Geek Speak

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hold the Phone (and the email for that matter)

A very shocking CNet article has my blood boiling. As we here in the US are fighting the Net-Neutrality battle, our compatriots in the Europe now face a similar struggle, as the EU investigates a tax on email and SMS messages. But before I don my Native American attire and ransack a ship full of tea, let's think this through a little.

There must a good reason for all this, right? I mean, taxes are (usually) put into place to fund projects for the public good. As my friend mentions, taxes can be used for good. But the explanation given by the proposers of the tax doesn't sit well with me: "Exchanges between countries have ballooned, so everyone would understand that the money to finance the EU should come from the benefits engendered by the EU," says Alain Lamassoure, a member of the European People's Party. So does that suggest that French Internet users were previously barred from sending dumb jokes to their amis in Italy? Was there a virtual barrier that blocked text messages from Ireland to Spain? If such hindrances ever existed, I never saw them.

I'm all for taxes when I can see some value out of their funding cause. Believe me, I'm more than frustrated that my $39.99 cell phone plan costs $50 a month because of the laundry list of taxes and fees tacked on to it, but I would think the $0.75 I pay for E911 would be the best deal ever if it saved my, or anyone else's, life just once (whether or not the project ever works is another story). But when we talk about a mobile technology that in its very definition is meant to reduce reliance on physical location, and the Internet, which was designed to be a communication tool, how does the formation of the EU enhance my use of SMS or email?

My other argument against this proposed tax also applies to the Net Neutrality battle underway in the US right now - double taxation. Why should a government be able to tax the fees you pay for Internet or mobile phone access in addition to your usage of that medium? No one wants another layer of taxes that provide us absolutely no good.

As a big proponent of capitalism, I need to see value from my expenditures. And I hate paying for something that can be free. And even more, I hate paying for something twice! So I pledge my allegiance to Net Neutrality, and will join my amigos in the EU in the fight against this madness! To the harbor!

Friday, May 19, 2006

The New Empire - Season 2

Yes, Season Two. As in, the battle for all the world's search traffic was season one and Google had the best ratings. This statement is easy to make, as stats from all over the place prove me more than right (not to mention their stratospheric stock price and company valuation).

Now, I will restate my earlier prediction: Google will be the next Great Empire. What? You doubt my ability to foresee the future? Let's take a look at some recent news and see how the rest of the pundits sit.

In a recent article on Forbes.com, Chris Kraeuter and Rachel Rosmarin report back on the plans of Yahoo! and Microsoft to "overtake Google". While offering no opinions of their own, a few experts chime in with some comments. If you take the article to heart, you'd be selling off GOOG and buying MSFT as fast as your E*Trade account would let you. And maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea, being that you could buy almost 20 shares of MSFT for each share of GOOG sold. If only Microsoft paid dividends...

But most of the readers of a smart, insightful blog like this would know better than to blindly follow crap like that. They would swiftly debunk all of the claims presented, and comfortably add more GOOG stock to their portfolio. I know I would definitely do the same if I had the money (so click on some advertising, will ya?) and it seems that 2/3 of the general public agrees.

Microsoft?
We first hear about Microsoft's new rollout of AdCenter - their foray into paid search marketing. While this should boost Microsoft's profits a bit, their overall search market share is still at 13% - getting less than 30% of Google's traffic. In a business where eyeballs = revenue, it's easy to see why Google will continue to produce results easily trumping their rivals.

But wait! There's more! Mr. Ballmer announced that Microsoft will be pouring over $1.1 BILLION dollars into the company's MSN division! With this investment, he is confident that he can overtake Google and Yahoo within 5 years. Now don't get me wrong, but I find it hard to believe that he can picture what an industry less than 5 years old will look like 5 years down the road! I have a strong feeling that this whole plan of his may not get executed as desired, and it seems the analysts agree, at least in the immediate future. An inside informant at GeekSpeak reports that the new MSN office in NYC is now on a hiring freeze as they approach the end of their fiscal year. We have also seen evidence of MSN turning down some top-notch talent seeking positions with that group. All this while Yahoo! and Google continue to add jobs, Google at a faster pace.

Yahoo!?
Now, what about Yahoo!? Mr. Semel was probably saying the same thing after all the attention Google attracted during last week's Press Day. Now don't get me wrong, I've always loved Yahoo! and always will. I think their strategy and direction are quite sound, and they've made a ton of great acquisitions (Flickr, del.icio.us, Konfabulator) lately. Unfortunately, they seem poised to be the eternal also-ran in the search market, despite grabbing the most global Web visitors.

While Yahoo! is optimistic about the improvements made to their ad platform (coming in Q3 in the US, Q107 internationally) and search engine, they're not expecting any benefit until at least next year. Even with their estimated 24-31% yearly growth figures, is there some irrational frothiness in those numbers? You would think so after hearing CFO Sue Decker's Greenspan-esque statement yesterday.

Google!
Without touting Google any further today, I'll just point to a few positive indicators of their future:
  • An incredible stranglehold on the search market
  • Growing cash reserves estimated at around $10 billion
  • Increasingly diversified product offering
If those aren't enough for you, come back soon and I'll have more! And if you don't agree with my outlook, I'm sure you're wrong, but leave a comment anyway.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The New Empire?

For eons and eons (in Internet time, that is), Microsoft has been referred to as the Evil Empire. And for my part, I'd say the moniker is well earned with their well-documented monopolistic practices and habit of swallowing up any start-up that may pose a realistic threat. Here'd I like to make my case for a new sheriff of this town. Watch out Bill, Mr. Schmidt is lurking in your backyard!

Last week, Google announced four new products. Much to the chagrin of their major competitors, this was headline material even though the concepts behind their offerings were nothing new. In fact, this writer found more than a few eerie similarities between these services and existing competitors' offerings. Let's dig in, shall we?

Google Trends
Google Trends is neat little tool that allows a user to gauge the relative popularity of a search term. For example, enter "cruise vacation" and you can see the seasonal trends of the cruise travel business. Google Trends generates a graph showing the total number of searches for the entered term originating from the chosen geographic region within the selected time period. Similar to a stock chart, what Google calls the "News Reference Volume" is displayed along the horizontal axis to give you an idea of how frequently that term was referenced in the news on a particular day. In addition, significant news events are shown on the graph using callouts. What this means is that you can tell why there was a huge spike in searches for "Cheney" on February 14th of this year (something to do with a good friend of his getting shot in the face).

Google Co-op
Co-op is probably the geekiest of the new products. At its core, "Google Co-op is about sharing expertise." You can be either a user of co-op or a contributor to co-op.

A co-op user can choose to subscribe to the offerings of contributors who match their interests. For example, as a travel buff I have subscribed to co-op offerings from Fodor's, Frommer's and Lonely Planet. In electing to subscribe to their offerings, I am saying that I trust their expertise and would like to see their input on the things I search for. So now, when I search for "Seattle", I'm given a set of links with which to refine my search. I can choose from "Dining Guides", "Lodging Guides" or "Attractions" to view a new set of search results that are influenced by my chosen co-op subcriptions.

For aspiring co-op contributors, a little more work needs to be done. You must work through a 4-step process that includes picking labels, designing facets and creating a context file (in XML) to describe your labels and facets. Once that is done, you need to get users to subscribe to your contributions. While this seems like a lot of work (worthy of an experienced Information Architect), I expect many content creators to participate. With increased usage of Co-op, it will allow them to become recognized experts in their domains. This is already happening in the limited number of categories available now.

Google Desktop 4
Anyone not living in a cave for the past few years has heard of Widgets. But for those cave-ridden few out there, Widgets are small (both in size and weight) applications that run on your local machine and can be placed anywhere on your screen. If you're an owner of Mac OS X, or a user of Yahoo! Widgets (formerly Konfabulator), you know the many uses of Widgets. There are the useful (news alerts, weather forecasts) and the not-so-useful-but-mildly-entertaining (Dilbert cartoons, Harry Potter quotes).

With release 4 of Google Desktop, Google introduces Gadgets (a widget by any other name). Currently, the available selection is small but I'm expecting developers to hop on board, as they did for OS X and Yahoo!, and begin creating a large library of offerings.

Google Notebook
Available as a Firefox Extension or Windows application for IE (I recommend the former), Google Notebook acts as your digital scratchpad for all your browsing notes. The application hides away as a small icon the browser's bottom-right corner as you do your normal browsing. However, when you finally come across that lobster bisque recipe you were looking for, you can click on the icon and copy all the pertinent information right into your notebook.

At this point, you're probably looking back at the beginning of this article and asking yourself, "How exactly does this make Google the next Empire?" And you would have every right to ask such a question. After all, I've only described 4 new offerings that simply copy existing technologies. Google Gadgets? Check out Yahoo! or OS X widgets. Notebook? Ever heard of A9 Search? But wait, that Trends thing is pretty cool, right? Well, it was pretty cool when Yahoo! introduced it as Yahoo! Buzz way, way back. And while Google Co-op may be the closest thing to a unique offering, pieces of it seem to have been culled from Flickr (now also part of Yahoo!).

Now for the part that makes all of this important: people care! When Google announced all of these new and updated products, they did so in front of over 100 reporters. If the atmosphere wasn't so electric, you may have heard self-pitying whimpers coming from Redmond or Sunnyvale. "Why don't they care about us?" Well, that's for another day. Let's consider this the first of many installments about Google's rise to supreme power!

Friday, April 15, 2005

Does Capitalism Breed Creativity?

I found the following claim made in a popular newsletter by a very enthusiastic Apple Computer retailer: "Apple's story is a confirmation that capitalism breeds creativity."

I had to think about that claim for a moment, and what it might be telling us--about both creativity and capitalism. Here's the response I sent that writer:

The way I see it, capitalism does not breed creativity. It is probably more the other way around: creativity nurtures a healthy capitalism, a natural abundance--because creativity arises from a deeper abundance than the material variety, though it is not at odds with capital, as many seem to imagine. Otherwise, in itself capitalism merely breeds capital. It's what you do with the abundance that makes all the difference. Let me give you an example of what I mean: consider two prominent businessmen (who you may recognize once I describe them), and how they handle their abundance:

1. Businessman 1 sells a bazillion copies of an interesting and curiously popular operating system that happens to be riddled with flaws and security openings. He pockets the profits and manages to thereby stay on top of the list of "world's richest." For a while longer, anyway.
2. Businessman 2 sells a bazillion music players--cheap little hard drives that he tweaks into elegant-looking and sounding devices that last a year or so before the batteries crap out. What does he do with his profits? Keep them as No. 1 did? No: he ramps up his PC hardware, comes out with a long-awaited budget system in a Lilliputian package, and then he releases a major upgrade of his operating system. In other words, he uses his runaway profits to give his business a claimer's chance at penetrating businessman 1's stranglehold on the marketplace.

Now, is #2 "more creative" than number 1 because he's a better capitalist? I seriously doubt it--if #1 has shown us anything over the decades, it is that he is one of history's greatest capitalists. If you can't grant him that much, then I would suggest you're living in a fantasy land. But I think the answer to the question is that #2 is more creative because that's the way he founded and furthered his business. Remember those TV ads, the famous 1984 Super Bowl ad and then the moving "crazy ones" ad (which is still one of the loveliest pieces of advertising ever made)--the ones that celebrated individuality in a nearly transcendentalist style? They weren't very good capitalist ads, especially the "crazy ones" ad: it doesn't even show or identify the product that's being sold! It was, in many respects, "anti-marketing": while Mick Jagger jammed guitar chords for Win 95 and its children, the quiet, touching "crazy ones" ad gave warm tribute to Martin Luther King, Martha Graham, Jim Henson, Einstein, and Buckminster Fuller. Big yawn in the mass market.

And so businessman #1 triumphed: his products won out and businessman #2 was driven toward bankruptcy (which was, in fact, predicted by a Texas PC magnate at the time). Fortunately, #2 learned a few lessons and came back with a new product that he marketed with aggressive, youthful silhouettes dancing and rocking to loud, raucous music. Was this an example of "capitalism breeding creativity"?

No, I still doubt it. I think it was, once again, an example of creativity soaking capitalism for all it's worth. So I think you'd be making a big mistake in crediting capitalism for the creative success of a product or company. It is creativity--and the invisible quantum energies that further it and move the people who receive those energies in humility and trust--that transforms things. Capitalism just helps everyone in the society benefit from creativity: capitalism is creativity's handmaid, not its parent.

Friday, April 01, 2005

wintel begone

Mark Morford has a column this month which once again raises a familiar question: why do we put up with mediocrity (or worse) in the products we buy and use, when excellent alternatives are easily available to us, and really cost no more in the long run?

I can speak personally to Morford's point: after 15 years of hair-pulling wintel usage, I moved in relative desperation to an imac machine in 2003, and have never looked back since. I still work with wintel machines at the office, so I know that Redmond continues to produce poisoned, infected, vulnerable, dysfunctional code that requires constant vigilance in its use and protection. The mac, on the other hand, is virtually virus-proof, definitely spyware and adware-resistant, and always reliable. OS X is an operating system that never seems to fail (even after an upgrade).

So why doe the mac still only have 3% market share in the computing world? Maybe it's because we accept mediocrity, as long as someone tells us often enough that it's good. For proof of that, look at what we have governing us in Washington.