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.

Testing the Capabilities of 3D Printing

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Over the past few years, 3D printing has become more common and companies are turning to this technology as it is an effective way of manufacturing products. Disney has recently been tinkering with this technology and conducting experiments, which has led to the creation of a printer that can print flexible and soft products, like that of stuffed animals and the possibility of clothing in the future.

While a paper published by Disney only reveals the idea in concept, the process that it would go through to achieve this would be relatively simple. Interestingly, this would be one of the most-advanced concepts, and would completely revolutionize the way things like stuffed toys are made. 3D printing has come a long way over the course of the last several years. However, previous models utilized plastic instead of other materials like fabric.

This developing technology has cleared some of the arguments that 3D printing with plastic has limited practical applications by using another ingredient to create something new. However, expanding the number of raw materials that can be used in the 3D printing process is incredibly beneficial. No longer are we talking about just using hard plastics. Instead, we’re talking about using fabric, a softer material – and who knows what that could lead to in the future.

The real opportunity here is expanding on something that is quickly becoming mainstream. That’s not to say that this is going to make a 3D printer common in every house, but it will do a lot to actually innovate the world around us and really that’s what this is all about. Disney is innovating in an arena that typically only big tech companies are innovating.

It Just Got Real in the EU

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It’s fair to say that a good number of folk in Europe just hate Google.

I was selling search to European web sites and portals back in the early 2000s. As I recall, we charged 65c per thousand queries answered. Back then, there was an upstart search company called Google that was powering Yahoo and had a web site with no ads on it. My then company was doing really well at selling search; so well, in fact, that Yahoo bought them for something over $100MM. Then Google came up with a new and remarkable sales strategy: they started giving search away for free. In addition, they said that they would pay the portals if they could run ads on their results pages. As you can imagine, it was a pretty successful offer.

I clearly remember having conversations with clients along the lines of, “If you go with Google, it will be cheaper initially. But people will quickly realize that they are behind your search, and they will go to Google directly. Their site is extremely fast and doesn’t have all those horrible, slow-to-load ads you slather all over your site.” My words fell on deaf ears, and now Google controls over 90% of the entire European market.

 

It’s this over-arching monopoly that sticks in the craw of many EU legislators, and they have been firing warning shots over Google’s bow for several years. Absent of a settlement, the EU ministers have now filed suit against Google for monopoly practices. To the American observer, this looks like something between sour grapes and silliness. If you don’t like Google, then use something else.

The suit alleges that Google favors its own shopping results over those of competitors. The EU has limited the scope of the argument to just that— partly because it’s blindingly clear that is exactly what Google is doing and partly to get the case done quickly. Europe takes a dim view of monopolistic behavior. Dominant companies have a duty to ensure that they don’t exploit their positions.

Google is a voracious competitor, entirely not the goofy-friendly company they try to position themselves as in the US. Their argument that the Internet is a big place and nobody forces you to use Google might seem fair enough to an American viewer, but likely won’t cut it in Europe.

If this goes all the way and Google loses, the company will likely find itself on the wrong side of a fine for six billion dollars (or more). Beyond just the fiscal pain, they will also likely have to make significant concessions to avoid further cases. Google hates that kind of situation. When the Spanish government tried to force Google to pay for news stories they indexed from newspaper sites, they shut down the Spanish news search entirely. It will be interesting to see where this ends up.

Reasons to Hate Your Cable Company

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Ask pretty much any household about the most hated and most intractable monthly bill; the chances are they will cite the cable company. Even though I live in what amounts to the low desert, where 76 and sunny is the norm and 100 degrees is not uncommon for three months of the year, the cable usually out strips even my electricity bill. Though, I do have whole-house DVR with 60+ Mb up and down and I have to have HBO for Game of Thrones and my very own (made just for me and ten thousand other industry geeks) Silicon Valley. The price never comes down and the quality of service rarely goes up without a corresponding increase in charges.

So, it was with some glee today that I learned of the impact that Google is having on Charlotte, NC and surrounding cities. In response to Google announcing that it will be bringing Google Fiber to those towns, Time Warner Cable announced that it will be delivering six times the speed of the current service for no extra cost starting this summer. Six times faster!

We all know that we are living in a cable monopoly, where we take what we are granted and keep our mouths shut, but six times faster? Really? So now the cat is out of the bag: the cable monopolies are deliberately not giving the US the kind of world-leading internet infrastructure it deserves because they are a monopoly and they don’t have to. Once again, (as in Kansas City a year or so back) Google shows up with great service at a great price and miraculously things get way better almost immediately.

With the rapid growth of streaming devices, you can get a good subset of what you actually want to watch (as opposed to the seven hundred channels of un-watchable ad-stuffed garbage) for a few tens of dollars a month — not the hundreds most of us pay right now. So come on over Google; Riverside County is a great place badly in need of your wonderful cable service. Maybe we can lift the jack boot of Verizon FIOS off our throats.

The Wearable Solution

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It’s happened again. An armed white cop guns down an unarmed man of color who apparently presented no actual threat, after an altercation during a routine traffic stop. It’s interesting to note that simply because a passerby caught the entire thing on video, the cop involved has been arrested for murder rather than been given administrative leave pending investigation and cover up.

As I have mentioned probably half a dozen times before in this very blog, there is a simple wearable solution to the problem of our over militarized largely racist police problem. It’s called a body camera. In a perfect “slamming the stable door shut after all the horses have escaped and murdered a bunch of people of color” the Mayor of the town involved announced that they would be acquiring an additional 150 body cameras in an attempt to control their out of control police organization. With the 150 cameras they already have on order that’s enough to equip every officer on their streets.

It need not be expensive either, the 64 GB 1080 HD Muvee I have costs less than $200. They are already in wide use elsewhere, even the local animal control officer I met the other day was wearing one. It makes no sense that teens on skateboards boast better wearable tech than the guys who are supposed to protect and serve us.

I’m sure over time wildly over priced wearable “engagement visualization and analysis” equipment will be integrated with other secure systems which will not only cut down the police on public violence but will also be useful in identifying suspects and risks. That’s great…let’s call that the full on RoboCop 2015 solution. For now, every single cop on patrol on every street in this country should have $200 of wearable tech attached to their $500 Kevlar vest to serve as a reminder that it’s we who they are supposed to be protecting and serving and as a deterrent to more acts of casual murder.

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.

Apple Watch Ad Campaign In Full Effect

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Apple is no stranger to robust marketing campaigns and the company is known for its clever advertisements, but no one can deny Apple is pushing into new territory with its media blitz for its smartwatch, which includes 10 short videos demonstrating the Apple Watch’s usefulness. Three of the short videos, which Apple calls “Guided Tour” videos, are available online, and are broken down into different categories based on the feature described, such as Messages, Faces, and Digital Touch. Among the features highlighted in the upcoming videos are maps, Siri, phone calls, music, activity, Apple Pay, and Workout.

The company had previously released a series of short videos, made with Apple’s typical flair and highlight the precision manufacturing involved in the creation of the watch, after the device was first announced last year. Though the launch of the Watch is almost guaranteed to garner significant media coverage, the new reservation-only system will deprive Apple of one of its standard, and most durable PR images that includes lines of Apple fans huddled in lines stretching city blocks, waiting for store doors to open.

It remains to be seen whether or not the company’s marketing blitz and expansion into luxury stores will have an impact on sales. Smartwatches currently hover at 2% market penetration, and nearly half of the smartwatch owners surveyed (48%) had an income below $45,000.

However, Apple entrance into wearables is expected to give the overall market a boost, especially after the disappointing sales of Android Wear. Still, it is not known if the Apple Watch will be a short-term phenomenon, or one that translates into long-term growth of wearables.

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.

Amazon Takes to the North

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Amazon is testing its drone delivery service at a closely guarded, secret site in Canada, following repeated warnings that it would go outside the US to bypass what it sees as the US federal government’s avoidant approach to the new technology. Amazon acquired a plot of open land lined by oak trees and firs, where it is conducting frequent experimental flights with the full blessing of the Canadian government.

Drone technology is seen by many tech companies and aeronautics experts as the next frontier for innovation, with billions of dollars potentially in the balance. Traditionally, the US has been at the vanguard of both tech and aviation innovation, but the approach of the Federal Aviation Authority has been markedly tentative so far compared with that of regulators in Canada and Europe.

Until it opened its Canadian base, Amazon had been limited to indoor testing in its Seattle laboratory, backed up with research outposts in the UK – in Cambridge – and Israel. Requests by the company to begin outdoor testing on company land in the state of Washington have so far largely been rebuffed by the FAA.

The federal agency recently published its guidelines for commercial use of small drones. The new rules will take at least two years to come into effect, a delay which Amazon finds unacceptable. Last July, the company applied for a so-called 333 exemption that would allow it to carry out outdoor experimentation immediately. Eight months later, the FAA has not responded.

The federal body did agree last week, amid considerable fanfare, to award the company a so-called “experimental airworthiness certificate” that can be used to test a specific model of drone. But it took so long for the certificate to come through that by the time it was granted, Amazon said it was obsolete.

The contrast between the relative rigidity of the FAA’s approach to drone testing and the relatively relaxed regulatory regime in Canada is startling. Under the Canadian system, Amazon has been granted a virtual carte blanche regarding its entire fleet of drones within its designated airspace, having gone through a licensing process that took just three weeks.

By comparison, it takes the FAA many months to grant approval. The US regulator insists on an initial 23-page application, a review of 75 pages of further documentation and a four-hour presentation at FAA headquarters followed by a three-hour site visit, together with ongoing reporting and record-keeping obligations.

Early experiments in Canada have focused on a range of individual drone capabilities: sensors that can detect and avoid obstacles in a drone’s path; link-loss procedures that control the aircraft should its connection with base be broken; stability in wind and turbulence; and environmental impact. Once each of these facets has been perfected, a new Amazon prototype drone will be assembled that would be utterly safe and wholly unlike anything seen before.