October 22, 2012
Get Ready For MS Surface And Windows RT
This is the week when the world changes for Microsoft and its customers. Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface “tablet” start distribution this Friday. There is excitement in the air and press over the event though coverage of the development of the new version of Windows has been decidedly mixed. The touch oriented version of Windows 8 sports a new interface that has seen good reviews on tablets but is seen by some as a detriment on a desktop machine with a keyboard and mouse.
I’m not going to rehash whether Windows 8 is a good or bad move from Microsoft. My feeling is that the company is right to design an operating system for mobile devices as that is where the consumer market is obviously headed. It’s not a question of whether Microsoft made the right move as much whether the design and approach of Windows 8 is right.
The success of Windows 8 on traditional computers with keyboards and mice will only become apparent once the general public has a chance to use it. Articles in the tech press are loaded with comments for and against features in Windows 8. I tend to discount those to an extent as a majority of readers there work in technical industries. My suggestion is to try it out for yourself and see how you like it.
With that, I want to clear up some confusion about what Microsoft is distributing this Friday. There are two types of Windows and two types of Surface tablets. The iteration that appears at the end of the week is the tablet that runs Windows RT which is not a full version of Windows. While it will sport a desktop, it will not be able to run any legacy applications that are not preinstalled by Microsoft. These will include a version of Office RT that includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, but not Outlook. Microsoft wants users to use the live tile version of the mail app instead. There will be no option to install programs to the desktop side of Windows in Windows RT.
For those wanting that capability, wait for the Windows Pro version of the Surface or other OEM equipment that runs full Windows. Microsoft’s version won’t appear until January at the earliest. These type of devices are expected to cost significantly more as they mimic the desktop experience in a tablet/laptop/ultrabook form factor. Microsoft has released pricing and specifications for the Windows RT version of the Surface. The device will cost $499 without a cover/keyboard and $599 with. A more tactile keyboard is available for $129 as a separate option. The summary specifications and a feature by feature comparison to the iPad are in a nice chart courtesy of PC Magazine. There is a nice article in SlashGear on how the Surface Tablet came to be.
Microsoft’s success is far from assured though I have no doubt Windows 8 will be a success in one way or another. The much hated Vista (let us never speak of it again) sold millions of copies despite being much of a joke in the technical community. Google and Apple both have new tablets in the offing. Google will announce the next generation of the Nexus 7 before the end of the month. Apple is expected to announce the iPad mini tomorrow. Amazon, of course, keeps speeding along with the Kindle. I expect Microsoft to have an impact in the mobile market with the Surface. I won’t predict success. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) is less sanguine. [MG]
October 14, 2012
Romney And Obama Want To Know Your Online Porn Habits (And More)
Here’s a little piece of fun courtesy of the New York Times via CNET. Getting the vote out for the upcoming presidential election now includes campaign workers armed with voter personal information mined from the web. From the New York Times:
Strategists affiliated with the Obama and Romney campaigns say they have access to information about the personal lives of voters at a scale never before imagined. And they are using that data to try to influence voting habits — in effect, to train voters to go to the polls through subtle cues, rewards and threats in a manner akin to the marketing efforts of credit card companies and big-box retailers.
How detailed is that information? It gets a bit, uh, intimate:
The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people — or computers — with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.
A Romney campaign official is quoted as saying the analytical efforts shouldn’t be obvious otherwise voters get creeped out. No kidding. Most people seem oblivious when Google and Facebook have the goods on them for purposes of marketing. How about giving this same demographic information to politicians? It’s not the government knowing about your life, but it is the people who want to be part of the government. As the song goes, how do you like me now? Both campaigns say they protect an individual’s privacy and operate within the law. Oh, that makes me feel soooooo much better. And patriotic.
And how do the campaigns get access to this information? The same way any major marketer would:
In interviews, however, consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems. The campaigns themselves, according to campaign employees, have examined voters’ online exchanges and social networks to see what they care about and whom they know. They have also authorized tests to see if, say, a phone call from a distant cousin or a new friend would be more likely to prompt the urge to cast a ballot.
The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to mittromney.com or barackobama.com. The campaigns’ consultants have run experiments to determine if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online is effective.
Now we know why there will never, ever be strict privacy laws regarding web habits. [MG]
October 13, 2012
GAO Report Looks At Privacy In Wireless Location Information
The Govermemnt Accountability Office has released a report called Mobile Device Location Data: Additional Federal Actions Could Help Protect Consumer Privacy. Here's a bit from the summary of what the GAO found:
Using several methods of varying precision, mobile industry companies collect location data and use or share that data to provide users with location-based services, offer improved services, and increase revenue through targeted advertising. Location-based services provide consumers access to applications such as real-time navigation aids, access to free or reduced-cost mobile applications, and faster response from emergency services, among other potential benefits. However, the collection and sharing of location data also pose privacy risks. Specifically, privacy advocates said that consumers: (1) are generally unaware of how their location data are shared with and used by third parties; (2) could be subject to increased surveillance when location data are shared with law enforcement; and (3) could be at higher risk of identity theft or threats to personal safety when companies retain location data for long periods or share data with third parties that do not adequately protect them.
Industry associations and privacy advocates have developed recommended practices for companies to protect consumers’ privacy while using mobile location data, but companies have not consistently implemented such practices. Recommended practices include clearly disclosing to consumers that a company is collecting location data and how it will use them, as well as identifying third parties that companies share location data with and the reasons for doing so. Companies GAO examined disclosed in their privacy policies that the companies were collecting consumers’ location data, but did not clearly state how the companies were using these data or what third parties they may share them with. For example, some companies’ policies stated they collected location data and listed uses for personal information, but did not state clearly whether companies considered location to be personal information. Furthermore, although policies stated that companies shared location data with third parties, they were sometimes vague about which types of companies these were and why they were sharing the data. Lacking clear information, consumers faced with making a decision about whether to allow companies to collect, use, and share data on their location would be unable to effectively judge whether the uses of their location data might violate their privacy.
October 10, 2012
What Else Can An Online Catalog Do?
There is an article in Library Journal, Librarians As Booksellers, which promotes the idea of libraries partnering with publishers as a sales point for e-books. One mechanism would have catalogs include “buy” buttons in a bibliographic record. A borrower may be a buyer if the book is unavailable for loan, or alternatively may want to acquire a title after having borrowed it. I like the idea in that, as the article suggests, publishers and libraries could easily be partners rather than antagonists. One of the themes running through the Apple e-book pricing case is preserving the local bookstore as a place of literary discovery. The library could easily fill that role if the local bookseller went out of business. Comparatively, the local library is not likely going away no matter how much market share Amazon amasses.
This got me thinking on how libraries could further adapt their roles in modern times. The term “information center” is another common way libraries define themselves these days. The heart of the information center is, of course, its catalog. The traditional view of the catalog is Charles Cutter’s Objectives as published in his Rules For A Dictionary Catalog (see page 12):
1. To enable a person to fine a book of which either
(A.) the author)
(B.) the title) is known
(C.) the subject)
2. To show what the library has
(D.) by a given author
(E.) on a given subject
(F.) in a given kind of literature
3. To assist in the choice of a book
(G.) as to its edition (bibliographically)
(H.) as to its character (literary or topical)
Modern catalogs changed in the 1980s and later to include features such as linking to external electronic sources. Many of these will be electronic components of a library’s collection such as subscriptions to electronic journals and books, videos, or any legitimate external link with a stable URL. Those of us in academics promote the use of the online catalog typically during orientation. We want students to use it. The current trend is to overlay the catalog with discovery mechanisms such as WorldCat Local as a way of deep mining subscription information beyond bibliographic content.
I realize that a school’s web site typically contains information about the academic program such as class schedule, texts, faculty, and other details. Why not make some of this information available through the online catalog? It would certainly promote it as a source of institutional information. This may not comport with Cutter’s Objects for a catalog, but the Internet did not exist in 1904 and the way we access and consume information has expanded since then.
I’m well aware of past discussions as to whether libraries should catalog the web. I think that is impossible given the number of pages out there. If anything, that is the purpose of Google and other search sites. Nonetheless, there can be room for curated local information that is not bibliographic. We have research guides and other self-generated content that can be discoverable through the catalog.
Traditionalists may disagree and I understand that. Libraries, however, are doing more than collecting books these days. If the Library Journal article floats the idea of libraries taking on the some of the role performed by bookstores, why stop there? The examples I used may or may not be practical. The institution’s web site may be sufficient. But my real point is how else can the catalog be useful? What other information pointers can be included?
I think any adaptation of the online catalog to include other content is less a technological issue than a financial one. It comes down whether the money is there to buy the infrastructure and the people to manage it. Who knows? The future may be a discovery service partnered with a large Internet search company.Look at page 99 of The New Catalogue of Harvard College Library where Cutter describes the mechanisms of the card catalog drawer. He marveled at the utility of the rods that held the cards in place. They prevented accidental spills but allowed orderly rearrangement. I wonder what he would think of today’s catalogs. [MG]
October 09, 2012
Some Thoughts (And A Few Personal Disclosures) On Web Privacy
I’m always fascinated by news concerning online privacy, especially in the context of marketing. I think it’s pretty well established that free services from Google, Facebook, and others are not really free. Our payment is the information we voluntarily provide combined with monitoring our activities on the Internet. A story in CIO highlights the lack of transparency on the part of the largest Internet companies on how they create and update user profiles. It’s not merely a matter of filling in the blanks on a profile page. That’s too easy and too obvious. I know that search habits and clicks form the basis of the implied interests, but how does that really work? The more important questions may be how can we edit that information and control its use.
All we see are the end results of that inferential profile. I use Gmail and I know I get targeted ads based on the content of mail sent to and from my account. Google does have a link “Why this ad?” The short description says it is based on emails from my inbox and offers links where I may manage or opt out of ads. There is another option called “Ads on the web” where I can view some of the interest categories associated with my profile.
They are not all entirely accurate. One shows I'm interested in “Arts & Entertainment - Music & Audio - Urban & Hip-Hop - Rap & Hip-Hop.” I do have an interest in music but it does not extend to the listed genres. Another category is “Books & Literature - Children's Literature.” I admit a fondness to Scooby-Doo videos, though I can’t believe that outweighs the subject searches I perform as a reference librarian. I assume Google hasn’t found a way to turn extensive searches on competition, marketing, and antitrust into an ad bonanza. Google seems to think I like basketball. I guess all those searches for news on the Chicago Blackhawks do not register with our mechanized overlords.
The point of this outpouring of detail is to illustrate Google, Facebook, and others pay detailed attention to what we do. We’ve always known that. What I don’t know is how Google selected basketball over hockey. They are not anything alike outside of they are both team sports and typically played in dual use arenas. It also illustrates how profoundly wrong some of algorithms may be in generating our preferred interests. Some of these inferences may have consequences beyond ads.
The CIO article suggests our profiles contain our political affiliations. That may not matter much to some in the United States. It may make a difference, as CIO notes, for citizens in other countries where politics and violence are heavily associated. Google doesn’t list this in my limited demographic listing it displays. For some reason, however, Google suggests following the Obama campaign whenever I log into Google+. I do read a lot of political news though I find it disturbing that Google is predicting an assumed voting preference on my part based on my web habits. I rarely visit campaign sites.
One suggestion in the article is that the only way to make this process more transparent to the end user is through regulation. I think it is a great idea though I think it would be hard to implement. Congress isn’t known for productivity these days. Moreover, there’s money in this, likely generating hard resistance to changing the privacy landscape. CNN reports on how much an individual is worth to Google and others. The amounts change based on, you guessed it, demographics but in 2010 an individual was worth about $14.70 per thousand searches. There are estimates for Facebook as well.
I wouldn’t suggest that individuals give up Google and the rest. I do suggest, however, that anyone using these services should pay attention to the details they have on us when possible. It’s not only marketing. Who knows, maybe these profiles could become a component of things like credit scores. It seems unlikely, but then again, social security numbers were never meant to be unique personal identifiers. Look how that turned out. [MG]
October 04, 2012
Google Settles With Publishers (But Not Authors Guild) In Scanning Case
Google has settled the seven year old book scanning case with plaintiffs Association of American Publishers (AAP). Unlike the comprehensive settlement that Judge Denny Chin rejected in March of 2011, this resolution does not require his approval. The specific terms of the agreement are undisclosed. I would think there are contingencies built in depending on the outcome of the rest of the litigation. The joint press release issued by Google and the AAP has this:
The settlement acknowledges the rights and interests of copyright-holders. U.S. publishers can choose to make available or choose to remove their books and journals digitized by Google for its Library Project. Those deciding not to remove their works will have the option to receive a digital copy for their use.
* * * *
Google Books allows users to browse up to 20% of books and then purchase digital versions through Google Play. Under the agreement, books scanned by Google in the Library Project can now be included by publishers.
Further terms of the agreement are confidential.
This settlement does not affect Google’s current litigation with the Authors Guild or otherwise address the underlying questions in that suit.
The Guild issued its own terse statement (reprinting the joint press release), stating essentially that this development has changed nothing from their perspective:
“The publishers’ private settlement, whatever its terms, does not resolve the authors’ copyright infringement claims against Google,” Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken said in a statement. “Google continues to profit from its use of millions of copyright-protected books without regard to authors’ rights, and our class-action lawsuit on behalf of U.S. authors continues.”
Despite the lack of terms, it seems Google has entered into a blanket licensing agreement with the publishers. The article in Wired, Google Gives Up Fair-Use Defense, Settles Book-Scanning Lawsuit With Publishers, suggests by its title that Google is abandoning the fair use argument it raised as a defense. I doubt that the out-of-court settlement forecloses the argument in the remaining litigation or in the related HathiTrust litigation.
The Guild seems determined to get a court to say that scanning whole titles without permission for snippet view in a search engine is not fair use. A contrary ruling would not only civilly exonerate Google but give others the same opportunity. Think of Amazon or Microsoft via its investment in Barnes & Noble’s Nook as possible competitors. Then there are the foreign search engines such as Yandex in Russia and Alibaba in China who may also get in the game.
I think Google’s decision to settle is a smart move because it essentially puts the publishers’ interests against those of the Guild. The AAP did not join the Guild in its subsequent suit against the HathiTrust. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals is staying the Guild’s suit temporarily so Google can appeal the certification of a class action. Judge Chin denied that request early in September, probably wanting to get the case out of his trial docket sooner than later. The Guild ought to consider helping out Judge Chin. My opinion is that it is easier to do business than to litigate. A comparable settlement would prevent others from getting into the scanning game if the fair use argument is a ultimate winner at trial and on appeal. [MG]
September 17, 2012
Google Offers Software To Create Online Classes
Google is getting into the educational technology game by introducing Course Builder. It's a piece of free software used to manage online classes:
Course Builder is our experimental first step in the world of online education. It packages the software and technology we used to build our Power Searching with Google online course. We hope you will use it to create your own online courses, whether they're for 10 students or 100,000 students. You might want to create anything from an entire high school or university offering to a short how-to course on your favorite topic.
Massive Open, Online Classes, or MOOCs, are getting popular in the general educational world. I wrote about them recently in how they could impact law schools. My basic premise is that law schools could use something like this to demystify the law to either the general public or prospective law schools. As a side note to that discussion, see this story in the Daily Camera (Boulder) which describes how the Law School at the University of Colorado is conducting a set of legal lectures in a “Mini Law School” open to the public for a nominal fee:
In the end, CU officials hope the lectures will help people better navigate the legal system or even get them interested in considering law school.
Imagine doing that online instead of on campus.
Google offers design help through its wiki and other sources. The company does take a bit of advantage by cross-promoting its own resources, offering other optional information about Course Builder via Hangouts on Google+. Anyone interested in producing their own online classes should take a look at this. It might also be useful to produce library instructional material. [MG]
September 16, 2012
Microsoft's Ballmer Says Surface Tablet Pricing To Be Between $300 And $800
The Seattle Times published an interview with Steve Ballmer late yesterday. One of the questions touched on pricing for the Microsoft Surface Tablet announced earlier in the year. Here’s the relevant portion of the interview:
Q: The iPad has the largest share of the tablet market, but its soft spot, it seems to me, is the price.With the Surface, are you planning to compete with the iPad on price or on features?
A: We haven't announced pricing. I think we have a very competitive product from the features perspective. ...
I think most people would tell you that the iPad is not a superexpensive device. ... (When) people offer cheaper, they do less. They look less good, they're chintzier, they're cheaper.
If you say to somebody, would you use one of the 7-inch tablets, would somebody ever use a Kindle (Kindle Fire, $199) to do their homework? The answer is no; you never would. It's just not a good enough product. It doesn't mean you might not read a book on it....
If you look at the bulk of the PC market, it would run between, say, probably $300 to about $700 or $800. That's the sweet spot.
My own feeling is that people buy tablets for a variety of reasons, and price is one of them. If an individual wants to consume media, check email, and browse the Internet casually and not much else, then a Kindle, Nexus 7, or a tablet by Samsung or Visio might just be the perfect device. And let’s not forget that the expected iPad mini may fall into that category at a decent price as well. I think it’s clear that Ballmer sees the Surface as a direct competitor with the iPad and not much else, at least by putting it in a price range of $300 to $800.
He’s bullish on Windows 8: “I'm not paid to have doubts. (Laughs.) I don't have any. It's a fantastic product. ...” Whether or not the Surface is successful remains to be seen. I don’t doubt that it will penetrate the market. The proof will come if the consumer is satisfied with performance, battery life, apps, and the like for the two different models. I’ll wait to see how it performs in real life before I’d consider getting one. [MG]
September 04, 2012
Can An Individual Bequeath Digital Media?
Not too long ago Market Watch asked the musical question of what happens to digital files when the owner passes away. It’s a valid question in this day of consumptive devices where libraries of music, books, and other content reside in a marketer’s cloud. This isn’t much of an issue on a device with a few hundred or more songs, and books. But, as the article suggests, someone with 10,000 purchased songs and books has a serious chunk of change invested in media. Potential heirs may want some of that.
The answer is likely that the files are not transferrable, at least in a legal sense. It is possible to keep the account going I suppose if one’s password to the iTunes or other proprietary store is known to loved ones. That seems a bit impractical given that consuming devices are designed for obsolescence. There is a likely point where the combination of devices and accounts cannot be sustained. Backing up to physical media would be an option depending on the amount of DRM applied to a file. Music is less of a problem than e-books as there are any number of file formats for sale that lend themselves to archiving. Books, on the other hand, are so locked down that it would take essentially illegal means to pass the files down to others.
The article notes that one attorney is proposing a digital trust where passwords and other account information are stored for the benefit of loved ones. I have a feeling that content providers wouldn’t be sympathetic to transferring digital product from one generation to another. That would mean lost, uh, sales of limited licenses to access content under certain conditions. It’s an interesting question that the law has not addressed. There aren’t even papers on the topic in SSRN, at least not which directly examine the question.
Physical media may be on the wane in the age of the cloud. It has one advantage, however, in that it can be given away without recourse to the people who created the content. [MG]
August 31, 2012
Computer Monitors Then And Now
Reader Abby Wright sent this one in. The graphic comes from the Dell Corporate Blog and it represents the evolution of monitors through the years, from teletypes to LEDs. Go to the Dell blog and click on the image to see the readable version. It’s pretty amazing stuff and inspired me to dig through the junk in my basement. I discovered that I still have an original IBM PC from the early 1980s complete with an Amdek monochrome (orange) monitor. The machine came with 16kb of memory. I don’t know if an AST Six Pack Plus is installed. I found a box with one or two of those inside, so I’m ready to fire it up with my 5-1/4” copy of DOS 2.0 and run WordStar. Now if I can only find the printer drivers I'll be in business. [MG]
August 26, 2012
There Aren't Enough Cats On The InternetHere’s a site that will waste hours of time: Meowbify.com. Meowbify will take any web page with graphics and replace most of them with pictures or short video loops of cats. Why? As the site says “to make the whole internet cat friendly.” I though cats owned the Internet as it is. Try it out, or click on links for cat versions of the United States Senate, House, and White House for examples. The pictures change with each click. Here’s the Meowbified home page for DePauw University. My cat once told me that when it was time to send him to college, he wanted to go to DePauw. Enjoy. [MG]
August 14, 2012
Google Changes Search To De-Emphasize Claimed Copyright Violations In Results
Google announced a change to its search algorithm a few days ago. A post on Google’s Inside Search Blog puts it this way:
Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results. This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily—whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify.
The RIAA and the MPAA, among others, applauded the move. I have mixed feelings about it. Copyright holders have leaned on Google for years to remove links to pirated content from search results. I can only guess that the motivation for Google to finally do something like this is the fact that it needs content from these very same providers to fill out offerings in the Google Play store. It makes sense as a business move to promote legal content partners over pirated material. Google is, after all, a public company responsible to stockholders.
On the other hand, it leaves Google open to what I call the “think of the children” pitch. Groups with enough (or think they have enough) clout may pressure Google to edit its results further based on moral, political or social considerations. It’s obviously too soon for this kind of fallout, but the door is open for others to leverage their causes. Google isn’t eliminating the questionable links under its new search standard, though it is placing them far enough down in search results that they will likely not be seen. How many people go past the first few pages of search results? Dedicated pirates may not care. The net effect is that search is no longer neutral, if it ever was at all. [MG]
July 22, 2012
Some Details Emerge On The ISP Copyright Infringement Monitoring
Jill Lesser, the Executive Director of the Center for Copyright Information wrote a piece last week in CNN that explains a bit of the mechanism that ISPs will use in their cooperative effort with content owners to squelch copyright infringement on the web. The plan calls for graduated responses from ISPs described as “non-punitive.” The possibility exists for the ISP to dump a user to an educational page on the evils of copyright infringement or slow down the stream in some circumstances. It seems that the content holder will be doing the tracking while sending notices of “hey you stop that” through the ISP. Names and other personal information will not be given to the content holder.
It appears from her statement that the focus will be on peer-to-peer traffic:
As they have done for years, content owners will use technical methodologies to identify alleged infringements over peer-to-peer networks and will request that notices of such alleged infringement be passed on to subscribers by the participating ISPs.
I would find it hard to believe that content owners would limit themselves to P2P traffic given the number of file lockers, blogs, and other sites at which content may be available. I suppose they could get the Megaupload treatment under existing law. The tracking should have started July 1 if previous reports are to be believed. We will have a better idea once the notices and the circumstances surrounding them start hitting individual users. I have a funny that this may not slow down infringing conduct at all, and may be used as a failed experiment to show that we need more SOPA type legislation. I hope they notice that not all P2P traffic out there contains copyrighted content. [MG]
July 19, 2012
Some Thoughts On Technology Bonus: Yahoo
I hadn’t planned to write another technology piece so soon after the last two. The hiring of Marissa Mayer by Yahoo as the new CEO is worth a few words. She was a Google vice-president and employee #20 in the early days of Google. She is also credited with the look and feel of many Google products, including the landing page, Gmail, and others. Google announced that she would not be directly replaced when she left, instead shifting the responsibilities she had to other members of her team. Some in the press implied that Google has a “woman” problem. I don’t know because I don’t know their track record in this area. Eric Schmidt said by going to Yahoo she received a promotion. Take the implication for what you will.
So, what kind of a company is Mayer about to run? Certainly Yahoo is a company that needs competent leadership to survive. She is what, the eighth CEO in the last ten years. Something like that. The last year alone seemed a revolving door at the top. If I described Google as a risk-taker and Microsoft as (until recently) unimaginative, then Yahoo is downright boring.
Yahoo started off as a web darling. It was the place to go to find stuff on the web through its hand curated portal and its distinctive list of categories. When Terry Semel came along in the early 2000s he transformed the company into a media site. Sure, search was still there, but the company seemed to lose focus when it was surpassed by the up and coming Google search engine. If anyone remembers, Google actually powered search at Yahoo for a while until it started to compete with Yahoo for the same eyeballs.
Semel’s answer was to create or buy properties that turned Yahoo into a community. And while this strategy succeeded in attracting visitors, Yahoo wasn’t doing anything that necessarily made it an essential site beyond basic search. I think it’s the same criticism that people leveled against Google, that its search engine made it a one-trick pony. Google’s reaction was to diversify services. Yahoo had lots of services but none of them stood out. They bought Flickr, and to the dismay of early users, required a Yahoo ID to use it. And while Flickr is known to be a great photo sharing site, many consider it bland in the evolution of web technical possibilities. Other properties came into Yahoo with the same fate. Some, like Geocities web sites became so underdeveloped that Yahoo essentially shut them down.
The leadership problem was so severe that Yahoo had no idea of what kind of company it wanted to be. Is it a tech company? A media company? Who knew. The disarray brought the attention to Microsoft who actually tried to overpay in an attempt to buy the company. This is probably the most exciting thing to happen to Yahoo in its existence. The old guard led by co-founder Jerry Yang threw such a fit as to defeat the move. Steve Ballmer is counting his blessings having stated that sometimes the best deals are the ones that never happen. Yahoo has never been worth the money Microsoft was willing to pay at the time of the deal nor any time since. Carl Icahn’s subsequent invasion of the Yahoo board didn’t help matters.
So Yahoo drifted. Microsoft salvaged what it wanted by powering Yahoo search through Bing. That helped Microsoft at Yahoo’s expense. Though powered by Bing, it continued to lose search market share to Microsoft’s formal presentation of Bing. This may have disappointed the Yahoo engineers who believed in their home grown search product to the point where staff was demoralized. But business is business when there isn’t a central strategy.
And that’s the problem Marissa Mayer has to face. Give this company a direction. Make it exciting again. Yahoo’s social is almost non-existent compared to other sites. Microsoft sucked up partnered with Facebook to paper over its shortcomings. Google started Google+. Google also started other services such as Google Docs and the online Google Apps office suite. Yahoo still is a site where someone goes to do, what exactly. Email? Sure. Everybody’s got that. So Marissa, help this company define itself. Develop some stand-out services that attract not merely an audience, but real attention as a cutting edge company. Make hard decisions, and yes, satisfy the stockholders. Essentially make Yahoo cool again. Challenge the web for a change. I get tired of disdaining this company, but in the past it’s made it so gosh darn easy to do. If the question is “Do You Yahoo?,” have a response to “Why would I want to?” Good luck. [MG]
July 18, 2012
Some Thoughts On Technology Part Two: Google
Google is one of those companies that can’t be avoided, not that any of that is news at this point. One can search the Internet from competitors such as Bing or Yahoo. But Google’s influence goes well beyond its direct services. Google search is pervasive enough that is the standard by which other search engines are measured against. This may take the form of market share or by distinguishing offered services such as those from WolframAlpha. The Google effect goes well beyond generic Internet search. Both Westlaw and Lexis have transformed their services to Google style search leveraged against their own content and indexes despite sophisticated Boolean search languages.
What sets Google apart from other companies is its willingness to take chances without knowing the outcome. Google bought YouTube when others such as Mark Cuban called it a litigation magnet. They weren’t wrong. Google had the resources to contend with the litigation (see the Viacom case) while still developing the site as repository for commercial and educational video. Any DVD player or television set that features Internet applications has one for YouTube access.
The book scanning project is another example. The mere act of scanning was immediately contested by rights holders and continues to this day. The activity, however, has the potential to either clarify the limits of fair use or inspire legislative changes to the copyright law. When Microsoft began its me-too scanning project, the company said it would avoid the copyright trap by only scanning books with permission of the publishers or those squarely in the public domain. Later someone in Redmond woke up and asked why Microsoft was even doing this and abandoned the project. Microsoft was not willing to take chances.
The Android mobile operating system is another chance. It’s now in its fifth version despite Steve Job’s claim that it is a stolen product and threatening to go “thermonuclear” to destroy it. Android has motivated patent suits either for features it contains or features of the third-party hardware that runs it. Most companies would shy away from this kind of hassle. In spite of it all, Android is a very popular mobile OS globally.
The most recent disruption by Google is the Nexus 7 tablet. It’s announcement must have made Microsoft feel like the proverbial “chopped liver.” Microsoft created a real buzz when it announced the Surface tablet in conjunction with Windows 8. The Surface had a compelling design with its detachable cover that acted as a full keyboard. The problem was that it didn’t have specifications, a price, or a specific delivery date. When Apple announces a product it makes it available shortly after the announcement. Microsoft’s attempt to freeze the market might have worked well enough. Shortly after Microsoft announced the Surface, Google announced the Nexus 7.
The contrast couldn’t be starker. It’s an Android based tablet, smaller than the iPad at 7 inches and considerably less expensive. The only real difference in the models was the memory configuration, with 8 and 16 gigabytes, and priced at $199 and $249 respectively. The tech press was disappointed that memory could not be supplemented with removable storage. My prediction is that feature will be in the next version of the Nexus. The disappointment did not stop the general public from flooding Google with orders and apparently selling out the Nexus 7 in its first production run. The Surface will likely be successful, but the Nexus 7 is getting the press. The tablet is supposed to be a direct competitor to Amazon’s Kindle and the B&N Nook. Rumors are swirling that Apple will release a slightly large iPad mini later on this fall.
Not everything Google does grabs that kind of positive attention. There was the collaborative platform Google created called Wave. That went nowhere and was dropped. Then Buzz came along, Google’s first abortive attempt at social networking. The heavy handed integration with the Gmail contact list brought lawsuits and administrative action from the FTC. The replacement, Google+, is faring much better despite not having nearly the amount of members belonging to Facebook. Recent surveys show that Google+ has a higher member satisfaction rate than Facebook. For all of its focus on selling ads and ad revenue, no ads appear on Google+ at this time.
Google’s privacy practices constantly get criticized because it can build profiles of individuals based on search. Google knows everything, probably more than it should, though that doesn’t stop it from getting around 65% of the search market. The truly paranoid and maybe the merely careful should consider using Ixquick. It advertises itself as searching ten different search providers in full privacy. That means Ixquick is at least one level of protection between a searcher and the profile makers, if that matters in the age of Facebook sharing.
I expect Google to continue disrupting, whether its pushing the legal limits of copyright, privacy, or some other norm. The Chrome browser turned out to be really popular and influenced some of the design features in its competitors. Google Glasses hasn’t hit the market yet, but is intriguing. The moment I read about them I said I want them. Now. I still do, though my feelings have been tempered a bit by the reality of how easy it would be for someone to grab them from someone’s head. Google is working on that problem as well. If robbing people of smart phones is a regular occurrence, I imagine stealing Google Glasses will join that trend. As of now I still want them. And while you’re at it, when you perfect your driverless car, figure out a way to make it fly. [MG]
July 17, 2012
Some Thoughts On Technology Part One: Microsoft
There’s been a lot of movement in the technology world lately that affects the average user. I think the “average user” is just about everybody on the planet these days what with the increase in the number of gadgets we rely upon. Certainly more shocks have come from Microsoft than any other company in the last year. In order, there is the radical Windows 8 Metro interface. It’s radical in the sense that it revamps Windows for the touch environment of tablets and phones. That’s obviously where the market is going, though desktop computing still has a place for consumers and corporations. Windows 8 still maintains the desktop computing environment, though it is secondary to Metro.
Desktop users will still have to use part of the tile interface as a substitute for the Start Menu, and by either gesturing with a finger on a touch screen or mimicking the same action with a mouse. Working through the various previews, my expectation was to hate it. Now I simply tolerate Windows 8’s changes though I’m not enamored with them. I happen to live on the desktop more than I ever will with portable computing, simply because everywhere I am there is an available desktop machine I can use. That might change if my needs change, which leads me to Microsoft’s Surface tablet.
Microsoft’s announcement of the Surface made waves in the tech press. It’s a Microsoft hardware product. Obviously Microsoft manufactures computer peripherals such as mice, keyboards, and web cams. The Kinect motion sensor device is a successful product as is the Xbox. Let’s not speak of the Zune, though there is a vocal minority of people who love them. The Surface, however, is a break from tradition in that Microsoft is essentially building its own general use computing device. Is this competition with their software OEMs or is this an example of a Windows tablet to inspire other hardware manufacturers? The jury is out on that one. We’ll see when these products hit the distribution channels later this fall.
Microsoft’s history is that of a company that takes its inspiration from other companies more than anything it invents on its own. The aforementioned Zune was a reaction to the iPod. In the mid-90s it wanted to be Netscape and define the nascent Internet with Internet Explorer. It wanted to be AOL and became an Internet provider with the various iterations of MSN. Then Google came along and it wanted to be Google. Microsoft started scanning books and then abandoned that project. It started Bing to compete in search and grab a slice of the ad world. The company recently wrote off its purchase of aQuantive, an acquisition that was a reaction to Google’s purchase of DoubleClick. Bing has operated at a loss since its inception.
Then Apple came along with the iPhone and Microsoft got into the phone operating system game with mixed results. Windows made a few inroads in the phone market, but not enough to meet the same level of market success of iOS and Android. The Kin, Microsoft’s attempt at creating a social phone for younger consumers was killed weeks after it was released because no one wanted it. Verizon hobbled the device with an untenable contract. The Windows 7 phones from Nokia that followed generated a better buzz with consumers. Within six months after they were released Microsoft and Nokia announced they were not upgradable to Windows 8. The technically minded consumers were not happy with their adoption.
Let’s get back to the Surface for a moment. This is where Microsoft wants to be Apple again. There are two versions of the tablet: one that runs a Windows 8 Metro interface and a full desktop, which is based on Intel chips, and another called Windows RT based on ARM chips. The latter has a desktop that exists solely to run an included version of Microsoft Office and nothing else. This is especially where Microsoft wants to be Apple. It mimics the iPad in that all applications running on Metro must come from the Microsoft store. The hardware requirements for a Windows 8 machine are strict enough that they effectively lock out the option for other operating systems. Linux users are not happy, though there are other hardware alternatives they could use, just not with Windows 8 installed. I expect Microsoft to start selling books and other consumable media once Windows 8 hits the channel just like Apple.
Microsoft’s strategy is simple enough to understand: get the same operating system on all devices, tie it together with the cloud as a central place to manage files and content, and throw some social connectivity in the mix for the kids. I don’t know if this will work. Microsoft’s base in the enterprise is notoriously resistant to change. Windows XP is still on an awful lot of machines out there. The Windows 8 approach may work if tablets start to penetrate corporations in a way where they are must-have productivity devices. The potential is there. A lot hinges on whether the Windows 8 interface is conducive to the workflow in offices. There are no windows in Metro. One application in the foreground is all there is. Someone who uses multiple windows on a screen will not find the Metro interface appealing.
Microsoft’s moves in the last year are truly a gamble. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer likes to identify each dramatic choice as a “bet-the-farm” move. I think Vista was one of those, though the farm is still there in spite of itself. I think Microsoft is getting into the right game – tablets and mobile computing. I’m just not sure the strategy is the best one they could use.
Tomorrow: Google and the Nexus 7, Android, and Chrome. [MG]
May 20, 2012
Browsing On A Sunday: Changes to Google Search, Teaching Corporate Practice, e-Books, and Yet Another Social Network
Google made changes to its search engine last week. One of these is Knowledge Graph. Results about things, places, or people will now include a side bar with related information for the searched term. This content can include key dates, images, writings, and other facts. Search, for example, H.L.A. Hart and immediately to the rights of the results is a picture of Hart; a snippet from the Wikipedia page on Hart; dates for birth and death; links to books; and related searches.
At least one article in PCWorld suggests that Google is developing the Knowledge Graph as the basis of a competitor to Apple’s Siri product. It makes sense that Google would leverage its expertise in search for this type of service if, as the article says, Google could get the voice part right. It’s been a while now since Google added voice search to its interface. It should have a significant amount of experience by now with search by voice to make a credible leap to natural language queries.
The Washington Post is reporting about the law schools at Catholic University and Georgetown offering classes on in-house lawyering. The courses emphasis corporate law practice and bring in experienced corporate counsel along with business leaders as lecturers. American University and George Washington University are in the planning stages for similar courses. The initiative is to make graduates more attractive to small and mid-size businesses who would not have a legal department.
Hachette is starting a pilot program to make e-books available to libraries, according to paidContent. Hachette stopped selling e-books to libraries in 2010. There are no details as to the nature of the program or the technology behind it, at least not yet. Hachette is one of the publishers that settled with the Department of Justice in the price fixing case filed against Apple and five other publishers.
If anyone is looking for yet another site that lets users share web content, then take a look at Microsoft’s So.cl site. It’s pronounced “social.” Get it? So.cl has left the beta stage and is now available to the general public. The site helps a subscriber assemble links and other content into a “compelling visual montage.” The site FAQ suggests that it is not a competitor to other social sites. It is mostly a place to share search content with others. The beta phase took place at several universities where students naturally search the same content. Login requires a Facebook or Windows Live account.
The idea of analyzing search for similar content sounds a little like what Google is doing. Sharing is just another way to get people to participate. Is Microsoft working on a competitor to Siri as well? [MG]
May 17, 2012
ACTA Dead In Europe
ACTA is dead in Europe for all practical purposes. That is the sentiment of Neelie Kroes, The European Union Commissioner for telecoms and technology. She has previously served as Commissioner for Competition and is well known to Microsoft and other technology companies that came in conflict with the Competition Directorate. She is quoted in the Guardian (UK) as saying “we are now likely to be in a world without SOPA and ACTA." Europe is officially still working to ratify the agreement, though some member states are not cooperating in the effort. Members of the European Parliament must ratify it along with all member states for the treaty to take effect. As of now, the treaty has been referred to the European Court of Justice for its views on the agreement's constitutionality.
The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) had negative comments about the treaty, saying that implementation will have “unacceptable side effects” on individual privacy rights. IP enforcement envisioned by the treaty could lead to large scale monitoring of users’ behavior and electronic communications. These sentiments are contained in a press release and an official opinion from the EDPS. Protecting IP rights is important, but the treaty does not strike a good balance in doing so.
The treaty had been opposed by the vocal (and no so vocal) public because of the impact it would have on ordinary Internet uses and the high level of secrecy in which it was negotiated. They only way the text became public during the negotiations were through a series of leaked drafts. People power works in some cases. I ask again, with the ham-fisted seizure of the Megaupload service, is something like ACTA and SOPA necessary? [MG]
May 13, 2012
Browsing On A Sunday: The Wisconsin Supreme Court is an Unhappy Place, Trading Google for Bing, and the Downfall of Big Law
Things are getting ugly at the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Wisconsin Judicial Commission found probable cause awhile back that Justice David T. Prosser violated sections of the Judicial Code of Conduct and recommended a hearing on the matter. Bloomberg Business Week is reporting that the Court declined to reappoint John R. Dawson, the head of the Commission, to a new term. Such reappointments have been routine in the past.
The Court’s administrative decision did not come without a bit of public sniping by its members. Gannett’s The Northwestern goes into a bit more detail, describing “threats” from Justice Shirley Abrahamson to make conservatives justices pay if they didn’t reappoint Dawson. She disclosed a letter she sent to Dawson, signed by two other justices, which said the decision was over their objections. She further stated "The court's long-standing practice has been to retain appointees for the entire period for which they are eligible if they have served the public well. In your case, the court is deviating from its practice." Ouch.
The nominating committee for the Commission had asked that Dawson be reappointed. Justice Prosser is quoted in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel as saying the nominating committee "tended to be very receptive to more liberal appointees." I’m sure Justice Prosser would tell you that decisions by the Court are based on the law rather than driven by a political interpretation of the law. I’m sure anyone listening would believe him as well, especially after reading the rest of his comments on the “lefty bias” of the nominating committee in the Journal-Sentinel report. I’m sure.
Farhad Manjoo describes his week with Bing in a Slate article. Manjoo is a self-proclaimed Googler who thought he’d try out the competition. He likes Bing for the simpler look on the results page, sort of like how Google appeared before integrating Google+ items into its results. Oh yeah? Just wait until Bing throws up everything Facebook has to offer and see how clean the display will look. His bottom line is that he’s switching back because Google found relevant results that Bing missed. More pointedly, by switching to Bing he realized how dependent he was on Gmail, YouTube, Scholar, and other Google services. To each their own.
Finally, the Washington Post has a short analysis on the downfall of big law, epitomized by the collapse of firms Howrey and Dewey & Le Boeuf. The fact that both firms went on massive expansions was not the cause alone. It was that they expanded so fast without regard to the sustainability of that expansion in light of the recession where legal work dried up. According to the article, employees have been told that the firm will shut down imminently. I wonder how many of the affected attorneys still have outstanding student loans? [MG]
May 10, 2012
Microsoft Pushes Bing With Desktop Add-On
Anyone using the Windows operating system knows that Patch Tuesday is the day Microsoft updates Windows and other Microsoft products with the latest security patches. One of the optional downloads in the latest batch is something called Bing Desktop. It’s Microsoft’s way of trying to bring attention to its Bing search engine, at least if Windows 7 is installed. I didn’t load the program, as I’m skeptical of how deep this kind of stuff gets into the inner workings of my machine. It took me hours to set up Windows when I got my latest machine and I hate things that upset my workflow. I did look it up to see what it does, just in case.
For those who are interested, it places a gigantic search box on the Windows desktop which allows one to search Bing, naturally. It also optionally syncs the desktop with the Bing graphic of the day. Pay attention to the checkboxes during the install (if one is installing it) as it defaults to wallpaper syncing, setting the homepage to MSN on Internet Explorer, and setting Bing as the default search provider on Internet Explorer.
Commentary suggests that Microsoft is a bit desperate with this move. Digital Trends calls it “practically spamware,” while Betanews calls is beautiful an annoying. The program is available separately from Microsoft, with information and download links here and here. I agree with much of the commentary that suggests that this is an odd item to get pushed through Windows Update. On the other hand, it may not have gotten much notice if Microsoft hadn’t pushed it, much like the 15% search market share Bing now owns natively. Throw Yahoo in, as it uses Bing as its search engine and the numbers are a more respectable 29%. [MG]