Big Week in Google World

As a little fishy swimming in the vast digital tank which is Google it’s been an interesting week to see what’s happening at the mother-ship.  The big news is the secret talks between Apple and Google over Android. As I reported months ago Google has secured a clutch of strong early patents from Motorola in good part just to bolster their position in an inevitable conflict over their wholesale borrowing of features from the Apple iOS in Android. It’s the classic Mexican Standoff where both sides compare arsenals of patents and agree eventually to not hurt each other.

That’s an arguably progress, the last thing Google needs is a cage match with Apple. Google has had a couple of setbacks on other fronts this week. The long drawn out fair use case based around it’s program which is digitizing large parts of the worlds printed knowledge is now moving ahead..so that’s another legal headache waiting in the wings. In the same week Google announced its plan to shut down Google TV. This has been a long standing project to incorporate local TV advertising into the ad products it offers. It died for essentially the same reason Spot Runner died…it just took several years longer to stop moving. Google rightly argues that TV is going digital so it plans to chase that instead. The TV initiative went the way of Google’s attempts to include print media which they shuttered a few years back. Bottom line is traditional media works a certain way…it has entrenched vested interests and cost structures and changing those interests is a tough battle….indeed the media may die before they ever evolve…nobody nowadays misses the giant sloth. It’s easier to go digital than go back.

Have a great holiday weekend.

Rolling Back Search?

I’m a huge Amazon fan…most people are…what better way to avoid California sales tax on the widest range of electronics at great prices? I was interested to read today that Walmart is rolling out their new Polaris shopping search for their online properties which have always struggled to keep up with the much sexier and frankly less overweight Amazon. That’s a slightly odd name as Polaris is the name of the ICBM nuclear missile program prominent in the Cold War…the might just as well have named it their new engine “The Brezhnev” but I guess their assumption is that nobody studies history anymore so what the heck.

Just in case you care, they are featuring several things which are interesting if not necessarily useful. The first is semantic search which essentially tries to figure out what were really searching for as opposed to what you actually searched for and give you more options. This isn’t new. We were working on this back in the late Middle Ages (2002) at Fast Search and Transfer my Alma Mata of search. It’s subsequently been done a dozen different ways by just about everyone in search…but good for Walmart for catching up. The second is using social signals as indicators of quality. Essentially they collect Pinterest posts or Facebook likes along with a range of other social signals and use them as a scoring factor when delivering results. It’s not a bad idea, thou not one without potential challenges.

The premise that something is good because it has lots of likes is open to debate. Justin Beiber has over 46 million likes even Toddlers and Tiaras has three quarters of a million. The other problem with likes is that they cost so little effort to garner and are open to corruption that the moment it becomes clear how likes can be used to twist rank to commercial advantage you can be sure folks will be doing it in their droves (is that like spam?). Perhaps a better indicator is the review metric. I bought a new laptop on Amazon yesterday and the reviews were an important factor. In fact what I did was sort the result set by number of positive reviews then manually scanned down it for a laptop from a manufacturer I like at a price point I could afford. I like reviews as they are inherently more effort to carry out and potentially less open to corruption. If I went by likes I would be pushed towards Dell who has over three times as many likes as Asus. However if you compare the Amazon user reviews between the Dell equivalent of the Asus I ended buying the Asus is a hands down winner.

I took a quick swing through Polaris today and overall it’s pretty good. When I gave it very general searches like “Gold” it came back with gold jewelry, books, some music, xBox live gold membership, a blue and gold tent even a gold metal detector. Not bad for an almost impossibly vague query but in truth all over the map. What it doesn’t do is give a “more like this” option to allow you to zoom in on what you did mean. With a difficult query with relatively few good matches like “Private Parts” it returns the Howard Stern movie first then an interesting range of stuff ranging from books for children on how to avoid abusers “keeping private parts private” to Saving Private Ryan, a Shirley Temple movie and a twisted metal curtain rod where it appears to be ranking based on having the phrase “Includes all necessary parts.” In contrast the same search on Amazon also yielded a range of choices but the results presented many more choices focused on the more likely intent options those of gold jewelry and the Howard Stern Movie. That was an awfully cursory test but initial verdict? “Close but no cigar”.

The Great Media Game

It’s not the first time I can recall that Google has run an ad on the blank front page of Google.com but it’s certainly the first I can recall in a long time. The ad is (naturally) pushing their new 7″ tablet the Nexus 7. The new device has great reviews and at $199 it’s aimed squarely at the Kindle. Aside from the overall weirdness of having a huge ad on the front page the Nexus is an interesting departure for Google and another facet of what I believe is a much bigger media game.

For years we poor media consumers have had to put up with roughly 20 minutes in the hour of commercials…often poorly produced and repetitious. As a rough number I have seen the case made that for every hour of TV you watch advertisers are paying about 30 cents for access to your time. Then Satellite radio emerged with ad free music but horrible ads on their speech channels. Then came Pandora and a range of competitors offering essentially ad free or nearly ad free listening. Now we have Hulu, Hulu plus, Amazon Prime, iTunes and a range of video on demand offered by cable companies. The ad free content offered in many cases tends to be a little less current than prime time but if you don’t mind seeing earlier episodes or last quarter’s movies you can get a ton of pretty good content for about $20 a month, pretty much entirely ad free. Interestingly you can get almost everything you might want to watch except tonight’s new episodes live entirely without your cable provider. My youngest son recently took occupancy of his new off campus apartment and he’s proud to live a cable TV free lifestyle, no doubt he is an early adopter but it’s an option which wasn’t even available until quite recently.

So if you can live without tonight’s episode of Dancing With The Stars you can trade commercials for $20 and also get access to lots of content which wouldn’t be normally available. Catalyzing this dramatic shift in behavior are several key drivers including immersive high speed internet/wifi, mobile devices like the iPad or Nexus 7  and technology which seamlessly transfers content to the large flat screen which is a feature of pretty much every household in the US. It took about seven years for the flat screen to go from expensive luxury to commonplace. It’s taken less than two years for the tablet to make the same transition. The explosion of content sources (HuLu, iTunes etc) and the wireless integration technologies (Apple TV, Roku, Slingbox, Boxee etc) have all happened in just the last nine months. The adoption curves are shortening in real time.

We aren’t (yet) at the point where we can access all the content we want commercial free on any device in the house or outside for a total cost of about $100 per month…but I believe that’s visible from here.

The Rise and Fall…….

This blog isn’t about the industry so if you only care about industry stuff you can pass on this. I’m currently working my way through the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s a monster book published 50 years ago when the events were still fresh in the authors mind. It’s a fabulous book, I speak passable German and I have visited that fascinating country many times. I have always been fascinated by WW2 (my parents lived through it and most of my uncles saw active service against Rommel and on D Day) so I have been fascinated by the detail and depth of this amazing book.

However, as the detail gets more intense I’m finding it increasingly disturbing. It’s all too easy in the politically charged world we inhabit to throw around ridiculous parallels, this guy is a socialist or that guy is a terrorist name calling is the common place of talk radio and has been for a while. This book was written just about when I was born…in a very different time, long before the kind of thought experiments and media saturation we all live with today. What I found truly disturbing are the parallels between the approaches employed by the Nazis in pre-war Europe and our modern political landscape. Obviously it’s not reasonable to compare the excesses of the third Reich to modern America (although we have seen similar mass murder and abridgement of human rights many times since the war around the world) rather it’s the poisonous thinking which was adopted wholesale by the Nazis to further their political goals which strikes a chord.

Here are a few examples: Science can and should be politicized, it the data doesn’t support your political position it must be wrong or fabricated and denied. I’d cite global warming, evolution and women’s health as just three current examples. The recent furor around the appalling Todd Atkin is just one example. That wasn’t him making (wrong) facts up that was him quoting a widely held ‘scientific’ opinion much touted by his peers on the right. There were a handful of crazy experiments around women and conception in super stressed conditions (the most notable conducted of course by Nazis in death camps) where women were scientifically terrified and then their fertility was assessed. I kid you not. The fact that this kind of evil pointless shallow science happened is awful…that it is still quoted and believed by many today is worse. I won’t waste your time by railing at the madness of creationism masquerading as intelligent design but I’m prepared to bet that if I took a poll of the fifty people physically nearest to me right now a good 20% of them would at least support the teaching of that crack-pot theory on the curriculum.

Watching coverage on the 24×7 news channels it becomes clearer every day that the reality of an issue shouldn’t get in the way of how it’s presented. If the facts don’t fit the agenda then change them, nobody will check and even if they do the story will have moved on by the time anyone finds out. I was raised in the UK where the political climate is significantly to the left of the US. I chose to live here so I guess I shouldn’t complain….but I move over here during Clinton I when the political discourse was altogether more civil.

As I continue to read this excellent book the echoes of that long gone age are striking and eerie. It doesn’t matter that you have no facts or that your facts are twisted, it doesn’t matter that your opinion goes against inherent moral principles.  Average Germans manned the machines which nearly brought our civilization down. Average Germans scheduled the railways which took the Jews to the camps; average Germans lined the streets and waved. That happened in the memory of my parents, yet so few years later we watch as the same kind of calculated ignorance, pandering, deception and dissembling is becoming our political norm.

We know where this could end….and we have a really good book to serve as a tour guide.

Papering up the Jobs Legacy

The verdict heard round the world was handed down on Friday when Apple won its patent infringement case against Samsung. Its ramifications are going to reach beyond the immediate case (a Billion here or there is no big deal to a company like Samsung with 21Bn in their checking account). If you listen carefully you can hear the attorneys rubbing their hands together in anticipation. We are a mere minnow in the ocean of IP and tech value where the big fish sue the bigger fish but this is likely to send shock waves across the entire space. Software and hardware manufacturers will have to pay Apple or come up with a radically different solution to steer clear of similar threats.

As I have blogged many times in the past mobile is where the future lies, for example I just read a recent report which said that daily deals sites are getting more traffic from mobile devices than desktops already and that trend is going to become stronger over time. Having swung and hit Samsung as hard as they have there are no major cash prizes for guessing that Android is next. Shortly before he died Jobs summoned Brin and Page (the Google founders) to essentially yell at them for copying the Apple iOS with Android. I don’t think they reached a conclusion and Google is certainly unapologetic about the similarities between their baby and the iPhone. No doubt the courts will eventually get round to this too. Given the recent verdict there has to be a good chance Apple will win. That could be calamitous for Google in many ways. The very fact that they might lose will likely shake the market and may strengthen even further Apples hand. Back in the day when Android launched, a key driver for Google to essentially give away the platform was the thinking that eventually the world will be mobile and he who controls the handset will rule the earth. However handsets operate on networks and unless Google buys AT&T or T Mobile (and the might yet) the mere fact that Android devices may be significantly impacted by a verdict against them may well tip the scale towards more networks doing a deal with Apple. That way they aren’t in danger of being left stranded or scrambling to produce a non android non Apple solution. By the way on that point we should expect to see a scramble for exactly that from multiple sources…though how you come up with a competitor to an iPhone which doesn’t impinge on patents as fundamental as two finger zoom is beyond me.

When Jobs died he left a legacy of innovation which has driven our world and has been slavishly copied by many. The Apple team appears to be moving to paper up as much as they possibly can to secure every ounce of value they can from his legacy. Once upon a time leadership in cell phones was seen as a good business opportunity…with the dash to a mobile life underway that leadership is even more important. The much vaunted iPhone 5 is on the wings, a thinner larger more powerful 4G device is already poised to be the biggest launch in phone history. That launch coupled with the uncertainty generated by the Samsung verdict could well jump Apple to an even stronger position as this market accelerates. Can Apple find a new wave of innovation to continue what Jobs started?…who knows….but securing that legacy in the courts may yet win that battle after all.

The Data Woven Life

Back in 1984 a long time ago in what feels like a galaxy far far away one of my favorite authors William Gibson published Neuromancer. It was a ground breaking novel setting the stage for the Cyberpunk generation. He’s now in his mid sixties but ten years before most of us were using email he imagines a cyberspace where data is visualized as a vast city with data its self is a currency. Twenty eight years later we aren’t quite in the data dystopia he imagines but we are certainly getting there. Cloud computing is rapidly taking on and taking down traditional desktop based computing, massive fiber networks are making distributed data as common as electricity and mobile devices are freeing up from both the desktop and the grid. We can’t quite yet ‘jack in’ and travel virtual data landscapes but with cool devices look Google Goggles on the horizon, phones which talk to us and cars which can drive themselves we aren’t that far away.

Google (as always) is in the thick of these developments with its massive investments in cloud computing and fiber, along with Amazon, Microsoft and the other usual suspects. Add to that the wild card of China emerging as a massive force in global data (China was also envisaged as a data monster by Gibson all those years ago) and we have a potent mix.

Part of the fascination I have for this sea change of data and how we relate to it is simple occupational geekery…but part is the simple joy of watching amazing power that mankind apply new tools to the old drives and vices which have always underpinned our society. If a politician slips by exposing the gelatinous underbelly of ignorance and bigotry which hides behind the smile and the grey suit he can be exposed and pilloried in a massive public forum thousands of times larger than the market square of years gone by.  A few days pass and the crowd moves on to the next distraction. How we buy and what we but changes but immediate gratification, greed, lust avarice still power the choices made. If our darker angels are carrying tablets 24×7 so to is our ability to do good is also enhanced. We can already feed billions more than the most optimistic pundits ever guessed, we have the tools to bring education and a future to enormous segments of the world who would have been condemned to ignorance and an early death only decades ago.

Data, defines and drives our world, what we do with it is what will drive our happiness and the well being of our species…and it’s all happened in Mr Gibson’s lifetime.

The Value Bonfire

I was playing with some tools on WSJ the other day looking at the stock performance of some of the leading lights of the social media world. The woes of the space are famous but when I zoomed back the 5 year view the issue jumps into sharp relief. Facebook of course has the most spectacular curve…it’s resemblance to a cliff edge is dramatic, but Groupon and Zynga have similar curves…not as sharp, but then they have been around longer. As someone who is involved with the space pretty deeply I take no glee whatsoever in these precipitate curves. The reasons behind them are manifold but central to all of this is the fundamental problem with social media and daily deals…its people. Human nature is tough to go up against.

The huge winner from the first wave of the dot com revolution was search. It’s grown from nothing to a 50Bn industry and the smart money was on Facebook and their social media bedfellows would be the next big thing. The difference is simple…it’s intent. Search works as a medium because it clearly demonstrates intent. Intent trumps all. Social media provides a forum and a communication channel and by abridging the privacy of its users it’s possible to collect enormous amounts of data on the interests and activities of users. However just because I may post about sea fishing it’s not the same as targeting someone searching for ‘sea fishing rod.’ Interest does not equal intent…and that simple fact is responsible for the bonfire of value happening at Facebook. Similarly human nature loves a killer deal…but a shopper taking advantage of a fire sale offer does not necessarily turn into a regular customer. Those are both age old maxims which have driven retail and commerce for many years. To attempt to change those underlying drivers is an uphill task. Search, whether desktop or mobile will continue to thrive driven by intent and deals will continue to attract buyers if they are steep enough…and people will gossip. The vehicles may change but the drivers stay the same. Attempting to buck these trends is tough…as the burning smell from social media and deal of the day indicates. Smores anyone?

The Rise of the Mobile Mammals

I have been is search for over a decade and ever since 2000 each year has always been “the year when mobile breaks through” and it never was. Indeed, it felt like it never would. As smart phones emerged blinking into the dust of the 2008/2009 recession it was still the mighty search owned by Google executed on the mighty Desktop controlled by Microsoft that ruled the roost striding like tyrannosaurs through the verdant jungles of a the online Silurian epoch….(is that the right epoch.?) In any event the amount of usage grew rapidly spawning a plethora of cute apps dedicated to wasting our time and still it wasn’t quite the year mobile search broke through.

I was at Search Engine Strategies last week where the Geek and the Good of our industry meet to kibitz about Google’s plans to conquer the world and how they can best ride those coat tails. Talking to folks and sitting through the presentations (well a good sub set of them any how) you could be forgiven for thinking that the desktop was dead…or perhaps had never been invented. The dash to mobile devices of all kinds has the search world scrambling for solutions. Best guesses have search volumes from mobile devices out stripping desktops by 2015 latest. Mobile devices bring their own problems, the small real-estate limits advertising opportunities but the fact that they are inherently locally target-able generates enormous opportunity. The other thing with mobile devices (especially phones) is that they are…well phones. Phones (as old fashioned as they may seem) work terrifically for local transactions. We have focused on pay per call delivered through all forms of new media and mobile looks like being the most effective channel. It makes perfect sense and it’s a trend that seems to be catching fire.

Mobile devices have finally come into their own…and it looks like they may well take on a much greater role than we ever envisaged back in the early 2000’s. Back then we saw it as augmenting the desktop or laptop. Nowadays it’s entirely replacing it. For example, for the two days I was at the conference I kept in touch, did email surfed the web and did various social media things all from my iPhone. All aspects of search, social local and mobile have hit critical mass and look like they may just take over the world. What’s interesting from a search point of view is that Google who has ruled the roost for years now has an unexpected competitor in Apple. Google has fought and conquered Yahoo and Bing for years….now almost out of the blue comes Siri from Apple. Apple is also dropping Google Maps from its devices. It was interesting as to how concerned the Google Guy Matt Cutts seemed to be about Apple. When challenged by a questioner from the audience about their new Knowledge Graph cannibalizing web site owners content he pretty much said “if we don’t do it Apple will.” It will be interesting to see if the mobile mammals will be able to give the desktop dinos a run for their money.

The Real Problem With Real Time

The recently closed Olympics illustrated several significant challenges faced by all media in this increasingly fast paced world. The time zone difference and the power of Twitter meant that anyone in the US who wanted to watch an event without the results being a foreknown conclusion pretty much had to put a bag on their head to avoid spoilers especially from social media. The scheduling was all over the place so finding the event you were looking for was tougher than usual. When the would-be sports fan finally made it to the event in their own time zone they then had to sit through what felt like endless prepackaged features on the US interest in that event. Then there were the commercials. Obviously NBC had to meek significant budget targets but the relentless and endless commercial interruptions drove me at least to the DVR to back up enough of the content to get through the event without serious mind damage or terminal boredom. In a media world characterized by real time content forcing the wired fan to sit through well produced by turgid content surely can’t fly for many more Olympics.

All the social media platforms did a pretty good job of allowing news and opinion to flow and over all I was impressed with the tone and quality of both the original content and secondary comment from followers. There were silly moments where side issues developed weird amounts of heat but overall it felt encouraging. What was missing was the next step in the evolution of this kind of content…the evolution to the new on-demand. Right now I can use I-tunes, Netflix or the lamentable options offered by Verizon Fios to stream movies and some TV shows. Depending on the provider, I can choose standard definition or HD, I can choose to rent or buy the content permanently. Let’s extend that paradigm to the Olympics. As a viewer I’d like to be able to see the event real time live and or I’d like to be able to see that event when and where I choose. I’d like to be able to see it at the resolution of my choice and I’d like the option to view it with or without commercials for a small fee. With those choices not only would I watch much more of the coverage I suspect that charging me a few cents to avoid the commercials is going to be more valuable to the networks than charging advertisers for my time. I have $50 says most if not all of the options above will be in place by the time of the next summer Olympics with some aspects showing up as soon as Sochi 2014.

On a side note I sat through the closing ceremony last night and I have a couple of observations. Over all I thought it was enormous and often pretty whacky fun….Lord only knows what large chunks of Humanity watching made of Eric Idle singing “Always look on the bright side of life” (complete with Roman Soldiers but minus Crucifixions). I have no idea why the Spice Girls bothered to reunite; they looked more like The Desperate Housewives than their old selves. What bothered me…and it probably shouldn’t have, but it did; is than in  a festival of Brit music and culture packed full of really quite good performances, with the notable exception of Freddy Mercury (who had a really good excuse not to be there) why were so many performers missing. Hats off to Annie Lenox for doing a killer performance but where was Dave Stewart? Half of the Who and 25% of Pink Floyd who did show up and added excitement just by being there but where was Bowie, Waters, Gilmore etc, etc.  I have to imagine they were all invited but couldn’t get over their artistic differences…did Bowie really have something better to do than play to a measurable percentage of all of Humanity? Was it a gym appointment (I hear he’s put on weight)? Had the Floyd bitten the bullet and played together they would have had to reinforce the stadium roof to keep it on. It was a missed opportunity…but even with that…one heck of a good show.

Going Local…..Getting Closer to Home

Several interesting items have crossed my screen recently and they all point to the increasing importance of all things local.  For example eBay has just launched same day delivery for some of its products in certain markets….as always San Francisco gets to go first along with Las Vegas….(SF always gets to play with the cool stuff first). In general terms if it can’t be streamed real time I can wait a day or so to get something delivered. eBay is initially targeting local businesses looking for same day delivery of business supplies. I think that’s a little like cheating as these companies are typically set up for same day in town delivery so it’s a natural fit. It’s going to be harder to shorten those delivery chains for products not already set up for same day delivery. I recall back in the early days of dot com 1.0 there were a bunch of companies attempting to do things like grocery delivery and pretty much anything else online. Amazon has made a huge business doing what Sears and Roebuck was doing back in the days of the wild west. It’s a traditional paradigm brought up to date and made more local by technology. What’s much tougher to do is changing the paradigm rather than substituting sub components…either way local is driving the opportunity. Google recently announced ZIP code targeting and congressional district allowing politicians of all stripes to reach out to their constituencies through search. Will it make politicians more honest or interesting….probably not, but it will allow those who want to to target down to a level which they used to have to do door to door. It’s the same problem with a technology solution.

At the base of much of this change is the smart phone which is revolutionizing how we do a range of things. Amongst them is search. Mobile search is showing dramatic growth and as always the advertisers are lagging  behind usage. We spend over 10% of our time looking at mobile devices but they only garner 1% of ad spend. The logical advertiser base for the kind of intensely local products and services is also the most technology averse and skeptical group; the Small to Medium Business. That audience loves proven ROI…let’s expand the paradigm to a larger audience, imagine a scenario where a local business could advertise on search to a hyper local audience paying commission on deals driven to them through search or mobile media. Social media should (in theory) be a great source for similar transactions.

The lines of communication are compressing, we can order anything online and maybe get it delivered locally same day. Our politicians can get to us easier, advertisers, national and local can reach out to us based on our location and interests. The traditional barriers to privacy and access are being chipped away at as part of our pact with technology and convenience. Feeling a little claustrophobic by now…yeah me too.