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Tag Archives: google now

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.

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Ten Thoughts On Facebook’s Graph Search

It’s probably become clear from my recent string of posts and tweets that I don’t hold Facebook in particularly high regard either as a tool or as a “tech” company. Basically, I think it is an ok but annnoying means of keeping up with friends, but nothing close to the sorts of revelatory software/hardware advances made by the likes of Apple or Google.

Today’s self-described big announcement from Facebook turned out to be a tweak to how desktop-formatted facebook.com in US English produces its search results. Inelegantly called Graph Search, this new tool is a natural language means of trying to find, for example, “Indian restaurants liked by friends from India,” or “shoe stores with good reviews nearby.” It gets this data from posts (songs listened to, places visited, wall posts) made by friends or strangers which are viewable to you, otherwise known as the Open Graph (hence the new tool’s name). CEO Mark Zuckerberg carefully described this as a “beta of a V1,” meaning that sloppiness is expected.

Here are ten quick thoughts on Graph Search.

1. It’s a bit like a dating site.

Dating in fact was mentioned as a use case. Users of OK Cupid and apps of its ilk are likely familiar with the granular filters that can be used to find, for example, a “single man 25-30 who lives in Greater Chicago and is into LTR.” Graph Search introduces this granularity to the data on the Open Graph.

2. The average Facebook profile will need to add more information and make more of its information public in order for Graph Search to really work.

Google Search works because the object of its search – the open Web – is, well, open, and able to be parsed. Facebook is an odd walled garden in which much information is withheld from the majority of users. This will need to change if Graph Search is going to be an accurate, robust tool.

3. Facebook must fix its mobile apps (especially on Android) if Graph Search is really going to compete with Yelp, Foursquare, or even Google Now or Siri.

Facebook’s mobile apps are an embarrassment. Slow, unstable, bloated with features, and encumbered by confusing UI, they would have instantly failed if not for the huge user base that Facebook had accumulated at the tail-end of the desktop computing era. Would-be competitors like Yelp and Foursquare provide much better mobile app experiences. Platform-ingrained tools like Siri and Google Now are only going to get better at contextualizing information and figuring out who you are and what you want to do. For Facebook to compete, they have to make better mobile software, plain and simple. The potential use cases for Graph Search are almost entirely mobile, and would need matching software to be realized.

4. This is basically Search Plus Your World MK II.

Google rolled out Search Plus Your World last year, which used bits of information from your Google+ pages to personalize Web search. It hasn’t set the world on fire, which could be attributable to murky levels of engagement from Google+ users, but it created the blueprint for this type of move toward personal search.

5. It still isn’t clear if Facebook users use Facebook for much other than simple status checking and chatting.

Facebook has ambitions to be a commercial and technological juggernaut. But at present, Facebook is a lot like a bar – a place to socialize, but not quite the right setting for being pitched ads, getting expert answers to questions, or buying retail items. Maybe this will change. But it’s questionable if the average Facebook user wants much more out of the site than quick blurbs from their friends which they can like or comment on.

6. This makes Facebook at the very least searchable – it wasn’t searchable at all before.

Facebook is one of the most unsearchable sites on the Web. You can find friends and sometimes strangers, but search results are unpredictable, messy, and confusing, especially if searching for someone with a common name. Graph Search brings it up to basic usability, which should be applauded as a relief rather than a revolution.

7. If Graph Search works, it will mark the transition of Facebook from website to app/service.

Facebook is still a website. Its best experience comes from desktop use, an obvious legacy of its roots in a time before apps or iOS/Android. As mentioned above, its apps are passable at best. But creating a usable Graph Search will require a robust mobile experience that can get people accurate information on the fly. Doing this successfully would move Facebook away from being a static location (a website that has barely changed in nine years of existence, despite all the Timeline/News Feed rebranding) to being a dynamic service.

8. This probably isn’t a threat to Google or Yelp or LinkedIn.

I leave Foursquare out of this because I think Foursquare is in deep trouble of its own making and won’t last much longer. In any case, the use case for personalized Web search remains unclear, and I’m not sure that Graph Search fully delineates it – as a beta confined to desktop use in the US English-speaking world, it could be a while before it makes real impact on mobile or enacts the site-to-app change I just talked about. In that time-frame, we could easily see the entire mobile landscape shift, either to dynamic platform aggregation services with a big head-start (Siri, Google Now) or other apps which chip away at the amount of time spent on Facebook (Snapchat, Tumblr in particular). Facebook’s current (and perhaps transient) lack of seriousness about iOS and Android could cause trouble for the viability of Graph Search.

9. Graph Search/Bing integration is, along with the Xbox, now the most interesting aspect of Microsoft’s business

With the Windows brand fighting for relevance, Microsoft needs new outlets for revenue and user intake. Graph Search, if it can’t fully answer the question posed by the user, will default to Bing search results. This is a boost to Bing and a slight ding of Google, but it seems like just another instance of platform wars – Siri and Google Now also return search engine results when the question stumps them.

10. “Big announcements” aren’t what they used to be.

Six years ago this month, Steve Jobs made the “big announcement” of the original iPhone, a device whose importance can’t possibly be overstated. But the important thing to remember about Apple’s presentation – something that sets it apart from make would-be pretenders – is that Jobs had a real, shippable product in his hands, one that was definitely going to be released in a short amount of time and which wasn’t a “beta” or “draft” or far-off dream. Graph Search still seems like something not yet born, even though it was announced – sort of like Google’s still-MIA Nexus 4 charging orb. That’s not to say it’s vaporware (it’s not) but the gravity of its announcement is eroded by all the qualifiers around it (“beta,” “V1.0”).

-The ScreenGrab Team