Droning On

Drones are definitely the new black. In addition to them presenting a considerable increase in the tension levels at Al Qaeda pep rallies  Amazon is threatening to use them to deliver stuff we can’t wait an extra day to receive our stuff and now Google is buying into the game. Today they announced that they are buying Titan Aerospace.  You have to wonder why give the enormous tasks still to be completed at home why the Big G is laying out big bucks on drones. The answer is simple….poor people. Pretty much everyone in the “civilized” world has a phone (increasingly a smartphone) and the number of searches served on mobile devices has already outstripped desktops in the US chasing the same searchers in the eternal quest to squeeze the last cent out of an already saturated market is problematic. A solar-powered drone by Titan Aerospace. (Titan Aerospace photo)

It’s increasingly looking like the desktop PC may go the way of the copper landline.  We in the west carefully navigated the entire history of the telephone, it took us a century or more to suffer through the technology until we could just dispense with it altogether and go permanently mobile, I haven’t had a landline in five years. The emerging world has largely skipped copper altogether and gone wireless from day one.  In the same way we are rapidly and permanently abandoning the desktop. Tablets and smartphones do the majority of what we used to do on beige boxes, large parts of the world may get to be fully mobile, online and most importantly shopping without ever seeing a wired phone or a traditional PC.

Delivering the infrastructure to make this a reality explains the recent forays by the likes of Google and Facebook into wireless infrastructure. Whether it’s a balloon or an enormous drone covered in solar panels circling high above the earth the big players in our markets have big plans for the third world. As economies become strong enough to support ecommerce Google will be there providing the network to facilitate it. Yes, Google is of course positioning this a humanitarian initiative to bring a better life to millions.

It’s encouraging to think that one day all of humanity will be able to search on Google, exchange cat pics on Facebook and shop on Amazon. However one could be forgiven for posing the question Bill Gates did recently…if you are so focused on doing the greatest good for the greatest number…why aren’t you helping cure malaria? 

The Internet of Now

Those of us old enough to remember the first desktop computers have watched the Internet emerge as perhaps the defining technology of this generation, the one thing that mankind has invented to date which far exceeds the ability of any one person to understand or encompass. It has put large parts of the recorded wisdom of the ages at the disposal of us all, it allows us to keep up with our high school classmates and watch adorable kittens problem solve on demand. To date it has reordered communication, research, education and entertainment to name but a few.

However it’s not done yet. There are two emerging trends which overlap and complement each other which will further disrupt and perhaps enrich our lives. As an example let me take you through an hour or so of last Saturday evening: I arrived back from a business trip on a United flight from New Orleans to San Diego. On the last leg connecting through Denver the gate was changed on me three times, prompting much confusion and several weary exoduses by other hopeful travelers through the vast airport. On the flight I had a snack and a glass of wine. The stewardess didn’t know what snacks she had on the cart, it took two attempts to run my new debit card. After fumbling through a menu and the cart I eventually paid for the culinary delight and continued to watch the movie which I had previously downloaded to my iPad. I hadn’t checked luggage but if I had I would have been searching the displays and baggage belt for my bag…which looks exactly like every other bag on the plane.  When I arrived at the airport I fished the parking card out of my wallet and paid with my Amex at the barrier. All the way home my radar detector beeped and burped at every potential cop (an essential addition to life in SoCal) as my Wayze ap gave feedback from fellow travelers on 15 north.

What’s impressive to a relatively old coot like myself is how well much of that stuff worked. I was able to pay for everything electronically, I could download the movie (albeit at home as the WiFi in the terminal or on the plane is lamentably slow). I did check in on line, I did download the movie, I didn’t get a speeding ticket.  What is also striking is how much better most of that could have been.  The next big online waves are visible on the horizon and headed our way.

As the internet of things crystallizes most of our personal and domestic technology will get connected to the Internet. That will likely mean that I’d be alerted to those gate changes as they happened, see what’s available on the cart and pay for it perhaps by just putting my finger on the payment pad, my car will know I’m down and might be warming the engine up while I wait for the bag which I can clearly see is only moments away. I would then drive out (no need for parking tickets) my radar detector would contribute seamlessly to the network of fellow citizens seeking to stay one step ahead of the fuzz, indeed with the right smart car perhaps it could drive me home while I nap at the wheel, on the way home my refrigerator might remind me we were out of half and half (we were). On long trips I tend to use a car service as it’s cheaper than parking and sometimes it’s good not to have to stress the journey after the flight. Saturday evening I could have used my Uber app on my phone to magically summons a town car the moment I hit curb side I could also have used my phone to turn up my Nest smart thermostat at home.  What’s interesting about the last two items is that both of those companies are regarded as ground breaking in the next wave…and both of them have recently received stratospherically high valuations and investments. So there is clearly something going on and someone values that very highly.

What’s happening is that more and more of our devices are getting online and the time it takes to get something done or delivered is also dropping dramatically. We are only a few short years away from being able to routinely talk to our devices and have them give us useful data back. That data might be linked to suppliers so that the stuff I need is already on its way from my Amazon (perhaps by drone).

As our devices come on line and out world becomes increasingly more convenient and real time so some aspects of our lives are likely to get more and more real time too. Have you ever broken down roadside and spent what feels like hours negotiating rescue from AAA or Bob’s Tow ‘n’ Go. Have you ever looked at the mess after that great dinner party and thought “I need a maid and I need her now!”  Have you ever had a spare slot in your schedule and thought “Hair…I have to get my hair cut before that interview tomorrow…who can see me now”…or stared at the lake of backed up sewage in your guests bathroom and prayed for a big red “plumber” button on your phone. It’s going to happen…and sooner than you think. Along with the rise of the internet came the fall of traditional media…especially local media. Local businesses have largely lost faith with the traditional which used to bring them new clients but have entirely failed to come to grips with the complex and potentially disastrously expensive mess of new media. In the same way you wish you had a big red “Plumber” button there are thousands of plumbers out there with gaps in their schedules wishing they had a big red “customer” button…and they will…soon.

The sea change has already happened, we just haven quite understood the magnitude of it yet.  Pretty much everyone with an income has a smart phone with internet access.  We are well used to talking to service providers to book jobs…what’s stopping us from smoothing out the last points of contact between customer and provider to produce the Internet of “Now” for all kinds of service providers. The answer is money, technology, vision and delivery…which is where Search Initiatives comes in…we have all four.   What we do today is connect tens of thousands of service providers (Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, landscapers, electricians and beauty spas with millions of thousands of potential customers. We do that by exposing carefully crafted and targeted ads through the crazy matrix of search, social media, real time display re-targeting to customers with a real need. We do that in real time and at enormous scale. The person to person contact is delivered through the good old fashioned phone call…the one medium understood and trusted by all those involved.  What we are doing right now is very fast…is it real-time-on-demand and now to the point where we are able to immediately match need to provider so that all the clients who need plumbers are perfectly match immediately with the nearest plumber with immediate availability…not quite. But it’s coming and when it does you may rest assured that Search Initiatives will be the folk behind the big “NOW” button on your phone…and on your plumbers phone.

So as you get used to the idea of your refrigerator reminding you to pick up milk, or your watch telling you that you are 1,000 paces short of your exercise goal, get used to the idea that waiting to get help with all of the other things your life throws at you is going to be a thing of the past. Welcome to the Internet of Now.

Local Online Confusion

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The chances are that you are reading this on your smart phone or tablet or perhaps you are taking a break from your phone to read this on your computer or even on that charming ‘dead tree product’ called a magazine.  So much of how we live and shop has moved online.  Large companies with massive marketing budgets now have teams of online experts figuring out how to reach their audience through the complex web of new media often in tandem with traditional media.

Now answer this question: When was the last time you interacted with your yellow pages?  I don’t mean when you picked it up and walked it straight to your recycling bin, I mean when you last used it to find a local business. Thought so…me neither.  There was a time quite recently when your Sunday paper had to be lowered buy winch onto your front porch…now, if you still get it all, it’s clearly been on a severe diet.  We have been living through a massive realignment of media…print media has been vaporizing before our eyes.

What hasn’t changed anywhere near as much is the rest of our every-day issues.  We still get tooth aches, leaks in our pipes, pest infestations and we get married.  We still use dentists, plumbers, rat catchers and party rental stores.  The massive real world operation which is the twenty million local businesses in the US still do business every day.  What went away is the way those businesses use to get new clients.

It used to be that owning a home and sending your kids to college was the American Dream.  Those have become much closer to the new normal for many Americans, now owning your own business has become for many a new part of that dream.  The BIA Kelsey organization, experts in all things local, tells us that each year roughly half of all business done by local businesses is new business.  Local businesses get that and are desperately trying to come to terms with a radically altered local advertising environment.  It’s no longer good enough just to have a basic website, local businesses really need a social media plan, they may have to manage their online reputation, they may even tweet!  The complex and rapidly changing world of online media is tough for a freshly minted MBA who went to school to learn this stuff – it’s simply impossible for the average local business to navigate.

Clearly this presents a problem to a large and growing segment of the US economy.  Interestingly, a solution has emerged in recent years and Search Initiatives, Inc. is leading that revolution.

Most local businesses don’t value “clicks” to their websites, “likes,” “tweets,” or “reviews.”  Most would much rather get a telephone call from a potential customer looking for a quote or to schedule a service.  People certainly do research online but when it comes to get serious about the project at hand many shoppers would rather speak to the company involved.  That makes the 100 year old telephone a critical part of the new media economy.  Local businesses have figured out that rather than pay a marketing company, yellow pages or newspaper for websites or clicks they would rather pay for calls from potential customers.  Those customers may well have come from ads seen on search engines, social media even banner ads…but that’s not the concern of the local business who only pays when the phone rings.  Those businesses are more than happy to pay a premium for those calls.  A dentist may pay $40 for a new customer a home security company may pay over $100 for a call from a potential client because they recognize at a profound level that the potential customer on the phone is a much better prospect than any other kind.

Interestingly, these local businesses are still being sold to by the same yellow page or news print reps but instead of just selling print they are being sold online visibility packages which typically include a website, social media management and most importantly a certain number of leads delivered by tracked telephone calls.  This has driven a massive growth in the “Pay per Call” industry and Search Initiatives is leading that sea change.

Local businesses need to advertise, yet they are unable to navigate the complex world of new media effectively.  There is a pent up demand in the form of the billions of dollars which have fled traditional print media and have not yet found a place in the new media world.  What Search Initiatives does is use the complex and challenging tools presented by new media such as SEO, SEM, RTB, FBX, PPC and a dozen other acronyms which you will hopefully never have to come to terms with to drive new customers to local businesses via the paid phone lead.  It’s a concept which any local business can understand and embrace.  They only get changed if a potential new client is brought to them…if we can’t deliver we don’t get paid.

Search Initiatives has deep roots in new media and local business.  We work with the people who sell to local business to deliver the calls they need.  That means we have almost no cost to acquire a new customer.  Our millions of advertisers are managed by our marketing partners.  They provide all the customer support to our advertisers.  That leaves us free to focus on what we do best; driving thousands of valuable leads to local businesses in massive volume.

This new version of local advertising uses the kaleidoscope of new media to drive customers to local locations   Search Initiatives is ideally placed to be the one stop solution for all things local.  It’s a multi-billion dollar opportunity which represents the last green field opportunity in new media and Search Initiatives is ideally placed to lead that revolution.

Google’s Brave New World

As an avid Google watcher, I find myself wondering “what’s next” on a pretty regular basis. Driving to Vegas recently, I passed the surreal power plant out in the desert, which focuses the desert heat from thousands of mirrors on to the power housing that drives steam turbines. Someone got ticketed recently for driving whilst impaired… in as much as they were wearing Google Glass, and apparently in our crazy over-regulated world that’s an impairment. A few weeks back Google filed a patent for an approach which allowed someone wearing Google Glass to indicate to “like” something by making the two hands make a heart symbol over the object as seen by Glass. Last week Google filed a patent for what is essentially an electronic (removable) tattoo that would allow users to control their devices by speaking to them.  It could also double as a handy dandy lie detector. Clearly Google has plans to allow us to interact at deeper and deeper levels with the Google technology that surrounds us.

If you add in their efforts towards driverless cars, massive and self-sufficient data centers, genome driven disease detection (23 and me), World Wide WiFi and plans to end death, you could be forgiven that they are single-handedly trying to make the life’s work of Isac Asimov become reality in our generation.

If you are a keen Sci-Fi follower you may have come across the debate around advanced civilization and virtual reality. The theory goes that as we explore the universe we find the remains of civilizations but never the actual civilization. It seems worlds get to a level a little more advanced than we are… then vanish. The answer lies in death. The theory goes that as soon as a civilization gets advanced enough, it can store the consciousness in a machine the inhabitants essentially depart this boring old world for a much more entertaining and immortal virtual world stored on massive data centers buried deep beneath the surface.

I have to admit I have a sneaking suspicion for the amazing (but much less glamorous) work that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been doing to eliminate some of the world’s nastiest diseases… as opposed to the cool “Wham Bam Science Man!” innovations much beloved by Google. However, it is fascinating to see what was pure science fiction becoming reality in real time… one crazy Google idea after another.

Another Crazy Week in Toon Town

I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be writing the first fifteen minutes of the Colbert Report or the Daily Show. It must be tough to find funny things to say about serious topics day in and out… if they were writing about our world of all things search and tech… the jokes write themselves.

Did ya hear the one about Steve Balmer calling Google a monopoly… (rim shot) no really! Not even a decade ago the evil empire based in the Redmond Death Star was best with regulators and commissions because of their heinous anti-competitive practices, which they achieved, by being the first one into the market to achieve critical mass. Now, the anti trust Gnomes of Zurich and the also-rans from the search space similarly beset our friendly Mountain View Giant. For Balmer to flat out call then a Monopoly (after calling Linux a cancer a few years back for leading the server technology OS) world is through Irony and out the other side.

A Canadian and a Fin are both in a bar on their mobile phone… one is a Blackberry the other is on a Nokia… why the long faces? Leaving aside the recent announcement that Nokia has been acquired by Microsoft, Blackberry announced a horrible set of results including nearly a billion on phones that nobody wants and plans to halve its work force. It’s worth remembering that these fallen giants used to rule the earth. Blackberry once had over half the handsets in the US and Nokia ruled Europe. What happened… the mammals ate their lunches… they didn’t evolve, and the smart phones (those silly game powered teen age toys) simply out evolved and out marketed them.

Why is having a child like the new Apple… iOS 7… I have it, it’s annoying, I already wish I didn’t have it and I can’t give it back. Bad joke… I like both my kids much more than I like iOS 7. Why Apple would come out with what feels like Android of a couple of years back is beyond me. Apple has taken a pounding ever since Jobs left (company and corporeal realm), and iPhone 5s and iOS7 were supposed to be proof that it can do more than pick over the weeds of St. Jobs.

I’m here all week… try the veal.

Google’s Book Report up for Review

Google-book-reviews There are some blog post items which I look at, think long about and still wonder if I should even comment on. Not because it’s not an interesting topic but because I’m simply afraid to get the story wrong. These tend to be the more arcane and legally fraught areas of search and today’s missive is on just such a topic… OK deep breath.

Way back in the mid 2000s, Google started a project to scan and make readily available some (many… most?) of the printed books currently out of copyright. They started out by taking on the obvious targets like Peter Pan or Grim Fairy Tales and have relentlessly ground on through the years ingesting more and more material, by some estimates over 20 million books and counting. Having read the small print, it appears that Google is honoring the copyright notice on books still under that protection. However, in many cases the authors (especially for books still under copyright but currently out of print) have given permission so it’s possible to print and read a huge range of books which might otherwise only be find on the shelves of libraries at your leisure. On the face of it, it’s pretty close to a victimless crime; the books involved are either public domain or are being rendered immortal with the permission of their authors.

No good deed goes unpunished and pretty much as soon as Google announced the project they were assailed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the form of the Authors Guild. A protracted court case ensued, it’s been dragging its lawyerly feet through multiple courts ever since. I don’t pretend to understand the complicated machinations of the case… nor do most I’m sure. The legal case is a nightmare, indeed the parties tried to settle it a while back, and the judge who wanted to settle the crucial “fair use” component of the case threw out that attempt.

The case is back in front of the judge next month and many blood shot eyes will be peering at it to see if this time it gets decided. Some of the arguments seem themselves out of fiction. One is that Google scanning and indexing of the books is essentially “transformative” in the same way that rappers sampling other music does not breech copyright. Another is the argument that because Amazon samples books as part of its marketing process, it’s OK for Google to do the same… no I didn’t get that one either.  Greater minds than ours will no doubt be brought to bear. Who knows, maybe a really useful way to extend and spread many kinds knowledge will be kept for us all… or maybe it will go the way of most other libraries nowadays… and become shuttered and empty.

Net Neutral? Not So Much

Google has been getting into many more things than just search for many years. Over the same period of time they have been fierce defenders of the kind of open Internet that allows the kind of innovation that has allowed the space to flourish. The government body chartered with the policing of that freedom is typically the FCC. That much maligned body, who I always associate with their long term persecution of Howard Stern, has regulated that Internet providers may not prevent their subscribers from attaching ‘non harmful’ devices to their network. In other words, if you wanted to hand a small home server off your network to allow all your family access to the content you have purchased online, your ISP couldn’t stop you.  Google has been a long-term supporter of this open Internet “net neutrality” approach to the growth of the web, and they have benefited from it greatly over time.

It was thus with a certain degree of incredulity that I read the accounts of the spat developing between Google Fiber and the FCC over exactly this issue. This is all a little “inside baseball”, but it’s important and we should all be aware of this potential problem. Whether the stories of Google buying up vast tracks of unused or “dark fiber” are really true or just an urban legend, Google has been investing heavily in becoming a significant very high speed ISP.  It’s currently deploying its ultra fast 1GB/S fiber to the lucky citizens of Kansas City. That’s an amazingly fast network, which pretty much any household would love to have… but there’s a teeny tiny problem. In their terms of use, Google prevents its lucky subscribers from attaching any kind of server or devices to provide large numbers of web users to its network. That is such a sweeping limitation that you wouldn’t be able to hook up a small email server or media server, I couldn’t share screens or content over Goto Meeting, I couldn’t use my favorite torrent program (I don’t torrent, that’s bad), or even deploy a nanny cam to watch the nanny from my office. I can’t think of a single way any of those sorts of actions could even put a dent in the kind of bandwidth Google is offering, but they would all be forbidden in their Brave New World.

Not Surprisingly the FCC has taken them to task and is asking Google to please explain what on God’s good green earth they are thinking of. Their restrictions are doubly puzzling given that only a few months ago they were lobbying for net neutrality from an exactly opposite position.  No doubt many lawyers will now rush in argue both sides. Although this feels like a very geeky minor point, in fact it’s potentially a huge issue.  If Google wins they will pave the way for our ISPs to significantly limit what we can do with the ever-expanding bandwidth we are paying for. I worked hard for that bandwidth, and I’d like to keep what I do with it up to me not my ISP.

Chrome Casting its Hat into the Ring

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Google announced today its latest foray into the world of tablet devices with their new Nexus 7.  After the horribly botched launch of the original Nexus, we have to hope this one goes better. On paper it’s a great spec, hopefully setting the feature bar higher and price lower for the other guys we really buy our tablets from… by which I mean Apple. I really don’t care that much, as long as I can play Stupid Zombies and watch movies perfectly on my iPad Mini. What I was a little miffed by is their announcement of the Chrome Cast widget.  This looks like a fat USB drive and plugs right into the HDMI port of any TV. It then allows you to stream almost any content from pretty much any device over the local WiFi network for just $35, it’s a stroke of Genius.

My miffed-ness springs from my love affair with the classy, elegant Apple TV; which just got nailed by Google’s cute, trashy, and cheap friend. I have three of the little critters plugged into the HDMI on all my TVs and with them I can stream from iTunes, HuLu Plus, YouTube, HBOGO, and a multitude of other content sources… just like the new kid on the block. Hopefully this too will inspire Apple to get innovating again. It’s certainly another win in the eternal battle against merciless, and excessive, TV advertising. As you may recall… I’m physically allergic to most all advertising (ironic, given that it puts food on my table). The growth of alternate content providers like HuLu and Crackle; which deliver top-notch content with minimal (if any) advertising in the way is encouraging. The other night I was watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which is an excellent vanity project by Jerry Seinfeld distributed on Crackle. Apart from some of the minor resolution issues, which occasionally pop up even in a Fios world, it was a pretty seamless experience. By no means as seamless as the iTunes experience, (which is quite superb) but pretty darned good.  On that topic, the next thing we need is WiFi devices that drop off the network if they aren’t being used. Even with colossal bandwidth, by the time you tack on 4 iPads, 3 Apple TVs, a smart TV, an Xbox and four cell phones (the normal in my house), we are back to late 1990′s bandwidth. At any one time, most of those devices are not doing anything much… so why are they taking up any bandwidth? OK, let me get off my soapbox now and make arrangements to attend the Apple TV funeral… no flowers by request.

Boiling the Frog

Google buys Waze start upI can see why any Googler might be getting just a little bit paranoid. It seems like where ever they turn they are in hot water… which is getting hotter. For example the recent NSA revelations that our dear friends at the government are essentially taping into pretty much anything they want to when ever they want, irrespective of the legalities they immediately came under suspicion of allowing the dark forces access to their systems to troll through query data. Google responded by assuring the world that in cases where they are required to supply data, they send it over by secure FTP or by hand… I kid you not… it conjures the visual of Mr. Brin nipping down the road with a flash drive or two secreted about his person to deliver our darkest secrets to the powers that be.

Fast-forward to the EU where the Brussels regulators hate Google in the worst possible way are sharpening their monopoly axes, this time for Android.  From the get go, Android has been a little controversial; Google offers it as essentially open source with caveats that using Android will by default provide revenue to the carrier from Google Ads. I’m not privy to what level of compulsion or commitment goes along with using Android, but Google has always had success with a “please take our product for free and allow us to give you mountains of cash for taking our ads.”  That offer took them to the top in search and it’s clearly driven Android’s success to a good extent.

The temperature rose again this week when Google announced their proposed acquisition of the Israeli tech start up Waze.  At the same time I take my hat off to those guys for extracting the biggest buyout payday ever secured by an Israeli company I’d hold off on the Lear Jet order until this deal gets past the US monopoly guys. The very moment the deal was announced the anti competition guys called foul and started campaigning to stop the deal. It must be said that Google does have a significant lead in the map space, and adding Waze will substantially bolster that lead… and the temperature keeps rising.

It’s Google’s World…We Just Live in It

If you were expecting a splashy launch of a Google Flying car or Google Tats (a transparent ink which allows users to program their tattoos to be anything they want to be as often as they like) at the recent Google I/O developers conference you would have been disappointed. At last years show Google announced Glass, the creepy wearable spyglasses that is currently getting them into a world of pain as the real world looks at their wearers as potential serial killers, but this year it was a major launch free occasion. That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot to talk about. If there is one word which comes to mind looking at the very wide range of stuff our friends at Google would like to offer us, that word is “Pervasive”.

It used to be that Apple was the one word answer to all of our technology needs. Yes you had to give up a little bit of freedom and a pretty hefty chunk of change, but Apple would wrap you up in love and join all your tech ends together for you. Now you have a choice… you can be apple flavored or Google flavored, or be like me Google flavored but mostly on Apple devices… oh and one Windows thingy still.

As always… outside of search, where they continue to be pack leaders; Google is following its spot-a-trend-and-copy-it solution. Some of the latest innovations include:

  1. Google TV – which is Apple TV or Ruku.
  2. Google Hang Outs – which is Skype plus GotoMeeting and YouTube.
  3. Conversational Search – which is a Smarter Siri.
  4. Google Play – which is Spotify meets YouTube (ad free).
  5. And lets not forget (though, many wish they could) the horrible Google+ – which wants to be Facebook when it grows up.

The list goes on. Some of these will be great, some will fail horribly; but Google has the brains and the bucks to pursue these avenues. Clearly their bottom line is to offer an attractive and typically free solution for every possible online/new media point of exposure. For the likes of Apple or Samsung, it must be like trying to fight the Hydra. They don’t mind who they copy (go ahead and sue them it will take four years, and four years is an awfully long time in tech) and eventually when the dust settles they will be everywhere. Now, where is Steve Jobs when we really need him?