The Big Boys’ Mea Culpas

I find it interesting that companies can get things so wrong. News Corp just sold off Myspace for a fraction of its original price today, effectively admitting it didn’t get social media.

Microsoft famously came late to the table with the Internet, and then has been late to more or less every party since. It’s now come out with Microsoft 365, an awful name for a product that is basically an admission that Google Docs is good enough for most people, and that Microsoft Office is largely toast (an incorrect assumption, I reckon; I still can’t do without it.)

Then we have Google. Google has made a surprising number of missteps: Buzz, Wave (dumping it as much as hyping it, in my view.) Now, with the launch of Google+, they’re also acknowledging that they got the Web wrong: Instead of seeing it as a network, they saw it as a library. This from AllThingsD’s Liz Gannes, who asked Vic Gundotra why he and Bradley Horowitz had spent so much of the launch self-flagellating about why Google was so late to the social media dance:

Google Opens Up About Social Ambitions on Google+ Launch Day – Liz Gannes – Social – AllThingsD: “Gundotra: It’s just sincere. I don’t think it’s anything more than that. We do have a mission that we’ve been working on for a long time: organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and available. And when you look at the web today it’s obvious it’s not just about pages, it’s about people. It’s not just about information, it’s about what individuals are doing. So I think we have to do that in a coherent way. We think there’s just tremendous room to do great stuff.”

Well put: Google really didn’t get the the web. And probably still doesn’t; one might argue that the algorithms they use to rank pages are having to be constantly updated because they don’t really reflect the dynamic nature of most web pages these days. I am not sure what I mean by that so I’ll leave it for now.

Finally, what might one ask about Apple? Where have they gone wrong? MobileMe is a pretty small misstep. Quibbles with OSX are relatively small: I get the sense that a lot of the things wrong with the OS aren’t because they keep tweaking things (the usual complaint from Windows users) but that there’s a stubbornness about not changing things: A weak file explorer (Finder), an inability to resize windows except from one corner, a confusing division of function between dock icons, menu bar icons, menu bar menus, in-window menus etc etc…

But apart from those gripes with the Mac OS, you gotta hand it to Apple. No big mea culpas, at least in the past decade.

Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things

I have recently received half a dozen offers of placing links in my blogs to reputable companies’ websites.

Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It’s been around a while, but I just figured out how it’s done, 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. If I can persuade you to link to my product page in your blog, then my product will appear more popular and rise up Google’s search results accordingly. Simple.

An ad wouldn’t work. Google would see it was an ad and discount it. So one increasingly popular approach is for you to pay me to include a link in my blog. I mean, right in it: not as a link, or a ‘sponsored by’, but as a sentence, embedded, as it were, inside my copy.

I had some problem getting my head around this, so I’ll walk you through it. I add a sentence into my blog, and then turn one of the words in it into a link to the company’s website. For my trouble I get $150. The company, if it gets enough people like me to do this, will see their web site rise up through the Google ranks.

This is what the Internet, and blogs, have become. A somewhat seedy enterprise where companies–and we’re talking reputable companies here–hire ad companies to hunt out people like me with blogs that are sufficiently popular, and vaguely related to their line of business, to insert a sentence and a link.

If you’re not sure what’s wrong with this, I’ll tell you.

First off, it’s dodgy. If Google finds out about it it will not only discount the link in its calculations, but ban the website–my blog, in other words–from its index. Google doesn’t like any kind of mischief like this because it corrupts their search.

That’s why a) the blog needs to look vaguely related and b) it can’t just be any old sentence that includes the link. Google’s computers are sharp enough to spot nonsense.

That’s why kosher links are so valuable, and why there’s business in trying to persuade bloggers like me to break Google’s rules. If I get banned, my dreams of a profitable web business are gone. For the company and ad firm: nothing.

Second, it’s dodgy. It works on the assumption that all blog content is basically hack work and the people who write it are for sale. I think that’s why I loathe it so much. It clearly works: When I got back to one company that approached me, I was told the client’s request book had already been filled.

With every mercenary link sold they devalue the web.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 and not a checkbook.

The Gmail Phish: Why Publicize, and Why Now?

This Google Gmail phishing case has gotten quite a bit of attention, so I thought I’d throw in my two cents’ worth. (These are notes I collated for a segment I did for Al Jazeera earlier today. I didn’t do a particularly good job of getting these points across, and some of the stuff came in after it was done. )

Google says the attack appears to originate from Jinan, but doesn’t offer evidence to support that. I think it would be good if they did. Jinan is the capital of Shandong Province, but it’s also a military region and one of at least six where the PLA has one of its technical reconnaissance bureaus. These are responsible for, among other things, exploitation of foreign networks, which might include this kind of thing. The city is also where the Lanxiang Vocational School is based, which was linked to the December 2009 attacks on Google’s back end systems. That also targeted human rights activists. Lanxiang has denied any involvement the 2009 attacks.

I’d be very surprised if this kind of thing wasn’t going on all the time. And I’m very surprised that senior government officials from the U.S., Korea and elsewhere are supposedly using something like Gmail. There are more secure ways to communicate out there. I think it’s worth pointing out that this particular attack was first identified by Mila Parkour, a researcher, back in February. Screenshots on her blog suggest that at least three U.S. government entities were targeted.

I asked her what she thought of the release of the news now, four months later. Does this mean, I asked, that it took Google a while to figure it out?

As for any other vendor, investigations take time especially if they do not wish to alert the actors and make sure they shut down all the suspicious accounts.

And why, I asked, are they making it public now?

I think it is great they took time to unravel and find more victims and try to trace it. Looks like they exhausted all the leads and found out as much as they could to address it before going public . It has been three months and considering that hundreds of victims [are] involved, it is not too long.

This is not the first time that Google and other email accounts have been hacked in this way, and it’s probably not the last. It’s part of a much bigger battle going on. Well, two: one pits China–who are almost certainly behind it, or at least the ultimate beneficiaries of any data stolen, against regional and other rivals–and the other is Google making these things public. For Google it’s a chance to point out the kind of pressures it and other companies are under in China. Google in January 2010 said it and other companies had been under attack using tricks that exploited vulnerabilities in Google’s network to gain unauthorized access.

Google says it went public because it wants to keep its users safe. This from Myriam Boublil, Head of Communications & Public Affairs at Google Southeast Asia:

“We think users should be aware of the disturbing campaign we’ve uncovered to collect user passwords and monitor user email.  Our focus now is on protecting our users and making sure everyone knows how to stay safe online”

This  attack is not particularly sophisticated, but it involves what is called spear phishing, which does involve quite extensive social engineering techniques and reveals the object of the attacker’s interest is not random, but very, very specific. If you judge a perpetrator of a crime by their victim, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who is the ultimate recipient of any intelligence gathered.

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 Talk as a Contact Database

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(This is a shorter version of a longer post at my sister blog, ten minut.es, which take a 10 minute look at new and old products, services and websites.)

One of the most undersung corners of the Google empire, in my view, is Google Talk, the search giant’s chat application (non Windows users can launch its gadget browser version.)

For one thing, it’s so uncluttered it makes every other chat application look like the aftermath of Christmas dinner. It’s smooth, fast and the sound quality is good. But what I think it’s best for are the features that aren’t really features. (Most of these won’t be useful if you don’t use Gmail.)

For example, searching for a contact’s email address is faster in GTalk than other applications I can find. Outlook is so slow it’s horrible and Google Desktop won’t really help you since the email address you’re looking for, if it appears at all, will be via an email address or something, even if you’ve set Google Desktop to index your contacts:

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Google Talk does this much better. So long as you’ve selected the Add people I communicate with often to my Friends List (Settings/General)

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GoogleTalk will add these names to its list, so that when you start typing their name in the search line their names will appear below, even if they’re not a Google Talk user:

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Move your mouse over one of the entries and their contact details will appear:

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Clicking on the email address (in blue) will either create a new message in Gmail or a new message in your default email client, depending on whether you’ve selected Open Gmail when I click on email links or not in your Settings:

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Now you have a quick way of scouring your contact book and creating emails. It’s possibly only marginally quicker than clicking on Compose Mail in Gmail, but I find Google Talk so fast it works well for me.

I feel Google could go further with this. What I’d love is if it could include in its search not just names but towns and other fields stored in your Gmail contact database. If I could quickly trawl through all my Gmail contacts for specific interests (who should I chat to about satellites and medical emergencies, for example) Google Talk would become a sort of first stop for organising my otherwise untamable contact list. (At the moment the best solution for this is my old favorite, PersonalBrain, which I’ve written about before.)

It’s not perfect, by any means. The built-in Chat within Gmail seems to have features that aren’t replicated in Google Talk, which would make this a better tool. Allowing you to include your AIM contacts inside Chat is one (unless I’m much mistaken this won’t work in Google Talk). The other is that when you add extra detail to your address book in Gmail — adding a photo, say — this information appears nicely inside the Gmail Chat:

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but not in Google Talk:

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I’d like to see Google improve on this.

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Google’s New Interface: The Earth

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I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

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Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

Standing Alone vs, Well, Running

Why is everyone switching to the likes of Gmail and Google Reader, even when they aren’t sure why, or that they want to?

The most compelling reason, I think, is the ease with which you can get up and running if you need to switch. Your computer crashes, or you’re away from it. Or you’ve bought a new computer. Suddenly you no longer need to find your RSS feeds file. Your email settings. Import old mailboxes. I installed Vista on a new computer just now and (after a Vista crash) I was checking my email and reading my feeds almost immediately. That never happened before.

Google is basically riding the wave that Microsoft had hoped to ride. If you’re using Gmail, you may as well use the Google Reader. And Google Docs, and the Calendar, because they’re all a mouseclick away and don’t require any more signing in. In fact, you can have everything you need up and running within a minute. Compare that to installing an email client, an RSS reader, an Office suite, a PIM for the calendar, and then importing all the settings necessary, and you’re talking about adding on another hour unless you’re a really well-organised person.

There’s another obvious reason: They’re quicker. Ever tried to add an event to Outlook faster than to Google Calendar? Ever tried to send an email quicker than with Gmail? I haven’t timed myself, but anything that shaves a few minutes off my day is going to make itself indispensable pretty quick.

I’m now using all these tools, and I never thought I would. I don’t like the privacy issues, and I don’t like relying on a company that thinks calling something in perpetual ‘beta’ is an acceptable course of action, but I can’t resist. I tell myself it’s just a phase, and that I’ll soon switch back to my trusty email client and RSS reader. But it’s probably never going to happen. I may not stick around forever with Google’s offerings (let’s face it, Gmail and Google Reader need a lot of work before they’re A grade) but I have a feeling I’ll never go back to standalone.

Well, except for BlogJet. You gotta love the Jet. And PersonalBrain.