|The long view
||[Jun. 9th, 2013|11:57 pm]
This was written on the 23rd May, and updated since in light of both starting to read Schmidt & Cohen's "The New Digital Age" and some sections of the blogosphere catching the clue train, post IO, with a few from the mainstream press catching a ride, or at least trawling for link bait, depending on your opinion of what was written.
Much has been written about the death of privacy, (the book takes for granted that privacy is dead) especially for those that shared too early, too often and indiscriminately, yet nothing I've seen really gets to the core of this IMO, so this is a rough cut, then I'll move to discussing IO.
It is possible to aggregate across a group of people those who fit in and those who don't, this is how Google hires people,you may ace the extended interview process, but then they stick you in front of a three hundred question computer based test. They have administered this test to the existing employees, and thus they "know" within a fine tolerance, what a Googler looks like personality wise, the length of the test is important, it's the scope that allows them to cross check if you're faking it or not. It shows the true you. If you don't fit, then even if you aced the interview process, you don't get in.
The real danger, if you want to think of it like that, of all the data that people willingly expose about themselves, is that eventually people will be to come up with tests like Google's that show you for who you are. Already we have the famous marshmallow test, which predicts even at an early age, life outcomes based on whether at age 3-5 you have the self control to delay gratification. Now imagine trying to get health insurance when your status updates about your breakfast and drinking habits are taken into consideration. How about your credit score when they find out how often you go shopping. Or how best to manipulate you based on your socioeconomic type and your revealed prejudices, from the way you write about any given subject. This is the world of "big data" in the not too far distant future, your online life, will be scanned and a prospective employer will learn what kind of a risk you are, etc. This is only a matter of time. One thing the book says that I do agree with, (because it's mostly banal to anyone who's been paying attention) is the notion of having "the talk" with your kids, about data security and what, and what not, to share. Some people may think that Orwellian, but like many things, it's already here, this is the world we live in, all that's missing is the research & algorithms that will strip the real you from your data. Like it or not this will be a factor of your child's life, or yours, if you're a teenager now.
Personally I don't view this as a bad thing provided you get to challenge your record, the real question is what use the information is put to, being an immigrant in this situation is going to a lot easier/difficult, for good and bad. They won't need complicated interviews and tests ultimately, "just answer these 300 questions" and they will know all they need. This is what the end of privacy looks like.
So, with that out of the way, onto my take on IO, and matters arising:
I, like other tech obsessives, and those paid to attend, watched the recent 3.5 hour Google IO keynote with interest. Though I imagine I was one of the few that were disappointed that there wasn't a second keynote the following day as there was in years past.
Thinking about what was said, and what was and wasn't presented it strikes me that jokes about "Google island" aside, the mainstream press seems to have no idea what's going on. Not that they should have, but I would have expected the tech press to have done better. So, for anyone interested, and so I can get it out of my head, and into long term storage, this is my take on what IO13 meant, and what it implies for the future of computing, etc.
I suppose I should state up front that I am not affiliated with Google, nor am I an apologist for them. But as a geek in good standing I do see them as kindred spirits, and I think they have a rather radical view of the future of technology, some may even say Utopian, but whatever it is, it's not incremental, or done piece meal. At least IMO, they have a plan, and they plan long term.
For the record I don't think that doing what Apple, and most other large companies do as regards tax avoidance makes Google "evil", or in any way means that they have given up on their doubtless lofty goals, or their own view of themselves. As far as this geek is concerned they are still the magic kingdom. You may argue that it's unethical, and makes them look bad, but these are "for profit" companies, and nobody is suggesting what they are doing is actually illegal.
That said, you may want to check out this page "on Google" for a deeper view of what is going on out there, he's quite anti in many respects.
That said, let's cut to the chase, what just happened?
Reading around there seem to be three areas of discontent/misunderstanding, namely:
The twin focus on chrome and android.
The lack of new hardware, or a new release of Android.
The lack of gimmicks or big set pieces.
For which I have three answers and/or observations:
Google has already won.
The need for a full fat, big screen web experience has not gone away, though the days of the mass market general purpose computer may be numbered.
The "fact" (which is self evident to me at least) that the smartphone, regardless of how obsessed we are with it currently, was always just a transitory platform, a data gathering exercise. Or, if you like, a very large scale usability test, "a means to an end."
So what is that end? allow me to digress...
A man walks into a Vodafone shop looking for a new phone. What's important to you? Says the salesman, what do you do most on your old phone that you wish it did better? I take pictures, said the man, and thus he is shown a Lumia 920, which, subsidies and sales incentives aside, does have a very good camera.
You probably read that without a thought, (except if you have strong views about Vodafone) this is after all, a common experience. I experienced the above in a Vodafone shop as an interested onlooker, But consider it this way.
A man walks into a phone shop to be sold a computer for the express purpose of taking pictures, he may also use the computer to listen to music and stay in touch with people, occasionally by phone. In all likelihood he will pay very little, or pay monthly, for his new computer. The exact circumstance of the payment will likely depend a great deal on his credit score.
It's fair to say, I think, that very few people think of the transaction that way.
Now think of what many if not most ordinary people do with their, (legacy) computers in the privacy of their own homes, namely:
Consume, curate & edit media, (audio/video & photos)
Buy products & services
Communicate with others
"Surf" for want of a better word :-) (consume information)
Now ponder the overlap with what Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft offer.
For my money, the only real competitor is Facebook, Apple is primarily selling products and Microsoft is mostly selling things that other people give away for free.
You may argue about Apple, but in terms of dominance Google has already won. A telling stat I saw recently, (from memory) was in relation to Windows mobile. Apparently it has moved into third place. The telling bit was the percentages involved. Microsoft were at 3% of global shipments with Google at 75% and Apple at 17% and palm at 2%
There is of course the fact that Apple used to account for 55% or so of the US smartphone market. This year that went into decline with Google eclipsing Apple at 51% vs 43% or so. But the US market is more or less at saturation point, hence the need for new markets. In China & India, etc. In those markets, Apple's high margin luxury products have a fraction of the smartphone market, that is dominated primarily by cheap Android handsets.
The dominance by Google of both the handset and search business, is doubtless the main reason, for all the regulatory interest of late. So far it seems to mostly be a stern talking to and the occasional wagging of fingers. No doubt the minnows Google "competes" with feel aggrieved about that.
In short, I don't think Google needed to put on a show, they just needed to make the ecosystem better and more attractive, and continue to offer compelling products & services. Speaking of products, the Pixel, makes so much more sense as a demonstration platform for what Chrome is capable of, than it does as a consumer product I guess us pundits will have to eat crow on that score.
Now we move to the guts of my argument. Which is basically that everyone else is in a different market to Google. Everyone else is is selling products, and looking to make money from them. This isn't the business Google is in. They're dominating markets by giving most of their "products" away for free. The exception to this appears to be markets for products which don't currently exist, at least in a consumer version. By which I mean, Google Glass, fiber to the last mile, and self driving cars.
The flipside of this is that Google doesn't need to worry about the people in the hardware business, or I would venture to suggest, Facebook, who only really make sense, (& money) on the desktop. I've seen anecdotal evidence for instance, that Facebook's mobile app accounts for less than 1% of traffic driven to large websites by Facebook.com If I were an investor, that would worry me, not to mention the fickle beast that is teenage interest in any given social platform. According to the FT they are decamping from Facebook to Twitter, etc. Largely to stay a step ahead of their parents. The average age of a Facebook user is now 40+
This brings us to a fairly simple equation:
What Google needs is more eyeballs, what almost everyone else needs is more revenue, more sales of products & services. All Google needs to do in this instance is make their ecosystem more compelling, then people have a choice of hardware but the same service.
Where I think everyone else will lose is because of the products Google does/doesn't sell, (yet) and one that is nascent, but with huge potential.
As I said above, it seems obvious to me that the hardware I've typed most of this on, (phone & tablet mainly) is largely going away, what will it be replaced by? "The cloud" (a nebulous buzzword meaning storage and compute power somewhere on the open internet) and Speech. They are already offering speech input on my phone and tablet, they announced (& demonstrated live) at IO this year, that they will offer speech search on Chrome on the desktop. And of course they offer speech input with Google Glass. For video and pictures we will continue to have the TV, and possibly projection from/to the headset. What we will need less of going forward is powerful local processors, with extended local storage.
Much of what follows are things I have long thought about as relates to "computing" in general, though much of it was brought into sharp focus by what I saw and read, both at IO and subsequently.
The most telling part of the "how to hack Glass" session at IO, at least to me, was that they were not exposing the speech recognition API. It also brings into harsh focus, the utility of the Chromebook, and one solution to the paradigm of near & far. Near being things you hold or operate with your hands, phones, tablets, computer keyboards & mice, (and by association the computer itself) and objects that are far, that are accessed passively & remotely, (like the TV) Things you sit back from. The interface paradigms, and how you interact with such devices are very different.
Many pixels were spilled afterwards talking about the fact that Google TV got no love, and not a single mention at IO this year, meh. They don't need it IMO for the simple reason they have already won there too. "But they haven't sold many units, nobody has ever heard of it" you rightly say. Meh. Samsung make "smart" TV's, what that means is they run Android, Skype, etc. You have access to Google Play, you can download games & apps, Angry Birds on the big screen anyone? All the cheap USB stick devices out of China, the ones that plug into TV's, etc. They all run Android too. As do many games/media player devices, My Ouya, which I backed on kickstarter is in the mail, will get here this week. The killer app for most of these things is XBMC, which is something no corporate entity who had to worry about lawyers would ever write. Consequently, it's simply the best Media Center out there, bar none. Nothing does what this thing can do, It really is the second coming. Chrome ships by default on most of these devices, based as they are on Android 4.x The beta version of which now does auto-translation of any web page. All Google needs to do is offer the Google TV apps on such devices and it doesn't need to partner with anyone to achieve penetration and mass market adoption.
My point about Apple would be this, they sell very desirable products, but ultimately IMO, your data travels with you, you have minimal compute power with you, and a small screen, but you could display to a larger independently powered screen if one is available. The screen itself, becomes a commodity, like a plate, or a TV, it serves a purpose. There may be a market for a high margin luxury business making such screens in future, but a screen is not a smartphone, or a tablet as we currently know them.
To my way of thinking, Glass may be a geek product at first, but once it gets better at doing what ordinary people need, then it will go mainstream. At that point you have knowledge at your beck and call, along with directions, music, books, all narrated to you, with all the camera and video functionality you would expect from a "phone" and all you need to do is be able to speak. Imagine being in a foreign country and having glass translate from your language into the language of the natives back and forth in real time. How much would you pay to rent that, even if you didn't want to buy?
The fiber to the last mile could kill the cable industry, or shake it up the same way that Napster did to the recording industry. But the real impact of self driving cars, especially the lower accident rate, and the freeing up of commuting time, has yet to be encountered. Have a car you don't own drive you to work, or on holiday, or out to the pub only to drive you back again once you've had a skinful. The disruptive potential for this is vast, and I think beyond any pundit.
Similarly, think of the utility of being able to speak to your computer, to ask it to find photos, of a particular kind, or with a particular person/place on a particular holiday. Of not having to understand how the computer works, but having the computer understand you and then display the output to the best screen available at your current location, why would you limit yourself to the small screen you have in your hand, or even on a laptop that limits your mobility.
Google's answer seems to be that out in the real world you want to get the computer out of the way, while at home, why not immerse yourself in it? For that how about the return of VR and the Oculus Rift or even just a smart TV, or an Android box/USB stick attached to it
Very soon, you will have to face a choice of "going Google", or weaning yourself off of Google completely and onto mostly inferior products. I can't see anyone but the most ardent anti-Google zealots making that trade.
Tl;dr? Google have already won, and the future for most of your computing needs is going to be speech driven. Google don't need an island, they have the Western, (and increasingly the whole) world to experiment in.
"The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed."