sort of similar vision from Apple. When the iTunes store was launched, the vision wasn't to "make every song in the world easily available". Instead, the clear goal was purely commercial, to make people buy music from Apple instead of Walmart.

And the truth is, Amazon, Google and Apple all make billions of dollars — that doesn't happen by accident. They should have clear goals about how to make money as part of their efforts. But since all of these companies also traffic in commerce derived from the artistic and expressive works that shape our culture, it makes sense for us to evaluate their efforts based on how well they articulate a desire to give back to our culture. They should make something meaningful for the world while making their money, at least as a happy byproduct if not as an intentional output. It's a lot easier for me to believe that employees at Amazon are doing something that's meaningful to the world at large than to feel that way about Apple's similar efforts.

I point this out not to be harshly critical of any of these companies; Indeed, I regularly give my time and money to all of them. But we often rush to describe Steve Jobs as a "visionary" for being the best showman in an industry where most people have the stage presence of a bowl of oatmeal.

The truth is, Apple has a chance to redefine what it considers vision while Steve Jobs is on leave. He could return and say that every copy of Garage Band will have the ability to instantly upload a user's songs to iTunes, unleashing an immense market of independent music to the world, and using their enormous market presence to let individuals help create culture, not just consume it. Or Apple could use its leverage with the record labels to impress upon them the importance of getting all of their back catalog of recordings online and available for people to consume — most of the music that's ever been released on any record label isn't available for purchase today, at any price, by anyone.

And just as importantly, we can use this criteria of vision, of responsibility for culture, as a way of analyzing announcements and releases in the technology world. So, last night, Amazon released their Kindle software for Apple's iPhone. Most of the reviews understandably focused on the readability of the text, or how well the synchronization features work. But I'm hoping that at least one or two lines of future reviews will spare a moment to think "is it a good thing for the world if this thing takes off?" My sense is that we're more likely to get positive answers to that question if the teams that are making these products are led by an appropriately ambitious vision.

A Pre-History of the Google Browser

September 1, 2008

Today, in a surprisingly botched announcement, Google announced Chrome, their upcoming open source web browser. The subject of a Google browser is something I've opined on a few times over the years, but Jason Kottke's compiled an even more comprehensive overview of the conversations a few of us have been having for almost seven years.

If that's up your alley, you might want to check out:

  • Stories and Tools, which at six years old is a little dated, but offered up some thoughts on the presentation of web applications that I thought connected nicely with the Google Chrome comic book.
  • Google and Theory of Mind, about Google's great weakness in the insularity of the company's culture.
  • Google Web History - Good and Scary, which at the launch of Google's Web History feature examined some of the implications of the new tracking system.
  • The Circle of (Web) Life, which described a cycle of web businesses supporting each other, based on Google's support for Mozilla.
  • How Matt Haughey Beat Google, challenging the inevitability of Google's domination of markets by pointing out how they weren't able to compete with a self-funded, passionate person and his community.
  • Google Office: Google Apps for Your Domain, which put the launch of Google Apps in the context of both the office suite competition and Google's other offerings.
  • The Microcontent Client, an outline of ideas about the evolution of browsers and information management applications from 2002.
  • Finally, Google's First Mistake, my rumination on Google's acquisition of Pyra Labs, a post whose accuracy has both increased and decreased in the years since I wrote it.

AdSense Can Sense My Soul

February 29, 2008

I've had friends ask why I have advertising on my site; After all, it's not like I'm gonna pay the rent with the kind of traffic that a Snoop Dogg fansite drives. Usually, I explain that I just like to understand how that stuff works, to keep up to date with the customers I deal with at work, or just because of curiosity.

But today, I have a much better answer. It's because sometimes that little bit of Google code can make something magical happen.

Me and Snoop

Google and Theory of Mind

December 14, 2007

Theory of mind is that thing that a two-year-old lacks, which makes her think that covering her eyes means you can't see her. It's the thing a chimpanzee has, which makes him hide a banana behind his back, only taking bites when the other chimps aren't looking.

Theory of mind is the awareness that others are aware, and its absence is the weakness that Google doesn't know it has. This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.

With fundamental technologies like PageRank and AdWords, with key initiatives like Google News and their content publishing tools, and with today's announcement of Knol, Google has to develop a Theory of Mind as an organization, or face increasingly difficult challenges to the adoption and success of their new efforts.

Some Examples

1. Google's famous slogan isn't "do no evil" -- it's "don't be evil". That's setting the bar damnably low, but moreover it's forgetting how a flawed person might take that instruction. One could well justify making some seriously wrong choices rather frequently without feeling that the line of being evil had been crossed. A morally challenged person could argue that being 51% righteous and 49% evil with one's actions could clear the bar.

The predicate here is not that Google intends to be evil. Rather, the reality is that any organization consisting of 16,000 people, all of whom are privileged and believe themselves to be of above-average intelligence, is going to face ethical and moral concerns. If even 0.1% of employees ever reckon with such issues in a year, that's an average of more than one evil person per month. In an organization with so much power, information and control, that's more than enough to do serious damage, especially since the mere appearance of misbehavior could cause serious problems.

An awareness of how others might see this slogan, and its intent, would make obvious the fact that almost no one considers himself evil, thus making this goal meaningless.

2. Connecting PageRank to economic systems such as AdWords and AdSense corrupted the meaning and value of links by turning them into an economic exchange. Through the turn of the millennium, hyperlinking on the web was a social, aesthetic, and expressive editorial action. When Google introduced its advertising systems at the same time as it began to dominate the economy around search on the web, it transformed a basic form of online communication, without the permission of the web's users, and without explaining that choice or offering an option to those users.

Worse, the transformation was retroactive and the eventual mechanisms for opting out were incomplete in that the economic value could not be decoupled from the informational value. Inevitably, spammers arose to take advantage of the ability to create high-economic-value links at very low cost, causing vast damage to the ability to use links as a purely informational exchange. In addition, this forced Google to become more and more opaque about the refinements and adjustments it makes to its indexing algorithms, making a key part of their business less and less transparent over time. The eventual result has been the virtual decimation of communications systems like TrackBack, and absurdities like blogs linking to their own tag search results for key words in lieu of useful links, in an attempt to appease a search algorithm that they will never be allowed to fully understand.

An awareness of how a transformation in the fundamental value of links from informational to economic could have led Google to develop a system that separated editorial and aesthetic choices from economic ones, preventing the eventual link-spam arms race.

3. Adding features like comments from sources in a news story to Google News is an admirable attempt to bring unique value to aggregated news stories. But tasking a technology team with the duty to solicit and manage these comments ignores the fact that verifying, recording, and reporting a source is fundamentally an act of journalism. By trying to shoehorn a work of research into a primarily technological process, the news team faces the chance of fraud, abuse, error, or most likely, low participation and eventual abandonment.

An awareness that some types of information gathering require judgment and reasoning that's not well-handled by even the most clever algorithms would help Google make its transition into being a company that creates original content.

4. Google's announcement of Knol shows that they understand some of their key business drivers very well; With as much as 5% of the search result links for popular terms going to Wikipedia pages, a solution to capturing some of that traffic in an environment that Google can control and display ads on makes good business sense. The idea of sharing the earnings from that content with authors is also good business sense. But as with Google Pages (Page Creator), Blogger, Google Notebook, JotSpot, Google Docs/Writely and other tools, Google has not proven that it understands content creation and publishing as well as it understands its core businesses of search and advertising, or even its ancillary tools for communication and collaboration.

Worse, Knol shares with Google Book Search the problem of being both indexed by Google and hosted by Google. This presents inherent conflicts in the ranking of content, as well as disincentives for content creators to control the environment in which their content is published. This necessarily disadvantages competing search engines, but more importantly eliminates the ability for content creators to innovate in the area of content presentation or enhancement. Anything that is written in Knol cannot be presented any better than the best thing in Knol.

Conclusion

An awareness of the fact that Google has never displayed an ability to create the best tools for sharing knowledge would reveal that it is hubris for Google to think they should be a definitive source for hosting that knowledge. If the desire is to increase knowledge sharing, and the methods of compensation that Google controls include traffic/attention and money/advertising, then a more effective system than Knol would be to algorithmically determine the most valuable and well-presented sources of knowledge, identify the identity of authorites using the same journalistic techniques that the Google News team will have to learn, and then reward those sources with increased traffic, attention and/or monetary compensation.

A Footnote: There are many, often similar but sometimes conflicting, definitions of the idea of "Theory of Mind". Though imperfect, an explanation closest to the one I'm referring to here can be found in this essay. I'm very open to criticism that I'm being inaccurate or overly broad here, but I'm more interested in opinions, analysis, or experiences with Google as an organization.

Google Pack Mobile

November 20, 2007

android.gif Google's changed a lot in the past few years, going from underselling their efforts to shamelessly promoting themselves as leaders, even when it's leadership over initiatives that are still very tenuous or nascent. The best example to me was looking at the Android effort, backed as it is by the grandly-named Open Handset Alliance, and accompanied by a slickly-designed logo and some obviously careful branding work.

I can't help but feel if Google had launched the exact same effort two or three years ago, it would have simply been called "Google Pack Mobile". I'm not sure that would have been any better, and it may well have been worse, but what's remarkable is how complete the transformation has been.

A Moral Problem

September 21, 2007

From eWeek's "Upcoming" section, which I'd praised a few weeks ago, comes this interview with Java creator James Gosling. The key quote, for me:

Of Google, Gosling said: "I guess part of me has almost a moral problem with, 'What do you mean the killer app for Internet is advertising?' I'd love to believe it was all about building communities on the Web. But building communities is just a scam for getting people to pay for advertising. Search is just a scam to get people to pay for advertising. I know the Google folks actually resisted doing advertising for a long time. They didn't like the idea, but they had to have a spreadsheet solve to a positive number."

He goes on to overreach with some of his conclusions, but I thought his perspective was interesting.

It's still a Phoenix

July 16, 2007

Before it was called Firefox, or Firebird, Mozilla’s lightweight browser was known as Phoenix. An appropriate name, given than it rose from the ashes of Netscape. Read/WriteWeb has a nice retrospective pegged to the fourth anniversary of the creation of the Mozilla Foundation. It quotes me writing upon the demise of Netscape, and I thought it was useful to also mention the circle of web life that the Mozilla/Netscape browsers have been part of.

If you weren’t reading blogs back then, or missed the posts, some interesting related reading is John Rhodes’ seminal essay about a Google client from 2001, as well as Jason Kottke’s two posts from 2004.

As Richard says in his R/WW post, “Life is all about cycles though, so whether the Google/Mozilla romance turns out to be comedy or tragedy in 4 more years time — that is the question.”

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