Tag Archives: Google

You Are The Product

(With invisible close buttons.)
Our grim, multicolour, flashing future.

One of the quieter announcements that Apple made during its WorldWide Developers Conference recently was that its forthcoming MacOS and iOS updates will give developers the ability to create “Content Blockers” for its mobile and desktop Safari browsers. While the exact content blocked is up to the developer (you could block the Daily Mail if you want—and you really should), no one is under any illusions as to the target of this feature: ads.

Ad blockers already exist as extensions to most existing browsers, but the majority of users probably don’t avail of them, especially in the mobile sphere. Apple’s decision to push this feature and the reaction to its quiet announcement says a lot about the current state of the mobile web and the dominant role that ads have come to play in it.

Faster computers, mobile phones and broadband have contributed to a smoother experience online, but this has helped to hide the fact that the vast majority of what we download is ads and spyware. Blocking out most of that would massively speed up browsing and have the simultaneous benefit of cutting down on the amount of activity tracked online.

As pleasant an outcome as this sounds though, there’s a downside: online advertising pays the bills for many of the sites we enjoy, some of them from smaller content providers. Killing off that revenue stream would likely kill off a lot of the richness and the niche content that the web provides. It’s not like the people running these sites are preying on you through the ads either—they’re often stuck in a system that they don’t like, making do as well as they can.

The power blocs behind online advertising inform the nature of the system and the conflict that Apple is wading into. Facebook and Google ensure that web users have access to a wealth of content for free by harvesting their data and selling it, funnelling a portion of the proceeds back to the content creators in order to keep the whole thing going. This is the system that’s driven the growth of the web to date, but it’s far from perfect, and web site bloat is just one of the symptoms.

Whatever your thoughts on Apple—you won’t look at the comments on any Apple article on a non-Apple site for long before you find mentions of ‘iSheep’ or ‘Apple fanboys’—the fact is that Apple’s profit model is completely different from that of the web titans. Apple’s iAds platform is distinctly small scale, and its money comes from the sale of hardware instead. Providing an improved user experience is vital to enhancing the sale of that hardware, and enabling the creation of content blockers achieves that.

Safari is a minority browser on desktop machines, but it’s a major player on the mobile web, and iOS users are a lucrative market. So while this initiative isn’t going to bring down the current financial underpinnings of the mobile web, it’s a definite shot across Google’s bows. (Less so Facebook, which has a closed ecosystem of its own that it can profit from.) For users, it raises the question: are we happy to receive things for free, with the understanding that we’re being sold in return, or are we going to accept that we should pay for the things we value?

There’s an interesting parallel to be seen in the U.K., where the Tory government is once again taking the knives to the public broadcaster, the BBC. U.K. TV viewers have long been accustomed to paying a TV licence, and in return they’ve gained a globally renowned service that entertains, educates, and informs. Of course, a publicly funded broadcaster has a head start over its private sector rivals, and in the view of the Tories, that’s unfair competition. Speaking as someone who was raised on a diet of BBC television, I’d call the licence fee a small price to pay, but the future that the private sector envisions could look a lot like YouTube: ostensibly free to use but scattered with pop-up ads and laden with user tracking.

When we’re offered something free, it’s convenient to overlook the fine print. We’re okay with being the product as long as it’s not thrown back in our face. It would be nice to think that users’ desire for speed and convenience would eventually find a balance with providers’ need for compensation. But while Apple’s intervention might be to our benefit, Apple doesn’t fund web content, only content provided through its own app store ecosystem. So if its ad blocking does gain traction, either we’re going to have to learn to pay for our content or some of those content providers are going to go under.

Don’t Be Evil?

Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/7181655884/
My Photo-fu ain’t getting any prettier. (Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/7181655884/)

It’s one of the best—and best known—corporate mottos of the technology age. Google’s three-word mantra positioned it as something different from the corporate behemoths it disrupted as a scrappy startup. It was also an implicit promise, that as a company it was on the side of the customers it served.

Except, that was years ago, and Google is now one of the biggest of those corporate behemoths. Many of its products may still be loved (just witness the Android/iOS flamewars) but the company itself? The reaction to its recent acquisition of Nest shows that beyond a sense of confusion as to what Google was paying all that much money for, Google itself just isn’t trusted all that much.

Nest is an odd little company in and of itself: founded by Tony Fadell, one of the creators of Apple’s iPod, it looks to bring the same design ethos to neglected home products and add some Internet-era connectivity and device awareness. Nest are one of the leading lights of the “Internet of Things”, so it’s not a surprise that Google has swooped in, but the reaction from technology pundits has been broadly negative.

Why? Well, we tend not to trust those with too great a power over us, and Google’s huge collection of information and ability to leverage it gives it immense power. Nest’s connected devices suggest a desire to extend its awareness of our activities even further into our homes and our every waking moment.

Paranoia? Maybe, but in this case they are watching us. Wasn’t Nest doing the same thing already? It was, but there’s a difference between communicating with devices that form part of our lives, and having those devices communicating with a vast database that already contains details on our lives.

A company like Nest, as with Apple, makes its money by selling products to consumers. A company like Google makes its money by selling advertising and licensing software, both to other companies. As long as there’s a viable alternative, it’s vital for Google to retain the goodwill of consumers, but the fact that their money comes from elsewhere means that they’re always going to be a servant of two masters, and the temptation is to rely on PR to deal with consumer attitudes.

This is not to say that Google, much less the people who work for it, is evil, but the company relegated its famous motto to the backburner a while ago. The pressures of capitalism, as practiced in the modern world, don’t leave much room for moral scruples. The law and how to follow or sidestep it is the main limiting factor on the goal of maximising profits.

The fact is, the Nest acquisition is a good deal, expensive though it may be for Google. Nest gets funding and the chance to supercharge its entry into homes around the world. Google gets not only the hardware design expertise of Fadell and his team of ex-Apple employees (something it badly needs) but also that extra angle of attack for visualising our lives in data.

As for whether Google can regain its standing in the eyes of consumers, the question is does it want to? It’s become one of the world’s largest corporations and it’s hugely profitable. There’s an inevitable sense of sadness at the loss of innocence from those idealistic startup days, but maybe that’s always the price to be paid for success.

The Perils of Polish

Google Reader on iPhone. A last bastion of how things used to be.

As much as I’m a longstanding fan of Apple’s software and hardware, I have to admit that Google has been playing a large part in my technological life for an long time. Gmail was ridiculously useful when it first emerged and has remained so, and Google Maps was repeatedly helpful during my global travels. However, the biggest Google product in my life has long been one of the company’s lesser known lights: its online RSS reader service, Google Reader. For at least the last few years, it’s been a quick and easy way for me to keep up with numerous news sources that might have taken me hours to trawl through if I’d visited each web site independently.

Not too long ago, Google announced that they were going to update Google Reader to bring it into orbit around the company’s new star product, Google+, integrating it with the new social hub and altering its UI to make it part of the new Google “look”. I didn’t pay too much attention at the time – I had already signed up to Google+ and figured that Google would make the transition pretty painless for existing users. Well, the change went through a few days ago, and some people aren’t happy.

The least of the problems is the UI, which is part of Google’s drive for visual consistency across its products. Such things are to some degree a matter of taste, and while the new design looks polished and professional, it also seems a bit flat, with elements seeming to hang in space, unconnected to anything around them. Adding to the problem is the fact that the sidebar and header take up an unnecessary amount of space, leaving less room for the primary purpose of the service, which is reading articles. (I’ll give Google a pass on the fact that the new UI seems to slow down rendering of the page, as my four-year-old laptop is showing its age, but if I’m having problems there, others probably are as well.)

More problematic for me is the mutilation of the feature that kept me with Google Reader over the years: the ability to share articles with my Reader-using friends. The new method for sharing works through Google+ and requires you to publicly “+1” an article first. You can bypass the “+1” requirement by clicking the “share” button in the universal Google control bar at the top right of the screen, but it’s not an intuitive leap to connect that button to a free-floating article elsewhere on the page. As for people who use Reader but not Google+? It seems that I’ve been disconnected from them on a permanent basis, unless they feel like signing up.

On my part, it’s a lesson about not relying too much on one company to support your online habits on an ongoing basis. As an Apple user, I should be well versed in the notion that a company has no obligation to continue supporting a product or service that offers it no profit. After all, Reader is small beans for Google. However, for Google, the reaction from Reader’s users should be a reminder that the product from which it makes most of its money is its users (Android is making more money for Microsoft right now). Driving those users to accept a new world order based around Google+ and a new UI seemingly designed without due care and attention (something Apple users have been getting used to from Google lately) is likely to lose it users, at least in the short term. This is the internet, where there’s always another option.

For the moment, I have no intention of jumping ship from Gmail. I’ve changed email addresses before and will do so again, but for now I can use Gmail on my phone and laptop without ever going near the Web interface. I may, in my drift away from Facebook, someday use Google+ more actively. What I am doing though, is looking for a useful, speedy alternative to Google Reader. If any of you have RSS feed readers that you particularly like, I’m open to suggestions.