Transitioning the Translation Barrier


Last month, Skype, Microsoft’s video calling service, initiated simultaneous translation between English and Spanish speakers. Not to be outdone, Google will soon announce updates to its translation app for phones. Google Translate now offers written translation of 90 languages and the ability to hear spoken translations of a few popular languages. In the update, the app will automatically recognize if someone is speaking a popular language and automatically turn it into written text.

Certainly, the technology of changing one language to another is rather difficult. The Skype service also requires a headset and works best if a speaker paused to hear what the other person had said. Sometimes the translation doesn’t work directly from one language to another.

However, those language mistakes are a critical part of how online products get better. The services improve with use, as tinkering with so-called machine learning by computers examines outcomes and adjusts performance. It is how the online spell check feature became dependable, and how search, map directions and many other online services progress.

Just a few thousand people are using the service on Skype. As it learns from them, it will bring in more of the nearly 40,000 people waiting to try the Spanish-English service. Even in these early days, it elicits the possibility of social studies classes with children in the United States and Mexico, or journalism where you can live chat with a family in Syria.

Google says its Translate app has been installed more than 100 million times on Android phones, most of which could receive the upgrade. They have 500 million active users of Translate every month, across all our platforms. With 80-90% of the web in just 10 languages, translation becomes a critical part of learning for many people.

Automatic translation of web pages into some major languages is already a feature on Google’s Chrome browser. There are also 140 languages in which it is possible to change things like Gmail.

Microsoft’s Bing Translation engine is used on Twitter and Facebook. Facebook, which also features communication across the borders of language by operating the world’s largest photo sharing service, also has its own translation efforts. It has also signed up thousands of people to a waiting list for Skype to offer other simultaneously translated languages, like Chinese and Russian.

Feeding the “corpus,” as linguistics engineers call their database of language, has become critical for some countries as well as for the sake of machine learning. Google, which uses human translation to initiate its service, recently added Kazakh after a government official went on television to ask people to help out.

Still, some experts worry as machines look more deeply at individual uses of meaning through things like intonation and humor. What will it mean if, as with our search terms and our Facebook “likes,” these become fodder for advertisers and law enforcement?

Currently, just 1% of consumers consent to having their data recorded. That is what people do when they help machine learning of translation, or when they use voice-based assistants like Siri. Individuals will become better at managing their own privacy, and not outsourcing it to the providers of services. But for now, all kinds of information is surrendered for convenience.

Android Going Wider


Last week Apple gave us the larger, thinner, faster and considerably more expensive iPhone 6. Only they make the hardware. A while ago Apple pretty much invented then ruled the smartphone segment, now it’s a firm second to Android which already has over a billion users so far. Today Google announced the first Android One powered smart phones targeted at the emerging (ie third world) market and it’s coming out at just over $100. That’s an impressive move. It’s not that there haven’t been cheap smartphones out there, there have. This move is interesting because it represents a reliable high quality OS controlled by Google being offered on robust hardware built by major players.

Part of what has driven Google nuts in recent years is that Android as customized and deployed by phone manufacturers has tended to be both twitchy and bloated with custom modules added by the manufactures often to the detriment of the Android user. Not so in the case of Android One. In this version the handset makers will not be able to modify Android. They will be able to add their own apps but Google will control the OS and will be able to update it remotely. That means Google will be much less vulnerable to hardware driven weirdness and will be able to fix problems without relying on the handset guys cooperation.

Seen in the wider context of emerging markets it makes a lot of sense. Much of the developing world has gone straight to wireless without ever touching large scale copper wire. The addition of lower price high quality handsets and very affordable data plans means the the next billion Android users may be a lot closer than we may have thought.

Although this isn’t necessarily an immediate and massive cash win for Google, taking what amounts to global control of the user experience for what will amount to perhaps 30% of humanity is compelling. It will be Google Apps, search and thus ads which will become the global default. You have to admire the long term thinking.

Mind The Gap


There are certain mysteries in life which are ineffable…like where do all those solo socks go? why do I always end up picking up the tab? in the weird world of online there are several gaps which remain mysterious. Here’s a couple:

Tablets are divided between iPads (25%) and Androids (74%) with the Surface coming in a distant last at about 1%. The androids out number Apple because hundreds of companies make tablets with the Android OS on board whereas only Apple makes the iPad.  What’s weird and (I have never seen a satisfactory explanation for this) is that the bandwidth usage of all kinds is dominated by iPad at about 75% with Android taking the rest.  Given that all devices hook up to Wifi how is it possible that 25% of the users are consuming 75% of Tablet bandwidth.  There are multiple theories out there…maybe iPads are favored by data intensive corporate applications of the devices, others suggest that the dominance of iTunes in movie streaming is a factor…but then Netflix runs on both….any way you look at it, it’s a bit weird.

The other gap which is causing waves in our industry is the search revenue per click conundrum. Most people are reasonably familiar with the concept that when we click on ads in search results somebody (mostly Google) gets paid. As end users have migrated to mobile devices at a rate far greater than anyone could have ever imagined the advertisers haven’t.  Advertising agencies are notoriously conservative and (some might claim) in some ways dumb.  Search delivered on desktops has been around for over a decade and they are comfortable with that medium. A few years back social media exploded on the market and agencies were caught completely off guard. A few years later they are just about starting to catch up with the opportunity.  Mobile devices and delivering ads against those devices has left the industry scratching their heads…even now I am shocked and infuriated by major brands who still don’t have a mobile friendly site…let alone mobile friendly ad campaigns.  The result is that although Google’s revenue continues to head north at a good clip they are achieving that growth with many more cheaper clicks. That steady decline has been happening over the last couple of years with no end in sight.  In public statements Google has pinned their hopes on local advertisers paying a premium for mobile clicks to drive their local businesses. We are certainly seeing some pretty dramatic spikes in click prices for “hyperlocal” searches like “plumber West Oshkosh.”  The problem is that even large numbers of local businesses smart enough to bid online (but often not smart enough to get good ROI for their efforts) don’t compare to the massive spend the big brands can move between platforms. This will no doubt level out over time….but it’s not going to happen overnight.

Microsoft’s Finish Adventure

I have several secret vices; one of them is the Show Time masterpiece House of Lies. If you haven’t seen it, think Entourage meets KPMG. It’s dark, funny, clever, and uses cell phones a lot. That’s understandable as those consulting types famously live and die on their cells, but in recent episodes phone use seemed to be much more intense and I kept not recognizing the phones they were using. I’m pretty certain I remember them using Blackberries and iPhones in season one, but in season two they have been using the very good looking Windows powered the Nokia Lumina 920. It stands out, not just because the brutal product placement deal they have has had them using the phones 24×7 on any pretext… but because they are so unfamiliar, cool looking and rare. It’s a bit like catching sight of an exotic Italian sports car on the street… wait… what? was that a yellow Countach. That’s kind of been the problem with both Nokia hardware and Microsoft OS for phones… I don’t know anyone who has one, and I’ll give you dimes to donuts neither do you. The weird thing is I found myself looking at my beloved iPhone 4s and experiencing handset envy.

So the announcement today by Microsoft that it’s buying all the remaining bits of Nokia, which matter, is interesting… but is it more remarkable than then a Coked up Consultant picking up their Countach from the valet? The acquisition cements Microsoft as the solid (if distant) third place in the phone game. Google leads the OS race with Android (new version called Kitkat… long story) and lags in the handset sector. iOS has a huge installed  base, let’s face it we all use Google Apps on our iPhones so that race is still too close to call.  Microsoft has neither a compelling handset nor OS…’til now maybe.  Nokia was going in two directions… the super cool looking Lunina (Countach edition) and a bargain basement set of models focused on emerging markets. There is a market for lower end devices for sure and word is the new iPhone will address that with a low cost version… but I want cool toys damn it! (waaah). Apple has to come out with something as cool as the Samsung Galaxy and as hot as the Lumina or it is going to take a well deserved pounding… and I have my eye on fresh meat. My Verizon contract is up on Thanksgiving… can’t wait!

Proximity Creeping Up On Us

The good people at Google have just released an interesting App for Android which turns the heat up even further on the whole proximity thing. The App (called Field Trip) offers you interesting data, trivia, reviews etc of places near where you are standing to your phone without you asking for it. They are fronting it with historic data, reviews from Zagat etc. I’m sure initially it will have just that…probably not a huge amount of coverage but it’s a start. Whilst they may not have a vast amount of local trivia right out the box what they do have is hundreds of thousands of local advertisers who would arguably be relevant to you as you pass by with your android phone running this App. As an iPhone user I don’t have the opportunity to try it out yet so I can’t give you a firsthand review, but it meshes nicely with the Passbook feature of iOS6 from Apple. In both cases it allows content to be delivered to you based on where you and your phone are standing, sitting or driving. The Apple application is focused initially on airline tickets, loyalty cards and the like but in both cases I’m predicting within six months you will be getting polite alerts on both operating systems from companies you know and like or perhaps even ones you don’t have a relationship with to stop by and take advantage of this or that offer since you are in the neighborhood.

On a side note we have to hope that before Apple turns this on full bore they fix up their new map App. It’s a pretty impressive tool and the turn by turn GPS navigator voiced by your friend Siri is very impressive (if I were Garmin or TomTom I’d be reaching for the scotch by now). However, it’s so buggy that Tim Cook the Apple CEO actually apologized to users for making such a pig’s ear of the release. I imaging Jobs would have had firing parties at dawn. I was in DC the other day headed to the airport when I checked how long it would take to get there. My iPad running Google Maps thought Dulles was 35 minutes away iPhone thought over 90 minutes. Ahem Sir you could walk there in that much time….close but no cigar.

Have a great weekend!!

The Pied Piper of Local

The recent iPhone5 was being watched avidly by locally oriented folks for the introduction of an NFC chip to the phone to turn your iPhone into a swipe payment device. Sadly it wasn’t there, so we will have to wait for the next slightly thinner, slightly faster slightly more cool iPhone6 for that much needed feature. Buried deep amongst the other “slightly better’ features which I really don’t care that much about, is an entirely new feature which I do think will make a significant difference. The Passbook feature comes as part of the new operating system and it’s potentially a game changer. There has been much hoopla touted about rewards and coupons being made available to folks based on where they are. The ideal scenario is that you walk into your favorite coffee shop and your phone tells you that cookies are half off for the next hour….it sounds simple but it has eluded the market …till now.

To date major brands have tried to use Twitter for this kind of deal push and it works to an extent, but the App based loyalty programs available so far really only work if the App happens to be running…which is a huge pain in the phone. The new Passbook feature lets you accumulate your electronic coupons, tickets, boarding passes and cards in one place so you won’t have to fish through your pocket book for those loyalty cards or coupons. That’s both useful and convenient but the Passbook also opens the iPhone up as a real time proximity coupon delivery device. Apple is famously stuffy about who it works with and what those partners can do but it’s a pretty good bet that some time real soon when you sign up with some kind of affinity program or you when you follow a brand you will be asked if you would like to receive notices of special deals through Passbook.

The cool factor comes in when you add in proximity. Just how close you are to a particular location to trigger a coupon will vary based on the kind of offer. The cookies makes sense when you are right inside the coffee shop, whereas a nail salon might push an offer to clients on a wider basis on the grounds that they are more likely to drive to the location. In both cases the end user does not have to have an App running to get a notification on the lock screen that there is a relevant and perhaps very close offer to consider.

I think this could be huge, it could be bigger than the deal of the day nonsense and will likely force every loyalty and coupon play to get on board or go under. We can be sure that Android will have a similar feature in the next release or two so we are looking location based offers becoming very common very soon (I think propinquity ubiquity has a nice ring to it). Apple doesn’t need this feature to build their business so my expectation is that they will do it carefully and right so we don’t get deal spammed out of existence and they have the massive user base needed to make this relevant right out of the box. It could even lead to a ‘Pied Piper effect’ where a deal gets launched and leads to a crowd of deal hunters following to the location like the famous rats of Hamelin. Remember….you heard it here first.

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 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.

I Have Seen the Future…..and It’s Slightly Creepy

At their annual developer’s conference I/O, Google has just unveiled their latest cut at total reality control called Google Now. It’s designed for Android (which immediately cuts us iPhone users out of the equation). In this new world Google mines your search and browsing activity so that it can remind you of upcoming events, let you know the weather or how long your commute time will be, how your favorite sports team is doing or where to get lunch. It’s an interesting idea and one I’d love to see in reality. It’s clearly aimed at Apples digital assistant Siri, but rather than launch an assistant you can talk to they are offering an AP which anticipates what you will likely want to know.

This isn’t an altogether new idea, on my iPhone I can scroll weather and traffic, sports scores etc but typically only in response to a previous request or through a dedicated AP. The approach Google is taking is somewhat more free form, yes you can set it up to give you specific information but if you have done something whilst logged into Google it may well remind you about it or figure you’d like to know about it without you asking for the information.

This could be very cool, another consequence of having all your data and behavior stored in one place. It could also be intrusive and weird…imagine being at dinner with your spouse when our phone suggests that you call an old girl or boyfriend as the team you both used to follow avidly has just scored a major victory. I’m not entirely sure I want a virtual butler perpetually second guessing my needs or interests, I suspect after the novelty has worn off it will get about as much use as Siri….not much at all. Given the ongoing privacy woes Google has seen in recent years it’s entirely likely that what it has access to and can talk to you about will be on an opt in basis, but it does point the way to an interesting future where you phone is a chatty, informative and occasionally very embarrassing best friend in your pocket.