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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Google Calling

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It feels like Google is trying to control all aspects of our lives.  They have had designs on the ISP market with Google Fiber and they have been rumored to be circling the wireless industry for a good while.  Those rumors appear to be in danger of coming true some time real soon. If the leaks are to be believed Google is about to strike a deal with T-Mobile and Sprint to become a re-seller of their networks under the Google brand. Google has been tinkering with handsets ever since the GI more than a decade ago and as the parent of Android they are already on the largest share of end user devices. It looks like pretty soon you will be able to use you Google branded or android powered phone on the Google branded cell network. It’s not likely to be a terribly good service right away because it will be limited by the somewhat patchy networks those guys currently have. Having said that there are very few companies with the intestinal fortitude to take on giants like Verizon or ATT and Google is certainly one of those few.

What’s interesting to speculate about is what impact their entry is likely to make on the incumbents who have already suffered at the hands of the aggressive pricing offered by the upstarts. T-Mobile had a huge 2014 mostly because it was offering both aggressive pricing and offering to buy out the contracts of converting customers. It’s even possible that Google will be able to offer service and equipment essentially subsidized by advertising run on their network to their subscribers. The idea of Google being able to truly take advantage of tier massive Android base has been around for a while…but not as yet come to fruition. Google makes dollars per click on many of their ads. an aggressive ad presentation in exchange for a more or less free wireless service may prove attractive to users on tight budgets. In any event it’s likely that their entry into the market is going to make the incumbents look hard at the value they are offering and that has to be a good thing for all users.

Google’s “Outside the Box” Phone

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From Wi-Fi balloons to self-driving cars and its famously free and healthy staff meals, Google is known for doing things differently. Now it’s looking to change the way smartphones are manufactured and bought, creating a scalable consumer smartphone with fully customizable hardware.

The tech giant stepped up the development of Project Ara on Wednesday, announcing a market trial of its modular smartphone to begin in Puerto Rico later this year with a global launch soon after. Google also unveiled a new prototype of the Ara, given the name “Spiral 2”, with the yet more sophisticated Spiral 3 set to be released later in the year.

Created by Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects (ATAP) group — formerly part of the now-offloaded Motorola hardware division — the Ara is not like anything consumers are used to. Essentially, it’s just a shell — an “endoskeleton” — into which various modules of hardware can be inserted and connected.

These could include anything from a battery, processor, your ideal camera and speakers, a beefed-up storage card, or a replacement screen for the one you just accidentally broke. Modules of varying sizes slide and in and out of the frame, while the exterior panels — also customizable using the Ara Configurator app — create a striking aesthetic.

Previously it had been reported Google would sell the basic endoskeleton for $50. Smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and Apple traditionally center production around flagship models — such as the Galaxy and iPhone, respectively — with customers upgrading their device with new releases.

The Ara looks to do away with the upgrade cycle completely, with owners able to add brand new modules to the original endoskeleton as they come onto the market. Part of the philosophy behind the approach is to reduce electronic waste. However, questions remain as to whether Google will need to release upgrades of the endoskeleton itself, resulting in the modules having to be upgraded too.

Yet perhaps the biggest quirk in the Ara’s unique approach is that Google is outsourcing the manufacture of the phone’s key hardware parts to anyone willing and able to make them. Thanks to big data, consumers are increasingly getting used to personalization and customization when they engage with products and brands.

But Google’s pitch to break the status quo in smartphone manufacturing is still a big risk. For starters, no one’s really done this before — at least not on such a scale. And secondly, do consumers really want what Google is offering?

Rumored Sapphire Display on iPhone Screens Likely Won’t Happen

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It’s pretty clear that something went very wrong between Apple and its bankrupt sapphire supplier GT Advanced Technologies over the past year. There are good reasons to believe that Apple’s sapphire display plan for the iPhone 6 may have been doomed from the start because it seems both Apple and GT Advanced underestimated the major difficulties. These difficulties varied from needing to have an extremely clean environment during ongoing construction, to having uninterrupted supplies of water and electricity to regulate the temperature of the molten aluminum oxide. Apple declined to help install backup power supplies, thus multiple outages occurred, ruining whole batches of sapphire.

Sapphire, the world’s third hardest mineral, was supposed to drastically reduce or eliminate scratching on the surface, thus eliminating the need for screen protectors. It would be a huge selling point for those of us that seem to find some sort of way to scratch or drop our phone throughout any given day.

The Apple-GT marriage was troubled from the start. GT had never mass-produced sapphire before the Apple deal. The New Hampshire company’s first 578-pound cylinder of sapphire, made just days before the companies signed their contract, was flawed and unusable. GT hired hundreds of workers with little oversight; some bored employees were paid overtime to sweep floors repeatedly, while others played hooky.

All of which is a major problem in its own right, but add in the fact that Apple already uses one-fourth of the world’s supply of sapphire to cover the iPhone’s camera lens and fingerprint reader alone, upping that supply to cover screens is bound to exacerbate any preexisting problems—like, say, keeping track of the sapphire in the first place.

Manufacturing wasn’t the only problem. In August, one of the former workers said, GT discovered that 500 sapphire bricks were missing. A few hours later, workers learned that a manager had sent the bricks to recycling instead of shipping. Had they not been retrieved, the misfire would have cost GT hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Whether Apple or GT is ultimately at fault here we’ll likely never know. However, it may be safe in saying that given the huge difficulties Apple encountered in producing sapphire displays in its first attempt, you probably won’t get a sapphire display on the iPhone 6s or even the iPhone 7.