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Category Archives: Industry Analysis

What would it take for Google to decline?

A recent thread in /r/AskReddit posed a similar question. The comments were revelatory, with plenty of resigned jokes about the heat death of the universe, antitrust proceedings, and the (unlikely) rise of Bing being the only ways for Mountain View’s best to be bested:

  • “The first and most obvious way to cause a decline might be from some sort of anti-monopoly judgement being levied on them causing say for example the search engine portion of google, to be split from the part of google that manages android and chrome.” – /u/icantrecallaccnt
  • “The heat death of the universe. Though they’ll probably buy some quirky startup that’s figured out how to reverse entropy and remain in business forever.” – /u/SoresuMakashi
  • ‘The Big Bing’ – /u/tenillusions
  • “If Chinese mega-sites and portals decide to really take expansion outside of their borders seriously. Baidu, Tencent et al are well on their way.” – /u/Tuxedo_Superman

Granted, there were some thoughtful responses that probed Google’s complacence and ongoing alienation of its important demographics (advertisers, developers – note: not end-users). But I think the issue isn’t so much that Google has gotten fat and happy and turned into Microsoft 2.0 (riding Search, Maps and Gmail the same way Ballmer et al rode Windows XP and Office). Rather, the issue is that Google is desperate.

Odd word choice? Not really – Wired picked up on it recently, too, with the keen observation that the middling Google+ has left Google clinging to ever-declining per-click costs while trying to find something – anything – to help it keep pace with rivals such as Facebook, that, despite having nowhere near Google’s profits, have arguably staked out a better slice of smartphone attention spans. I have often made fun of Facebook for being essentially a channeling of some of the best talents in computer science toward the end of designing hamburger buttons and click-by-accident advertising, but I admit that its new mobile strategy – discrete offerings for messaging, news, etc. – amplifies the threats to Google’s Web-centric business model that have always resided in walled-garden apps.

Still, you’d be hard pressed to find  much appetite in the mainstream technology media for examining Google’s weaknesses. In contrast, Apple – the world’s most profitable company – is often construed as facing near-constant extinction if it doesn’t, say, release a smart watch in the next two months. The inimitable Horace Dediu succinctly broke down the double standard in his post, “Invulnerable” –

“I suspect the absence of scrutiny comes from Google being seen as an analogy of the Internet itself. We don’t question the survival of the Internet so we don’t question the survival of Google — its backbone, its index, and its pervasive ads which, somehow, keep the lights on. We believe Google is infrastructure. We don’t dwell on whether electric grids are vulnerable, or supplies of fuel, or the weather.”

I would go a step further and say that Google is like a church or a cathedral. That is, it is frequently visited, assumed to be a mainstay of the cultural fabric regardless of external economic conditions and – most importantly – it collects little to no money from any of the end users who interact with it. Sure, parishioners may make a slight donation to the local church, but the real funding comes from other sources; likewise, Joe Surfer doesn’t directly pay Google for anything, with the possible exception of a buck or two for extra Google Drive space or Google Play Music All Access. Hence, the actual business of Google is abstracted from consumers, who end up spending little or no time contemplating how or why it could go belly up – it’s not like they can point to reduced foot traffic or ridiculous clearance sales as harbingers of decline.

The signs are there, though:

-Let’s start with Android. Android was a defensive land grab to stop Microsoft and then Apple from shutting Google out of mobile. It has succeeded in terms of worldwide adoption, but it confers on Google nowhere near the profits that iOS has on Apple. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s symbolic of how Android was never designed from the ground up as a sustainable business but as a vehicle for legacy Google services (there hasn’t been a really great new Google service since Maps in 2005).

As such, Google is always tinkering with Android to make it less like an open source project and more like its own Google service. Peter Bright’s article on forking Android understandably struck a nerve with Google, which is awkwardly trying to maintain Android’s chief competitive advantage (no licensing fees, tons of customization possibilities for OEMs and carriers) while bringing it further under Mountain View’s umbrella.

-One of the best revelations of the ongoing Samsung-Apple legal battle is that Samsung really would like to move on from Android. Samsung isn’t a great leader, but the fact that it would even consider something as nascent as Tizen to take the place of Android on its smartphones lines is telling.

-Google Glass reeks of desperation. Jay Yarow of Business Insider insisted that Google botched Glass’ launch, ensuring that it would never take its apparently rightful place as the successor to the iPad as the next big thing in consumer tech. It’s a computer for the face, with no obvious use case as yet, a crazy price tag, and understandable cultural stigma. Tech media were wrong to puff it up as the Next Big Thing, but consider also the absurdity of this situation: Google is trying to sell a terrible HUD in order to get out ahead of the competition, like Apple did to much better effect with the iPod and then the iPhone.

-It’s not just Glass, either. The Nest acqusition, the Boston Dynamics aquisition, and the obsession with “sci-fi” projects at GoogleX. – Google could be looked at as “shooting for the moon.” Or, it could be viewed instead as desperately trying to find any revenue stream alternative to mobile ads, which just don’t work like desktop ones do and, moreover, are subject to intense competition from social networks and messaging platforms.

-The sci-fi thing merits more attention. Forever ago, I wrote this about Google Glass and its ilk:

By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?

Trying to actualize the fantasies of sci-fi is not forward-looking; it is, by definition, backward-looking, with respect to someone’s text or vision about what was possible in the past. If someone created a real Death Star today, it would be impressive – as a testament to madness. Why would someone exert such enormous, concerted effort at recreating a technology conceived for recreational purposes in the 1970s, by individuals who had no idea that smartphones, MP3s, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and on on would be invented?

To analyze sci-fi is often to analyze what it doesn’t conceive of. I watched Gattaca recently, a 1997 movie with a setting in the far future. What was in this high-tech future? Big, hulking desktop PCs and keyboards. Sci-fi is the product of constrained imagination (“the future is hard to predict” – Captain Obvious), but imitating it is even more self-defeating. For this reason, I am immensely pessimistic about the prospects of any of Google’s top-secret projects being a breakthrough that would expand its business or appeal in meaningful ways. Sci-fi is a small porthole on the future.

-Google’s customers are advertisers and other businesses, not individuals. It reaches the latter by its presence on platforms that belong to the former – think its default search engine deals for Firefox and Safari. There’s not any real competition on those fronts for now  – Bing is good but has lithe mindshare, and Yahoo is still locked into its deal with Microsoft. But Marissa Mayer is driven to displace Google on iOS, and Apple and Yahoo have a good relationship (Yahoo provides the data for Weather on iOS, for example). As MG Siegler has pointed out, it seems implausible that Apple would go on subsidizing Google, enabling it to make so much money off of iOS, money that it can channel into Android.

-Once one gets into the “Google isn’t invulnerable” mindset, it’s easy to see everything as a weakness, sometimes without good reason. But think about its efforts to bring Chrome OS apps to mobile devices. Such a tack seems defensive – a way to halt the decline of the Web and keep matters squarely in the realm of JS, HTML and CSS. I’ve often argued that Chrome OS is more of a breakthrough than Android (it has the potential to disrupt both the business model of Windows PCs and the essential appeal of tablets), but it looks like it could turn into just a moat for Google’s existing (and, to be fair, highly profitable, at least for now) Web businesses.

-Google+ has become the DNA of Google services. Its profile system is a way of indexing Internet users. It has succeeded in helping Google collect more nuanced data, even if it hasn’t exactly done much to blunt the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and others. But now that Vic Gundotra is leaving, Google+ looks weirdly quaint – like nothing more than Gundotra’s messy senior project for getting hired by another firm. There are already rumors that the Google+ team will be split up and sent to other projects (in the same way that the Google Reader team was once chopped up to work on Google’s initial forays into social).

Look, Google isn’t going to turn into AOL or Yahoo. But it should be increasingly apparent that Google is not synonymous with the Internet at large, and is not guaranteed to constantly occupy so much mind share.

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Google Currents gets inconsequential update

Google Currents, which as an Android snob I still prefer to Flipboard, got one of those dreaded “oh yeah we still have this product lying around” updates from Google, with “bug fixes” listed as the only change (Google Voice got one such update back in April). My hope was that maybe they would fix the RSS reading feature to be a bit more usable.

I actually use Currents a lot more than ever now that Google Reader is gone. I still use the exceptional Android-exclusive RSS client Press to keep up with a few blogs (most of them by Apple bloggers), but I rely on Currents for Android news and rich editions of magazines like The Verge and Slate. Its flippable (heh) widget is also one of its handiest features.

I had wondered what would happen to Currents’ feed-reading/RSS abilities now that Google Reader is not only dead but also wiped clean (the final data purge took place…today). It still seems to work in that characteristic did-it-or-didn’t-it way; e.g., the Daring Fireball feed (which Currents laughably says has “0 subscribers”) is up to date until Friday, and new feeds can be added, although they’re still hard to search for or find. If you really must use Currents to consolidate your magazine and RSS reading, then by all means do so, but a standalone RSS client is probably better at this point.

The problem with LinkedIn

By classical metrics like revenue and profit, LinkedIn is the most successful social network other than Facebook.  Unlike Facebook, however, it uses a seemingly more sustainable freemium business model, which sells your profile to recruiters via premium account subscriptions.  No autoplay video ads to see here.

But have you tried to actually use LinkedIn’s apps? They’re embarrassing failures of both concept and execution. AFAIK, their Android app doesn’t use native code and is outdone by 3rd-party clients like DroidIn. Their iOS Contacts app can’t add contacts, naturally. And their Web interface makes basic tasks, like changing your default email address, into labyrinthine ordeals (but it is good at showing you whom viewers also viewed and people I may know – thanks for the lesson in creepiness, and more on this below). For a company with $100s of millions in revenue, why can’t LinkedIn create either a fundamentally useful mobile experience or a Web experience that isn’t just a way to show off how it tracks profile searches?

Inertia, I think. When a category leader becomes entrenched against seemingly any competitor, it (and the writers who chronicle it) began to question the importance of quality or user experience. You can see this in mantras about how it “didn’t matter” that BlackBerry made ancient legacy devices that were out of touch with consumer trends because every serious CIO wouldn’t give up his Torch, or how it didn’t matter that the iPhone made hardware keyboards obsolete since real business users wouldn’t tolerate a software-only keyboard, even it it did have impeccable quality.

Well, let me say: experience and quality always matter. If a device or service is shittily designed, it will suffer, eventually. No one notices this, even after the fact, because it often takes so long for the bottom line to take a hit that observers have already moved on. For example, a forward-looking Cassandra might have thought that the debut of the iPhone 3G in the summer of 2008 would have spelled immediate doom for BlackBerry, which accordingly should have nosedived any day thereafter. It actually hit an all-time high during that summer, and sales increased every single quarter until early 2011. It weathered the first four iPhones, the first two iPads, and its own disastrous release of the PlayBook! As Paul Graham says: revenue is a trailing indicator. It can continue rising even as sickness sets in and waits for the kill.

To compound issues for LinkedIn, its dated design (which in its mobile agnosticism still looks like something built for Win XP in ~2005) may seem just fine to its users, 80% of whom are 30+ and who came of age before mobile-first app design, when niceties like iOS 7 and Android Holo were just twinkles in Silicon Valley engineers’ eyes. It also has a level of creepiness that I think should make even Facebook blush. I won’t try to innovate in pointing out the oddities of both People You May Know and People Also Viewed: there are two excellent articles about those subjects here and here. But I have noticed that LinkedIn does indeed have a knack for knowing that I “may know” an ex-boyfriend in another country who was not even in the contacts directory of my LinkedIn-linked email address. And, yep, it looks like the “People Also Viewed” ribbon for most profiles is populated by LinkedIn’s younger females members.

I’ve mercilessly made fun of Facebook in the past, but LinkedIn may have been the better target all along. It feels like a mid-2000s era dating service (the profile views tracker is particularly indebted to those forerunners) brought up to respectability by a critical mass of older professionals. It also has no real competitors at this point, at least in terms of sheer users. But  for services that rely on critical mass and assume that quality doesn’t matter, problems arise when even one successful well-designed product comes out and infringes upon their space. To wit:

-Facebook: the release of Instagram in 2010 revealed how relatively hard it was to share photos via FB, as well as how noisy and filter-biased FB was. Snapchat similarly exploited disillusionment with FB’s huge data mine, which until then had been seen as one of its most critical strong-suits. Aaron Levie was right to say that the moats that protect a company in one era become threats in the next.

-LinkedIn: Pulse News was a recent LI acquisition, which occurred with minimal noise and received bored looks from the tech press. Why would LinkedIn care about news reading? Well, because news readers are becoming venues for creating and customizing content. The best example here is Flipboard and its custom magazines. What if someday Flipboard let you create your own resume in a visually rich, interlinked way? LinkedIn would immediately be in trouble – Flipboard would be to software what BYOD has become to hardware.

Acquisitions and copycatting can buy time, but it can’t protect a company against all possible comers. Some of them will succeed in siphoning off a key service into another app/location, like Instagram did with Facebook vis-a-vis photo sharing.

For these reasons, you can never feel that your service is “too good” or that its goodness doesn’t matter. Nothing can be too good – the sweating over quality and details is why Apple remains uniquely advantaged against its competitors, and it’s why Google continues to have little competition in search or maps in particular. I’m kinda scared to think about what a “too good” LinkedIn would look like (would it identify a secret crush as someone I may know? would my brother or alternate email profile show in the “also viewed” ribbon?), but LinkedIn itself had better start thinking about how to get there.

DuckDuckGo, Google Now, and the NSA

I don’t use Google Now anymore. It occasionally chirps up in my notification tray with a depressing White Sox score, but I barely use the swipe-up gesture to access its cards. The last time I did, it didn’t even give me transit info for the closest bus stop and still showed sports some old Blackhawks playoff scores that I hadn’t manually swiped away (1. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup over a week ago, and here’s a video from the parade; 2. That clear-out gesture is surprisingly hard to make). I initially loved the idea of a comprehensive think-ahead assistant that could pool together transit schedules, sports scores, and Gmail notices into one interface. It has seemingly improved since last year, now that it can show predicative news or music suggestions. But the price is that one has to go on using Google for everything – Google Search to scour the Web, Google Play Music to play both your own collection and stream other content, GMail to handle all email. And it’s becoming an increasingly unbearable price.

Apple blogger Marco Arment, with whom I don’t always agree (he’s dismissive of Android), had a great post up about how Google, along with peers Facebook and Twitter, were essentially killing the standards-based Web that had given life to them in the first place. Twitter  doesn’t play nice with 3rd-party debs. Facebook  has always been a walled garden. And Google, once a leader in standards compliance, nows wants everything behind the G+ wall: chat clients, video calling, photo backup, etc. I agree with Arment that Twitter in particular may have the theoretical high ground, since Twitter developers aren’t entitled to unfettered access to others’ proprietary services. But it, like Facebook and especially like Google, want to ultimately control what you see, i.e., ads and promotions.

Losing the standards-based Web would be tragic, but maybe not for the reasons that some cite. It would be painful to go on losing services like Google Reader or Falcon Pro (whose demise I recently chronicled), sure. Yet the real pain will come from large swathes of Web being the exclusive provinces of certain corporations who, for reasons either furtive or coercive, decide to give info to the American NSA. You’re social walled garden is also conveniently a surveillance state – it has natural tracking mechanisms and clear owners (by contrast, no one “owns” RSS or email) who can be talked into compliance. And of course, the rhetoric from both the array of walled gardens and from the NSA itself is all about making your worry less. Using Google Play Music apparently makes streaming music simpler (I never had a problem with Spotify, though), while the NSA’s collection of email is for the (truly outlandish) purpose of making you worry less about terrorism, something that kills fewer persons per year than bathtub falls do.

Google Now is really a microcosm for the time of cordoned-off surveillance made possible by the perfect convergence of the Web giants’ collective renewed focus on proprietary services and America’s obsession with surveilling (and being surveilled! many people of course have no issue with exposing all their info, they will even volunteer it, and because of them there’s a whole cottage industry of bullshit related to “no one cares about/should care about privacy, derp” out there). Are these suggested “research more” topics really going to enlighten me, or are they just going to take me to some SEO pile? Well, I don’t have to worry about that question anymore, at least practically (I’ll go on pondering it as philosophical issue), since I just use DuckDuckGo.

DuckDuckGo is a search engine and news service that has become an unlikely hero in the recent NSA revelations. It doesn’t track users and provides results that, at least in my heavy daily usage, seem to be as good as Google’s, if not better since fewer persons are out there trying to game them. It reminds me of using Firefox for the first time back in the dark days of WinXP/IE: a startling relief, a glass of ice water in hell. When you download the Android app, there’s no sign-in, no “we just need your email, pretty plz,” no “connect with Facebook/G+,” no “add all your friends and family as ___”. It just goes directly into a news feed with a search bar at the top. In one fell swoop, both Google Search and Google Now are strangely unessential on my Google-designed phone.

Of the three Web titans Arment mentions, Google by far has the most to lose in the potential anti-NSA/anti-tracking world that DuckDuckGo represents. No tracking and fewer ad impressions mean that Google’s business model – which most people don’t understand – just doesn’t work. And unlike Facebook or Twitter, Google has no unique service, with the possible exception of its sophisticated Maps: most of its services are fast-follow efforts or copies, with Google Drive (which combines MS Office with Dropbox) being the best example. You can take your email, your search queries, or your files and notes elsewhere; but you can’t necessarily take your Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Their walled gardens are simply better than G+. This is why Google needs to create Arment’s described “lockdown” effect via G+ in order to compete with Twitter et al, and it has to do this in spite of Apple’s efforts to clear Google off the iPhone (how long til we see Bing as the default search engine on the iPhone?). Good luck.

I agree with Arment’s conclusion, expressed as a retort to the proprietary lockdown efforts from leading Web companies: “[F]uck them, and fuck that.” It’ll take huge steps to stem the tide of them and of the surveillance (both by them and by government) that they enable, however. The recent Google reversal on retiring CalDAV in favor of the Google Calendar API represents one such small victory, and I hope that there are more. And switching to DuckDuckGo is one good, painless way to get back on the path to a saner, more private existence.

The 4 Types of Android Users

Android is huge. This year alone, it will outsell all Windows, OS X, and iOS devices combined, although many of these sales won’t come with Jellybean installed or even with the prospect of it ever being installed. And the Android user base is nearly as fragmented as the OS itself. Its wide reach has brought together a strange group of folks from all points along the tech-savviness spectrum.

While messing around with the classic Androidify, I came up with these four umbrella groups that I think capture most of the total Android user base. Some of these groups overlaps (The Hardcore Hacker and The Holo Purist, for example) while others are obviously mutually exclusive.

The Hardcore Hacker

Androidify sample

Hardcore Hacker?

Raison d’être: To take advantage of Android’s flexibility via custom ROMs, rooting, and power-user apps.

Quintessential apps: XDA-Developers, Titanium Backup PRO Key, Tasker, Paranoid Android Preferences, ROM Manager (Premium), various custom keyboards

Device of choice: anything that can run their latest creation

Modding an Android device is enormously popular, especially in the US. Developers in particular can take advantage of Android’s less locked-down structure to make it look like nearly anything. Rooting can also get rid of unwanted bloatware and allow for more nuanced battery management.

The Holo Purist

Androdify sample

Holo Purist?

Raison d’être: to show off how pretty and elitist Android can be; to show off that Android users actually care about design.

Quintessential apps: Google+, Notif Pro, Falcon Pro (RIP), Sliding Messaging Pro, Robin, Pocket Casts, Google Play Music, DashClock Widget, UCCW, various icon packs, Nova Launcher Prime

Devices of choice: Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Nexus 10, “Nexus Experience” phones (maybe)

Google has created a nice aesthetic with Holo, its recommendations for 4.0+ app design. A Holo Purist would lean heavily on Google’s own apps at the expense of third part alternatives, but she would also seek out non-Google apps that followed the same guidelines, too. I consider myself part of this category.

The Accidental Android User

Androidify

Accidental Android User?

Raison d’être: to use a phone that is more affordable than the iPhone

Quintessential apps: Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Candy Crush Saga, Snapchat, Pandora

Devices of choice: HTC Evo 4G, Samsung Galaxy S2 (or S3), Amazon Kindle Fire

The Accidental Android user may not regard their phone as anything more than a phone. They likely use Android because of cost or carrier encouragement or (in rare cases) extreme anti-Apple bias. Their apps are likely to be hugely popular apps that aren’t differentiated much between platforms or which are popular alternatives to SMS and niche Google Services.

The Overzealous Reviewer

Androdify

Overzealous Reviewer?

Raison d’être: to announce that she isn’t using an iPhone/iPad and that this new Android device might just be “the best smartphone, period” after running it thru a real-world use case like looped video streaming on maximum brightness with Twitter running in the background.

Quintessential apps: The Verge, Evernote, Twitter, Rdio, Spotify, Netflix

Devices of choice: HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4

This category is an outgrowth of the huge media “Apple is doomed” meme, in which some of the most technically powerful Android phones are analyzed in terms of irrelevant specifications like gHz or video playback endurance (the latter doesn’t even matter much unless you install a third party player) rather than user experience. The S4’s Geekbench score vis-a-vis the iPhone 5 is a good example. Also, one need not be a professional reviewer to fit into this category.