Sky High Wi-Fi

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In many places around the world, Internet connectivity is an almost unheard-of luxury. Roughly 4 billion people have no access to the web. Much of India doesn’t even have functioning lavatories, public or private. Much of the Third World went straight to mobile phones and never developed a copper wire infrastructure, which makes delivering Internet at reasonable speed hard and expensive. What to do?

The answer from two of our online overlords came into closer focus this week when Facebook revealed their Internet drone and Google announced that it was working with Madagascar for that island state to be the first customer for its balloon based platform, Project Loon. In both cases, the idea is to get a platform high enough to beam a laser-based Internet signal to Earth, which can then be distributed through a network of repeating towers to remote towns and villages.

Both projects have a pretty high gee-whiz factor. The Facebook drone has the wingspan of a 737 and in theory, will be able to deliver “tens of Gigabits per second” from twice the height at which a 737 would normally fly. It’s solar powered and pretty much Star Wars awesome. The Loon is a little more pedestrian, but still way cool. Think microwave tower suspended under a Zeppelin.

In principle, all this tech applied to bring the Internet to billions of poor people is a laudable, perhaps noble idea. Communication brings people together. Having access to the world anywhere in the world no matter your status is surely a good thing? But so is clean water, childhood immunization, education for girls and women, the end to genital mutilation, universal health care and contraception…the list goes on.

Whether you like Bill Gates or not, you have to grant that he and his wife have almost single-handedly taken on some of the greatest curses of the poorest people in our world and made a huge difference. They have pretty much eliminated the horrific parasite Guinea Worm, and they are closing in on a bunch of other diseases which plague the world’s poor. They are doing this with well-managed grants; they have donated over $30 Billion so far. I have no idea how many Loons or drones you could get for $30 Billion —a few I’m guessing — but how about we eliminate Malaria first?

The sad fact is that to the narcissistic tech wonders who rule Silicon Valley, Drones and Loons are cool. Malaria, not so much. How about we do the Loons and Drones, but we donate an equal amount to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and help them give a reasonable standard of life to the future customers of those Wi-Fi services?

Search Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Search-Wars-Logo-e1421429928227We have all been bystanders as the tech giants duke it out in various arenas. Microsoft won the battle for the desktop, Google won search, Apple won the device war, and the phone war continues. The supremacy enjoyed by Google in search has been so strong for so long that we have all stopped talking about it, except as a possible cause of anti-trust law suits. That could be changing, and the cause might well be Windows 10.

Microsoft has had the Bing search platform for a good while now, but it’s only loosely integrated with their other products. It was once terrible; now it’s pretty good. In most cases, it’s just about indistinguishable from Google, and has clawed its way to about 20% of the overall U.S. search market. However, those clever guys over in the Evil Empire of Microsoft have plans.

In the new Windows 10 version (which is officially released today), Microsoft has wrapped search around all of its components. Irrespective of what you may be looking for, whether on your PC, in your Outlook or anywhere on the web, Windows 10 will be able to give you an answer without you ever leaving the Windows environment.  Since that environment is to be found on something like 93% of all desktops, that must be a little worrying to our good friends at Google. In addition, the new Windows browser is supposed to be lightning fast. The start bar is back, their digital assistant is impressive, and all in all, what I’ve seen looks both modern and very usable.

I’ve put in for the free upgrade, and I’ll know more once I get my eager little hands on it. However, if I’m rattling around on my Windows desktop using mostly Windows programs, I might not be bothered to go open a Chrome browser just to search on Google. Of course, there will be an adoption curve. There is still a measurable number of Windows 3.1 users, but if the Windows 10 search is as good as it looks, this is going to hurt Google’s search market share, and it will once again be game on in Search Wars. I’m getting popcorn; want some?

Google Meets The Pelican Brief

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Sometimes, I find a story that is so weird and apparently unlikely that it can’t be real. But then, suddenly it is.

A few months ago, I read The New Jim Crow, which sets out a well substantiated case that the political right wing of America conspired to essentially jail our young men of color by the thousands as a way to keep the black population “in their place,” following the progress made through the civil rights movement. It’s a staggering story. A more recent and less wide scale story — but almost equally unlikely — has emerged around Google. And this time, Google is the victim. Here’s what appears to have happened:

The film industry hates movie piracy. It’s an entirely understandable position, and one they have been pursuing by all available means in recent years. They had placed a lot of hope in the Stop Online Piracy Act, which nearly made it into law a couple of years ago, but fell at the last fence when mighty Silicon Valley lobbyist (led by Google) convinced the Obama Administration that it would amount to far reaching and unprecedented censorship of all things online. The act would have made search engines, in some part, responsible for displaying pirated content in search results. Search engines understandably hated and feared this idea, as it would strip from them the safe harbor they had been enjoying since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protected them back in 1998.

I understand this is profoundly dull so far, but bear with me; this gets good. Having failed through the judicial process, the movie studios plotted (conspired is such a harsh word) to have various state Attorneys General file suit against Google, with the goal of tying them up in legal knots and making them so miserable that they remove their support from the anti SOPA campaigns, leaving them with the chance to get it reinstated at some point, perhaps under a Republican President.

It was nothing if not ambitious in scope and breadth, budgeting $500,000 per year to fund this process. They even suggested that News Corp (Fox) and NBC plant stories in the Wall Street Journal and the Today Show speculating on the likely impact these actions might have on Google’s stock price. Leading the charge for the bad guys was the AG for Mississippi.

Why Mississippi, you ask? Why not California, where movies are made? The neat wrinkle is that the tax climate in California is so hostile to business that it has allowed other states to offer tax breaks to encourage productions to move there. Mississippi has benefited enormously from these changes, so it makes perfect sense that they sign up to be the stalking horse for this process.

There are many twists and turns with which I won’t bore you, but Google has just filed additional documents in its case against Fox, NBC Universal and Viacom detailing an arsenal of smoking guns. The bad guys weren’t exactly successful in covering their tracks; it would be comical if it weren’t so revolting. The case continues…

Google Finds Interstitial Advertising is Just Annoying

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How many times have you been browsing the internet, and see that annoying popup from the website asking you to install its app? Google has published the result of a recent study they performed, saying it found nearly 69% of visitors served with an interstitial (the popup for those who don’t know) for its Google+ social service abandoned the page entirely – neither downloading the app, nor going on to visit the mobile website – attributing this to the added friction of serving mobile users with an interstitial. Usually there is a large button to get the app and a small link to allow you to continue to the mobile site.

9% of the visits to the interstitial page resulted in the “Get App” button being pressed. But some percentages of users have already installed the app or gone through the entire course of the app store download. That means not only didn’t they go to the app store, but they didn’t even continue on to the mobile site.

Mobile web users are often irritated by the interstitial ad that often pops up to promote the website’s native app. However this week Google has eliminated its ads and did a big favor to users. The Google Plus iOS native app installs only experienced a 2% drop. Maybe this might be a precursor to other websites dropping their interstitial, allowing for a seamless transition to the page you actually want to visit.

Stalking the Google Way

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The recent data breach at Ashley Madison (a company whose boss was dumb enough to claim that he had the most secure site on earth) means the site may end up with private information about millions of people having affairs being released online. What is perhaps much more threatening to anyone trying to stay under the radar is the spy in your pocket. Google just announced the latest version of its timeline feature in Google Maps, and it’s kind of horrifying.

For as long as you have had location services turned on (the default is off, but many people turn it on to take advantage of other cool features), Google has been tracking your every movement. For example, last Christmas, we visited Las Vegas. On my timeline for Christmas day, it shows that we stayed at Caesars and visited an exhibit at the Luxor. It’s not perfect; it shows us at the Hilton (the Purple Rain tribute show), but has the time wrong. Nonetheless, it’s pretty amazing. The fact that I didn’t ask to be tracked and didn’t know it was happening is apparently neither here nor there.

In theory, all this rather creepy. Tracking is double opt in, but I bet most people have no idea what Google has been tracking for the past five plus years. Do you know where you were in April 2009? Google does. In some cases, it even shows me moving around inside my house. Again, weirdly creepy.

Obviously (as always), all this data collection comes down to commerce. If Google knows where we are, it can better target ads of all kinds at us. Since most of us don’t make much effort to control what we share (most don’t actually care), maybe it’s just another aspect of our “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” culture. However, since Google has no problems sharing with the government pretty much anything they ask for, you have to wonder what Google and our overlords are making of the places you go and the people you see.

Google Going Local?

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The word on the street for quite some time has been that Google wants in to the home services racket. The marketplace represented by all the work done by people like plumbers and lawyers is simply too huge to ignore. At the moment, most folks in the space (like Search Initiatives) focus on helping local businesses and national businesses with lots of locations drive business to those storefronts. Some sell leads, some build websites that do well in search, and some help those businesses spend their ad dollars to maximum effect. A great many of those ad dollars are going to Google, where the click prices for local search terms like “Plumber San Diego” are insanely high — over $40 a click in the case of that particular query.

The announcement last week that Google is buying HomeJoy and rolling their team into the Google-opolis reinforces the suspicion that something is afoot. The HomeJoy guys were essentially an Uber for house cleaning. They had raised a good chunk of funding, but were struggling with their latest round. They’re also getting into hot water in places like California, where the issue of their cleaners actually being employees rather than contractors was getting nasty.

Google now owns HomeJoy and a business reviews and profiles platform called Thumbtack. They represent different angles on the same space, and it’s likely that eventually, Google will pick a path and jump in.  The smart money says that Google will follow initiatives they have been announcing recently, where they become a vendor rather than only being the marketplace where all vendors compete. In local services, this means that a local plumber signs up and agrees to cut Google not how many clicks it costs to get a potential customer, but a piece of the actual value of the work involved. Amazon is trying something similar.

It’s likely that when they roll this out, the top results on search won’t be the people willing to pay the most for the click, but rather the people willing to cut the largest check out of the job value. The math runs something like this: it varies wildly, but many businesses will spend up to 10% of the value of a job on marketing. For example, an air conditioning repair guy will have to pay about $15 a click to have any chance of getting found on Google, actually closer to $30 to guarantee top spot, but $15 should get you some visibility. We know it takes around 5 to 10 clicks to get a solid lead, and most businesses close about 25% of all jobs they quote. That means a local business has to buy something between 20 and 40 clicks to get that billed job. That’s roughly $300-$600 of marketing cost per billed job in this case. As you can easily see, it’s tough to make money in the local search market where amateurs bidding on search terms are causing huge price spikes.

Given that Google is already earning a ton of money from this area, it will be interesting to see how they pivot into competing in the space. Convincing local businesses to buy search has been hard. I can’t imagine convincing them to sign over part of the contract value will be much easier. There will be questions like: how do they check on what got billed and paid? Is the job booked and collected by Google? What if the contract goes bad, and someone gets injured? Is Google essentially becoming the prime contractor and back office for local business?

It’s a massive opportunity, but also a huge potential pain in the neck. Local is hard, really hard. It’s the “Russian Winter” of the online space. It will be fascinating to see if Google has the stomach for the fight.

Fiber for Free?

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Google is now bringing its high-speed Internet connection, Google Fiber, to public housing scattered throughout the U.S. in order to ensure students can get online whenever they want completely for free. Google’s new initiative is part for the ConnectHome program launched by the government along with the US department of Housing and Urban Development. Google did not specify how many individual homes will be included in the new program.

As of now, Google Fiber is only available in a handful of locations including Austin, Texas; Kansas City and Provo, Utah. However, there are plans for expansion in Phoenix and Portland. As part of its plan of bringing Internet into public housing residents, Google also announced that it will offer digital literacy program for people who lack basic computer education or for those who are not familiar with the Internet. An early trial of the program was undertaken and proved that half of those who signed up for the program completed and passed the training.

Other Internet service provider has also showed their intentions of joining the project of bringing low-cost Internet to public housing. Century Link is planning to release a low-cost monthly Internet in Washington and Cox Communication is also gearing up to do the same in Louisiana.

VR Goes Hard Core

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I’ve been touting the importance of Virtual Reality for a long time now. It is, I firmly believe, the next big thing to hit all of us. There is a growing band of hardware producers coming out with headsets of differing sophistication, the games guys are charging ahead and there have been some interesting applications emerging recently. The killer app for VR just showed up, and, as predicted, it’s porn.

The adult industry has always driven the online world. Pretty much every innovation you could come up with, from online payment to HD streaming, was brought to us in good part by porn. The latest wave is starting to break over VR, and like it or not, it’s going to be a major driver for this industry.

The poster children for this innovation are a sex toy manufacturer called Lovense and an online VR porn studio called Virtual Real Porn. Neither gets major points for naming, but the product combination is fascinating. I haven’t tried either, and likely won’t, but the story is compelling.

The Porn studio dreamed up its own tech to film convincing VR porn, and the sex toy guys came up with devices that guys (ahem) plug into which generate physical sensations that coordinate with the visuals. Supposedly, the combined impact is remarkable. Why bother? Well, traditional porn relies on the point of view of the director. You simply see what the camera sees. In a VR deployment, you are essentially watching the action and can (to some extent) move around it to catch the action at different angles. What makes VR different is the fact that it generates “presence.” It fools the mind into thinking that you are actually there. Apparently, even in this early iteration, the impact is real.

Neither of these companies is making mainstream news, but then when was the last time you heard a story about the traditional porn industry (short of condom use and HIV scares). Globally, the adult biz is worth about $100Bn annually with the US contributing about $13Bn (that’s just a touch under what the magazine industry is worth). Those are huge markets, and especially given that the customers of this industry skew heavily male (and maybe geeky?), I’d expect adoption rates to be through the roof pretty quickly.

There’s a Brit TV comedy from the late 80’s called Red Dwarf. It’s a brilliant (if patchy) SciFi spoof, and one of its more compelling story-lines involves the Better than Life VR system. Essentially, you plug it in and you can be anything you want. You can date Marilyn Monroe, climb Everest, fly to the moon; all you need is enough credits on your system.  The unexpected side effect is that people become addicted to BTL more quickly and permanently than crack cocaine, leading to societal collapse. A recent survey of young men concluded that in many cases, guys would rather play games and watch online porn than actually put the effort into forming relationships with real women. Oh, dear. This may not end well.

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Glass 2.0?

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Really? Are we still talking about Google Glass? Apparently, we are. It looks like Google is planning an extensive re-launch of what is arguably its most divisive product, this time focused on the “Enterprise Edition.”

Just in case you missed my earlier four hundred rants about this product, Google Glass is the wearable tech that evolved the term “Glassholes” to characterize its users. Nothing says, “I’m white, entitled and I know somebody with juice in Silicon Valley” like wearing Google Glass. I tried it on a couple of times, and was reasonably underwhelmed by what it could actually do. However, the substantial product shortcomings never really got a fair hearing in comparison to the avalanche of deserved contempt the “ambassadors” wearing the product generated.

Glass became totemic for everything we hate about “those people.” The harder Google pushed, the more stories emerged about boorish Glass usage. Some of the stories are doubtless urban legend but there were enough of them to lead Google to eventually pull the plug on Glass as a consumer device.

Glass’ upcoming rebirth in the technical and medical fields makes a lot of sense. In the same way a surveyor or doctor might pick up their allocated equipment for each shift, so I can readily see Glass as a useful enterprise tool. The ability to show a distant colleague exactly what’s happening on the job at that point or recall data real-time without having to manipulate a device by hand is a great idea whose time has come.

It’s unlikely that Google will sell anywhere near as many items as they would had they conquered the consumer market as planned, but the numbers they do sell will likely be more robust, have longer battery lives and boast larger, more useful screens. They will also get the public more used to eye-wearables in general. Perhaps after we have gotten used to seeing our doctors or auto mechanics wearing Glass, we will become less bothered by the application as a whole.

Apple’s iPod Touch is Getting a Facelift

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Apple seems to not have forgotten its roots, as recent reports suggest that the iconic computer and phone manufacturer are releasing a brand new iPod Touch. Yes, it’s been a while since the iPod has really, really meant something in the world of consumer electronics, but new models will likely be announced this week. Additionally, the company is expected to unveil new models of iPod Shuffle and the iPad Nano.

Apple’s upcoming iPod Touch will likely offer a 64-bit processor, or the same processor as the iPhone 5S. The music player with touchscreen display is also expected to include an improved back-facing camera, and additional storage option including models with 128GB non-expandable internal storage.

This round of updates in the Apple factory should not have surprised anyone. Back in June, Apple launched the revamped version of its Music App to compete with Spotify. Adding new, inexpensive iPod Touch models with new bells and whistles could help the new Apple Music rake in additional revenue from new subscribers, although the new Apple music player is also coming to Android this fall.

Some have suggested that Apple might use the new iPods to sell more Beats Music-branded headsets and earphones. The new reports about the iPod refresh also comes as Apple introduces the new build for the iOS, a beta preview, and it highlights the company’s first attempt in the online news business.