free html hit counter February 2014 - Page 2 of 2 - John Battelle's Search Blog

Bill Gates Active Again At Microsoft? Bad Idea.

By - February 04, 2014

bill(image) This story reporting that Gates will return to Microsoft “one day a week” to focus on “product” has been lighting up the news this week. But while the idea of a founder returning to the mothership resonates widely in our industry (Jobs at Apple, Dorsey at Twitter), in Gates’ case I don’t think it makes much sense.

It’s no secret in our industry that Microsoft has struggled when it comes to product. It’s a very distant third in mobile (even though folks praise its offerings), its search engine Bing has struggled to win share against Google despite billions invested, and the same is true for Surface, which is well done but selling about one tablet for every 26 or so iPads (and that’s not counting Android). And then there’s past history – you know, when Gates was far more involved: the Zune (crushed by the iPod), that smart watch (way too early), and oh Lord, remember Clippy and Bob?

If anything, what Gates brought to the product party over the past two decades was a sense of what was going to be possible, rather than what is going to work right now. He’s been absolutely right on the trends, but wrong on the execution against those trends. And while his gravitas and brand would certainly help rally the troops in Redmond, counting on him to actually create product sounds like grasping at straws, and ultimately would prove a huge distraction.

Not to mention, a return to an active role at Microsoft would be a bad move for Gates’ personal brand, which along with Bill Clinton, is one of the most remarkable transformation stories of our era. Lest we forget, Gates was perhaps the most demonized figure of our industry, pilloried and humbled by the US Justice Department and widely ostracized as a unethical, colleague-berating monopolist. The most famous corporate motto of our time – “Don’t be evil” – can thank Microsoft for its early resonance. In its formative years, Google was fervently anti-Microsoft, and it made hay on that positioning.

Bill Gates has become the patron saint of  philanthropy and the poster child of rebirth, and from what I can tell, rightly so. Why tarnish that extraordinary legacy by coming back to Microsoft at this late date? Working one day a week at a company famous for its bureaucracy won’t change things much, and might in fact make things worse – if the product teams at Microsoft spend their time trying to get Gates’ blessing instead of creating product/market fit, that’s just adding unnecessary distraction in a market that rewards focus and execution.

If Gates really wants to make an impact at Microsoft, he’d have to throw himself entirely back into the company, focusing the majority of his intellect and passion on the company he founded nearly 40 years ago. And I’m guessing he doesn’t want to do that – it’s just too big a risk, and it’d mean he’d have to shift his focus from saving millions of lives to beating Google, Apple, and Samsung at making software and devices. That doesn’t sound like a very good trade.

 

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Step One: Turn The World To Data. Step Two?

By - February 03, 2014

housenumbers1Is the public ready to accept the infinite glance of our own technology? That question springs up nearly everywhere I look these days, from the land rush in “deep learning” and AI companies (here, here, here) to the cultural stir that accompanied Spike Jonze’ Her. The relentless flow of Snowden NSA revelations, commercial data breaches, and our culture’s ongoing battle over personal data further frame the question.

But no single development made me sit up and ponder as much as the recent news that Google’s using neural networks to decode images of street addresses. On its face, the story isn’t that big a deal: Through its Street View program, Google collects a vast set of images, including pictures of actual addresses. This address data is very useful to Google, as the piece notes: “The company uses the images to read house numbers and match them to their geolocation. This physically locates the position of each building in its database.”

In the past, Google has used teams of humans to “read” its street address images – in essence, to render images into actionable data. But using neural network technology, the company has trained computers to extract that data automatically – and with a level of accuracy that meets or beats human operators.Not to mention, it’s a hell of a lot faster, cheaper, and scaleable.

Sure, this means Google doesn’t have to pay people to stare at pictures of house numbers all day, but to me, it means a lot more. When I read this piece, the first thing that popped into my mind was “anything that can be seen by a human, will soon be seen by a machine.” And if it’s of value, it will be turned into data, and that data will be leveraged by both humans and machines – in ways we don’t quite fathom given our analog roots.

I remember putting up my first street number, on a house in Marin my wife and I had just purchased that was in need of some repair. I went to the hardware store, purchased a classic “6” and “3”, and proudly hammered them onto a fence facing the street. It was a public declaration, to be sure – I wanted to be found by mailmen, housewarming partygoers, and future visitors. But when I put those numbers on my fence, I wasn’t wittingly creating a new entry in the database of intentions. Google Street View didn’t exist back then, and the act of placing a street number in public view was a far more “private” declaration. Sure, my address was a matter of record – with a bit of shoe leather, anyone could go down to public records and find out where I lived. But as the world becomes machine readable data, we’re slowly realizing the full power of the word “public.”

In the US and many other places, the “public” has the right to view and record anything that is in sight from a public place – this is the basis for tools like Street View. Step one of Street View was to get the pictures in place – in a few short years, we’ve gotten used to the idea that nearly any place on earth can now be visited as a set of images on Google. But I don’t think we’ve quite thought through what happens when those images turn into data that is “understood” by machines. We’re on the cusp of that awakening. I imagine it’s going to be quite a story.

Update: Given the theme of “turning into data” I was remiss to not mention the concept of “faceprints” in this piece. As addresses are to our home, our faces are to our identity, see this NYT piece for an overview.