From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

(Reuters) – The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach.

Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale – the $4,000 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X “Brick” – half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but up to a fifth of the population, or some 1.4 billion people, live where “the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built,” according to a Facebook white paper last month.

Even these figures, says Kurtis Heimerl, whose Berkeley-based start-up Endaga has helped build one of the world’s smallest telecoms networks in an eastern Indonesian village, ignore the many people who have a cellphone but have to travel hours to make a call or send a message. “Everyone in our community has a phone and a SIM card,” he says. “But they’re not covered.”

Heimerl reckons up to 2 billion people live most of their lives without easy access to cellular coverage. “It’s not getting better at the dramatic rate you think.”

The challenge is to find a way to connect those people, at an attractive cost.
And then there’s the frontier beyond that: the oceans.

Improving the range and speed of communications beneath the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet is a must for environmental monitoring – climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, and protecting harbours.

There is also interest from oceanographers looking to map the sea bed, marine biologists, deep-sea archaeologists and those hunting for natural resources, or even searching for lost vessels or aircraft. Canadian miner Nautilus Minerals Inc said last week it came to an agreement with Papua New Guinea, allowing it to start work on the world’s first undersea metal mining project, digging for copper, gold and silver 1,500 metres (4,921 feet) beneath the Bismark Sea.

And there’s politics: China recently joined other major powers in deep-sea exploration, partly driven by a need to exploit oil, gas and mineral reserves. This year, Beijing plans to sink a 6-person ‘workstation’ to the sea bed, a potential precursor to a deep-sea ‘space station’ which, researchers say, could be inhabited.

“Our ability to communicate in water is limited,” says Jay Nagarajan, whose Singapore start-up Subnero builds underwater modems. “It’s a blue ocean space – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

BALLOONS, DRONES, SATELLITES
Back on land, the challenge is being taken up by a range of players – from high-minded academics wanting to help lift rural populations out of poverty to internet giants keen to add them to their social networks.

Google, for example, is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of drones that can stay airborne for years, while Facebook has bought UK-based drone maker Ascenta.

CEO Mark Zuckerburg has said Facebook is working on drones and satellites to help bring the Internet to the nearly two thirds of the world that doesn’t yet have it. As part of its Project Loon, Google last year launched a balloon 20 km (12.4 miles) into the skies above New Zealand, providing wireless speeds of up to 3G quality to an area twice the size of New York City.

But these are experimental technologies, unlikely to be commercially viable for a decade, says Christian Patouraux, CEO of another Singapore start-up, Kacific. Its solution is a satellite network that aims to bring affordable internet to 40 million people in the so-called ‘Blue Continent’ – from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands.

A mix of technologies will prevail, says Patouraux – from fiber optic cables, 3G and LTE mobile technologies to satellites like his HTS Ku-band, which he hopes to launch by end-2016. “No single technology will ever solve everything,” he said.

Indeed, satellite technology – the main method of connectivity until submarine cables became faster and cheaper – is enjoying a comeback. While Kacific, O3b and others aim at hard-to-reach markets, satellite internet is having success even in some developed markets. Last year, ViaSat topped a benchmarking study of broadband speeds by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

And today’s airline passengers increasingly expect to be able to go online while flying, with around 40 percent of U.S. jetliners now offering some Wi-Fi. The number of commercial planes worldwide with wireless internet or cellphone service, or both, will triple in the next decade, says research firm IHS.

WHITE SPACE

Densely populated Singapore is experimenting with so-called ‘white space’, using those parts of the wireless spectrum previously set aside for television signals. This year, it has quietly started offering what it calls SuperWifi to deliver wireless signals over 5 km or more to beaches and tourist spots.

This is not just a first-world solution. Endaga”s Heimerl is working with co-founder Shaddi Hasan to use parts of the GSM spectrum to build his village-level telco in the hills of Papua.

That means an ordinary GSM cellphone can connect without any tweaks or hardware. Users can phone anyone on the same network and send SMS messages to the outside world through a deal with a Swedish operator.

Such communities, says Heimerl, will have to come up with such solutions because major telecoms firms just aren’t interested. “The problem is that these communities are small,” says Heimerl, “and even with the price of hardware falling the carriers would rather install 4G in cities than equipment in these communities.”

The notion of breaking free of telecoms companies isn’t just a pipe dream.

MESH

Part of the answer lies in mesh networks, where devices themselves serve as nodes connecting users – not unlike a trucker’s CB radio, says Paul Gardner-Stephen, Rural, Remote & Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow at Flinders University in South Australia.

Gardner-Stephen has developed a mesh technology called Serval that has been used by activists lobbying against the demolition of slums in Nigeria, and is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross.

Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has called them “the most essential form of digital communication and the cheapest to deploy.”

Even without a balloon and Google’s heft, mesh networks offer a bright future, says Gardner-Stephen. If handset makers were to open up their chips to tweaks so their radios could communicate over long distances, it would be possible to relay messages more than a kilometre.

In any case, he says, the Internet is no longer about instantaneous communication. As long as we know our data will arrive at some point, the possibilities open up to thinking of our devices more as data couriers, storing messages on behalf of one community until they are carried by a villager to another node they can connect to, passing those messages on several times a day.

It’s not our present vision of a network where messages are transmitted in an instant, but more like a digital postal service, which might well be enough for some.

“Is the Internet going to be what it looks like today? The answer is no,” said Gardner-Stephen.

PISTOL SHRIMPS

As the Internet changes, so will its boundaries.

As more devices communicate with other devices – Cisco Systems Inc estimates there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018 – so is interest increasing in connecting those harder-to-reach devices, including those underwater, that are beyond the reach of satellites, balloons and base stations.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to.

That’s partly because there are no agreed standards, says Subnero’s Nagarajan, who likens it to the early days of the Internet. Subnero offers underwater modems that look like small torpedoes which, he says, can incorporate competing standards and allow users to configure them.

This is a significant plus, says Mandar Chitre, an academic from the National University of Singapore, who said that off-the-shelf modems don’t work in the region’s shallow waters.

The problem: a crackling noise that sailors have variously attributed to rolling pebbles, surf, volcanoes, and, according to a U.S. submarine commander off Indonesia in 1942, the Japanese navy dropping some “newfangled gadget” into the water.

The actual culprit has since been identified – the so-called pistol shrimp, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey. Only recently has Chitre been able to filter out the shrimp’s noise from the sonic pulses an underwater modem sends. His technology is now licensed to Subnero.

There are still problems speeding up transmission and filtering out noise, he says. But the world is opening up to the idea that to understand the ocean means deploying permanent sensors and modems to communicate their data to shore.

And laying submarine cables would cost too much.

“The only way to do this is if you have communications technology. You can’t be wiring the whole ocean,” he told Reuters. “It’s got to be wireless.”

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Google’s Design Gridlock

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Another hamfisted design effort from Google, I’m afraid: this time, they’ve compressed the links at the bottom of the Gmail page to Google-related services to a grid, which you have to click on to find the service you want to access. 

This is what it used to look like: 

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This is what it now looks like: 

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Not only does this add a step to the process, but it also requires a significant move of the mouse to the services at the bottom (and don’t get me started on why you’d want to go to Gmail when you’re already in Gmail.) 

And there’s no way I can see of being able to go back to the old set of links at the top. 

This was a design experiment dating back to March, according to TNW. Back then Emil Protalinski commented that this seemed to borrow from Chrome OS and be an attempt to align with its mobile interface: 

We can understand Google replacing the navigation bar with a menu button: it saves horizontal space and works well with the goal of keeping things minimal. That being said, it adds a click to every action.

In the scheme of things this is probably no biggie, but it does seem to suggest that the wrong people are running design at Google, or they’ve run out of ideas, or they’re so intent on getting Google+ buttons everywhere that everything becomes secondary. Whatever, every incremental step that reduces the experience of Gmail adds to the likelihood it will start losing users.

How Big is Google+?

I’m not convinced, based on anecdotal evidence but nothing more, by stories like these that Google+ is gaining on Facebook and overtaking twitter: 

But how to measure it? It’s not easy. 

One way, I figured, was to look at the most popular pages/profiles on the three services and compare them. This wouldn’t be perfect, but I thought would be as good an indicator as any at how mainstream Google+ had gotten, both in terms of followers of the main kinds of people, things and products popular on other services, but also indicative of how those brands/people felt about Google+. It might also reveal whether Google+ is attracting a different kind of person/product/brand/interest. 

Of course, it also doesn’t say a lot of things, Maybe the tail is a different shape on Google+. Maybe the layout of Google+ doesn’t so easily lend itself to following/liking/adding to circling/+ing pages. But it kind of does: in fact, Google+ is baked into so much other Google stuff these days that it’s hard not to like, as it were, pages, comments, stuff. I’d argue that it’s easier to do that. 

So I went ahead, selecting the top 20 pages on each according to SocialBakers. Most were celebrities, of course, and most overlapped — meaning they featured on more than one service. If they only featured on one, I dumped them (eg ‘Facebook for every phone’ is massive, 274 million Likes, but not really relevant to this exercise.) 

My conclusion in short: Google+ is way behind both Facebook and Twitter. No way is it getting close, at least based on this metric. (And only this metric, so far.) 

My longer conclusion: 

  • of the 48 profiles measured, only 8 were more popular on Google+ than on Facebook. 
  • of the 48 profiles measured, only 9 were more popular on Google+ than on Twitter. 
  • These includes photographer Thomas Hawk, Google’s Vic Gundotra and Larry Page, Richard Branson and, Hugh Jackson. A motley group. 
  • Most mainstream celebs had way more followers on Twitter than Google+: 
    • Britney Spears (4x)
    • Bruno Mars (9x)
    • Cristiano Ronaldo (7x)
    • Justin Timberlake (34x)
  • Most mainstream celebs had way more followers on Facebook than Google+: 
    • Barack Obama (12x) 
    • Beyonce (1,774x) 
    • Britney Spears (4x) 
    • Bruno Mars (20x) 
    • Cristiano Ronaldo (22)
    • Kim Kardashian (7x)
    • Lady Gaga (8x) 
    • Usher (8x) 
  • Quite a few celebrities don’t seem to have bothered with Google+ at all, as far as I can see. 
    • Eminem
    • AKON
    • Beyonce
    • Jennifer Lopez
    • Justin Bieber
    • Katy Perry
    • Linkin Park
    • Nicki Minaj
    • P!nk
  • Even those who score big on Google+ score bigger on other services. Here’s Google+’s Top 4 :
    1. Lady Gaga – 8x as many fans on Facebook, 5x on Twitter
    2. Britney Spears – 4x on Facebook and Twitter
    3. David Beckham – 5x on Facebook, but negligible on Twitter (unless you count his wife) 
    4. Snoop Dogg – 5x on Facebook, 2x on Twitter
  • Although it may not mean much, adding together all the likes/followers etc for the 48 profiles counted, the totals convey, I suspect, a pretty good idea of the difference in popularity: 
    • Facebook: 1.6 billion
    • Twitter: 612 million
    • Google+: 130 million
  • The number of likes (well, pluses/circles) that would get you top spot on Google+ — 7.3 million — would only rank you about 600th on Facebook (Oasis, say, or Cuddling.) 
  • Another thing to do might be to measure the activity on these pages — when last uploaded, likes/retweets etc — but that’s for another day. 

This is just a personal project, and not affiliated with my employer. I’d welcome thoughts and insights which help hone this approach, or ditch it in favour of a better one. 

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.

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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:

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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: 

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

The rebirth of RSS?

This is a column written for the BBC World Service (here’s the show.). Views are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, Thomson Reuters. 

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, but I’ve been particularly wrong about something called RSS. RSS is a simple standard, dreamed up during the halcyon days of the social web when there were enough interesting people writing blogs for it to become somewhat onerous to drop in, as it were, to see whether their website had been updated. In other words, there was a critical mass of bloggers to take blogging into the mainstream, but there was no easy way for the medium to scale from the point of view of readers. It was like everyone printing their own newsletter but asking interested readers to drop by their office every so often on the off-chance that a new edition had been published. 

So RSS, short for really simple syndication, was born. Essentially it wrapped up all the blog posts into a feed, a bit like a wire service, and pumped it out to anyone who wanted to subscribe. It worked brilliantly, but contained within in the seeds of its own — and, I would argue, social media’s — demise. 

The problem was this: As RSS became more popular more blogs used it. And websites. Reuters has a dozen or so; the BBC too. Soon every website was expected to have at least one RSS feed. Software called Readers became the main way to digest and manage all these feeds, and they worked well. So well  that Google got into the game, and soon dominated it. But adding feeds was still a tad awkward, but really RSS’ demise was, in my view, because of something else. 

As social media grew — I’m talking the early years here, when blogging was the preferred medium of expression, and when a certain civility held sway — it contained essential contradictions. Not everyone could be a creator, because then no one would have time to read what everyone else had written. A few kings and queens of social media emerged, and while a long thin tail remained, for the most part blogging simply grew to become like what old media was. Lots of “Talent”, lots of unrecognised talent.

In its place grew a different kind of content that could be more easily commercialised — the breadcrumbs of daily life, the links we share — which we now think of as Facebook, Twitter, Kakaotalk and WhatsApp. Content has become shorter,  and while some of those tools initially used the RSS standard to deliver it, for the most part each became a walled garden, largely fenced off from each other and driven by the value in the data that we shared, wittingly or unwittingly. 

So back to RSS. RSS is still with us, though Google is canning their service soon (eds: July 1). I am a tad upset, having predicted RSS would sweep the world. I was wrong in that, failing to take into account that content, like everything else, will tend to cater to shorter attention spans and the economics of the marketplace. But I do have hope that RSS won’t die off entirely. There are glitzy tablet apps for those who like their reading to come with big pictures and swooshy noises when you turn the digital page. A host of companies, including, ironically the once undisputed kings of the walled garden, AOL, are launching readers for Google refugees. 

I for one still need to fix some problems with my own RSS habits — the tendency to acquire new ones, the failure to read the ones I do subscribe to — but at least some people somewhere thinks there’s life in a daily diet of serious, lengthy reading without lots of eye candy. 

Cuckoonomics

Here’s a piece I wrote for the BBC which went out today. (They often air some time after I’ve recorded them.) 

It’s very hard to be in the technology business these days because you don’t know when someone is going to be a cuckoo, A cuckoo, in case you are not an ornithologist, are what are called brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in another bird’s nest — effectively outsourcing the whole brooding process.

Technology players have been playing this game for a while. The problem is that no one is quite sure who is the cuckoo, who is the sucker and what’s the nest. I call it cuckoonomics.

Take the recent spat between Apple and Google. Google was quite happy to have its Maps software on an iPhone — after all, it makes more money from an iPhone than it does from a phone running its own Android software — but it didn’t want to give away the farm. So it wouldn’t allow a feature which allowed users to navigate turn by turn. So Apple ditched the whole thing and went, somewhat disastrously, with its own version of maps.

Google in this case thought it was being a cuckoo, and the iPhone was the nest. But it didn’t want iPhone users enjoying the product so much that its own users jumped ship. 

In the old days technology was about hardware. Simple. You make something, put a sticker on it, and sell it. That’s all changed. Now it’s about software, about services, about experience. I may run an expensive telecommunications network but I can’t control what goes on it. Cuckoos offering video, games, messaging etc flock onto it, parking their eggs and reaping the benefits.

It happens in more subtle ways, though the implications may be just as drastic. Microsoft is about to launch a new version of its operating system called Windows 8. It’s quite quite different from before and a major gamble; not surprising, because Microsoft’s once cushy nest is being dismantled by Macs, mobiles and tablets.

It’s a brave attempt by Microsoft, but what’s interesting to me is how they’ve aimed their sights not at Apple but at Google. Microsoft have baked search so far into their new operating system they hope it will be where we do most of our stuff. From one place we can search all our apps, the web, our contact list, our saved notes and documents.

Of course this isn’t new. You can do this on a Mac, on an iPad, on an Android phone, even on a Windows PC. But it’s not been quite as well done before.

I’ll wager if Windows 8 catches on this will be one of its biggest features, and Google as a result will take a hit. Which is ironic because it’s been Google who have used cuckoonomics against Microsoft for more than a decade, gradually building a library of services around search that have ended up taking over Microsoft’s nest. Think Gmail taking over Outlook and Hotmail; Docs taking over Office, and then eventually the Chrome browser taking over Internet Explorer. 

What’s intriguing is that Microsoft is also trying to the same trick with Facebook. Windows 8 dovetails quite nicely with your Facebook stuff but at no point does it look like Facebook. I couldn’t find a Facebook app for Windows 8 but it didn’t seem to matter; instead all my Facebook friends, updates, photos and messages all appeared within Windows 8 — with rarely a Facebook logo in sight. 

Which cuckoo is going to win? 

Forks in the Road Ahead?

Two interesting pieces in the past 24 hours that, almost in passing, look at a growing conundrum for Google: how to cope with the fact that Android is largely a profit center for Samsung and nobody else.

Horace Dediu at Asymco (From bad to worse and from good to great) looks mainly at how the mobile world’s value is mostly going to Apple. Samsung is the only other one making any money out of the whole thing:

In absolute terms the iPhone franchise created $244 billion in value while Samsung created $83 billion. The others destroyed $37 billion.

Elsewhere Horace has looked at Android economics (The Android Income Statement among others) and concludes that “Google’s benefit from the platform is modest. He concludes:

In contrast, Samsung, and Samsung alone, is benefitting greatly. It could even be said that today Samsung is the only Android profit engine.

This seems to be the case. Which prompts several questions, some of them addressed in the comments. Is Samsung likely to continue merely taking another person’s operating system, free though it is, and adding a skin or two? How does Samsung feel about sharing a brand — Nexus — with competitors like Asus?

Jean-Louis Gassée in his weekly column for the Monday Note takes a look at this (Business Model Dances). Google, he argues, have not necessarily followed Microsoft by extending vertically with the Nexus 7, but he does believe that “the gentle folks at Samsung are not going to take this with a smile and a quick genuflection.”

If they’re not cowed by Apple, they certainly aren’t going to let Google eat into their tablet business. As for phones, there’s Google’s $12.5B subsidiary, Motorola Mobility, another irritant for Samsung and other Android smartphone makers.

It’s interesting to consider whether Samsung think that the Nexus 7 is a challenger. I tend to think they’re more worried about what’s behind it: lots of content.

As Jean-Louis says, it’s going to be interesting.

In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule?

A piece I wrote on potential roadbumps in Samsung’s ride to smartphone dominance. 

Samsung Electronics is the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer and biggest user of Google’s Android operating system.

And, for some, that’s the problem.

Samsung’s meteoric rise – in the first quarter of 2011 it shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but is now market leader – has handed it a dilemma. Does it risk becoming a commodity manufacturer of hardware, squeezed like the PC makers of old between narrowing margins and those who control the software that makes their devices run, or does it try to break into other parts of the business – the so-called mobile ecosystem?

“It comes down to this sense of what it is they want to be,” said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum. “Do they really want to be one of the power players or are they happy enabling someone else’s ecosystem?”

To be sure, Samsung isn’t in any kind of trouble, and isn’t likely to be so any time soon. Later on Thursday, it will launch the Galaxy S3, the latest addition to its flagship range of smartphones. Juniper Research expects Samsung to remain the No.1 smartphone manufacturer this quarter. The next iPhone upgrade is expected around the third quarter.

“Android has done wonders for them,” says India-based Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta.

But still the company has its critics. They worry that Samsung has yet to address the central contradiction of it making devices that use someone else’s operating system. By licensing the free Android OS from Google, Samsung saves itself millions of dollars in software development costs and license fees, but leaves itself dependent on Google.

More at In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule? | Reuters

Google charts a careful course through Asia’s maps

Here’s a piece I wrote to coincide with Google’s launch of Street View in Thailand: Google charts a careful course through Asia’s maps

Google rushed out its panoramic Street View maps in Thailand on Friday as part of the country’s efforts to show tourist hot spots have recovered from last year’s floods.
But it also marked something of a change of fortunes for Google itself, which has weathered several storms in Asia over its mapping products.
Google rolled out 360-degree images of the streets of Bangkok, the resort island of Phuket and the northern city of Chiang Mai. Street View allows users to click through a seamless view of streets via the company’s Google Maps website.
Google plans to use a tricycle-mounted camera to photograph places that can’t be reached by car, such as parks and monuments. The Tourism Authority of Thailand will launch a poll to choose which sites to photograph first.
“We really want to show that Thailand isn’t still underwater,” said David Marx, Google’s Tokyo-based communications manager. “People should see Thailand for what it is.”
Pongrit Abhijatapong, marketing information technology officer at the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said it was less about showing that Thailand was back to normal.
“Rather, we hope tourists can see with their own eyes what Thailand is like. Street View will help their decision-making process in a positive way in regards to visiting Thailand.”
Google has not always been able to count on such enthusiasm elsewhere in Asia, illustrating the challenges the company has faced besides high-profile spats with China over privacy and India over removing offensive content.

Read the rest at Reuters.com.

Here are some links and bits and pieces I didn’t have room for:

Measures (Guidance) for Google, Inc. concerning Protection of “Secrecy of Communications”) – Japan’s Nov 11 2011 instructions to Google over privacy

Stefan Geens has done a great job charting the various sandbanks and undersea obstructions Google has encountered, particularly in Asia. His blog is well worth a read: Ogle Earth | Notes on the political and scientific impact of digital maps and geospatial imagery

I didn’t have enough space to go into detail about OpenStreetMap‘s challenge to Google, particularly in Asia. But in those parts of the region I know, it’s at least a match for Google, in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Afghanistan. Their annual conference, State of the Map, will be held for the first time in Asia this year, in Tokyo on September 6.

My thanks to Daniel Kastl for explaining OSM and Japan to me. I understand that Yahoo Japan and OSM are about to announce some sort of cooperation in the next few days.

One thing I didn’t point out in the story is that Google doesn’t always get there first when it comes to street-level panoramic mapping. In Singapore, for example, gothere.sg was ahead of them, both in mapping and 360-degree views, and remains in some ways better than Google Maps. Hong Kong-based MapJack has offered street-level maps of Thailand’s Phuket. Chiangmai and several other resorts, though not Bangkok, since 2008.

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.