A Buyer for Twitter?

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I hate to join a mob scene, but really Google, it’s time to spend some money wisely and buy Twitter. The little blue bird has been having a tough year. It’s trading at about $30 with a market cap of about $20 Billion, which is roughly half of where it was 18 month ago. Its investors are screaming about profits, which must make trying to plan ahead tough (trust me, I know of which I speak). Its management team is looking a little shaky, and it’s also seen slowing membership growth, which makes the market nervous. Last time I checked, Google had roughly $60 Billion in liquid cash stuffed behind the sofa, more than enough to pay cash and still have walking around money to fund their next moon shot projects.

 

Some argue that Facebook, Microsoft or Apple should make an offer, but Google would be the best fit. Apple has more than enough to do already, Facebook doesn’t need it, and Microsoft has their own social effort in Yammer. In contrast, Google could really use Twitter. To start with, in addition to the cash behind the sofa, it has another $440 Billion in market cap to play with, so putting the deal together seems feasible. Next, Google has been getting it in the neck of late for spending cash on projects with a high cool factor but no actual revenue. Google isn’t a car company or a Wi-Fi company or a VR company; at its core it’s an advertising company and a really good one at that. What twitter represents is a massive pool of end users who could be great consumers for the advertisers Google already possesses.

In recent months, Google has been killing off its failed social media effort Google+ (may it rest in peace). That leaves Google with a ton of advertisers, a difficult landscape in terms of making money out of mobile users, declining desktop traffic, and no social media component. If they were smart, they would make a play for Twitter and get them under their wing as a wholly owned subsidiary like they did with YouTube. YouTube thrives with a light managerial touch from Google and is now the second largest online search. If Google can annex Twitter, it can pretty much guarantee that it will also have the third largest search in Twitter as well.

Facebook has been focusing more on search recently, Apple has fired Google as their search, and with Windows 10, there is a chance that Microsoft will be able to grow Bing’s market share. If Google loses Twitter to one of those guys, its opportunity to grow its search in social will be greatly reduced at the same time their rivals are making aggressive moves into Google heartland.

It will be expensive, no doubt, and many will cry “foul” and “monopoly,” but it’s a move which makes perfect sense in many ways. It may by now be as close to a “must do” play for Google as makes little difference.

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.

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.

Apple Gunning for Google…Again

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A few weeks back, Facebook announced that it was adding a good sized index of Facebook-exclusive stuff to its product, which in theory presents a threat to Google News and possibly other search products. At its developer conference this week, Apple announced a much larger threat to Google.

This gets inside baseball very quickly, but it’s worth it; hang with me. If you are an iDevice user, you will be familiar with Spotlight search. It’s the search box that appears if you swipe down from pretty much anywhere in iOS. At the moment, it pulls up matches from some native apps on your phone; things like your contacts, calendar and some email programs.

The Apple announcement today will allow pretty much any app to link into Spotlight search through an API (that’s the language in which programs talk to each other). So if you have the CCN app (for example), and you searched for “ISIS” in the Spotlight bar, the CNN app could return stories from the main site CNN.com without you ever calling up a browser or doing a search on any other search engine. That’s potentially huge. It would also allow apps like Amazon and eBay to pull up commercial results, again without recourse to Google.

The nuance to this is that (unlike Google) Apple doesn’t rely on exploiting search results with commercials to drive 95% of its revenue, so it can promise (as it did this week) that your searches will never be shared or targeted. Given the massive and accelerating growth of mobile vs. desktop usage, this could make a significant dent in Google.

The good news for Google is that it owns Android, which holds a significant market lead in mobile devices. It could certainly make a similar move and return Google Ads around the results, but it doesn’t have the vice-like grip on its own mobile OS the way Apple does. Carriers futz with Android, which makes this kind of over-arching play trickier. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Is Google Treading Water? Or Drowning?

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I’m not really a stock market betting guy. It’s a game I’ve never been good at and frankly doesn’t interest me. I do keep an eye on several stocks, though, and one of them is Google. It’s been a tough year for them, and I’m sure their larger investors are letting them have it at their current shareholders meeting. The problem is that they have been more or less flat, showing a 1% decline in a period where the S&P 500 has hit nearly 10% growth.

I have extensively documented the factors driving these doldrums. The rapid move to mobile by users when advertisers have been slower to follow has hurt them. They have swapped desktop dollars for mobile pennies in many categories. The irony of that transition will not be lost on newspapers, who suffered a similar calamity a decade or so ago when print dollars became online pennies.

Having conquered search, they went on to miss out on social media. They missed Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and a bunch of other upstarts that have been pulling users away from Google properties. They also have a penchant for super expensive, “revenue-free” projects like Google Glass, Fiber, Nest, Driverless cars and Loon. That’s fine and dandy when you are king of the hill and leading the pack, but it’s less cool when you are just another online ad platform. Add to those woes the growth of markets over which they don’t have any sway, like Amazon and eBay. It’s tougher to be a Googler than it was a few years back.

At its core, Google is an advertising platform based around an auction system. The explosion of mobile inventory and the slower rate of adoption by advertisers has driven their click prices down month over month. That will likely improve as the ad world catches up, but it won’t be soon.

They need some game-changing, revenue-rich ideas. To that end, they are moving towards being the marketplace and selling goods and services direct, as opposed to being the forum where advertisers pay to reach the audience. It’s a good idea if they can make it work, but it’s also dangerous as they may end up in competition with their own advertisers.

There is talk of them moving into our local space. The idea is that Google becomes the platform which a local business uses to get jobs, then shares the profit on that job with Google (as opposed to merely buying ads to get customers). It’s huge and potentially game changing. It’s also fraught with friction and would require a fundamental change in how the local economy works.

It’s possible that in spite of having a massive war chest of cash and market leadership in something as fundamental as search, the glory days of Google growth are behind us. If they are, Google stands the risk of being discounted in the same way that newspapers were a decade or so ago. Maybe it is already far too far out, and not waving but drowning.

The NSA is Hacking Your Games

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That sounds crazy right? Even given how unscrupulous the NSA has been revealed of late, surely they aren’t using app stores to track us? Wrong. That’s exactly what they are doing.

In the latest of docs leaked by Edward Snowden, it is revealed that the NSA and the spy organizations of the UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia (yes folks, the good guys) were working together to exploit the kinds of weaknesses in mobile apps which criminal hackers usually use to steal identities for their own espionage purposes. The technical details are super boring, so I won’t waste your time with them. But essentially, they were combing through popular apps to find their own exploits, then planning to use those exploits to collect data and track individuals. Mobile devices are ideally equipped to let spies track us; all they have to do is match the SIM to the individual and it’s game on.

The project was called ‘Irritant Horn’ (who comes up with these names?) and it’s not 100% clear to what extent it was fully deployed. Of course, if it was done well enough, we wouldn’t be able to tell. The agencies were particularly interested in African countries and Asia. Almost hilariously, the most popular mobile browser in China was characterized as leaking like a sieve. Leaving users open to a wide range of tracking and interception, they were even able to send fake messages from one identified user to another once those users had been infected by the spyware the actual spies were using.

Naturally, the responsible agencies are claiming ‘appropriate oversight’ and self-defense. Google, Apple and Samsung have no comment and I’m sure that this story will be buried as quickly as possible. But next time you are noodling on Candy Crush, just remember that Big Brother is watching you.

Kiss the Internet Goodbye?

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I have already commented on the announcement earlier this week that Facebook has set up an index for over a billion Facebook content posts broadly categorized as news, but it prompts an interesting (and perhaps worrying) end game for us to consider. What if the web as we know it is in fact an artifact of the accidental way the web got started? What if it’s going away, and soon? Here’s why:

The web evolved as a bunch of separate web sites loosely linked together. Some of those sites got huge and became their own empires. Many are small and millions are pretty much moribund. As bandwidth availability grew and broadband speeds over cellular traffic became more common, the web developed a class system. Some sites like Google, Facebook and Amazon load super-fast all the time. In the case of Google and Facebook, the sites they link to don’t; they may be slow and clunky or not load at all if the load is too high.

That leads to a very spotty end user experience. Some links load, some don’t. Google has had their own content presented as part of search results for a good while now. It shows up as the “Knowledge Graph” to the right side of the results set for questions with a clear answer. These might be general topics, but they are often time sensitive.

For example, search for Al Capone and the knowledge graph takes you to where he is buried, among other things. If you click that link, it takes you to a results page and Knowledge Graph for Mount Carmel Cemetery. Not only can you find out about that place, but you can also find the opening hours and get directions all without leaving Google hosted pages. Now search for Red Sox. The results set gives you the basic facts: tonight’s game time and where to find tickets, all without leaving Google.

The Facebook announcement that they will be offering what amounts to a news/content search on their site means that very soon, everyone on Facebook (and for some, Facebook is most of the Internet) will be able to search and view a vast amount of content exclusively on Facebook. If I were a news publisher, I’d want to load content onto Facebook before any other place.

The third major factor is the app. Partly in response to the horribly clunky, ad-loaded and hard-to-navigate websites which make up much of the net, we now use apps for almost everything. In many cases the apps may duplicate content available on sites, but they typically load faster and are easier to navigate.

In a world where we can get most of what we need — certainly all the news and shopping we need — on Apps, Google direct or Facebook, why would we want to click away from what we know to be safe, fast-loading and easy to navigate areas to the residual, perhaps vestigial, site-based Internet? The Internet as we know it is dead; it just hasn’t stopped moving yet.

Can You Hear Me Now?

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A few months back, I teased the fact that Google was about to pull the trigger on their plan to become your cell phone provider— and they just did exactly that. They have just announced Google Fi, which is a cellular and WiFi network they say will be the new way to call.

Put simply, they have cut a deal with Sprint and T-Mobile (arguably the worst two networks out there) to piggyback on their cell coverage. It doesn’t end there. They are adding a network of strong WiFi hubs, which will give users Internet access over large areas and the ability to make phone calls over the WiFi rather than cellular service. That neat feature is currently limited to the Google Nexus 6 phone (a phone nobody has bought), but it points the way to the future.

It’s about time. When I visited South Korea about a decade ago, they already had strong and ubiquitous WiFi covering the entire country. Most people could make calls through either the cell service or the Internet connection. The new move by Google means that sometime soon, the average Google Fi user will be paying $50 a month for 3G service, WiFi hot spots and 3GB of data. That’s a considerable savings over what most of us are currently paying. Data you don’t use gets credited back to your account. Finally!

Though it’s still early, it’s likely that this will accelerate to work with all next-gen Android phones. Hopefully this new competitor with very large pockets and even larger ambitions will help stir the competitive pot in the same way that streaming technologies are helping to free us from the yoke of the cable company.

What’s missing is an Apple play in this space. iOS has already lost market leadership to Android. If Google starts bringing out really good smart phones that offer the kind of service we are talking about at these price points, it’s going to be tougher for Apple to stay relevant. Some kind of WiFi partnership with a major carrier (even a cable company) might make a lot of strategic sense, but I’ve heard no rumors to that effect yet.

The Mobile Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

_82435951_img_20150420_123227-1If there is one thing that makes me curse at my cell phone more than anything else, it’s large companies with pitiful mobile web presences. I’m sure you’ve done this any number of times: search for a business on Google, and click through to find a page with teeny tiny lettering and un-clickable links. A shockingly large number of good sized companies still don’t have mobile-friendly websites. For example, Big O Tires (www.bigotires.com), a national chain with over 400 franchise locations, is an ugly mess on any mobile device. There’s just no excuse for it, and Google has a plan to fix it.

On the grounds that things won’t get better until circumstances dictate they must, Google is changing the rules. As of April 21st, it’s tweaking its algorithm so that sites which aren’t mobile friendly won’t rank as well for queries on mobile devices. Nobody quite knows how devastating a change that will be, but since mobile traffic is now just about 60% of all search, that’s likely a huge deal.

In fairness, they did give the world a few months of warning. The grim reality will still catch many companies with their sites down. It will no doubt force a bunch of companies who hadn’t quite gotten around to making their sites mobile-friendly to get off the dime and get them fixed or face a massive drop in traffic. That’s tough love but they had it coming.

The people who aren’t quite as well placed to handle this change are the millions of small- to medium-sized businesses who may only have just gotten their acts together to put up a decent site. Now the 80% of them who aren’t mobile friendly will find themselves at a disadvantage to the (mostly) larger guys who are. There are only so many web developers out there and for many local businesses, their online presence already ranks low on the to-do list. The likelihood that they will all have the resources to fix it quickly is slim. Indeed, they probably don’t even know this is coming. It’s going to hurt.

It’s All A Matter Of Choice

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The crowd of angry villagers carrying pitchforks and torches seeking to kill the Google Beast has been reduced by one…perhaps more.  This is one of those inside baseball stories which only those directly involved and a handful of search nerds like me will probably care about at all…but it’s worth mentioning.

This story hinges on an anti trust case brought by Feitelson Et Al (who is this “Al” guy…and why is he involved) in which they sought to make the case that by bundling in lots of Google apps (like YouTube and GMail) along with the free Android operating system Google was in effect acting monopolistic-ally much in the same way that Microsoft did in the early days of the desktop.

Initially the judge kicked the case out at the end of February now the group behind the action has decided to throw in the towel and not re-file. Google respectfully declined to comment but if you listen carefully you can hear the champagne bottles popping over at the Mountain View.

At the core of the case is choice. Google argues (and I have to say I agree) that nothing they are doing is preventing anyone from doing pretty much anything. In the brave new world of apps if you don’t want to use any given Google product there’s pretty much nothing stopping you from getting a similar rival product and installing it in about the same time it takes to read the cover page of the court documents. The fact that many people don’t bother because they are quite satisfied by the toys Google gives them for free is really neither here not there. There are a handful of platforms spread between different kinds of mobile and desktop devices and most of them will run most of the hundreds of thousands of apps out there.  There are also other search engines and browsers. It’s reasonably easy to live a Google free lifestyle.

Given those factors it’s tough to carry the day by arguing that Google is a monopoly which prevents users from functioning without them…it’s not a true monopoly…and the bit which looks monopolistic isn’t compulsory.  None of this prevents the Google hating cohorts of the EU legislative bodies from pursuing their agendas…but it does make any subsequent case in the US look much less likely.