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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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:
- Google TV – which is Apple TV or Ruku.
- Google Hang Outs – which is Skype plus GotoMeeting and YouTube.
- Conversational Search – which is a Smarter Siri.
- Google Play – which is Spotify meets YouTube (ad free).
- 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?
If there is one trend driving the ad business crazy right now, and has been for a while, it the active flight by content consumers from all things advertising. The major TV networks put the excellent HuluPlus together as a way to offer recent and past TV with “limited commercial interruption”, which means roughly 30 seconds of commercial per break rather than the more traditional 2-3 minute slots. As someone who is pretty much physically allergic to all forms of commercials, I regard that as a step in the right direction. Although the move to DVR has been slower than I would have thought the amount of people actually watching long form TV complete with commercials has now dropped to below half (44% in a recent survey). Add to that the growth of Video on Demand and all forms of online content the days of the traditional commercial seem to be headed into new territories. Radio has been in a death spiral fueled by the excellent Pandora and the horrible Sirius for a while. Newspapers, which used to weigh measurable fractions of entire pounds, now merely weigh a few grams. The online media world is rapidly moving to a more personalized kind of exposure with advertisers bidding on very detailed profiles of consumers targeting them closely with messages, which they think will resonate.
In another step in this direction, the recent discussions between Google and the major music labels seem to be headed in a similar direction. Google’s goal is to play catch-up to the trendy Spotify music solution, and their approach is interesting. Google hasn’t traditionally had a meaningful music offering, missing out to iTunes, Pandora, and others. But, they did buy YouTube and they see that as their grubstake. Google has been slathering YouTube with pre-run commercials for a while now, to the point where it’s almost unwatchable. In addition to pestering seekers after amusing kitten videos with ad after ad to the point where the Ad-allergic like myself find it unusable.
Now there is a solution. In a supposedly private negotiation, which is such a poorly kept secret that I just hear about it from my Bulldog (who isn’t that much of a news junkie), Google is cutting a deal with the major labels to offer their music content as part of a (presumably) Google Play branded initiative which will offer a Spotify like music service which also removes the ads from your YouTube viewing experience. It’s a cunning plan… let’s annoy the consumers to the point where they will pay a small amount to get rid of the commercials. Oh, and we will throw in all the music you can eat for good measure. The controversy comes over how the music guys get paid for their content. They would like a per-track feed, Google is offering a rev share on what they get. Either way it’s another short step to an ad free environment.
If you were Google, you might be forgiven for wondering what’s in the water that is prompting the world to hate you quite as much as they are this week. The answer is easy… a goal of owning and managing the worlds data to your own advantage is getting folks a little jumpy. In a crowded week for Google haters, the launch of the very cool Google Glass product is getting push back from state legislators who are already pushing to make them illegal for driving to casino operators who are already banning them from the gaming floor. Civil rights groups and privacy activists are forming strange bedfellows with bar operators and strip club proprietors against these devices. None of this stops me wanting to buy a pair (as long as they come in my prescription).
At the same time, a ground swell against Glass is getting underway. Monopoly regulators in Europe are calling foul on Google’s aggressive use of patents it purchases from Motorola against arch nemesis Apple in Germany. In a double EU whammy, the tax regulators are clearly coming after Google for their creative financial planning. Just in case you thought Google was in fact a warm, fuzzy Silicone Valley Company it’s not… it’s really based in Bermuda. It’s EU operations are ostensibly transacted through Ireland with a pass through to Bermuda… minimizing EU tax exposure. Unfortunately recently they recruited a bunch of folk for “sales” roles in UK, France, and Germany… and by doing that, they inadvertently qualified themselves to be more aggressively taxed in those countries. Clearly the EU has it in for big G, and is determined to get them any way they can.
The problem Google faces is that they make a great target for anyone with a beef against corporate America, technology in general, and information in particular. They are also incredibly secretive and harder to get a straightforward answer from than Ben Bernanke on Quaaludes. Apple gives us cool toys and Amazon let’s us buy pretty much anything we want to any time anywhere, Google seems to be infiltrating pretty much a very place where we touch information. If they didn’t invent, it they “borrow it” (witness Android and AdWords both critical products they “borrowed” from Apple and Yahoo respectively). Add to that their enthusiasm for minimizing their tax burden which enrages legislators, their willingness to use patents to hobble competitors, and their absolute power over how we navigate the Internet; and it’s not hard to see why they are getting increasingly rough treatment… and it doesn’t seem to bother them very much.
The Tom Cruise movie Minority Report is often held up as an example of what the future may hold, a world where the digital world overlays the real one and retailers greet shoppers with digital assistants offering deals customized to your interests. That’s still a ways off…well the time travel part is anyway, but Google is clearly leading the charge to get us there. I’m reading the new book from Eric Schmidt (Google’s Chairman) at the moment, and it’s clear that he sees the future in very Minority Report ways. He envisages a digital world where the rich countries live in an immersed digital culture and even Kalahari bushmen have cellphones to report in on herd movement.
This week has seen progress in multiple Minority Report ways. For example, the first reports are coming in from the lucky folk who were able to pay $1,500 to get hold of a pair of Google Glass glasses. The initial results are mixed but encouraging. It seems that if you actually read the instructions they apparently they work pretty well. They understandably garner lots of interest from passersby… much like early horseless carriages must have done. A widely reported side effect is the ‘creep’ factor that people assume they are being recorded by the wearers… and don’t appreciate it. The glasses communicate with your wireless phone to display search results, maps directions etc directly to the user. Another example of the importance of the mobile device in your pocket… in fact you could think of Glass as not much more than a wearable heads up display for your phone.
Another Google step towards Minority Report World comes in the release in the Apple App store of Google Now. The release is a few months behind the release on Android but now it’s made it into the store so even us poor iPhone users can play with this neat App. The premise is that your phone takes notes on what you are interested in, where you go, and where you are. It also gives you heads up on your schedule, email, and other essential parts of your digital world. Combine Google Glass with Google Now, and the digital overlay tailored to your world gets a couple of steps closer.
The part which isn’t getting as much play as the Gee Wizardry of Glass is how all this monetizes. It’s fair to say that Google missed the boat with the tablet and is still playing catch-up with Android on the iPhone. If the future is at least in part a digital overlay, then Glass represents the first serious take at delivering it. The fact that Google has amassed the largest basket of advertisers who will already pay for clicks in search, plays directly into this opportunity. When I look at Google Now I’m presented with cards for various local restaurants, it’s only a short step from there for Google to present me with offers from local retailers since Google Now knows my location and has been collecting my interests. Now add Google Glass to the mix as a way to deliver information and commercial messages as I move around, and we really do have the potential for the Minority Report experience which customizes commercial messages to my interests and locations. It also makes sense for advertisers to bid more for an impression on Glass when the wearer is in proximity to the product or location. Being in proximity to an object or location is a different kind of search… and arguably a very powerful kind of search as it took effort and time to get there. It truly is a brave new world, very much in line with Schmidt’s vision… and (so far anyway), a world pretty much controlled by Google.