Posts about google

Mobile’s not the next big thing, just a path to it

The Knight Foundation’s News Challenge just announced its next theme: mobile. And that’s a good thing because news organizations have been all-too pokey in figuring out how to serve people in this venue.

When Arthur Sulzberger announced his hiring of a new CEO, the BBC’s Mark Thompson, he said, “Our future is on to video, to social, to mobile.”

With respect, I’m not so sure. Saying that mobile is what comes next means, I fear, that we’re going to take what we do in media — making content, selling audiences — and figure out how to keep doing it on video, in social, and in mobile.

But that’s not what we really do.

Is Google just doing mobile next? Google has a mobile operating system. It has a Google-branded phone and tablet. It bought a phone manufacturer. It made apps for all its services for mobile. Even so, I don’t think Google is becoming a mobile company. For Google, mobile is a tool, a path to improve its real business.

What is its real business? The same as media’s business should be: Relationships — knowing people and serving them better because of what it knows about them.

With newspaper companies, I’ve been arguing that they should abandon page views as a metric because it has been a corrupting influence that carried on the old-media myth that the more “audience” you have the more you can charge advertisers and the more money you’ll make. The pursuit of page views has led news organizations to draw traffic — people — they cannot monetize (because they come from outside the market or come just once from search or Drudge). And the insistence that they remain in the content business has led news organizations to believe they must still sell that content; thus, pay walls.

Google views content — our content — as a tool that generates signals about their users, building relationships, data, and value. Google views mobile as a tool that also generates signals and provides opportunities to target content and services to the individual, where she is, and what she’s doing now (thus Android’s Google Now).

We in news and media should bring those strands together to knit a mobile strategy around learning about people and serving them better as a result — not just serving content on smaller screens. Mobile=local=me now. We should build a strategy on people over content, on relationships.

That’s what mobile means to me: a path to get us to the real value in our business. For you folks cooking up ideas for the Knight News Challenge (and for you, my new neighbor, Mr. Thompson) I suggest starting there.

P.S. When I tweeted a link to this post, I said the lesson is, “Mobile is a path not a destination.” Felix Salmon thought a fake me — or Deepak Chopra — had taken over my account. No, I just want that on a bumpersticker. I’ll license rights to T-shirts and hats.

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

Calling Dr. Google

I should have listened to Dr. Google. I woke up Sunday morning with the dregs of a cold so I went back to sleep. An hour later, I woke up with a new pain on my right side about an inch down and three inches over from the navel. Given who I am — chronic hypochondriac and a certified Google fan boy — I searched Google for appendicitis.

By reputation, Google — and the internet — should have returned bogus, dangerous, uninformed, unauthoritative advice from cults, and witch doctors, and Demand Media. But it didn’t. It gave me the NIH, WedMD, the Mayo Clinic, (yes) Wikipedia, and other good and trustworthy sources. It gave me more than enough good information to check and cross-check and then diagnose my new pain correctly.

But I didn’t listen. First, I really am a hypochondriac. More than once, I’ve thought I had appendicitis, forgetting that it can’t occur on the left side. And even I am struck by the absurdity of my recent medical history, all documented here: atrial fibrillation, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer; surely, lightening is bored with me. I further had listened to those — including doctors and nurses — who pooh-pooh listening to Google. So I thought it prudent to wait and see whether this got worse, as I assumed appendicitis would, or turned into something else or nothing — in which case, I wouldn’t be embarrassed with a diagnosis by Dr. Google.

All day, the pain advanced. I repeat: This was a new, a unique pain to me. At 530pm, my wife and I went to a cocktail party at a friend’s house that I’d been looking forward to. Fifteen minutes and one sip in, I knew I was in the wrong place, ready to succumb to hot flashes and God knows what else. I went home and drove to the hospital.

I think I can pinpoint the exact moment my appendix burst: at 730pm when I was going through the process of insurance, an even greater pain swept through me. In the emergency room, I was given pain medication, thank goodness, and tests, including, at some length, a CT scan. The scan eventually came back saying that I not only had a bloated appendix but also that it was “perforated.” Now if they were sure the appendix had burst, the normal course, I was told, would have been to send me home with IV antibiotics for two weeks to clean up the sure infection that was just starting in my gut; then I’d return and they’d deal with it.

Luckily, very luckily, I had a hot dog doc who doubted the extent of the oozage, given the freshness of my pain that morning, and so he decided to operate. At 2am, he started. He did, indeed find gunk in my belly and had to spend extra time flushing and vacuuming it up through three small holes in my belly — one in the navel — for his arthroscopic instruments (two fewer than were needed for my robotic prostate operation). I was minus yet another body part — I need some more spares! — and lucky for it. Tuesday afternoon, after much IV antibiotics and pain meds, I went home.

Now here’s the moral to the story: If I had gone straight to the emergency room at 10 that morning or anytime that afternoon, I’ll bet my appendix wouldn’t have burst and I would not have had the extra risk and trauma and uncertainty.

I should have listened to Dr. Google. All the good Doc did was send me to good docs — not junk sources; note well that it’s in Google’s interest to give us quality and that is why its search algorithm has been changing for our benefit (there is no such thing as neutral search and I don’t want it if anyone ever invents it). It gave me the information I needed to make an important decision and tell the doctors what they needed to know to make a diagnosis.

I — of all people — should not have doubted Dr. Google’s healing power. Sorry, Doc.

So much for the penny press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, The New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today’s Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or “rubber rooms” filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there’s less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what’s really at work, of course, is that there’s much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price — by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That’s because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media — rich while it lasted — was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That’s how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there’s abundant competition. That’s what confounds legacy media folks: “If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?” Because you’re operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You’re still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That’s what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn’t sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day — a century ago — newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that The Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 — because it wanted scale.

Rat poison

The Google/Motorola deal is lawyer repellent. Or rat poison, if you prefer. It is a tragic and wasteful by product of our screwed-up patent system. Just this year, $18 billion is being spent not on innovation and invested not in entrepreneurship and growth but instead in fending off lawsuits. Damn straight, we need patent reform.

Having said that, this is good for Google and Android and its ecosystem. That’s why HTC, LG, and Sony all released statements praising the deal. Google isn’t going into competition with them. Google is buying them protection to defend against Apple, Nokia, and other patent holders and legal thugs.

The net result is that Android can now explode even more than it has already. I imagine — I hope — there were other companies in other fields — cars, appliances, TV, devices of all sorts — that were waiting for some security so they could add connectivity to their devices, using Android.

Google wins because, as I’ve been saying, the real war here is over signal generation: Google, Facebook, and to an extent Apple and telcos and others want us to generate signals about ourselves — who we are, where we are, what we want, who we know, what we’re looking for, where we’re going — so they can better target their content, services, and advertising. Mobile is a great signal generator.

But I’ve also been saying that mobile will become a meaningless word as we become connected everywhere, all the time. Who’s to say or care whether we’re connected with a phone as we walk, through our car, on our couch via the TV, in the kitchen via the iFridge, or at the desk (remember that?). Mobile=local=me.

I disagree with those who say that Google had hardware envy vis a vis Apple. Google went into the hardware business and was smart enough to get out. I imagine that Google will operate Motorola as an independent entity; it won’t become Googley. Indeed, I can imagine Google spinning off the product arm, keeping the rat poison.

So this is a good if unfortunate deal to have to be done. That’s my take.