Transitioning From Billionaire Tech Leaders to Philanthropists

2998Offstage, in a barren conference room at the Paris climate talks, Bill Gates excitedly described the possibility of generating energy through the long-speculated process of artificial photosynthesis, using the energy of sunshine to produce liquid hydrocarbons that could challenge the supremacy of fossil fuels.

Gates was in Paris to push his latest bit of entrepreneurial philanthropy: the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, an informal club of 28 private investors from around the world, including several hedge fund billionaires who have agreed to follow his lead and pump seed money into energy research and development. Gates believes the energy sector suffers from a dearth of such funding, the reason much of the world is still burning coal for its power.

A readiness to put another billion dollars of his own money into what is already a roughly billion-dollar portfolio of energy investments was also enough for Gates to convince 20 governments to commit to doubling their own R&D investments within five years.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, recently welcomed a baby girl. And as that announcement was made, the two have pledged to give 99% of their Facebook shares to “join many others in improving this world for the next generation.” Together, the couple’s shares currently amount to $45 billion.

They are forming a new organization, called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, that will pursue those goals through a combination of charitable donations, private investment and promotion of government-policy reform.

Facebook Testing Break-up Feature

facebook-relationship-status-update-sparks-gun-fight-f94f9e2d50It’s no secret that social media has influenced how we communicate. There are people that take to social media to announce EVERYTHING that happens in their lives, while others remain quieter. One phrase has been incorporated into the English lingo: “So have you made it ‘Facebook’ official?” This is of course reference to letting the world know that you are in a relationship. Conversely, Facebook is testing a new feature that lets you “take a break” if you break-up with that partner, making it so you see a lot less about what their life is like without you.

The features allow Facebook users to hide a former partner’s posts and profile; edit past updates in which both people are tagged; and control the status updates, photos, and other content their ex-lover will be able to view after the breakup

People in the United States will be prompted to test these features if they change their relationship status. Other users won’t be told if someone uses the utilities; the point of hiding someone’s profile or posts is to make it easier to do so without un-friending or blocking that person, and the other features are equally discreet.

Introducing these features is an implied admission of two things: There are real risks connected to using a service where people are encouraged to share everything about their daily lives, and not everything posted to Facebook has to be positive. These new features can make it easier for people leaving toxic relationships to protect themselves. Not having to see an abuser without having to block them, which could make them angry, is a valuable ability. Being able to hide new posts could help address the same issue.

Social Media’s Benefit Magnified in Wake of Paris Attacks

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Following the horrific attacks in Paris that has claimed more than 100 lives, people around the world took to social media looking for their loved ones. Social media has put forth tools to help people in times of crisis.

Facebook activated its Safety Check tool, which allows users in an area affected by a crisis to mark themselves or others as safe. Facebook created the tool to help in times of crisis, and it has activated it five times in the past year after natural disasters.

Twitter kept followers informed by highlighting top news tweets, as well as well wishes posted by people around the world. It also turned into a message board Friday night with information to help people in Paris get to safety. The hashtag #PorteOuverte or “open door,” became a vehicle for offering shelter to those in Paris who needed it. Twitter has revealed that 1 million tweets were associated with the hashtag in 10 hours. The hashtag #StrandedInUS gained a lot of traction in the United States to help French people whose flights had been canceled.

Google’s Machine Learning TensorFlow Is Now Open-Sourced

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Machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence that employs software to interpret and make predictions from large sets of data, is in popular demand in Silicon Valley. Some of the largest of those companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple have thrown their hat into the ring. But it was Google that started the trend, and in order to remain innovative, Google needed to keep looking like the cutting-edge leader.

Hence TensorFlow, a machine-learning system that Google has used internally for a few years. Today, Google is taking it open source, releasing the software parameters to fellow engineers, academics and hacks with enough coding skills. There is no denying that learning systems have made it possible to create and improve apps when it comes to speech and image recognition technologies.

For example, Google Photos have benefitted from their own machine learning system, called DisBelief. Developed in 2011, DisBelief has helped Google build large neural networks, but it has its limitations, including difficult configurations and its inability to share code externally. As a result, the company has open-sourced TensorFlow, which was designed to fix the shortcomings of DisBelief. However, it’s important to note that it only allows for part of the AI engine to be open-sourced.

By releasing TensorFlow, Google aims to make the software it built to develop and run its own AI systems a part of the standard toolset used by researchers. It may also help Google identify potential talent for the future.

Controversy Over Facebook “Real-Name” Policy

Facebook is planning on tweaking its policy that requires members of their social media site to use their real or “authentic” names on profiles, as advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union have shown discontent in the requirement.

The strictly enforced “real names” policy requires users to use the names that friends and family know them by, as Facebook says it helps to root out online bullying and makes users more accountable. However, the policy has seen many users suspended from Facebook despite using authentic names, with online trolls taking advantage of it to report sections of users. Transgender individuals who have chosen a new name to match the gender they identify with say they have been affected by the policy, as have drag queens and Native Americans.

Facebook has said they would add new tools that improve how users confirm their name on Facebook when signing up, and make it more difficult for trolls to target individuals. When users are asked to confirm their name (which it can do when users are reported or when a moderator questions an account) they will be allowed to add additional details to provide context. Secondly, people that want to report profiles for using non-authentic names will have to provide additional information about why they are reporting an account.

These new changes are part of the latest in a series of tweaks to Facebook’s real names policy, which include it demanding “authentic” rather than “real” names, and allowing users to verify names using more methods than just government IDs.

Facebook Digging Further Into Search

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The search feature on Facebook has always been good for tracking down an old friend or a page to follow, but usually Google was the better search engine for keeping up with news or finding a story from a year back. Facebook hopes to remedy that with a new, expanded search that sifts through its 2 trillion posts from all over the world — not just those from your friends and followed pages.

Now, for example, if you were to type “Mets World Series” into the search tool on Facebook, you would be hit with top post results from the Wall Street Journal and CBS Sportsline, followed by several posts made by your friends or public groups about the Mets.

The search was updated by Facebook in hopes to spark public conversations with strangers around the world about shared topics or news stories of interest. Seeing what your circle of friends has to say is one thing, but seeing what the world is saying is another.

Facebook Takes the Top Spot in Referral Traffic

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Content analytics platform Parse.ly recently released data showing that Facebook passed Google in referral traffic to publishers in June. And as of July, Facebook claimed a 38.2% share of referral traffic, compared to 35.2% for Google. These findings are based on Parse.ly’s analysis of referral traffic to hundreds of clients, including Condé Nast, Mashable, Fox News, The Atlantic and Reuters. Facebook’s rise has been slow and steady since at least 2012, as it has been gradually winning referral traffic market share from Google Sites.

Both companies have switched places before, including last fall, when Facebook passed Google for the first time. However this time the lead is more sizeable. Parse.ly’s study comes as Facebook seeks to tighten its grip on publishers even further with programs like Instant Articles, which allows publishers to host content directly on Facebook’s platform, making distribution and consumption easier and more efficient.

Facebook has also tweaked the algorithms that govern organic reach, in favor of publishers and at the expense of brand marketers. Google has also been refining the way it refers traffic to publishers. Most notably they started to give lower search rankings to algorithmic content publishers, which post content based on analysis of patterns in search traffic and auction bids. In December 2013, Google announced a big move towards “high quality” content, again by giving it a higher profile in news feeds. Will Facebook sustain its lead over the long-term? Only time will tell.

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.

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?

RIP Google+

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Way back on June 6th, 2012 in the third month of this here blog, I bemoaned the annexation of what was Google Places, by the then upstart social media initiative Google+. At the time I said:

“Google+ has enjoyed rapid growth with millions joining the platform, but there appears to be good data that although many join, the level or return visits and engagement is much lower than on Facebook. Given that, Google’s strategy of fusing Google+ with the very successful and highly used Google Places follows the Google Buzz strategy of essentially forcing a large number of users (in this case local businesses and reviewers) to join the game.”

And now, a few years later, even after they forced users and businesses to come, the party has never really improved. The good features they came up with — like the pics and video streams and hangouts — have been carved off the corpse, the leadership has gone, and we are left with a platform that doesn’t even require you to create a profile to use Google products like Gmail.

Although they haven’t officially stuck a fork in it yet, Google+ is clearly done. What contributed most to the demise? Well, it’s exactly as stated back in 2012: engagement (or lack thereof). I have a rule of thumb, the “ten minute test.” when I come across something interesting online, I dig in, then eventually end up deciding if I’m prepared to dedicate about ten minutes a day to it to stay engaged.

I’m probably a poor use case in the example of Google+, since I really don’t do much Facebook (let alone Google+). But what’s clear is that millions of users went there once, did what they had to do to keep using Google products, and never returned. The upside of that limited engagement was that it did get most of us permanently logged into Google in general, and it allowed Google to get a much stronger handle on local businesses in general. Beyond that, there simply wasn’t a compelling reason to keep folks going back. People are busy. Finding time to check Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram takes time. It feels like most of us held an informal meeting and agreed not to participate.

The other problem with Google+ (aside from its weirdly un-intuitive user interface) was how restricted it felt. Google keeps a famously vice-like grip on its products, and Google+ somehow felt like a social platform designed by the Post Office; not fun.

In any event, Google is clearly unwinding the remains. It’s not a huge problem for most people as they weren’t using it in the first place. Some marketeers were exploiting the heck out of it, but I imagine even they will get over it soon enough. It’s another example of Google being fabulously great at a handful of things (most importantly search and advertising) and stumbling over many others. They always want to play, but they typically show up late and demand by sheer willpower to be allowed into the game. They don’t always win.