Google, browsers and the illusion of choice


It’s Google’s world, which means we’re always leaking data to them.

Some of us assiduously search for other options. But it’s not easy.

Two reasons: We don’t have a firm grasp of the size of the elephant we’re confronting, and secondly, we don’t really understand what we’re doing when we’re online. What data are we leaking, and how, and what does that mean? Is it something we should be worried about? If we wanted to limit our exposure to any one conglomerate, how would we go about it?

Inspired by the recent publication (PDF, as are many of the links in this piece) of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority on ‘Online platforms and digital advertising’ , I thought I’d take a stab at prodding at least part of this animal.

Let’s take a look at browsers.

At least on the desktop (meaning laptops, PCs, anything that’s not a small-screen device) we spend a lot of time in the browser. (The opposite is true on mobile: eMarketer found in 2019 that 90% of time on mobile is spent in apps, rather than the browser. But as you’ll see, that doesn’t really help.)

So where does Google sit in all this?

You can have any colour you like, so long as it’s chrome

Google launched its Chrome browser in September 2008. At that point it seemed a somewhat silly thing to do — as the chart below shows, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer dominated the browser world (by virtue of Windows, which was on 90% or more of computers) and to a lesser extent Mozilla Firefox (the data below probably exaggerates its market share around that time).

Google made a splash when they launched the browser (Sundar Pichai headed the team) but played it carefully, saying that they would work with the Open Source community, were just continuing on their path, and promised the browser would just get out of people’s way: “The web gets better with more options and innovation,” Sundar was quoted as saying. “Google Chrome is another option, and we hope it contributes to making the web even better.”

Sure. I was excited too, and like everyone else went ahead and installed it, feeling that I was contributing to an exciting, and exclusive, new way of browsing.

So how do things look, 12 years on? It’s no longer exactly ‘another option’. It’s the option:

You can see how Microsoft (orange), asleep at the controls, allows Google (blue) to come from nothing and within a few years completely destroy it — and Firefox (green) for that matter. Where Microsoft had destroyed Netscape, so Google destroyed it. 

So Google has what it wants. But what does it get with this browser dominance?

Data. Lots of it. Google has an insatiable appetite for your data, and has tweaked its privacy policy to ensure that it’s collecting as much of your data as it can across everything you do.

In 2012 Google introduced a policy that deliberately and explicitly connected all an individual’s data across all its platforms and services. Here’s how the Competition Law Forum (CLF) at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law put it in a submission to the CMA: “In 2012 Google announced the introduction of a new privacy policy that would encompass all the services Google offers, including popular services such as YouTube, Chrome, Google Play and Google Maps, replacing the previous individual’s policies that governed each service. Said privacy policy authorises Google to gather detailed personal data from any of those services and combine it for the purposes listed therein, including to create consumer profiles that are valuable for advertising purposes.”

Combining all this data is exactly what advertisers want, and the way that Google maximises the value it extracts from you. That’s why it has so many services — they are touchpoints, places where Google can, effectively, spy on you and know where you are, what you’re doing, and crucially what you want or intend to do. If you don’t think you use much of Google’s services, check out this site which lists all their products and services. You might be surprised.

Whatever browser you use, we got you covered

Here are some things that happen irrespective of what browser you’re using (if you’re on Android see below):

  • If you use any Google tool that requires your signing in, then it will be able to track your activities, and match it to your profile.
  • Even if you’re not signed in, Google will still collect information via the browser (or application, or device) you’re using.
  • If you sign in to any Google service, then you will be automatically signed in to all other Google services — or services you’re using via Google’s single-sign on, whether or not you have them open on your device.

Chrome is where the heart is

And if you’re specifically using Chrome:

Signing in to any Google service

If you sign on to any Google service in Chrome, Google will automatically sign you in to the browser, thus linking, or at least potentially linking, everything you do in that browser to your profile. 1

Clearing your cache and going Incognito

Even if you clear your browser cache, Google can still track you via a persistent identifier (called an X-client-Data header) in Chrome. According to a lawsuit this identifier is within the browser Google can track you even in Incognito (private) mode. “In short, if you are using Google’s Chrome browser, Google’s code in that browser sends information back to Google’s servers identifying the specific, individual browser (associated with you) that is viewing any Webpage that has implemented Ad Manager, Google Analytics, the Google Button, Google Approved Pixels, etc,” the lawsuit claims.

A report on the lawsuit is here. 2

Passive data

While this piece (and the data) is mainly about Chrome on the desktop, it appears that Chrome on the mobile phone (in Android) is sending “data to Google even in the absence of any user interaction,” according to Douglas Schmidt of Vanderbilt University, quoted in the above lawsuit. “Our experiments show that a dormant, stationary Android phone (with Chrome active in the background) communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period, or at an average of 14 data communications per hour.”

A separate report by Digital Content Next in 2018 found that two thirds of information “collected or inferred by Google through an Android phone and the Chrome browser was done through ‘passive’ methods, that is where an application is set up to gather information while it is running, possibly without the user’s knowledge.” 3

Sludge techniques

In the past — I couldn’t replicate this, so I’m not sure it still happens — Google would try to deter users from changing their default search engine in Chrome. This according to a submission by ‘privacy-priority’ search engine DuckDuckGo to the CMA. (DuckDuckGo uses Microsoft’s search engine Bing.)

Don’t take my word for it

The report just issued by the CMA concludes: “Google has developed unrivalled access to data through its operation of the largest browser (Chrome) and the Android mobile operating system. “4

The report goes further. While it acknowledges that Google has said it is considering phasing out third-party cookies, which have become a target for those seeking to increase browsing privacy, this may end up making Google’s position even stronger. “(T)hrough its control over the leading web browser (Chrome) and mobile OS (Android), Google can also influence standards (such as support for third- party cookies) that affect rivals’ ability to collect and use targeting data (eg users’ browsing behaviour).” 5

Google hasn’t been great about explaining itself

Google has had a chance to say its piece to the group putting together the report. But you can’t help feeling they still don’t quite get it. Here’s a screenshot from a ‘non-confidential’ version of their submitted reply. If you have to black out a portion of a reply about the mode that in theory protects your users from snooping the most, you can’t blame them for still feeling a bit icky:

Successful in doing what? Persuading users they’re safe when they’re not? In collecting data when they think they’re not? Why would this bit be blacked out? It doesn’t seem like it’s hiding a commercial secret. Weird.

The Chromium wedge

It should be pointed out, as the CMA has, that Google has an extra lever: its control of Chromium, the engine on which Chrome is built. Microsoft, Opera and Vivaldi are all built on Chromium, open source software that Google controls, and which also powers the Chromium OS, the operating system which runs a dozen or more low-power laptops called Chromebooks made by Samsung, Asus, Acer, HP, Toshiba, Lenovo and Google itself.

You’ll see a list of them if you visit that link. But tf you visit the Chromium home page itself, you won’t see links to other browsers running Chromium. Other than Google’s own:

You can’t help wondering, given Google’s past in slowly building up dominant positions, firstly in search, and then in the browser, that they’re trying to do something similar with the computer operating system. Yes, Chromium is pretty piddling when it compares to Windows of MacOS, but that’s not the point. With Chromium the browser they now have leverage over Microsoft — who would have thought that? — the minor players like Vivaldi and Opera. As I will explain elsewhere they have control over other players in different ways. Just because they haven’t used that leverage doesn’t mean they can’t. Remember how they eviscerated RSS by controlling the RSS Reader market? I do.

(I will be exploring Chromium in a future post but it’s worth pointing out that Chromium underpins many apps and ads beyond the browser. According to Ltd, a mobile and data consultancy which submitted its own findings to the CMA: “Chromium is everywhere. Beyond classic web browsers including Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, or Samsung Browser, Chromium underpins many applications and advertising. For example, a web page or advert displayed withing the Facebook application is displayed using Chromium. An advert tapped within an Android application appears within a Chromium controlled experience.”

Bottom line

I’ve loved Google products for a long time, and I still use a lot of them. And as a journalist I found Google a much easier company to deal with than the other US tech giants. But I never got useful answers out of them when things got tricky, and as this topic highlights, they’ve never been properly candid about what data is being collected and how it’s being used. I don’t pretend this little stick-prod is going to pry anything useful out of them, or really help you make a decision about whether to change your online behaviour. Neither do I pretend their rivals are any better.

But I want to give a clap or two the CMA for at least trying to figure some of this stuff out and to map some of the ecosystem that generates all this money (including Facebook, which I’ll take a look at in future columns.) It’s a shame the UK is not part of the European Union anymore. A report like that with the EU behind it could have started some waves.

Transparency: In my role at Cleft Stick, I have done consulting work for Microsoft, a competitor to Google on some of these issues, on unrelated issues. I have no NDAs that I believe would affect my point of view.

  1. GOOGLE ADVERTISING TOOLS (FORMERLY DOUBLECLICK) OVERVIEW Last Updated October 1, 2019, paper prepared by Oracle
  2. Google Sundar Pichai has explained it in a letter to the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee: “When a user conducts a search on Google in Chrome Incognito and signed-out modes, we set a cookie to correlate searches conducted in the same Incognito window during the same browsing session… We will, however, use certain factors … such as the browser type, language, time of search, location (or an estimation of location), and prior browser session searches, to improve Search ranking relevance for the user’s query.”
  3. From the DuckDuckGo submission, see above
  4. Paragraph 7:61
  5. Appendix 7, Paragraph 114. Others have pointed out that in fact phasing out third party cookies would strengthen Google (and Facebook).

Google Alerts Drops RSS Delivery Option

Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land points out that Google Alerts Drops RSS Delivery Option, which is pretty upsetting. The message says that “Google Reader is no longer available,” and says users need to switch to email alerts.

Screen Shot 2013 07 03 at 4 11 08 PM

Seems that Google is either just dumping RSS wholesale or that the feed engine that ran the RSS alerts was part of the Reader infrastructure. (You can still subscribe to Google News alerts by RSS, and news search terms, it seems, so I have no idea what the link is.) 

As commenters point out, this is going to break a lot more than simply Google Alerts. A lot of websites embedded feeds into their sites using Google RSS alerts:

Screen Shot 2013 07 03 at 4 08 11 PM

It’s an odd state of affairs for Google, which either didn’t anticipate the backlash or is so intent on chasing Facebook that it doesn’t care.  

Another option suggested by commenters: Talkwalker Alerts – The best free alternative to Google Alerts. It even looks like Google Alerts: 

Screen Shot 2013 07 03 at 4 10 30 PM

Haven’t tried it but seems to offer the goods. 

The Google Dilemma

Once we lived in simpler times. Google was a search engine that made its money off ads that were based on what we searched for. Look for cocoa and you’d get an ad for hot chocolate alongside the search results. Google made lots of money from this and we got our hot chocolate.

This worked because the web was searchable. At the end of the 1990s there was no walled garden beyond the shrinking cabbage patches of early Internet service providers AOL and CompuServe: All the the web was there anxious to be indexed, to be searchable. Idealists wandered into the sunshine and spoke of a future when everything would be found and information would be free.

It was not to be. We’ve already seen some of the problems. When information is free—as in not in chains—people also expect it to be free—as in free beer. When we started relying on search engines to find what we needed online the process would only work if that information was free to Google and its ilk to index, which meant, for the most part, it had to be free to us to access. Result: Google made lots of money, and lots of news organisations had to die before new business models could be found.

But something else happened along the way. Google made its money from knowing us through what we searched for. We had a relationship with Google whether we realised it or not. Just by entering a search term we told them stuff about us, and that helped them help others to sell us stuff. We weren’t the customer; we were, in the now familiar argot, the product.

Then Facebook and twitter and other social networks came along and realised that the same could be true on a much bigger scale if we could be induced to enter a lot more information about ourselves. Soon our lives were online, including photos, videos, likes and dislikes, relationships, affiliations, locations, what we ate, wore, drank, listened to, bought, read.

All that data is even more valuable than the data Google collected on us. But the problem is that it’s not part of the web. Facebook is not really searchable outside Facebook—and it’s not very searchable within Facebook, if you’ve tried to find a link you remember sharing with someone back in October. So now Google is shut out of a big chunk of the web we thought would be forever open.

So Google invented its own social network. Well, two, but one failed: Remember Buzz, anyone? Google now has Google+ and in the past year it’s been pushing it so hard it’s beginning to look like Google has forgotten what made it good in the first place. Its most recent stunt: Incorporate a search on Google with a search of the Google+ network, which it calls, somewhat awkwardly, Search, Plus Your World.

The idea is simple: When you search for cocoa, you not only want a search of what the web has to say on the subject, but you are probably interested in what your friends on Google+ have to say on the matter, along with any photos and tidbits you may have shared yourself.

Many folk don’t like this. They not only feel Google has forgotten that simplicity and speed was what made the search engine the world’s default. They also question why Google assumes that its users are only interested in Google+, which is still a minor player in the social network stakes. Why no twitter, Facebook or other networks?

Google says these two giants aren’t playing ball, something both companies deny; it’s far from clear who’s telling the truth. But what is clear is that Google is grappling with a problem that threatens it more than anything thus far: The rise of social networks which it cannot access, and therefore not only limit its popularity as a search engine, but shut it out of lots of ad dollars.

Folk were already worried that Google was alienating users of its products—not just search, but documents, email, maps, RSS, calendars and the mobile operating system Android—by pushing them into joining Google+. Now they’re worried, in my view rightly so, that Google is jeopardising its core product, the one that makes it all its money, by fiddling search results to favor this new social network.

It’s unlikely, but if people start to abandon Google search in droves, the rest of the empire will collapse like those walled gardens of old.

The Browser Doesn’t Matter So Long As It Goes to Google

The whole Google/Firefox issue is an interesting one: Google is the default search engine in Firefox because it pays to be there. The three-year deal expired in November 2011. Would they renew? Some thought no. They were wrong.

Not only has Google renewed the deal whereby it effectively bankrolls Firefox, but it’s the first time that it’s continued the deal after launching its own browser, and the first time it’s done so after Chrome is actually has as many users, according to some measures, as Firefox.

On top of that, there are reports from AllThingsD that the deal is worth $300 million a year, more than three times what they were paying under the previous arrangement. What gives?

Several theories:

We’re Partners

The official version is that Google and Firefox are buddies, after the same thing: the betterment of the web [ReadWriteWeb].

Bidding War

One is that Microsoft and possibly Yahoo! were after the deal. Makes sense: Microsoft is desperate to gain market share for bing, while Yahoo! is, well, desperate.


Another theory has it that Google is basically after eyeballs, and doesn’t care how it gets them. Paying for them by getting to be the default search brings oodles of traffic. This is definitely true. I reckon that Firefox had as many as 500 million users in 2010. If 90% of those users don’t switch their default search that’s worth a lot of money to Google, and as ExtremeTech has pointed out, makes Firefox the biggest single source of traffic to Google (I calculate they paid 20 cents per user, whether or not they actually use Google.)


There are other theories. One is that Google is worried about antitrust issues [David Ulevitch, Twitter feed, via paris lemon] and therefore wants there to be a competitor about. This argument has some merit: expect Google Chrome/Chrome OS and Android to converge more and more, which is bound to attract the attention of regulators.

There’s no question that Google benefits any which way this goes.

  • It’s clear that Microsoft has failed to dislodge Google as the search engine of choice: While its market share in the U.S. is around 15% [WinRumors, quoting comScore] globally it’s tiny: less than 4% on desktop browsers, 1% on mobile devices [both from NetMarketShare]. In other words, Google doesn’t need to worry that Internet Explorer shifting traffic to bing. While in decline IE is still the most popular browser at about 40% [StatCounter].
  • Google doesn’t really care what browser people use. It would prefer they use Chrome, but as long as the browser points to Google, who cares (as Deng Xiao Ping said, who cares what colour the cat is, as long as it catches mice?). Which is why Google are just as happy to do a deal with Apple (6%) and with Opera (2%). In fact, the only browser that doesn’t have Google as its default search engine is IE. (Apple talked about cutting a deal with Microsoft last year [Daring Fireball], but it was probably a negotiating tactic. DF says he reckons the Google/Safari deal was worth $2 million a month.

Finally, then, if the new figures are true–that Google is now paying $300 million a year for the Firefox traffic–is that money well spent? Well, it’s not easy to calculate. But let’s assume that Firefox traffic continues to fall at its present rate. So in 2012 it accounts for only 21% of the market. Likely number of Internet users in 2012? Anyone’s guess, but probably about 2.4 billion? (It was 2.1 billion in March 2011, according to Internet World Stats.)

So Firefox potentially should be able to bring at least 440 million users to the table. So that’s $0.68 per user. Quite a bit more than what it’s currently shelling out–but less than what it’s paying Opera, according to my very rough calculations. Opera said it received $41 in ‘Desktop revenue’, the bulk of which it says comes from ‘search and commerce’. Assuming all of that, for the sake of argument, is money from Google for search, then using their official figure of 51 million desktop users in 2010, Opera was getting $0.80 per user from Google. (I realise that might be inflated given the ‘commerce’ component.)

That would seem to suggest that actually Google was getting users from Firefox pretty cheaply. Even if my calculations for Opera are a tad high, the new deal with Google, valuing a user at about 65 cents, doesn’t seem overly expensive. We don’t know how much Google pays Apple, but the $2 million a month means they’re the cheapest on the block, costing $0.15 per user according to back of the envelope calculations.

Indeed, these are all just back of the envelope calculations, but I reckon they offer a bit of insight into the economics of this part of the game. Remember Google made $9.72 billion in the last quarter [Google corporate pages], and paid out $383 million to “certain distribution partners and others who direct traffic to our website” in that quarter. That’s close to $1.6 billion over a year, putting the $300 million it’s reputed to be committed to paying Firefox every year in perspective.)

A good account of the economics of all this can be found at ExtremeTech.

Using Google to Predict the Future

Elegantly simple proposal to measure economic confidence in The Economist’s search for other quirky indicators: searches in the U.S. on Google for “gold price” in the piece Alternative indicators: Behind the bald figures

But the hottest tip came from Edward Ritchie, an investment analyst in London. He tracks Google searches for the “gold price” as an indicator of economic confidence. This does not follow the gold price itself. For example, during most of 2008 when the world’s financial system was melting down, the gold price tumbled yet the number of searches soared. The number of gold-price searches shoots up when American consumer confidence dives and subsides when households perk up again (see chart). That makes it a handy device for spotting turning-points in economic confidence, with the added advantage that the data are available earlier than for conventional survey-based figures. Worryingly, the number of searches has recently vaulted above its 2008 peak, signalling the possibility of a double dip.”

Here’s the graph:

I’m a big fan of using Google search to measure, track and predict things. A few of my previous posts on the matter. And no, I’ve not made any money so far out of this crystal ball.

How To Use Google To Get Round Super Injunctions

Technoratis Decline, Death of Blogging?

Googling the Tsunami

Googles Suicide Watch: where I googled the word “suicide”

Has Quora Peaked?

Fail, Seinfeld and Tina Fey: A Zeitgeist

The Financial Crisis in Charts

Hoodiephobia, Or We Don’t Lie to Google

And this one from 2006: Mapping Trends With Google

Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things (12″ version)

This is the extended version of my earlier blog post. The BBC finally ran my commentary so for those of you who want more info, here it is:

Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It’s been around a while, but I just figured out how it works, and it made me realise that the early dreams of a blogging utopia on the web are pretty much dead.

Here’s how this kind of product placement works. On the Internet Google is like a benevolent dictator: it creates great stuff we love, and with which most of the net wouldn’t work. But it also wields great power–at least if you’re someone trying to make money off the web. Because if you don’t show up in Google’s search results, then you’re nobody. It’s the equivalent of exile, or solitary confinement, or something.

A lot of money is spent, therefore, in gaming your website’s position in Google’s rankings. But you have to be careful. Google also spends a lot of money tweaking its algorithms so that the search results you get are not gamed. Threat of exile is usually enough to keep most web players in line.

But because Google doesn’t issue a set of rules, and doesn’t explain why it exiles web sites, the gray area is big. And this is where the money is made.

One of the mini industries is something called link building. Google reckons a site with lots of links to it is a popular site, so it scores highly. So if you can get lots of sites to link to yours, you’re high up in the results.

Now it just so happens that some of the pages on my modest decade-old blog score quite highly here. So I suppose it was inevitable that link building companies would seek me out.

A British company, for example, called More Digital offered me a fixed upfront annual fee for a “small text-based ad” on my website. As intriguing was the blurb at the bottom of the email:

You must not disclose, copy, distribute or take any action in reliance on this e-mail or any attachments. Views or opinions presented in this e-mail are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of More Digital.

Clearly these guys mean business, I thought, so I wrote back to Alicia Ross. She was excited to hear from me, and offered two options: one was a simple link in my collection of recommended web sites. The idea would be that I would include a link to their client’s website–whoever it was–alongside my real recommendations.

The other was “one page simple text”:

The advert will be text, not a visual banner It will appear in the content, and only on a single page of your website. Our writers will provide you with a copy that will fit naturally into your existing content.

(I think she means “copy” rather than “a copy”). For this I would earn $200 a year per ad if the client was a poker, casino or bingo site;

Now in Internet terms this is big money. It would take me a month or so to make that kind of dosh on simple Google ads on my website. Now they’re talking about one simple text link and I get the cash in two days!

But hang on a minute. There’s that ethics thing in the back of my mind. I have to listen to it a second.

The first one I’m not crazy about: What’s the point of a collection of recommended links if I don’t actually recommend them myself?

But the second one took some getting my head around. I couldn’t figure out what she had in mind, so I asked her. And this is when I started to get really depressed.

Basically what they’re after is me inserting a sentence into an existing blog post that links to their client. These guys are not interested in a new post. That would take time to rise up through the ranks of Google; they want to tap into my micro-Google fame. And remember this is not an ad. It’s a plug. It’s product placement. In a piece that is supposed to otherwise be straight, authentic and, well, me. I like to think that’s why it has Google juice.

By the time I got back to Alicia the offer was off the table as all the spots had been picked up. Clearly this is a well-oiled business. But then I got another, from a different company. Mayra Alessi was contacting me on behalf of a U.S. company selling identity theft protection, which she wanted me to link to in a piece I wrote two years ago about a privacy problem with Facebook. For $30 a month.

Mayra, if it was she, proposed I add a sentence at the end of a paragraph on how Facebook needs to fix the way they handle friendshipt requests as follows:

Mistakes like these from Facebook, make us more and more vulnerable to identity theft, that is why it is important to understanding identity theft in the USA.

Clearly Mayra hasn’t made her way in the world based on her copyediting, grammar or punctuation skills.  And the irony hasn’t escaped me of a company peddling identity theft protection is at best unaware that companies operating in its name are paying websites to mislead their readers, and Google.

What’s wrong with all this? Well, I guess the first thing is the seediness. A company is basically hiring another company to fiddle its rankings on Google–instead of just producing the kind of kick-ass content that it should be building it leeches off my kick-ass content.

And it’s not just seedy, it’s illegal. Well, as far as Google is concerned. Only the other day someone complained on a Google forum after getting his sites bumped off Google’s index. The reason, he suspects, is that he took $75 from one of the companies that contacted me for linking to a site about bikes. And these companies must know that. I guess that’s why the fees seem quite high for the chicken feed that niche blogs like ours are used to earning.

The point is, that the companies apparently funding this kind of activity–those whose websites benefit from the link love–are not necessarily sleazy gambling sites. I was invited to link to were an Internet security company. Among companies willing to pay me $150 for a link are, according to one of these link building outfits trying to get me aboard, are those selling mobile phones, mobile phones, health and fitness, travel, hotels, fashion, Internet services, insurance, online education and, somewhat incongruously, recycling companies.

To me this is all the more sleazy because these are real companies with offices in the UK and US and they’re clearly proud of what they do. We’re not talking Ukrainian spammers here. But their impact, in a way, is worse, because with every mercenary link sold they devalue the web. I’ve been doing a blog for nearly 10 years now, and the only thing that might make my content valuable is that it’s authentic. It’s me. If I say I like something, I’m answerable for that. Not that people drop by to berate me much, but the principle is exactly the same as a journalistic one: Your byline is your bond.

All in all, a tawdry example of where the blogosphere has gone wrong, I reckon. Keep your money. I’d rather keep the high ground.

How To Use Google To Get Round Super Injunctions

Screen shot 2011 05 23 at AM 06 45 41

As you may know there’s been lots of talk about a so-called super injunction taken out by a British footballer against revealing his name in connection with an affair he’s alleged to have had with a minor UK celebrity. One British newspaper has ignored the injunction, effectively identifying him. Twitter has also been abuzz.

It amused me to notice that Google has ignored the injunction, too, effectively.

With Google Instant autosearch on, start typing “super injunction footballer imogen” and the answer–or at least what everyone assumes is the answer will appear in the drop down list below. As I’ve illustrated above, but with the name blanked out.

I’ve talked about how to get the best out of this feature before. Check out Google Suggest: Your Company + Scam – loose wire blog

Google’s Missteps

By Jeremy Wagstaff

This one needed some correcting, for which apologies, and also, unsurprisingly, attracted some opprobrium. It’s Google Notebook, not Notes, and Jaiku’s founders are Finnish, not Swedish.

I’m a big fan of Google. A big fan. But I’ve finally realized what its problem is. It doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing.

Take its recent decision to close something called Google Wave.

Google Wave was introduced to much fanfare back in May 2009. I can’t really describe what it is, but I can tell you what Google called it. Email killer, a new version of the web, etc etc. “Wave is what email would look like if it were invented today,” said one of its creators.

Then, a few weeks back, they killed it. CEO Eric Schmidt said: “We liked the (user interface) and we liked a lot of the new features in it,” he was quoted as saying,  “(but) didn’t get enough traction, so we are taking those technologies and applying them to new technologies that are not announced.”

Schmidt explained Google’s policy like this: “Our policy is we try things. We celebrate our failures. This is a company where it is absolutely OK to try something that is very hard, have it not be successful, take the learning and apply it to something new.”

The point is not that Wave was rubbish. Or great. It’s that we never really got to try it out. When Schmidt says that “we tend to sort of release them and then see what happens” he’s telling the truth. Only it’s not really something he should be too proud about.

Quite a few of us worked quite hard to make Wave part of our lives. Not many of us, admittedly, but enough. Enough to be somewhat peeved to find it’s not going to be around much longer.

This isn’t the first time Google has done this. Google Notes Notebook was a way to collect snippets from the web and save them in the browser. Great, but Google killed that one off. They bought and killed off something called Jaiku, a better-than-Twitter service developed by some guys in Sweden Finland (thanks, Gabe,Adewale Oshineye and others). Of course, like Wave, they don’t actually shoot these things dead, they just go to some weird twilight zone where new people can’t sign up and existing users look kinda passé.

Like people who overstay a party that never really took off.

Who’s going to continue using a product that could disappear at any minute?

This, arguably, is fine when you’re not actually paying for the product. Well, not directly. But what happens when you shell out $500 for it?

That’s what happened when fools bought into Google’s foray into the cellphone world with their fancy Nexus One phone. What it called the Superphone, with plans to make lots more. “Imagine a thousand gphones!” said Schmidt

So people went out and bought it and yay! less than a year later Google closes down the online store where you can buy the thing and then, a few weeks after that, said that it’s not making any more phones.

Of course, Mr. Schmidt put a positive spin on it all.

But it’s not good enough.

I was one of those people who bought the phone because I love Google’s email service, its photo service, its online documents service, its RSS reader, its chat program, its maps. Its search engine. Pretty much everything it puts out. And I thought to myself: all this in a phone, made by the same guys, it’ll be heaven!

Only it wasn’t. The phone is good, but not great. I still use it, but my hope was that Google would be serious about all its products and pulling them together into one seamless service.

Never happened. And now, clearly, never will. Yes, Google make the operating system—the Android OS—so they still have a dog in the fight, but clearly they’ve decided that spending more time on the cellphone thing isn’t worth it for them.

Now these are the gripes of someone who feels a bit like a mug. But they’re also the ramblings of someone who feels there’s a fundamental problem with Google’s approach to the post-search world.

They don’t seem to get it. Buzz, their version of Twitter, is awful. It ignores the fundamentals of the service: it’s personal while also being impersonal, it’s chatty while at the same time having to be succinct. It’s not the same as email, and the people we share tweets with are not, necessarily, the people we email. So putting it together with Gmail was dumb.

Google has got to tread carefully. It’s not really had a hit for a while—since Gmail, probably, back in 2004. Yes, its Google Docs are good, but they’re not taking over the world. And the things they thought might take over the world—such as Wave—are poorly thought out, poorly promoted, poorly supported, and killed off with an insouciance that doesn’t only upset those people like me who took time and effort to build them into our workflow. It’ll also upset two other key groups: business users and investors.

No business user is going to start playing around with a Google product thinking it might be good for their company, because who knows when Mr.. Schmidt is going to pull out his hunting knife? And investors? Well, we’ve seen plenty of tech behemoths who were one- or two-hit wonders.

It’s not time up yet for Google. They’ve just launched a sort of phone service that could be a Skype killer, but who’s going to ditch Skype in their office for something that might not be around in a year’s time? They not only need to come up with good new products. They need to find ways to convince their users they’re not just playthings, given and taken back on a whim.

Google and History


I had gotten excited about Google’s timeline search before, but hadn’t seen this: Google is mining not just text for the dates of more recent stuff, but everything, stretching back into the mists of time, culled from Google Books:

The result is an odd but interesting automatically generated history of whatever you’re looking for.

In this case, I was looking for “cleft stick”. This is what appeared:


And the first few were all about how women found to be disrespectful, swearing, reveling or other forms of subversion had their tongues inserted into a cleft stick—a stick with the end split, and the tongue inserted:


The sources are varied, revealing a fascinating brutality and harrassment of women which went on for years:

In 1636, Elisabeth Aplegate was proclaimed guilty of the crime of swearing and reveling, and was required to stand in public with her tongue in a cleft stick.

1638 – The calmness with which even cultivated men then viewed the public whipping of women appears from the record by Governor Winthrop of the punishment of Mrs. Oliver in 1638. She was a woman of good character, but differed violently with the magistrates as to religious The calmness with which even cultivated men then viewed the public whipping of women appears from the record by Governor Winthrop of the punishment of Mrs. Oliver in 1638. She was a woman of good character, but differed violently with the magistrates as to religious matters, for which she was reproved, and finally sentenced to have her tongue put in a cleft stick, and then to be whipped.

This is clearly where the term “caught in a cleft stick” comes from. But not, probably, exactly what we mean when we say it.

Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.