Today scores of big companies are taking symbolic action to defend the essential principles of an open Internet, and I support them. That’s why, on your first visit here today, you’ll see the “spinning ball of death” up on the right. For more information about the Internet Slowdown, head here.
Recently I began a walkabout of sorts, with a goal of ameliorating my rather thin understanding of the mobile marketplace. If you read me closely, you know I’ve been more than frustrated with what I call the “chicletized world” of disconnected mobile apps. It’s rise was so counter to everything I loved about the Internet, I’m afraid as a result I underestimated its impact on that very world.
My corrective starting point – the metaphorical bit of yarn upon which I felt compelled to tug – was the impact of “deep linking” on the overall ecosystem. The phrase has something of a “dark pool” feel to it, but it’s actually a rather mundane concept: Developers tag their mobile apps and – if relevant – their complementary websites – with a linking structure that allows others to link directly into various points of entry into their applications. This is why, for example, you can jump from a Google search for “Tycho” on your phone to the “Tycho” page inside your Spotify app.
So far, I’ve had more than a dozen or so meetings and phone calls on the subject, and I’ve begun to formulate some working theses about what’s happening out there. While my education continues, here are some initial findings:
1. Deep linking is indeed a Very Big Deal. Nearly all the folks I spoke with believed deep linking in mobile was the beginning of something important, something I’ve started to call…
2. The Quickening… which I believe is nearly upon us. Mobile app developers are humans driven by business goals. If the business opportunity is large, but proscribed by narrow rules, they will follow those rules to gain the initial opportunity. For example, when the convener of a new market (Apple) imposes strict rules about how data is shared, and how apps must behave with regard to each other, app builders will initially conform, and behaviors will fall narrowly in line for a cycle or two (in this case, about five years). However, once those rules prove burdensome, businesses will look for ways around them. This is happening in mobile, for reasons that come down to new competitive players (primarily Android) and to a maturation in distribution, revenue, and engagement models (more on that below). The end result: The market is about to enter a phase of “quickening” – a rapid increase in linking between apps and web-like backends, harkening a new ecosystem in which both foreseeable and unforseen “life” will be created.
2. App Installs Rule. Till They Don’t. The market for mobile apps is – predictably – driven by app installs. And unless you’re the teen viral sensation of the moment, the only reliable way to get app installs is to buy them – almost exclusively via advertising on mobile devices. Facebook figured this out, and holy cow, did the market love that. But app makers are now realizing they have to do more than get their app installed. It’s actually just as critical to get their current installed base to actually engage with their app – lest it be forever relegated to the dustbin that is our current (deeply crappy) mobile desktop metaphor. Hence the rise of “re-engagement advertising,” which is serving as something akin to search-engine marketing (SEM) in the desktop web. Several folks I spoke to told me that 80% of the money in mobile advertising is in app installs, but they quickly cautioned that installs are a house of cards which will not be sustained absent the rise of re-engagement advertising.
3. We’ve Seen This Movie. Which got me thinking. Jeez, have we ever seen this movie before. It’s called publishing. You can buy crappy circulation, crappy audiences, and crappy one-time visitors, and you can also buy great audiences, but the true gauge of a publication, a service, or an app is whether folks keep coming back. And even if you have a great app/service/publication, you need to remind them of your existence more than a few times before they are hooked (this is why classic magazine circulation has three phases – marketing, sampling, and conversion). The link-economy of the open web allowed this process to happen rather naturally, but there is no such economy in mobile, at least not yet. Thanks to early decision made by the conveners of the mobile ecosystem, mobile is deeply shitty at providing business owners with a way of reminding consumers about the value of their proposition, which is why they are frantic for some kind of channel for doing just that. This leads me to hypothesize that…
4. The App Store’s Days Are Limited. Remember when Yahoo! owned Web 1.0, because it had the entire Web in its directory? Or when Google owned Web 2.0, because it put the entire web in RAM? Yep, both those models created massive companies, along with massive ecosystems, but neither hegemony lasted forever. Apple’s App Store (and Google’s) are subject to the same forces. The model may be dominant, but it’s not going to last. As one senior executive in mobile media put it: “The app store is a weigh station, not an end point.” What might replace the App Store as a model for distribution? That’s a fine question, and one I don’t have a strong opinion about, at least not yet. But I sense the Quickening will lay the groundwork for new vectors of app adoption and engagement, similar – but not identical – to the link economy of the web. Which is why I believe…
5. Re-engagement ads open the door to new topologies (and economics) across mobile. A pretty obvious point, if you’ve managed to stay with me to this point, but one I think is worth restatement and elaboration. Re-engagement advertising is driven by a fundamental business (and consumer) need, and Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Yahoo!, and Google are all responding with deep linking topologies that enable re-engagement. This is a relatively new development, and it’s hard to predict where it might go. But one thing’s for sure – deep linking is good for both the developer and the consumer. It’s just a better experience to go directly into the exact right place inside an app that’s already on your phone. And for marketers, deep linking enables far superior “landing pages” inside their apps, driving a conversion path that is measurable and repeatable. It’s not hard to imagine that re-engagement is the beginning of a more robust economic model for mobile, one that will re-integrate much of the goodness we created when the Web broke wide open ten or more years ago. And that makes me wonder if….
6. The home screen of “chiclets” is mutable. Broadly established consumer engagement models don’t shift rapidly, and the colorful, 16×16 sudoku model of App World isn’t going away anytime soon. But do we really believe we’ll be poking at squares representing apps forever? I don’t. A more fluid experience based on declared and modeled intent makes a lot more sense – one in which we flow seamlessly from need to need, serviced in each state by a particular application without having to pull back, chose a new app, and then dive back in. I’ve not yet spoken to many UX/UI folks, but I sense this is coming, and deep linking is a first step in enabling it. Somehow, I sense that…
7. Search is key to all of this. Hey, this is Searchblog, after all. It strikes me that search on mobile is pretty broken, because it forces the entirety of the web onto a model that has far more specific – and useful – parameters to work with. The signals emanating from a mobile phone give search entirely new use cases, but so far, we’ve got precious little to show for it. This can’t stand for long.
I’ve got a lot more thinking going on, but it’s too nascent to be of much use at the moment. Topics I’m also thinking about include mapping the dependencies of the mobile ecosystem, grokking the concept of “agency” and how it relates to search and mobile data, the role of programmatic in mobile, and understanding the flow of money between the big platforms and the little guys.
As you can probably tell, my comprehension of this space is still very limited, but I hope this update sparks some of your own thinking, and that you might share those insights with me in comments or via email or other forms of media. I will continue my walkabout in coming weeks, and I’ll keep writing about it here. Thanks for reading.
And thanks to the many folks I spoke with so far, many of whom are working on stealth projects or agreed to our conversations on background. Hence, I’ve not quoted anyone directly, but again, thanks, and you know who you are!
This weekend I reviewed my notes from a few weeks of late summer meetings, and found this gem from a conversation with Mike Driscoll, the CEO and co-founder of data analytics firm MetaMarkets. MetaMarkets helps adtech firms make sense of the reams of data they collect each day (hour, minute, second…). Most of this data is meaningless without some kind of pattern recognition and interpretation, Driscoll told me. He then used a great metaphor, one that resonated given my post earlier last week that Writing is Code, Reading Is Visualization.
When we read, Driscoll noted, we both ingest the words and simultaneously “see” a story. Stories, of course, are how we understand the world. Reading pre-supposes that a story is being told – we don’t read texts full of random words and letters, literate texts are formed so as to impart knowledge. Reading presupposes literacy. We read the text and, assuming the writer is reasonably skilled, we “see” what the author intended – a narrative story is delivered and received.
Numbers, however, are different. Very few of us are highly numerate – we can’t “read” numbers and see stories from them in our heads. In short, most of us are innumerate – we can’t see a story by looking at numbers. Computers are excellent at reading numbers, of course, but they are terrible at telling stories. This is why people who can do both at the same time – like the cast of The Matrix, the “Rain Man,” or advanced mathematicians of any stripe – seem so cool and alien to us.
Alas, for the rest of us, we don’t “see” much of anything when we look at a text made up of hundreds or thousands of numbers. Numbers on a page are mute. But once those numbers are run through a visualization filter, they transform into stories – visual narratives that, with a bit of practice, become highly informing. And this is why “data scientist” and “data visualization” are two of the most promising careers these days. We’re awash in data, but we lack the code to make meaning from it.
As you can tell from the graphic below, there’s an extraordinary amount of information in the programmatic adtech ecosystem – orders of magnitude more than in our current financial system. Driscoll’s firm turns that raw information into meaningful narratives for his clients. I have a feeling that’s a very good business to be in going forward.
Else is back after an extended summer hiatus – thanks for taking the time off with me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to return to this newsletter, but its a good ritual for me to condense and annotate my daily and weekly reading habits, and enough of you have subscribed that I figured you might be missing the updates. I kind of was.
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The pieces I most enjoyed over the past week or so certainly had a theme: How will we resolve our increasingly uneasy relationship to the technology we have embraced? From automated newsfeeds to drones to AI, this stuff isn’t science fiction anymore, and the consequences are getting very real. To the links….
“Facebook Is a Weatherless World” (Searchblog)
In which I think about automated newsfeeds and a world without agency.
Inside Google’s Secret Drone-Delivery Program (The Atlantic)
Well, not exactly secret anymore, as Google certainly wanted this particular story to get out, as it’s in a mad scramble for the future of “everything delivery” with Amazon and others. Still and all a fascinating look into one of Google’s many strange and disparate moonshots.
Berkeley prof. Ken Goldberg lays out the quickening sparked by the combination of cloud compute and intelligent on the ground (or in the air) robots.
One of my favorite writers (Paul Ford) imagines what it might be like if all these drones and robots actually work in an optimistic scenario feature driverless cars, compostable made to order clothing, and, of course, budding romance.
It’s not easy to be human, so relax. The AI-driven roboto-verse will serve us, in the main.
ICREACH: How the NSA Built Its Own Secret Google (The Intercept)
Then again, we might want to worry about our own power structures. Imagine how the NSA might use the fantasy infrastructure that Ford creates in Medium. Yikes.
Why Uber must be stopped (Salon)
A few things about this piece. First, the headline is wrong. It’s not about stopping Uber, it’s about understanding the role of regulation when capitalism otherwise goes unchecked. Second, it appropriately wonders what happens when capital (Uber’s $1.5billion from Google, Goldman, et al) is used to crush competition, in particular, when the company that is doing the crushing has, as its end game, control of our automated transportation system (there are those dern robots again). A theme for our coming age. It’s not the cars, the drones, the tech – it’s the people behind their use. But sometimes, the way a society regulates people is to regulate the tech they employ.
Should journalists use all caps in headlines?! Apparently yes. This story is consistent with the others in this issue of Else, the debate is in full throat. See also The Atlantic’s The New Editors of the Internet.
Continuing my headline clickbait complaint, this headline is a total misfit for the unfortunately dry story, written by noted informational academic Lucian Floridi. He’s got a new book out, the 4th Revolution, which I plan to read. Then again, I have five books ahead of his…
Supercomputers make discoveries that scientists can’t (New Scientist)
See, we’ve found a great use for computers: Reading the stuff too dry to read ourselves.
My first job as a reporter was in 1987 covering Apple. For more than a decade after, I continued covering the company, through Jobs’ return. It never wavered in its philosophy around how it treated the press – as a nuisance and a threat. I’ve always thought Apple could have done better. This multi-part post fails to go as deep as I’d like, but it’s a decent overview of how Apple’s PR machine works.
Minecraft has been on my “watch this closely” list for about a year. Here’s another reason why.
The Matter With Time (NY)
If you like your inside baseball with a side of dish, here’s a great read about the travails of Time Inc., the once great publishing house.
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This quote, from a piece in Motherboard, hit me straight between the eyeballs:
Facebook…will not let you unFacebook Facebook. It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.
“The laws of Facebook have one intent, which is to compel us to use Facebook…It believes the best way to do this is to assume it can tell what we want to see based on what we have seen. This is the worst way to predict the weather. If this mechanism isn’t just used to predict the weather, but actually is the weather, then there is no weather. And so Facebook is a weatherless world.”
– Sean Schuster-Craig, AKA Jib Kidder
The short piece notes the lack of true serendipity in worlds created by algorithm, and celebrates the randomness of apps (Random) and artists (like Jib Kidder) who offer a respite from such “weatherless worlds.”
What’s really playing out here is a debate around agency. Who’s in control when you’re inside Facebook – are we, or is Facebook? Most of us feel like we’re in control – Facebook does what we tell it to do, after all, and we seem to like it there just fine, to judge by our collective behaviors. Then again, we also know that what we are seeing, and being encouraged to interact with, is driven by a black box, and many of us are increasingly uneasy with that idea. It feels a bit like the Matrix – we look for that cat to reappear, hoping for some insight into how and whether the system is manipulating us.
Weather is a powerful concept in relation to agency – no one controls the weather, it simply *is*. It has its own agency (unless, of course, you believe in a supreme agent called God, which for these intents and purposes we can call Weather as well.) It’s not driven by a human-controlled agency, it’s subject to extreme interpretation, and it has a serendipity which allows us to concede our own agency in the face of its overwhelming truth.
Facebook also has its own agency – but that agency is driven by algorithms controlled by humans. As a model for the kind of world we might someday fully inhabit, it’s rather unsettling. As the piece points out, “It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.” Serendipity is an illusion, goes the argument. Hence, the “I changed my habits on Facebook, and this is what happened” meme is bouncing around the web at the moment.
It’s true, to a point, that there’s a certain sterility to a long Facebook immersion, like wandering the streets of Agrestic and noting all the oddballs in this otherwise orderly fiction, but never once do you really get inside Lacy Laplante’s head. (And it never seems to rain.)
The Motherboard article also bemoans Twitter’s evolution toward an algorithmically-driven feed – “even Twitter, that last bastion of personal choice, has begun experimenting with injecting users’ feeds with “popular” content.” Close readers of this site will recall I actually encouraged Twitter to do this here: It’s Time For Twitter To Filter Our Feeds. But How?.
The key is that question – But How?
To me, the answer lies with agency. I’m fine with a service filtering my feeds, but I want agency over how, when, and why they do so.
I think that’s why I’ve been such an advocate for what many call “the open web.” The Internet before Facebook and mobile apps felt like a collective, messy ecosystem capable of creating its own weather, it was out of control and unpredictable, yet one could understand it well enough to both give and receive value. We could build our own houses, venture out in our own vehicles, create cities and commerce and culture. If anything was the weather, it was Google, but even Google didn’t force the pasteurized sensibility one finds on services like Facebook.
As we like to say: Pray for rain.
Yesterday I stumbled onto a fascinating PBS Newshour interview with book designer Peter Mendelsund, well-regarded for his cover treatments of titles ranging from George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Mendelsen argued that when we read, we visualize the text, each of us creating a different reality in our minds. Those co-created images – created by both the author and the reader – are unique and vital to the process of reading – and by extension, to our ability to imagine and to create.
In the the interview, Mendelsund is asked about our image-driven culture – there were more than a trillion photos shared last year, according to Chute, a “visual revolution” company I’ve recently joined as a Director. We’ve become a society of image sharers – the very act of sharing is celebrated – and image creators – to the point where “selfie” has made the dictionary and “food porn” is a thing.
But as we snap and share, share and snap, we must remember the value of the mind’s innate ability to create images from code* – the code of writing. Words are pure symbols capable of painting entire worlds across our mind’s eye. And the extraordinary thing is each of sees something unique when we encounter the written word, yet we all understand the same code. “The idea of imagining things ourselves…this world we occupy when we’re reading… is more valuable than ever,” Mendelsund said, referring to our image-addicted culture. “There are few other places – maybe other than when we are dreaming – where we get this feeling of occupying a metaphysical realm.”
I plan on reading Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read this weekend, I’ll post a review here if this short burst proves insufficient….
*Of course, musicians and coders also “see” and dream in code, and famously, the cast of “The Matrix” “saw” through dripping lines of code into the visual reality painted by the film’s antagonist AIs.
The past week brought fresh revelations about how the NSA targets US citizens, and new insights on the founders of Google, the history of technology, and ongoing stories from Facebook and the EU. To the links….
In NSA-intercepted data, those not targeted far outnumber the foreigners who are – The Washington Post – This is a long-ish read, but please, if you read only one story, read this one. The details are important, and most likely will be the basis of alot of debate yet to come about Snowden’s impact.
Betting on the Ponies: non-Unicorn Investing – Reaction Wheel – Investor Jerry Neumann writes a fine overview of his philosophy on investing, and why it makes no sense whatsoever to chase the best in field.
Fireside chat with Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – Khosla Ventures Kudos to Khosla for giving all of us a look behind the walls of its annual CEO conference, and inside the minds of Google’s founders.
When the Terminators come, only Google’s co-founders will be safe – Verge – And here’s what they are really thinking about – A funny little Easter Egg shows that the top brass at Google are worried about the same things we are…sort of.
Historian of Technology Cruelly Crushes Internet Myths – Scientific American Q&A with a technology historian is a good read, reviews many of the myths and stories behind the creation of networks and platforms we now take for granted.
The EU’s Right To Be Forgotten Is A Mess & How Google’s Making It Worse – SEL – I didn’t think this was going to work out well…
Screwing with your emotions is Facebook’s entire business – Vox – We are reminded that the entire business of advertising is an attempt to “screw with our emotions.” Then again, so is the entire business of humanity, on some level.
A Return To Form In Media – Searchblog My musings on what Print can teach us in a world of digital.
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This past week in tech brought Google’s I/O developer conference, and with it lots of debate on the culture of the Valley, the future of links in the mobile world, the end of the Internet (again), and the death of the IPO. To the (dead? resurgent?) links:
Inside the Mirrortocracy – Carlos Buenos From time to time a commentator hits the mark when it comes to the Valley’s culture. This piece resonated for many last week – and sparked a renewed debate about whether the Valley is too insular.
The next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt big time: its own culture – Quartz A complement to the piece above. After all, we’ve had enough of disruption, no? No! Time to disrupt our culture of disruption, naturally!
The End of the Internet? – The Atlantic Every week, the Internet is over, apparently. This piece tracks the regionalization of the Internet, thanks in no small part to the NSA’s broad reach and geopolitical impact.
Disrupting Innovative Game Changing Disruptors – NewCo In which I give an overview of the Christensen fracas, and some thoughts on why it matters.
Facebook Doesn’t Understand The Fuss About Its Emotion Manipulation Study – Forbes Last week Facebook was caught a bit flat-footed when a study that manipulated some of its users’ emotions was uncovered. It’s hard Facebook, to be sure, but this study should have been flagged early for its PR implications.
Google’s master plan: Turn everything into data- Slate Yup. That’s pretty much at the core of it. However, this would be happening whether or not it was “Google’s master plan.”
The IPO is dying. Marc Andreessen explains why. – Vox I saw Marc speak last week at a conference, and he made these points quite compellingly.
Google’s Grand Plans: A Conversation With Larry Page and Sundar Pichai – NYTimes Last week’s I/O gave the world a chance to consider Google with some perspective. This is one of the better interviews that came out of the press deluge. See also this piece from the Times on Page’s plans and this on the main news from I/O.
Understanding Apple’s Wearable Strategy | Tech.pinions Yes, and it’s not just Apple where identity is the key axis point of wearable, it’s the next most important signal after location. First, where is this person? Second, WHO is this person? Third, WHAT is this person doing? And fourth…WHY?!
Search and Apps – Give Consumers Back Their Links – searchblog I’ve been on about this for some time, I sense a gathering movement that bears watching. More here.
Living in a Fool’s Paradise | Boom: A Journal of California A new journal has a good overview of the impact the tech boom is having on real estate in California.
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A fascinating week of links, starting with a blast from the past (see above), but the real meat of the week came in the debates around some of the Valley’s most scared cows. For more, read on….
Tech Time Warp of the Week: Watch IBM Warn Us About Glassholes 10 Years Ago- Wired I am particularly enamored with “Park Bench” – if I saw a guy doing what this guy is doing in public, I’d throw something at him. I recall seeing this way back when it first came out, and I hated him then. Now it’s insufferable.
Dear Marc Andreessen – Alex Payne Payne picks a fight that many wanted to see – questioning the philosophy of one of the Valley’s most sacred idols.
Jill Lepore: What the Theory of “Disruptive Innovation” Gets Wrong : The New Yorker Another takedown of a Valley idol, which prompted a response later in Businessweek.
Why We Need to Tame Our Algorithms Like Dogs- Wired A conceptual scoop of a story – algorithms are a new life form that we are co-evolving with. Neat cocktail party idea.
Is Coding the New Literacy? | Mother Jones Sort of, the magazine argues. In fact, learning to think like a coder is more important.
The Rise of the Personal Data Marketplace – OZY A survey of new startups that are trying to spark a marketplace I’ve been on about for years. We’re closer than we were five years ago. but we’re still without a quickening in the ecosystem. Here’s another, related story on Wickr.
Yahoo Wants You to Linger (on the Ads, Too) – NYTimes.com A much needed deep dive into what Yahoo is actually trying to accomplish in its most important product – media. I left the piece unconvinced Yahoo! is going to win here, but…wanting it to.
Michael Bloomberg on cities and innovation – The European The Mayor on ho to get sh*t done at the local level. I love the dynamics of cities.
The Secret to Getting Top-Secret Secrets – Matter – Medium Great story on an obsessive journalist, and the crazy FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) bureaucracy.
The Problem With Obama’s Internet Policy – Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs argues that the biggest disappointment of Obama’s tenure is its net neutrality stance.
At Google, Larry Page Finds His Right-Hand Man – The Information The Information believes Sundar Pichai is Page’s next in command. I imagine any number of folks inside Google might disagree, including the deferential Pichai. But he does have a crucial role with Android going forward.
Lots of advertising news in this issue of Signal, as the bi-annual IAB report shows strong gains (YAY, Internet!). To the links:
The Three Phases Of Mobile Advertising – BubbaVC Sometimes the best posts are really simple.
For Apple, Marketing Is a Whole New Game – Advertising Age Apple once commanded unequalled respect from the ad world. Not any longer. Typically, the piece forgets that it all comes down to product….
Only Apple – Daring Fireball – Regardless of how the company markets itself, if you don’t read John Gruber on all things Apple, you’re not getting the full scoop. Of course, he’s in the tank, but he’s smart nevertheless on the heels on WWDC, a must read.
We need to regulate emotion-detecting technology – Slate Oh shit, now tech can read our emotions – time to get ahead of it, this Slate piece argues. Not sure we know how to, I might retort.
The Promise of a New Internet – The Atlantic Maybe it doesn’t have to all come down to a place controlled by the NSA, Facebook, and Apple. Maybe mesh networking can save the core values of the Internet after all?
Facebook to Let Users Alter Their Ad Profiles – NYTimes.com I chose this version of the story because it’s such an amazing win for Facebook from a spin point of view. Other headlines: Facebook to Use Web Browsing History For Ad Targeting and Facebook’s New Ads Are Nosier Than Ever. Get my point?!
Is Tony Fadell the next Steve Jobs or … the next Larry Page? – Fortune Or are we simply building him up because it makes a good headline? Seriously, Fadell is a talented executive, and this is a good profile of a key guy in the tech scene.
Window into Airbnb’s hidden impact on S.F. – San Francisco Chronicle Look what a little data-driven journalism yields – insights into how Airbnb is changing the SF landscape.