Posts Tagged ‘google’

Tracking True

11 February 2011

Dear J-

We have ways of tracking you, they say. Every step on line is meticulously logged. Transactions via credit card reduce your identity to a string of numbers squirted over wires to computers talking to computers. Your car has a license plate and a serial number that gets dutifully sent to the DMV at least once a year and sometimes more often when you undergo government-mandated inspections. Insurance companies have dedicated number-crunching actuaries who plug you into formulae to determine risk factors and rankings. TSA agents will know more about you than they let on. Place a cell phone call and the tower you connect to is recorded. They tell us that near-field communication is coming soon, where we’re constantly broadcasting bits of us to the world for payments and identity.

It’s enough to make you paranoid, assuming that people who wish you ill can harvest the information, this stream of data that represents you to the outside world. Do we trust the government to do the right thing? I’m not advocating that we drop off the grid and disappear from public view (there’s a shack in Montana that’s waiting for those of you who need to) but we should exert due caution. The ubiquitous Google has started ostentatiously pushing sump pump ads down to my browser: every time I bring up a site that has Google-served advertising this week I’ve seen the same ad because of a couple of searches I did to find a 500 GPM dewatering pump for work on Wednesday. Hey, it’s telling me, did you get that sump pump yet? I probably need to do some searching for Katy Perry or someone to reset the history.

Let’s remember that companies are in business to be businesses. I’m under no illusion that the Google services I use do anything but feed that company’s bottom line through it’s biggest revenue stream: advertising. On-line privacy is illusory. Facebook can be the digital equivalent of tattoos: don’t post anything that you don’t want seen, now or later. We choose where we go and there’s ways to conceal your tracks but the easier thing is police who you want to be and how you’re seen.


P.S. Every supplier’s website I click through to lately has asked me to fill out a survey to gauge its utility. Here’s a clue: if I come away with a pdf I’m ecstatic. If you minimize the time standing between when I initially hit your site and the downloading of the pdf you win. Instead of wasting everyone’s time with a survey, mine the data you’ve already gotten.


TV Watcher

5 January 2011

Dear J-

There’s an article in this month’s Technology Review regarding the impetus and development of Google TV; the article’s tone is fawning and awe-struck, like it’s the logical next solution in content delivery, plucky upstart Google come to free us from the chains of cable and networks. Within days of launch the broadcasters blocked feeds from their websites to Google boxes, just as Hulu have blocked streaming video to Boxee in the past, rendering Google TV little more than a portal for YouTube on the big screen. Leaving aside the myth of Don’t be Evil* for a moment, not realizing that networks would block an internet-connected box with no direct revenue stream back to the broadcaster is amazingly short-sighted for such a splashily-marketed product. The article dips into various ways that the broadcast networks could profit but doesn’t give any concrete details — “in time” and “with hope” don’t get you there. The article does mention the differences between “push” TV (broadcasting on a set schedule, like watching over the antenna) and “pull” TV (user finds and receives the material, like Netflix).

If someone wants to build a better mousetrap they’d better heed the lessons of the past. People love TiVO with an unholy passion because it broke the dominance of the broadcaster; anyone with an irregular schedule or narcolepsy welcomed being able to watch what they wanted when they wanted without having to mess around with VCR timers and blank tapes — such was the magic of time-shifting. The second win of TiVO was skipping over commercials, which more than the ability to skip over the umpteenth repetition of particularly annoying ads also cut down the actual program time to something you felt less guilty about wasting. The last win — live TV pausing and caching — is more subtle and less used but no less amazing. All these are significant advantages that pull TV can easily offer with the added benefit of not having to schedule recordings. And just as significantly, all these go out the window for sports, which are generally watched live or on broadcast delay (puasing would be a nice feature to have but not essential, and the only time recordings make sense is to time shift, or if you want to relive classic moments). Perhaps the most significant lesson is to make it simple (call it the grandma test) and reliable; nothing enrages the consumer faster than missing a favorite show or being unable to hook up the TV without a service call.

Deprived of the guaranteed eyeballs-on-ads of live, push TV, how does a broadcaster make money on pull TV? There’s the Apple/iTunes model of a la carte service: if all you watch are a few shows then that’s not a bad deal, though $40 per show season starts to add up quickly for the consumer. That’s the key, though; you need to line up content providers before you can think about being successful. Add PVR functionality to the Google boxes — use flash memory for reliability — and make software that doesn’t require patching from v1.0 to work. That takes care of content in the interim. For the pull content, partner with someone who’s already there — Blockbuster or Netflix — and convince the networks that offering a better spread of current-run programming at a flat rate (rather than having to wait for DVD release dates or arbitrary delays) creates consumer goodwill. Last, make it social: what are my friends watching? Can we talk about it? No one’s going to want to sit in their living rooms with a keyboard on their laps sending text messages back and forth, but find a way to direct them to like-minded folks after the show.


* The unofficial corporate motto is “Don’t be Evil” meaning that there’s a way to make money without taking advantage of people. I would argue that the benign neglect of marketing to companies and not the end user is itself an evil purpose: not caring that the end-user experience is all it can be and ignoring past precedence is pretty arrogant.

Multiplex Division

13 May 2010

Dear J-

I’ve been thinking about Google lately; if you remember before the browser wars, there were competing search engines all around, from the first efforts of Jerry Yang’s Yahoo! to various spidering sites like Inktomi. The one that I used reliably roughly fifteen years ago was Altavista — this probably because I had a soft spot in my heart for Digital Equipment Corporation, at one point the number two vendor of computer equipment behind IBM and dedicated to going it on their own path — from the semi-PC compatible Rainbow 100 to the speed-is-everything Alpha chips — before being swallowed up by Compaq.

Google changed that; from the first inklings of how broad it was to the fascinating depths it could plumb, it soon became my default go-to engine. When I was little I learned that the term ‘google’ meant the number one followed by a hundred zeroes (1E100, if you rather), and it felt like the secrets of the Internet were laid bare in an unassuming little text-entry box. Although no one’s quite replicated the secret sauce that brings back bushels of hits, the current commercials from Bing are amusingly spoofy: there’s still a lot of work to be done to separate the chaff from the wheat, although a lot of people prefer doing just that.

I suppose that’s part of their success: everyone’s developed their own algorithm to sort through Google results; better to include everything rather than feel as if some robot somewhere is deciding what’s important. It’s funny that we’d accept that, but then again this is the land of super-sizing and SUVs: better to get more than you might need: you’ll grow into those shoes, kid. It works for search engines (as wide a net as you can cast is never a bad thing) but now Google wants to be Microsoft (everywhere, all the time) and I’m not convinced that their corporate motto (“Don’t be evil”) and generic bigger-is-better philosophy is sufficient any more.


Fire Watch

24 October 2007

Dear J-

Here’s a map being run by the local KPBS station.