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?

An Outliner That Tags

One of my favorite and most used programs, the MyInfo outliner, is now out in a new version that wraps in tagging, fast searching and other tweaks that put it ahead of the opposition. If you use outliners, check it out, and if you don’t, you might want to consider it. (Outliners are simple free-text databases, organised in a familiar tree format. Great for storing more or less anything you want to keep in one place.)

MyInfo is developed by Milenix, a small software company in Bulgaria. It sells for $50. I’ve been playing with this version, 3.5, and it’s impressive. The tagging is simple but well thought through — a classic example of how tagging can be wrapped into standalone applications to improve organising and finding stuff. Search now works across as many files as you have open, so you can find stuff quickly and efficiently. Gripes? There have been some bugs but Petko, the guy behind it, has been pretty quick to fix them.

The Uneven March of Progress Bars

Why are the progress percentage bars in programs so useless? This one in TrendMicro’s HouseCall has been telling me it’s 99% done for more than an hour:

Progress

This is by no means unusual. Software, whether it’s loading, installing, booting, scanning or whatever, doesn’t seem too hot on the old timing front. The jump from 0–99 is always impressively fast; then the last percentage takes forever. Sometimes the percentages and time remaining are disarmingly precise, but bear absolutely no relation to reality. You’ve got to feel sorry for people who plan their day around a progress bar.

OK, my question is this: Is this just bad software, is it just me, or is it really hard to compute how long software is going to take? If it’s the last, why bother? Why not just put a window up saying something like, “This is going to take a while. Go grab a coffee, go jogging, engage in some form of intercourse, and then check back in. Whatever you do, don’t watch this progress bar because it will lie, lie and lie again”?

Or is this some scam? Does the computer know the whole ‘99% done’ thing is rubbish, but was there a dastardly plan devised by the software company’s marketing department to convey an aura of efficiency, speed and precision by making the software seem really, really fast, at least in its initial phase? This, the thinking might go, gives off a very favourable first impression which is only mildly dented by the growing haze of soporific depression that overcomes you as the progress bar sticks at 99% for the rest of the workday?

Those Darn PR People, Part XXXIV

It’s a cheap shot, I know, but it’s too good to pass up as an illustration of the need for a bare minimum of research by PR folk before they hit the send button on mass emails to reporters.

I’m not going to name names here, but a ‘leading global communications consultancy’ has just invited the Far Eastern Economic Review, the publication I used to write for, to a media briefing to meet a software company which wants to, the email I’ve just received says, “meet the local media for the first time since the recent opening of the company’s Asia-Pacific Headquarters”.

The problem is, as you all know, that the Far Eastern Economic Review has since last October ceased to exist as a reporting publication and is now a monthly collection of essays about the region written by contributors and put together by a hardworking staff of three. It certainly no longer covers media briefings by tech companies. And it certainly no longer carries my column (which many might say is a good thing.)

Sadly, this merely confirms to me that when the old FEER died, not everybody took as much notice as we employees might have thought. Anyway, I was told by friends to end these PR tirades on a practical and positive note, so here’s a tip to the few PR people who don’t do it already: Check the reporter you’re pitching to (or sending an unsolicited email to):

  • works for a company or publication that still exists;
  • doesn’t have a blog and take an impish delight in drawing attention to your rare missteps;
  • er, that’s it.

For my part I promise not to mention names.

The Moleskine Report Part I

This week’s column, in tomorrow’s Asian Wall Street Journal and WSJ.com is about Moleskines and how they seem to command the respect of a lot of technorati/blogging elite members (known as BlEMs). Lots of stuff I wasn’t able to include the column, which I’ll feed into the blog over the next few days. Thanks to everyone for their help.

Here to start with is emailed answers by Marc Orchant to my questions about how he uses his Moleskine:

What do you use, exactly, in digital and paper terms?

My primary PC is a Toshiba Portege M200 Tablet PC. It has revolutionized my approach to everything else I use. My primary capture tools are a small NoteTaker wallet I bought at a David Allen Getting Things Done seminar years ago (small notepad and a collapsible Rotring pen) and a small Moleskine journal (actually it’s the sketchbook model – blank pages). I also have a Sony Clie UX50 (Palm OS) that is total overkill for my current PDA usage which is checking my schedule or looking up a phone number when I’m out and about.

How do you use them?

I almost always have the Tablet PC with me and capture as much into this primary system as I can – either with the pen or keyboard). In the less frequent situation where I don’t have access to the Tablet, I use the Moleskine for note-taking of any consequence and for creating and working action lists. The NoteTaker is for quick disposable notes (as in “Honey – can you pick a few things up at the store on the way home?”) or actions I want to get into my task management system on the Tablet as soon as I get back to it.

Why still use paper?

There is an immense amount of satisfaction in writing on paper – we tend to forget that in this digital-toy-crazed world we live in. The Moleskine has lovely paper – crisp, creamy, and smooth – that is a pleasure to write on. I use a four-nib Rotring pen that has a mechanical pencil (great for sketching), a roller ball pen, a bright orange dry-lighter, and a PDA stylus tip – all contained in a very precision-machined metal barrel.

I also enjoy flipping through my journal pages, reviewing sketches, diagrams, and ad hoc notes. With the Tablet PC, I get a near-paper experience but the best thing about paper is that it requires no batteries!

Are you alone, or does everyone you know follow the same practice?

Very few do, actually although, given my status as one of the resident gadget freaks at my office, I have made a lot of people *very* curious ;^)

Do you get odd looks for using paper?

See above. Yes – very definitely.

Do you see any broader significance in all this? Or is it a fad? The demise of PDAs?

I spend a good amount time in the Getting Things Done discussion forums and there seems to be cyclical pattern to the adoption of, tweaking of, and abandonment of electronics like PDAs. I’ve been using a PDA since the original Newton MessagePad and have probably owned at least a dozen different models over the years. Right now (at least), I’m at a stage in my personal cycle where I don’t want to put up with the hassles a PDA presents. Whether it’s battery life, readability in direct sunlight, a cramped and frustrating text entry UI, or the myriad other things that “suck” about PDAs, the Moleskine has none of these issues.

For me, what has killed the PDA is the Tablet PC – but that’s probably another article. It has completely transformed my approach to computing and, as the Storyteller (my actual title – translate in suit-speak to Marketing & PR Director) at a software company that does all of its business online, I *live* in my computer. It is my primary business tool – even more than the telephone in this day of VOIP and a ubiquitous public network.

Do you think paper and digital might merge, a la Logitech’s io Pen, or is that the wrong way of looking at things?

I hope that’s not how it goes. I hope the Tablet PC approach emerges as the winning form factor. I’ve used both. The Tablet (admittedly a more expensive proposition) is an infinitely better solution for students and business people.

Thanks, Marc. Here, fyi, are Marc’s blogs:
http://office.weblogsinc.com (a blog about Microsoft Office)
http://tabletpcs.weblogsinc.com (a blog about Tablet PCs)
http://blogs.officezealot.com/marc (Marc’s Outlook on Productivity)

Well-Meaning Pressure Group Or Sleazy Promotional Gimmick?

Maybe I’m getting too wary, but when I received a press release from something called the Internet Security Foundation, I wasn’t convinced. And I’m still not.

The email was provocative enough: The headline ran “Microsoft’s Policy Leaves Millions Open to Identity Theft; Internet Security Foundation Releases Free Protection Tool”. An explanation followed that users were vulnerable because they erroneously believed that their stored passwords in Windows were safe because they appeared in asterisks. “The truth is,” the release said, “that such passwords are not normally protected in Microsoft Windows and can be easily reviewed by using software like SeePassword (www.SeePassword.com).”

This is true. And a good point. But who is the Internet Security Foundation? The email suggested that I visit their website for more information about the foundation. I did, and all I found was one page, which was a virtual re-run of the press release. No ‘About’ page or anything, at least when I visited it. The only couple of links led to a download file, and to SeePassword, the software mentioned in the release and an external webpage which didn’t load at the time of visiting. So who are these guys, and is this for real?

I checked their whois data, which will at least tell me who registered the site. It was KMGI Corp., a New York-based advertising agency whose website design bears uses distinctive fonts — indeed the same fonts as the Internet Security Foundation. KMGI, I read elsewhere, is also a software company (although no mention is made on their website) and are the guys behind SeePassword, the software the ISF website suggests I use — “If you first need to look up any forgotten passwords, you can use SeePassword software available at www.SeePassword.com“. SeePassword, according to the PCMag article, costs $20.

Now I’m suspicious. Has KMGI set up a spurious foundation to try to sell a product? The only online references to the Internet Security Foundation I can find are in the NYT. But if you look closely at the story, there’s a correction at the bottom which corrects the reference to the organisation. “The group is the Information Security Foundation, not the Internet Security Foundation.” (If you do a Google search, such references are all to the NYT article.) So now I’m getting very suspicious. What is going on?

I tried calling the public relations number on the press release and left a message. If I get any clarification I’ll post it. But my feeling is: If this ISF is kosher, it should make clear who it is and its interest, if any, in a company that sells a product it recommends. And while pointing out the asterisk security issue is a good one, it’s not exactly a new problem. To me the whole thing smacks of promotional gimmick, rather than a clean and well-intentioned issue-raiser. But maybe I’m getting too wary.

Russia Gets Serious About Its Virus Writers?

Is Russia finally getting serious about its virus writers?

Kaspersky Labs and F-Secure, two anti-virus manufacturers, report that Evgenii Suchkov (or Eugene Suchkov, sometimes known as Whale or Cityhawk) has been found guilty of writing two viruses, Stepar and Gastropod. Suchkov was sentenced in the Russian republic of Udmurtia, and while he was only fined 3,000 rubles ($100) — a sentence which has attracted some derision — Kaspersky’s analyst reckons now “Russian virus writers know that they are not always going to be able to hide from the law. And the world knows that Russia is doing something about virus writing”.

Suchkov, it appears, is no small fish. He’s believed to be a member of 29A, a notorious virus writing group, according to Kaspersky, which also believes he’s a member of the HangUp Team, a group I’ve tried to look more carefully at for their alleged role in phishing. Interestingly, a Czech member of 29A was recently recruited by a Czech software company, a move which has ignited some controversy, not least because it would appear to make virus writing a good way to prepare a CV for more legitimate work.

I tend to agree that hiring these guys might not be the best idea. Beyond the moral hazard issue — why should virus writers care about getting caught if they know it will lead to a job anyway? — there’s the issue of where this guy’s loyalties may lie. Is he going to try to stop his old buddies from doing their thing? Or tracking them down? And even if he did want to do good work for his new employer, he’s going to be a marked man for his former buddies who it’s believed, have active links to the Russian mafia.

The point to remember is that virus writing is now an industry, or sub-industry, of the criminal underworld. So no longer could one argue that these guys are just lonely geeks trying to get some attention. They do what they do for money, which means a virus, worm or trojan is a piece of code designed to do something specific. It’s probably done to order. If one of these virus writers is now working for the other side, I would hope his new employers take a good hard look at his motives: If he’s a good virus writer he could probably command significant amounts of money. Is he going to say goodbye to all that?

Finally, Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure suggests that there may also be traffic the other way. “F-Secure also has evidence which suggest that spammers have succesfully recruited anti-spam software developers to their side,” Hypponen says in a recent email. He points out that “spammers make money from their efforts; that’s why they can actually afford to invest in making their attacks better.” Anti-spammers going to the dark side? There must still be good money in it somewhere. I’ll try to find out more.

The Brits And Storage

The Brits have succeeded in squeezing a terabyte onto a DVD disk, 10 times what the BluRay disks can  currently hold and 50 times the capacity of a double-sided, double-layed DVD.

Nature reports that the disk is called MODS, for Multiplexed Optical Data Storage, and could potentially contain 472 hours of video footage – equivalent to a terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, of data. It’s been developed by a team led by Peter Török of Imperial College London.

But there’s a problem: So far the researchers can’t retrieve information from their disk fast enough for video footage. It also won’t be around any time soon: Török believes that MODS disks could hit the shops between 2010 and 2015. And it will be too expensive for the layman, so MODS is more likely to be used by libraries or software companies looking for ways to marshal their huge amounts of data. “The British Library could put all their microfiches onto disks,” Török is quoted as saying. “It will be very good for archiving.”

Mind you, people said that about storage before. By then I’m guessing a terabyte on a DVD is not going to seem all that surprising, or all that expensive.

Another Challenger to MS Office… From India

A small Indian software company based in Chennai is taking on the big boys.

Tropical Software announced yesterday it has introduced the OfficeMate software suite, “that provides word-processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation capabilities similar to the Microsoft Office, for the Windows platform”. The cost: $50.

The software is actually already in use in India, the company says, and is now launching a trial version in Arabic for the Middle East market. The software apparently includes the ability to maintain “a web based appointment calender, which can be used with mobile phones to deliver details of the users appointment, such as Appointment time, contact name, phone number, address and directions so that users can be alerted via SMS for their upcoming appointments.”

The only problem: I can’t yet find any website for the company involved, but I’m asking for one. I’ll get back to you with more information once I get it.

The Klip Marches On

Serence, the company behind the RSS-like Klip, is about to launch a new version, which offers some interesting new features that could well give the standard a bit more edge in the face of the RSS revolution. Indeed, given that practically any RSS or Atom feed can be read in Klip form, one could argue that Klips are just a better way to read RSS. (Here’s an earlier posting on Klips.)

KlipFolio version 2.6, to be launched today (no URL available at time of writing), will include the following new features (I’m quoting from an email from Serence’s Allan Wille here):

  • Networked and Local Data Access. A Klip can monitor an accounting database over a local network for changes, a shared network directory for updates, a remote directory via FTP, and a POP3 server for new email.
  • Real-Time Push. Klips can now receive updates via a real-time push from a remote server.  Real-Time push is vital for weather warnings, earnings alerts, stock trades, sports scores or any type of live-data. KlipFolio is now able to handle both push and pull depending on application.
  • New Mini-Toolbar. KlipFolio’s L-shaped Toolbar can now be collapsed to a small square … less intrusive and more flexible when placing it on the desktop.
  • New Klips. In concert with KlipFolio 2.6 comes a Hotmail inbox watcher, a POP3 email monitor, an FTP directory Klip and a Klip to keep an eye on local or remote file folders.

What does all this mean? Well, I guess Serence sees Klips as more flexible than RSS and other kinds of feeds, as well as being more secure. The press release, for example, portrays KlipFolio as “a world leader accessing and monitoring networked or local data-sources or applications” where “unlike other news and information monitoring applications that are limited to specific data formats, KlipFolio is an open platform that is extensible through thousands of pluggable, task-specific information services called Klips”.

This extensibility is backed up by what Serence bills as a as “Enhanced Security Model”, where “Serence can now certify and digitally sign Klips to enable advanced functionality … to prevent tampering by 3rd parties and provide end users with increased security.” So anyone can make a Klip but for them to be ‘official’ Serence would have to review them before any “digital signing”.

All this makes sense, although I can hear some folk complaining about the idea that the manufacturer of the software positioning itself as the authenticator of Klips. But so long as RSS feeds are easily absorbed into the KlipFolio world I can only see good things happening for both formats if a company like Serence is trying out new ways of pushing and pulling different kinds of data to the desktop.