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.

Facebook’s Internet of Sharing

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Get ready for a world where everything is shared.

Readers of this column will already know that our notions of privacy have changed a lot in the past couple of years.

That has made it possible for Facebook to announce a new initiative this past week, pretty confident it won’t get rebuffed in the same way its Beacon program did a few years back.

Back then we didn’t like the idea of companies having access to the things we were doing on their websites and then posting it to our Facebook feed (“Jeremy’s just bought an Abba CD!”)

Now, with Facebook’s Open Graph, we’ll actually go quite a bit further than that. In effect, every web page will become part of your Facebook world, because whoever runs that web page will have access to your Facebook world—and, in a way, vice versa.

If you “like” something on a music website, then that “like” will be broadcast on your Facebook feed. So your friends will see it. But so will that music website have (at least some) access to your Facebook profile, your Facebook network, as will Facebook have access to your profile on that music website.

In short, Facebook will become a sort of repository of all the breadcrumbs you willingly leave around the Internet—what some are calling your “social metadata”. These are all the bits and pieces you leave on websites about songs, pictures, books, food, hotels that you like.

Instead of all that stuff just being little fragments, all those websites that participate in Facebook’s Open Graph will collect it and create a much more complete picture of you than your Facebook stream currently does.

I’m not going to get into the privacy aspects here. Obviously there’s a lot that’s creepy about this. But then again, we willingly share much of this stuff with our friends, and all the applications that we use on Facebook, so maybe we have already made that choice.

Compare this with Google, which collects similar data but in a different way. Google collects your interests, intentions and preoccupations whenever you do a search, or access your email, or look at a map.

Google may be a search engine, and Facebook may be a social network, but they’re ultimately fighting for the same thing: Targeted advertising.

Facebook will do it through social metadata you intentionally leave behind; Google will do it through data you unintentionally leave behind.

I don’t know whether Facebook will win with this or not. But it’s an interesting move, and, if we continue to inhabit Facebook in the numbers we do, we’ll probably slide effortlessly into this world.

And, of course, as we get more mobile, this only becomes more powerful. A research company called Ground Truth found last week that U.S. mobile subscribers spent nearly 60% of their time on social networking sites; the next biggest category was less than 14%.

In other words, social networking is actually more compelling on a mobile phone than it is on a laptop or desktop. Kind of obvious really.

If you want to get futuristic about it, it’s possible to see how this coupling of mobile device and social networking is likely to give a big push to a new kind of device: wearable computing.

Expect to see more of the likes of Ping: a garment that its inventors say allows you to connect to your Facebook account wirelessly and update your status simply by lifting up the Ping’s hood, or tying a bow, or zipping up.

Heaven knows what our Facebook page is going to look like in the future. But it’s a natural succession to the basic principle of something like Facebook, which is that a life not shared is not worth living.

I know I have developed that instinct to share the absurdities of my day on Facebook, and I appreciate it when others do. I’m not talking about the average “my boss sucks” update, but ones which are funny, thoughtful, or both.

One day we’ll look back, as we did at email, and wonder how we lived without status updates.

By then we’ll be swishing our arms or doing up a button to update our page—nothing as archaic as actually tapping it out on a keypad.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this. Maybe I’ll update my Facebook status to reflect that.

Technorati’s Decline, Death of Blogging?

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Technorati Japan home page, Nov 2009

Technorati used to be one of the sites to see and be seen at. Your ranking there was highly prized; you’d add technorati tags to your blog posts and their State of the Blogosphere was a highly valued insight into blogging.

But now it’s a pale shadow of its former self, having recently closed its Tokyo office, and with dramatically lower traffic, from more than 400K visitors per day to today’s 40K:

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technorati.com traffic, Google Trends, Nov 2009

Indeed, in early 2009 Technorati was overtaken by a blogging search engine I must confess I’ve never heard of, blogcatalog.com in traffic:

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technorati.com vs blogcatalog.com traffic, Google Trends, Nov 2009

This despite calling itself the #1 blog search engine:

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Richard Jalichandra, Technorati Media CEO, says that while the company is now an ad network, Technorati.com is still a major component of the business, with 1.3 million registered users. Well, those 1.3 million registered users aren’t visiting or pinging the site very much, and the other two websites he mentions, blogcritics.org and twittorati.com, don’t seem to be making much of an impression either:

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blogcritics.org and twittorati.com traffic, Google Trends, Nov 2009

Richard, who has just raised another $2 million in funding, describes the business model thus:

Our model is often misunderstood or viewed as one part vs. the actual whole, but it’s relatively simple: an ad network focused on social media, the world’s largest blog search engine [sic] and directory, a large and passionate author community, and our newest site which tracks the tweets of the most influential bloggers.

Users, however, aren’t impressed. Some have noticed what they think is spam in the technorati search results. Others have noticed that despite their claims to index 100 million blogs, in 2007, they now seem to index less than 1 million. (The current number seems to be 853,799.)  Maybe this would explain why their State of the Blogosphere this year, despite claiming to be a “deeper dive into the entire blogosphere,” was all comment, survey and no data (presentation to Blog World Expo here.)

Now is this just Technorati, or is something bigger afoot? Is Technorati’s decline a reflection of its own failings or the broader decline of blogging?

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The Lost World of Yahoo

This piece was written for a commentary on the BBC World Service Business Daily about Jerry Yang’s decision to resign as CEO.

Back in the early days of the World Wide Web there was really only one name. Yahoo. You could tell it was big because it was what you’d type in your browser to see if your computer was connected to the Internet.

Without fail: Yahoo.com. It’s been around since 1994, since Jerry Yang and David Filo, two grad students at Stanford, built a list of interesting websites, a sort of yellow pages for the Internet. They called it, first, Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web, and then Yahoo. By the end of 1994 it had a million hits. By 1996 it had gone public.

And, I reckon, it’s been slightly lost ever since.

Not that you’d know that from the figures. It’s the most popular website in the world. Nearly half that traffic is actually email, according to Alexa, a website that tracks this kind of thing. Nearly everyone on the planet, it seems, has a Yahoo email address.

But there’s also other stuff: search, news, auctions, finance, groups, chat, games, movies, sports. And Yahoo has been pretty consistent for the 14 years of its life: If you look at its homepage, the place where you’d land if you typed in yahoo.com, it wouldn’t look that different in 1995 to what it looked like in 2005. The familiar red Yahoo logo at the top of the page, a little search box, and then some links to directories.

But since then things have got more complicated. The guys at Google made a better search engine, so much so that their name has become a verb, a shorthand way of saying “look up something or someone on the Internet.”

That kind of left Yahoo behind. So far, I’ve not heard Yahoo used as a verb, or a noun, at least in a positive way. And Google also figured out how to make money from it, which stole another bit of Yahoo’s thunder.

But it hasn’t stopped there. Internet speeds have got faster. We’re now connected most of the time, via computer or cellphone. Upstart bloggers have toppled big media conglomerates. So now all the big players—Microsoft, Google, Yahoo—are not quite sure what they are: Media companies? Advertising companies? Software services company? A mix of all three?

So it’s no surprise that Jerry Yang has been unable to articulate what, exactly Yahoo itself is. If you’re not sure what your company is, never mind that you founded it, you shouldn’t be sitting in the CEO’s chair.

The truth is that there are two Yahoos. Ask an ordinary user and they’ll know about Yahoo. The email program. The instant messenger. The news portal. To millions of people Yahoo is comfortable and familiar.

Ask a geek and they’ll talk about another Yahoo: all the cool stuff the company engineers are doing. Pipes, which lets you mash data together in interesting ways. Fireeagle, that blends together information about where you are. And there’s the stuff they’ve bought that most people don’t even realise belongs to Yahoo: delicious bookmarks, for example, or Flickr photos.

People may be down on Yahoo right now, and the share price isn’t pretty. But it’s still a big brand, known around the world. And, despite their frustrations, beloved by many geeks.

One day someone will come along and find a way to package all this stuff together, or sell bits of it off. Then Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web will find its way again. It just doesn’t look like that person is going to be Jerry himself.

Updater Fever

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I sometimes wonder what software companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, they’re all the same—want from their customers.

I spend enough time with novice users to know how confusing using computer software can be. Especially online: It’s a scary world out there (they’re right to be scared) but these companies, which should know better, make it more so. By trying to hoodwink into using their products they are undermining users’ confidence in using computers in the first place. If they keep on doing this, expect more people to use computers less—and certainly to install less software, or experiment in any way online or off.

Take what just happened. I use Windows Live Writer to blog: it’s an excellent program, by far the best things Microsoft has done in years, and today it prompted me that an update was available. I duly clicked on the link to download the Writer beta installer:

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Only, of course, it wasn’t the installer but The Installer From Hell:

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Prechecked are six programs, none of which I have on my computer right now. There’s no single button to uncheck those boxes, and most novice users may not even know they can (note the confusing text above it: “Click each program name for details” and “Choose the programs you want to install”—nothing to explain to novices that these choices have already been made for you, and how to unchoose them.)

It’s not as if Microsoft is trying to sell us smack. This is free software. But it’s very damaging in ways only someone who spends time with real people can understand. Even when the software is installed for example, you get this last little twist of the Knife of Befuddlement:

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This might not seem like much, but if you’re an ordinary user, finding your home page all different and your search engine altered to something else can be as disorienting as coming home to find someone’s moved your furniture and the cooker is now in the bathroom. Well, not quite that much, but you get the idea.

Of course Microsoft’s not alone in this. Even Google’s been playing the game, and Yahoo! tries to bundle the toolbar in with pretty much every piece of software that’s ever been downloaded–which also alters the homepage, and default search engine, and probably moves the fridge around as well.

The problem is that the more these companies try to fool us, the easier it is for real scammers to scam us—because what they both do starts to look very similar.

Take this scam that I came across this morning. A splog (spam blog—a fake blog) had used some of my material so when I tried to access the page to find out why, I instead got this believable looking popup

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This without me doing anything other than clicking on a link to a blog. A graphic in the background appeared to be checking the computer for viruses, and of course this window is nigh on impossible to get rid of. Try clicking on the red cross and you get this:

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Try to get rid of that and you get this:

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And then this:

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It’s obviously a scam (it’s adware), but it’s darned hard to get rid of. And to the ordinary user (by which I mean someone who has a real life, and therefore doesn’t see this kind of thing as intrinsically interesting) there’s no real difference between the trickery perpetrated by these grammatically challenged scammers, and the likes of Microsoft et al, who try to inveigle their software and homepage/search engine preferences into your computer.

Either way, the ordinary user is eventually going to tire of the whole thing and say “enough!” and go out fishing or, if it’s that time of year, wassailing.

Let’s try to avoid that.

(And yes, the latest version Live Writer is good, though don’t use the spellchecker. Just a shame that it’s made by Microsoft.)

Google Killer? A Clip Around the Ears, Maybe

There’s a new search engine out there, according to the Guardian, and it sort of tries to figure out what you’re looking for. Which is good. Google searches are great so long as they’re simple. But is Powerset up to snuff?

Here are some searches I did (betraying my interests):

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Pretty good stuff. And how about me?

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Even less obvious matches seem to work:

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Also right on the money. Nixon got second place when I asked who was the first u.s. president to resign? which is good enough:

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Other searches tho — how many copies of Office 2007 has Microsoft sold? and how far is it from London to Sydney — weren’t any good at all.

Of course, Powerset is so far only parsing Wikipedia articles (only — there are 2.3 million of those in the English language). And ask Google the same questions and you’re also likely to get the answers high up (1st in the case of Nixon, Taser inventer, Suharto resignation, though nowhere on my own alleged career (fittingly). Sydney/London throws up a WikiAnswers page, and I’ve given up hope trying to find out how many copies of Office 2007 have been sold.)

Still, it’s early days for something like this. There’s no question that a better search engine will one day come along, perhaps belonging to Google, perhaps not. Will it need to parse every sentence for meaning? Who knows?

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Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:

For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)

But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”

Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.

The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.

Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.

What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.

This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.

My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.

I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.

Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.

Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.

The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.

I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.

I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.

Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.

One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.

The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.

So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.

Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.

Seth’s Blog: Alarm clocks

Loose Change Sept 19 2006

It used to be called Loose Bits, but I prefer Loose Change. For now. It’s the same thing: tidbits I found that might be of interest:

  • First off, NeatReceipts, which sells a small scanner and special software to scan in your receipts while you’re on the road, has announced a new version of its software, which should be in the shops next month. Includes color Scanning, a better Document Organizer and better OCR. Version 2.5 will retail for $200, the same price as the current Scanalizer. I reviewed the product a few months back and was impressed, though you’ve got to really love receipts to get into it.
  • Lost in the Crowd allows you to search the web more anonymously by mixing in with your normal searches entirely random ones sent on your behalf: “What searches did you care about versus those that were just made up? There’s no way for the search engine, or anyone else, to tell.” Nice idea. Only hitch I can think of is if those random searches lead down weird alleys that may come back to haunt me.
  • Forget Google anonymity. Just worry about voting. A blog by two Princeton University types reveals an ordinary “hotel minibar” or office key will open the door on Diebold Voting Machines, allowing someone to remove, alter or replace the memory card that stores the votes.

Google’s Real Problem

There’s some interesting chat about whether Google is in trouble, although none of the pieces ask the question that I think is the most important one. BusinessWeek points to the fact that none of its new products are really gaining traction, which may be less down to the quality of those products — Earth, Finance, Chat etc — and more down to the fact that the whole point about Google for most people is keeping things simple:

The problem is that every time Google branches out, it struggles with the very thing that makes its search engine so successful: simplicity. The minimalist Google home page offers a stark contrast with the cluttered sites of key rivals Yahoo and MSN. People go to Google to find information fast. So Google can’t showcase its plethora of new products without jeopardizing this sleek interface and the popularity that generates a $6 billion geyser of cash from search ads. But the lack of exposure for its new products means only 10% of Google visitors use it for anything other than Web and image searches, says Hitwise.

To that I’d add the fact that it’s not just about exposure. Most people use the Internet for simple things, like finding stuff. They’re just not that interested in other things, however much we’d like them to be.

Meanwhile Robert Scoble wonders aloud why there is no real Google presence at the Gnomedex conference, a select gathering of developers and dweebs. And someone called SlashChick writes along the same lines as BusinessWeek, pointing out that Google’s approach of allowing employees to use 20% of their time developing new ideas may be fine when it’s a private, smallish company, but now it’s getting big won’t work so well if those projects make only a few hundred thousand dollars for the company. Alongside the earnings from AdSense, assigning employees to maintain these products will be hard to justify:

Once Google realizes they have to cut back and only continue development on the projects that did “stick”, inevitably, they will crush a few of their developers’ hearts. I have a feeling some of those developers may even become jaded and go out and start their own companies (sort of like the many software companies spawned by former Microsofties in Redmond.) Those companies may even grow to become quite successful. Hmm…

Good points, and it’s interesting to see how this view leaves Google vulnerable. Of course, it only needs one of these products to be vaguely as successful as search to draw enough users to justify it. And perhaps Google is hoping that one of its Microsoft-killers will kick in, and then the tables will be turned.

But all this rests on the idea that Google Search and AdSense continue their symbiotic relationship. The first provides dominant search, the second provides dominant ads that (for the most part) come from people using Google Search. AdSense would never have been successful were it not for Search, since the latter gets the eyeballs, the former brings in the cash. But what happens when one starts poisoning the other? What happens if AdSense starts to undermine the efficacy of Search? I’d argue this is already happening: web spammers are already successfully manipulating search results so that users visit their AdSense-laden web sites. This is happening with both ordinary search and News Search. Despite the obvious conflicts of interest here, most worrying for Google’s shareholders is the idea that its search engine may not be good enough anymore. Is this what’s keeping Google’s developers away from Gnomedex?