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.

In the Name of “Digital Sovereignty”

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Russia’s cyber world has grown in recent years, and now has more than 80 million users, or about 60% of the population. But in the name of digital sovereignty, Russian authorities are stepping up efforts to corral it, part of a worldwide race between running online technology and the desires of law enforcement to keep tabs on all that activity. The battle lines are forming around the challenge of encryption, which companies are increasingly upgrading in the post-Edward Snowden era to satisfy the privacy concerns of customers.

Russian authorities are fighting back with a law that comes into effect in September, requiring all global Internet platforms, such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Apple to store data of Russian users on Russian servers. Furthermore, it directly warned that due to the encryption employed, Russian servers may be forced to take down entire platforms in order to block one piece of objectionable content.

The idea is that data stored on Russian servers will be protected from the prying eyes of the US National Security Agency. Experts say it may also rope off Russian cyberspace and make it easier for Russian authorities to control what their own citizens are posting and reading on the Internet. The main way Russian authorities have been doing that so far is through a complex register of banned websites that Russia-based ISP’s are required to block.

The list currently contains over 10,000 websites, mostly for content even an ardent civil libertarian might have trouble defending, such as child pornography, pro-terrorist agitation, and sites that glamorize suicide. Last week, the Russian communication supervising entity Roskomnadzor sent out warning letters to Google, Twitter, and Facebook, reminding them that they are required by Russian law to hand over data about any Russian blogger who has more than 3,000 readers daily. Any user of the services who posts items calling for “unsanctioned protests and unrest” must be blocked, and due to the companies’ use of https encryption, that could force Russian ISPs to block the entire site.

In barely three months, the new law requiring all companies that operate in Russian cyberspace to store the data of all Russian users on local servers will come into effect. Experts say the law is a sweeping declaration of “digital sovereignty,” but it’s also impossible to guess how it may be enforced. And while Russia may be using its own unique mixture of threats and ill-focused laws to try to address the encryption challenge, it is a global issue.

Seeing the World Change Through Time-lapse

sdf_2Time-lapse images have taken us on beautiful journeys in the past, and the best ones have likely found their way to your Facebook or Twitter feed. However, a standard time-lapse requires a photographer to park themselves in the same spot for quite some time, recording slow changes in the landscape. Needless to say, it’s a task that requires patience.

However, researchers from Google and the University of Washington found a way to sidestep that requirement, managing to create breathtaking time-lapses without leaving the comfort of their own lab – and the result is pretty awesome.

“Time-lapse mining,” as it has been called, has resulted in a sort of patchwork quilt of images taken by people all across the globe. The memories of strangers were stitched together with one another to make a whole story, resulting in an artistic and educational documentation of the ever-changing world around us.

The team analyzed 86 million photos from social sites, including Flickr and Picasa, and grouped them into landmarks. Then they sorted them by date and “warped” individual photos onto one viewpoint, retouched them a little, and created a stop-motion video showing how a particular landmark has changed over time.

The end product was more than 10,000 time-lapse sequences of 2,942 landmarks, each consisting of more than 300 images. From California to Croatia, they include some of the most photographed landscapes and landmarks in the world. They show seasonal patterns in San Francisco, building renovations in Germany and monument excavations in Cambodia – and that’s just the beginning.

Check out the amazing project:

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.

Facebook Looking to Keep Users from Google

FacebookFacebook has been testing its own in-app search engine that will allow users to post links in a status update without having to visit Google.

Some U.S. users of the Facebook app will see an “add a link” option next to buttons to add photos or a location to a status post. A user will type in a search term and then a drop down list of links will appear. The user will be able to preview what is on that website and then share the link on the social networking site.

Typically, a user would have to search on Google (or any other search engine) or go directly to a website and copy and paste the link into. Facebook has been working on cutting out that process and keeping people inside the Facebook app for as long as possible.

Facebook has indexed one trillion posts that have been shared on users’ feeds. This will allow the in-app search engine to suggest the most shared links. This data will allow Facebook to steal a march on Google. This, coupled with advertising opportunities could worry Google, given the stiff competition for mobile ad dollars. Over 70% of Facebook’s total advertising revenue comes from mobile and the company has been working hard to keep people in the app for longer.

Another attempt by Facebook to keep its users away from search engines is news. A report in the New York Times this year suggested Facebook was in talk with news publishers to host content on the social networking site rather than linking back to the publisher’s website. The aim would be to share ad revenues.

An Update from Hell

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It turns out Samsung follows their twitter, so they found my ranting about their service. This is my reply to the nice Samsung lady who reached out and said she would love to help. Apparently, my file is going to be reviewed by Corporate and a “decision on how to proceed will be made within three business days.” Oh, goody. I can hardly wait.

 

Hi Nice Samsung Lady (whose name I won’t mention),

Many thanks for reaching out. I have been wildly disappointed by the process I have been put through by Samsung. The plot so far is set out in my Blog (http://thinkjudd.com/2015/05/01/technology/this-is-samsung-welcome-to-hell/). Subsequently, I have had several more conversations, totaling about another hour of my time wasted.

I gave up on your team being able to find your own 700 reference number to allow you to move this to the refund team. So, I called the service company myself and obtained the essential number. I then gave it to your team, but they were unable (or unwilling) to read the paperwork which I scanned and sent over (attached for your interest). I even included an enlarged scan of the receipt portion. Your team then went on to tell me, in clear terms, that they needed a copy of the till receipt. I pointed out that Home Depot doesn’t issue them; rather, they print the till details on the large sale doc in the top right corner. Surely your guys should know this?

Nonetheless, this still isn’t good enough. So, tonight on my way home, I will divert to my local Home Depot to ask for (and hopefully receive) a “purge document” (whatever that is) to convince your doubting team that I really paid for the fridge. Assuming I get that proof, I confidently expect to be delayed and annoyed by the refund process, and I expect not to receive the full amount in refund.

So far, I have amassed action numbers 412-998-9370, 511-1362-271, 511-137-1308, 413-015-8046, 511-137-7475 and finally 413-0158-046. Oh, and the vital 7001431338. You can figure at least two phone calls per number, at about 20 minutes each, so I’ve wasted about 3 hours of my time trying to resolve this.

Do you have any idea how this makes your gigantic corporation look? I run a company, and if I found this level of bureaucracy and incompetence, I would be firing people by now. The sad fact is that almost everyone I have dealt with has been pleasant and down-right nice in many cases (only Julio really got up my nose). You clearly train well, but your process is broken.

When there was any doubt that it might not be a warranty repair, you were ruthless in insisting over and over that I would have to pay for the visit and parts. When it became clear that this was entirely down to you and covered 100% by warranty, you raised delay after delay: the 700 number, the receipt, the illegible receipt, etc. At no point did you ever call me back when I lost signal on a couple of calls. You never called me back with an update or status. Every time I have to start over in the process, it’s a “Groundhog Day” of customer support. You can’t call it service.

It was not our fault that your top-of-the-line refrigerator we purchased a little over a year ago is faulty and unbelievably entirely beyond repair. Yet, your process and the hurdles you put in the way makes it feel like you think we are trying to cheat you. We obviously aren’t. This is a massive inconvenience and one still not resolved. The irony (if irony is the right word) is that last weekend, we were back at Home Depot ordering new appliances for a kitchen upgrade. This time LG got our disposable dollars.

There is still an opportunity for this to end well, or better in any event. You should, at the very least, circulate a copy of my blog and this note to your customer support management. Better yet, run a simulation. Come collect my broken fridge and put it in the home of Gregory Lee (Samsung US CEO) and have him live without a fridge freezer while your company fumbles around for three weeks.

Getting On The Wrong Side Of History

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I’m the first to admit that I simply don’t understand how part of America thinks. I think it’s insane how so much of the conversation is driven by thinking which in the vast majority of the civilized world would be thought of as simply nonsensical. The poster child for the kind of intellectual dishonesty which drives much of this thinking is of course Indiana who passed a “Defense of Religious Freedom’ bill which essentially gave anyone with “sincerely held religious beliefs” the right to refuse service to anyone they don’t like without fear of legal consequences. As you have no doubt noticed the roof caved in on the Governor with major companies and even the NCAA threatening or taking punitive action. The response by Indiana legislators has been that they will pass “clarification” language which makes it clear that the bill does not entitle people to withhold services….really? The honest thing would have been to simple repeal the legislation as a bigoted rush of blood to the head and move on.

What’s remarkable is the role which social media has played in orchestrating the backlash against this ill thought legislation. Apparently the vast majority of internet users think that it’s It’s not OK to discriminate  in the US. Companies which do so run the risk of serious financial impact…even jail in extreme cases. For the legislator to craft a bill which could encourage (but certainly protects) companies who wish to discriminate on pretty much any grounds they care to is shocking. Social media led an onslaught of bad publicity against this move. I’m sure there are many people who wish they could safely discriminate for any reason but the increasingly diverse majority of this fail country are down with that and social media empowers that discussion.

I’ve remarked before that social movements like the Arab Spring and the over throw of dictatorships in places like Myanmar and Egypt has been made possible by social media which acts as the spotlight to focus on dark deeds. Whether it’s the continued mass imprisonment of young men of color for minor drug crimes, the reckless murder of those same young men by our over armed police or the the deliberate attempt by a group of ideological driven anti gay bigots to cloak their primitive thinking in religious garb social media is making it uncomfortable or impossible to maintain an uncivilized social norm which is calculated to preserve the rights of the powerful over the powerless.

It’s a bit embarrassing for what is supposed to be an advanced country to be passing retrogressive legislation only for that legislation to be protested and essentially over thrown by the social media tools  invented in that country which is being used by people in much poorer places to over throw tin pot dictators….but if it gets the job done I’m all for it.

Who is Going to be Your Facebook Heir?

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Will written, check. Funeral plans set, check. But there is something else you didn’t think you would need to do before you die; give someone permission to respond to comments, post photos, etc. on your Facebook account.

The world’s biggest online social network said Thursday that it will now let users pick someone who can manage their account after they die. Previously, the accounts were “memorialized” after death, or locked so that no one could log in.

But Facebook says its users wanted more choice. Beginning in the U.S., Facebook users can pick a “legacy contact” to post on their page after they die, respond to new friend requests and update their profile picture and cover photo. Users can also have their accounts deleted after their death, which was not possible before.

Facebook accounts are memorialized at the request of loved ones, who must provide proof of the person’s death, such as an obituary. Facebook tries to ensure that the account of the dead user doesn’t show up as a “suggested friend” or in other ways that could upset the person’s loved ones.

The social media giant has nearly 1.4 billion users, and won’t say how many accounts are memorialized, though Facebook product manager Vanessa Callison-Burch said there have been “hundreds of thousands” of requests from loved ones to do so.

Other Internet companies also offer ways to posthumously manage your accounts. On Google, a tool called “inactive account manager” lets you choose to have your data deleted after three, six or 12 months of inactivity. Or you can choose someone, such as a parent or a spouse, to receive the data. The tool covers not just email but also other Google services such as Google Plus, YouTube and Blogger.

Twitter, meanwhile, will deactivate your account if contacted by a family member or a person authorized to act on behalf of your estate, after verifying not only that you died but that the Twitter account is yours, since many people don’t use their full names on the site.

The Social Scarlet Letter

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I like dogs, I have two and a half of them back home. One is really quiet and well behaved and one is an American Bulldog…anyone who owns one will know exactly that that means. I don’t like cruelty to animals (who does!) but a recent case has given me slight pause. The fellow who runs Centerplate catering (which specializes in supplying awful overpriced food to sports arenas) lost his temper with a Doberman puppy he was looking after. He kicked the pooch and lifted him up by the collar. His crime was captured on security video in the elevator and it was of course leaked to the media. I watched the video…it’s a little rough to watch..if it was an American Bulldog he would probably have enjoyed the added attention. This gentleman was certainly guilty of being a total jerk….he may yet face cruelty charges in Canada where the event happened.  He apologized profusely, his company put him on suspension, ordered him to set up a $100,000 foundation against animal cruelty and do 1,000 hours in appropriate community service.

Even given those good efforts the social media drum beat for him to be punished for his apparently out of character jerkiness continued unabated. An online petition amassed 193,000 signatures and people started lobbying the clients of his company. The kicker here is that although his company is private many of their clients play in arenas owned by local governments. In response to the video and the pressure it generated several of them claimed to be reviewing their contracts with Centerplate. The implication being (I guess) that if enough people could be organized to protest Centerplate would lose contracts.

After more than a week of this Centerplate folded under the pressure and he stepped down. Obviously I don’t condone the action of what was by all reports a hardworking and successful guy…he was a total jerk. He’s now also out of a job and his company is down what appeared to be a good leader. This has more than a whiff of mob rule about it. The angry mob of protestors wanted blood and they got it. The double standard that Michael Vick probably plays in sports grounds which are catered for by Centerplate is breathtaking. I wonder how many of the protesters have ever had a bad day and taken it out on their dog or spouse..or kids. Social media, in addition to providing us with unlimited access to pictures of cats has also become the bully pulpit of…well….bullies. Its anonymity means that everyone has an opinion and that opinion must be heard. It can build a career overnight and destroy one just as quickly. It’s all very amusing…until they come for you.

Tainted, Shamed and Unrepentant?

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I was at a Tech Conference recently and I enjoyed an entertaining session about reputation management.  The speaker was expert and erudite, one of his strongest takeaways was whilst you can mitigate somewhat how your reputation is seen reputation management won’t change the fundamentals. If you are a mean company who only puts up with customers and really thinks we are all there for your exploitation no amount of reputation management can fix that.
We have seen recent examples where very public mismanagement of self inflicted wounds rapidly developed into a social media circus. As I type we are witnessing the well deserved public destruction of the owner of the LA Clippers. That a curmudgeonly old coot who was “dating” a mid 20s gold digger could be taped by her saying bad things about the very people of color who have made him rich and successful is interesting…but this guy has been found guilty on several occasions of racial discrimination in property letting. That’s a serious offense which he has been fined for. It happened before social media so that apparently gets a pass. If we are going to hold folks like Donald Sterling responsible for socially foul actually illegal acts of discrimination he should have been drummed out of the NBA years ago.
An even more spectacular example of reputation management not being enough to cover real sins happened last week when an unidentified genius at the New Your Police Department asked the public to post pics of them interacting with members of the police.  The only people surprised by the avalanche of pics of police people beating up abusing and generally manhandling members of the public they were supposed to be serving and protecting were the police themselves. It’s shocking that they honestly though that we the people might want to post smiling pics of happy citizenry with jovial cops.
I live in SoCal where the police are what amounts to an occupying army. There are daily stories of the acts of abuse,stupidity and over reach perpetrated by the local police on we the occupied people. Yesterday I watched from the sidewalk as two motorcycle cops in perfect uniform complete with reflective sunglasses purred in perfect harmony along one of my neighborhood streets. As they past me and my dogs the both glanced (again in harmony) in my direction…it was a frankly scary moment (and I’m a middle aged white guy). The SoCal Cops don’t ask questions they empty their guns….as do the New York Cops. The difference is that nobody in the corridors of power in SoCal is dumb enough to pull the same stunt…they know they are widely loathed and are apparently at peace with that.
The problem with social media (as has been discovered by several dictators who have been recently over thrown by their people who used it to inspire, inform and organize) is that it’s not owned or controlled by the government. It’s not possible for the mayor to lean on Facebook or Twitter to play down a story or bury a lead. In the same way that.
In the same way that a bad plumber or purveyor of tainted meat can try to mask their bad acts with carefully placed positive reviews so our governments and their hench-folk can attempt to put the social Jin back in the bottle…fortunately for us it’s already too late for that.